Victor Babin, Director, Cleveland Institute of Music, 1908-1972


Victor Babin was one of those extraordinary people who excels in several fields. Honored in 1966 with the Cleveland Arts Prize for Music for his accomplishments as a composer, he had made an even greater name in the world of concert music as an internationally acclaimed pianist and unequalled exponent, with his gifted wife Vitya Vronsky, of the great literature for two pianos and piano duet. The couple appeared several times as soloists with the Cleveland Orchestra, also featuring his own music. But when news of Babin's death reached Cleveland’s cultural circles in 1972, there arose an overwhelming consensus that he had made one more major contribution that simply must be recognized. 

For, as director of the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) from 1961 to 1972, Victor Babin had devoted much of his energy and best ideas in the last decade of his life to the training and formation of the next generation of classical players. Indeed, his efforts on behalf of CIM—then still seen as a regional institute that had opened its doors in 1920 with five students and studios in the Statler Hotel—was generally credited with lifting the conservatory to international status. The year Babin (who had led the Aspen Institute and School of Music to prominence from 1951 to 1954) became its director, CIM moved into new quarters in University Circle—and a new phase in its life.

Given the esteem in which he was held in professional musical circles, Babin was able to bring to Cleveland such distinguished guest artists and commencement speakers as opera director/pianist /conductor/lecturer/educator/author Boris Goldovsky, the great contralto Marian Andersen, Goddard Lieberson (president of Columbia Records), Harold Spivacke (the chief of the music division of the Library of Congress), Dr. Paul Horgan (director, of the Center for Advanced Studies of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut) and famed cellist Gregor Piatagorsky, with whom Babin gave a dazzling performance at CIM’s 1970 commencement weekend. An all-Beethoven benefit concert convened by Babin that featured himself and violinist Szymon Goldberg (former concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic) to mark the institute’s 40th anniversary in 1965 raised significant dollars as well as CIM’s visibility.

Babin brought the legendary American soprano Eleanor Steber to head CIM’s voice department and Clara Steuermann (late of the Juilliard Library and subsequently president of the Musical Library Association) to build a world-class library for the school. In 1968, he unveiled a cooperative program with adjacent Case Western Reserve University to train music educators and in 1970 hired violinist David Cerone, who would one day head CIM. Two of Babin’s own students would also become celebrated members of the piano faculty: Olga Radosavljevich and Paul Schenly, who was a kind of surrogate son to the childless Victor and Vitya.

At Babin’s memorial service in 1972 his friend Goddard Lieberson would remember the great pianist and educator, with his brusque Russian accent and elegant European manners, as a “robust, but tender” man, “a cheerful Boris Godunov” who “pronounced the names of composers as though they were waiting outside the door, or had just gone out.” Babin had in fact known Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Milhaud and Prokofiev personally. “There were no dead composers for Victor,” said Lieberson, “and I often had the feeling in speaking to him that he had just had Schubert on the phone, or that he had lately discussed a question on fingering with Chopin.” With his wife, he had a fine art collection in their Shaker Heights home.

Himself a composer as well as a seasoned performer, Babin brought to his conservatory work (see excerpts) an exquisite sensitivity to the challenges posed by the limited language of musical notation, the practical concerns of music students considering performing careers and the unique situation of the pianist.

Finding himself the head of an educational institution in the turbulent decade of the 1960s, which saw vociferous attacks on the canon of Western classics and cries for “relevant” curriculum, Babin declared “there is no such thing as irrelevant art. . . . Shakespeare and Beethoven . . . are as relevant today as Andy Warhol.” Wherever art “finds the understanding and . . . receives the care it requires,” he said in a statement read at the annual meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music in November 1969, “the question of relevance loses its meaning.Therefore, the ‘relevance’ of the independent school of music does not materially help its visibility.” Justification for the existence of conservatories such as CIM or Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music that exist independent of universities—which had become an endangered species—“ought not to be sought,” he said, in trendy innovations, but in “the quality of our work.”

The summers of 1965 and 1966 saw Babin chairing Boston University's Tanglewood Institute and a Piano Seminar and Workshop at the Berkshire Music Center, where he took part in a thoughtful symposium with Erich Leinsdorf and Aaron Copland (see excerpts).  By the time of his retirement, CIM’s enrollment had risen substantially.

Dennis Dooley

What Today’s Conservatory Students Are Looking For

When asked what should be the aims of a school of music, the immediate temptation is to say: to teach music! But [today’s students] want to know a multitude of other facts and data which orbit the familiar world of music instruction like a swarm of mysterious satellites. What chance is there to earn a decent living with music? What social advancement is in sight for a musician? How easy or difficult is the start and maintenance of a professional musical career? Should only persons with great gifts pursue musical studies and accept the sacrifices that are involved, or would anyone benefit from a musical education? Who has a better chance for success in the highly competitive world of music, a man or a woman? In fact, it seems that what is expected as an answer is a plan of action which in the wake of musical training would bring the alumnus a happy life.

Victor Babin, speaking at a symposium held in 1966 at the Berkshire Music Center’s Piano Seminar and Workshop

The Isolation of the Pianist

It seems to me that maybe the most particular and fascinating feature of the pianist and his education is his loneliness. It is difficult to imagine any other instrument where the performer, whether he is a student or a professional or an amateur, has such an opportunity to be alone with his instrument and with his music. There seems to be two main reasons for that. The one is that the instrument of the pianist is all-inclusive. . . . [H]e can perform at the piano a complete work.  [He has] harmony, melody, rhythms, even color [at his command]. The other reason is the extraordinary volume of repertoire available for the pianist in his studies.

Now, when people are led into an existence of isolation of that sort, music easily becomes a vehicle for the appeasement of their own idiosyncrasies; and the piano becomes the unhappy and mistreated agent of this exhibition of self-indulgence. The pianist needs [to be reminded] that music is much larger than piano music and that the pianist has this great privilege of working in the totality of the art rather than having his instrument serve him for his needs of self-expression.

Victor Babin, speaking at the Piano Seminar symposium

The Mysteries of Musical Notation
Uncertainty and confusion on paper are obstacles to a truly convincing interpretation. A performer will forever be called upon to read between the lines. The clearer the lines, the better the reading.
Idiosyncratic Notation
Many, if not all, composers searching for a true visual representation of music which is uniquely their own invention, as it were, new symbols or endow old symbols with a new meaning: What does Mozart mean when he writes a wedge (Keil)? Or, indeed, does he always mean the same when he writes this particular symbol at different times in different pieces? Is it possible that a succession of sforzandi in Beethoven’s works . . . means a general crescendo as well as accents? Could it be that when Brahms writes Dolce he means Espressivo, if not always, at least sometimes? And what about Stravinsky’s commas?
How loud is forte in a Mozart Adagio, in a Prélude by Debussy or in the Danzon Cubano by Copland? And how much louder or softer is a fortissimo or a piano?  And if we know what the meaning of fp is, does Beethoven tell us how to play the first long c-minor chord which opens the so-called Sonata Pathétique for piano, marked fp?
Tempo markings, often absent at our evolutionary beginnings, flowered, as time went on, through designations such as Allegro moderato, or Vivace or Largo, which eventually became routine clichés, to such puzzling teasers as Tempo giusto, Non allegro, Allegro molto moderato, So schnell wie möglich followed by Noch schneller. If a catalog of such oddities would not be devoid of entertainment value, the markings themselves vary only in the degree of their communicative vagueness. For that reason some composers took to Maelzel’s Metronome to state clearly, once and for all, what the tempo should be. . . . But you might like to know that Darius Milhaud, having used “MMs” during a certain period of his career, discovered later that the mechanism of his metronome was faulty and all his markings were, therefore, wrong. Stravinsky, who is known to prefer MM markings, urged my wife and me to play faster than his own metronomic markings in the first movement of his Concerto per Due Pianoforti Soli so as to achieve, as he put it, an awareness of pulse.
Every musician I have ever met speaks at the drop of a hat about phrasing. One is not surprised. The language of music proceeds, like any language, by phrases—with its exclamations, questions, statements of assertion and so on. Phrasing is the very life of music and informs every phase of it, and, even more important, it is itself dependent on every component of the musical fabric. As far as I know there are practically no symbols in our notation which communicate to the performer the composer’s idea of how his music should be phrased. Parenthetically I am obliged to say that I, for one, regard the slur as indication of legato, not of phrasing.
Styles may belong to certain eras, or to certain composers of the same era or to certain stages in the development of the same composer; they may reflect certain cultural and national traits. Our notation always provides us with a key to understanding of style—the name of the composer on the top of the first page. Woe to even the most experienced performer when the first page of an unknown work is missing.

Victor Babin, speaking at a 1966 symposium on musical notation

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