A distinguished pianist and teacher in her own right, Rosina Lhévinne was perhaps better known for placing her husband and students above herself, dedicating her energies to their success until her mid-70s. She began studying at the famed Moscow Conservatory at age nine and made her debut at fifteen, when she met her husband, Josef Lhévinne. They toured Europe and America together, and after World War I, they immigrated to the United States. In 1924, both were invited to teach at Juilliard. Though devastated following her husband’s death in 1944, Lhévinne’s career blossomed in her later years as she took on more students and began performing as a soloist. She continued teaching at Juilliard until age 96.
Rosina Lhévinne was one the most noted pianists of the 20th century and a highly influential teacher. She was a virtuoso performer who delayed a solo career until age 76, twelve years after the death of her husband, pianist Josef Lhévinne. One of the last artists in the nineteenth-century Russian pianistic tradition, Lhévinne taught some of the most famous musicians of the 20th century, including Van Cliburn, John Browning, Mischa Dichter, Adele Marcus, Ralph Votapek, Martin Canin, David Bar-Ilan, James Levine, and Arthur Gold.
Early Life and Education
She was born Rosina Bessie, in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 29, 1880, the younger of two daughters of Maria (Katch) and Jacques Bessie, a Dutch diamond merchant. There were violent anti-Semitic riots in Kiev during her first year, and the Bessies moved to Moscow in 1881 or 1882. At age six, she began to study piano privately at home; at age nine, she was accepted into the Moscow Conservatory. Admission to the Conservatory was extremely competitive at that time, especially for Jews, since Czar Alexander III had instituted a quota that limited the number of Jewish students. Although her circumstances were profoundly affected by her Jewish heritage, her parents were not observant and she did not grow up with a strong religious connection.
Rosina studied with Remesov in the lower school of the conservatory, and later with Vasily Safonov in the upper school. She also met Josef Lhévinne at the school; he was six years her senior and one of the conservatory’s most accomplished piano students. Rachmaninoff and Scriabin were among their classmates.
She made her public orchestral debut at age fifteen, playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor with the Conservatory Orchestra, conducted by Safonov. In 1898, she graduated from the Moscow Conservatory with a gold medal—the youngest woman ever to receive the school’s highest honor. She and Josef Lhévinne were married a week after her graduation.
Early Career: Supporting Josef
During the first year of their marriage, the Lhévinnes made their two-piano debut in Moscow. At this time, Rosina Lhévinne decided to abandon her solo career and devote all of her musical energies to support her husband’s. They lived in the Russian city of Tiflis from 1899 to 1901, in Berlin during 1901, and returned to Moscow in 1902 when Josef Lhévinne was appointed to the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory.
Josef Lhévinne made his first American tour in 1906. Their first child, Constantine (later called Don), was born in Paris on July 21, 1906. The Lhévinnes made their American two-piano debut in Chicago on February 17, 1907. She firmly refused to play solo works during their two-piano concerts, wanting the spotlight to be primarily on her husband.
Josef Lhévinne continued to tour Europe and the United States from 1907 to 1914. The family made their home in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, where he taught a large number of piano students, many of whom were American. Rosina Lhévinne filled in for him while he was away on tour. When World War I broke out, the Lhévinnes were subjected to internment in Wannsee because they were Russian citizens. Their second child, Marianna, was born in a hospital in Berlin, Germany, in July 1918.
Immediately after the war, the Lhévinnes immigrated to the United States and settled in Kew Gardens, Queens. In 1924, both were invited to join the faculty of the newly established Juilliard Graduate School. They shared the same studio, and she was considered to be the better teacher by many of their students.
Josef’s Death and Late Career: Blossoming while Teaching at Julliard
Lhévinne was devastated by the sudden death of her husband on December 2, 1944. She also feared that Juilliard would not renew her teaching contract without him. In fact, her teaching and performing careers blossomed after her husband’s death. She moved from Queens to Manhattan to be closer to Juilliard and expanded her roster of students. Her fame grew as her students began to win many national and international piano competitions.
Lhévinne did not resume her own solo performing career until 1956. On August 25 of that year, she performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major, K. 467 with the Aspen Festival Orchestra. During the following seasons she performed with orchestras around the country. In January of 1963, a few months before her 83rd birthday, Lhévinne performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor—the same work she had played at her debut 61 years earlier—in four performances with the New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, to great critical acclaim.
Rosina Lhévinne taught at Juilliard through the 1975–1976 academic year. She died on November 9, 1976, at age 96 in Glendale, California, at the home of her daughter. In a tribute to Lhévinne after her death, Peter Mennin, then the president of the Juilliard School, said, “She was quite simply one of the greatest teachers of this century. With her passing, a whole concept of teaching and performing goes with her.”
Highstein, Ellen. “Lhévinne, Rosina.” New Grove Dictionary of American Music. New York:
Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, 1986.
Lhévinne, Rosina. Biographical file. Juilliard School Archives, The Juilliard School, NYC.
Wallace, Robert K. A Century of Music-Making: The Lives of Josef and Rosina Lhévinne.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.