Victor Babin, Director, Cleveland Institute of Music, 1908-1972
1972 SPECIAL CITATION FOR DISTINGUISHED SERVICE TO THE ARTS (Posthumous)
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.
Cleveland Arts Prize
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