Pianists From The Past continues today with a fascinating article featuring renowned American pianist and piano pedagogue Eleanor Sokoloff, who died in July 2020. The following tribute has been penned by her student, British international concert pianist and professor of piano at the Royal College of Music, Leon McCawley. Over to Leon…
In memory of Eleanor Sokoloff (1914-2020): a personal tribute by Leon McCawley
I was saddened to hear of the passing of my beloved teacher, Eleanor Sokoloff this July at the monumental age of 106, an achievement in itself. What an incredible life force she was, loved and cherished by so many students over the years including myself. She was on the faculty of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia for 84 years, longer than any other professor in the history of the Institute and most probably a world record achievement. More than 75 of her students have appeared as concerto soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra over the years and past students have included Craig Sheppard, Susan Starr, Keith Jarrett, Charles Abramovic, Hugh Sung, Meng-Chieh Liu, Kit Armstrong and Daniel Hsu.
Born Eleanor Blum in Cleveland in 1914, she came to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia in 1931 after studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Ruth Edwards. At Curtis, she studied piano with David Saperton (1889-1970), an American pianist known especially for being the first pianist to play the entire original compositions as well as the complete transcriptions of his father-in-law, Leopold Godowsky. Saperton’s other students at Curtis included Jorge Bolet (who later joined the Curtis faculty), Shura Cherkassky, Julius Katchen and Abbey Simon. The two-piano ensemble of Vera Brodsky and Harold Triggs taught two-piano repertoire to Mrs. Sokoloff and the fellow student who would become her husband, Vladimir Sokoloff. They formed a popular two-piano team and Vladimir, whom she affectionately called “Billy”, went on to become the Philadelphia Orchestra’s pianist from 1938-1950. Listen to their wonderful graduation recital performance in March 1938 of Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn Op. 56a here:
Their playing imbues warmth and affection and has beautiful tonal depth and voicing. It is such natural and unforced playing, allowing the music to breathe effortlessly.
After graduating from Curtis in 1936 she immediately was hired to teach on the piano faculty and remained there, amazingly, until 2020. In the end, performing in public made her too anxious so she decided instead to fully devote her life and career to teaching and pass on her wisdom and knowledge to the next generation of pianists: and how many pianists there have been that have benefited from her expertise!
Eleanor Sokoloff was such a wonderful and inspiring teacher during my years at Curtis (1991-95 and then for one year after my graduation) taking over from my formative years with Heather Slade-Lipkin (who also sadly passed away back in 2017) at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester (1984-91) who had given me such a strong and solid foundation there. I feel incredibly blessed to have studied with Mrs. Sokoloff as her detailed but encouraging approach came at the right time in my development. Always sitting from her rocking chair in weekly lessons (with a variety of coloured pencils to hand) she didn’t let me get away with anything! Her eyes would twinkle with glee when I had misread something: “Leon, I’ve got news for you: you’re playing a ‘do’ sharp and it’s a ‘do’ natural!” Her warmth and enthusiasm for music inspired me greatly, emphasising respect for the details in the score as well as communicating sincerity, humanity, joy and humour in music. There were so many opportunities to give concerts at Curtis and she was always there at the back of the hall, never missing a note and guiding me in the right direction, truly supportive and positive in every way.
She introduced me in particular to the music of Schumann, a composer that was absent from my repertoire at that time, and shared her enthusiasm for this remarkable composer helping me to understand the spontaneity and fantasy in his writing. The very first piece I brought to her was the Fantasiestücke Op. 12 and we worked on the ‘innigkeit’, that dreamy, intimate sound-world of ‘Des Abends’ (In the Evening) for the best part of the lesson. As a result Schumann has become one of my favourite composers and I have since recorded two albums of his piano music as well as his music being a permanent fixture in my recital programmes. I learnt so much repertoire with her: solo works, a wide variety of concertos (from Mozart to Samuel Barber) and chamber music which prepared me so well for my future career as a performer. During my time with her at Curtis I won 1st Prize at the Beethoven International Competition in Vienna and 2nd Prize at Leeds International Piano Competition in 1993.
Mrs. Sokoloff had bags of character and always made me smile in lessons with her mischievous sense of humour. She placed emphasis on ‘lingering’ more in expressive moments, the desire to always communicate and share the music openly with one’s audience and pressing into the keys to achieve more tonal depth and a warmer tonal projection. Talking about emphasis, she often said: ‘Don’t put your emPHAsis on the wrong syllAble!” How often we pianists can easily forget to follow the natural contour of a musical line and get tangled up with counterpoint and confused accentuation.
I will miss her terribly but always remember her with the deepest affection. She will never be forgotten and continue to live through my own playing and teaching.
Leon McCawley, 21st September 2020
Piano Tastings Episode 11: Eleanor Sokoloff Interview Part 1 by Hugh Sung
Leon McCawley returns to live performance with a solo recital at Wigmore Hall on 10th October. This will be live-streamed and available to watch here:
Read other posts in this series, here.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.