The Humble Master

He has celebrated triumphs with the greatest, such as Yehudi Menuhin and Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, but he has also taught the most obscure, including a new generation of Norwegian soloists.

Robert Levin

At eighty-three. Robert Levin is an institution in Norwegian music – as pianist and teacher, man and musician. For him, no task has been too small, no task too great.

He is also just as great as he is small. He raises his head when he talks to you - even at the piano he has the same erect posture. It isn't because he has an athletic build. On the contrary, I believe Robert Levin has always held his head high out of respect for himself and others, for humanity in general. He seems to know that veneration for life has nothing to do with bowed heads.

“He was like a father to us!” That's what Norwegian music students say, particularly singers who have been taught interpretation by this man, a world class accompanist who not only gave generously of his professional experience when he was a lecturer, and later a professor and Principal of the Norwegian State Academy of Music, but also shared human experience with budding soloists.

For Robert Levin, music has always been a human affair. In his case, there is no point in distinguishing between the artist and the man, as people often do, or the professional and his personality. No, Robert Levin is a musician in life, a man in music. Given his life story, he need not have been, but his life story is also the reason why he is.

Clearly an institution, but certainly an institutional man. The fact that he has been an active member of organisations, done his share for artists' unions, or even been principal of an academy, doesn't mean that he has formal training or a bureaucratic gift for that kind of thing. It just means that he has been a human being with a strong sense of duty. Again: humanity first!

The aura that precedes him when he enters a room, whether for a meeting, a lesson or a concert, doesn't come from his qualifications or his position but from his radiant warmth. Certainly it is the pianist we usually meet in most connections, but is it not also the friend who leads a debate, the father who practises with his students, the husband who accompanies the evening's diva?

For Norway's music students in the 1970s, it was an invaluable advantage that Robert Levin was able to approach his task with the repertoire and range of a soloist as well as a chamber musician and an accompanist. But to them it was no less important that he had a fatherly approach, that he was a natural teacher, and that in addition to his knowledge of music he always conveyed a humanistic attitude to musicianship.

Many have related how he made the strictest demands in the mildest possible way, how he brought out the best in them and, above all, how he used his joy in music to show them the way.

Cramming theory and technique was one thing, interpretation was something else; the art of learning a composer's work, making it your own, and then passing it on to the audience as a gift from both. He made his students understand that this entails both hard work and joy.

We mustn't forget that the 1970s were still a pioneering period in Norwegian musical education. A political resolution to introduce musical studies at university level was not passed until 1972, when Robert Levin was a lecturer at the Oslo Conservatory.

In a way, he had been a pioneer all his life. He had been the boy who made his first acquaintance with the piano accompanying his sister when she sang children's songs at his grandmother's house. He had been the son of a not particularly well-to-do immigrant family whose parents had unfailing faith in him and made every effort to provide training and practical support so that he could follow a musical career, an unusual priority in the social situation of the time. He had been the young man who made his début as a classical pianist and his living playing in cafes and variety theatres. He had fought for the rights of practising musicians, for official appreciation of music in general, and had naturally been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of efforts to give musical education academic status.

It is because of all this that, in 1973, a more or less diploma-less musician was appointed the first principal of the State Academy of Music in our, in this respect, rather backward cultural nation. The appointment was soon to bear fruit.

At the time, Robert Levin was one of relatively few Norwegian musicians to have established an international career. For him, music was a transcendental medium, a supra-national language that had a natural validity all over the world. The Academy had been a Norwegian dream, but its goal must be to give talented Norwegian musicians access to the world of music. Previously they had more or less had to become foreigners to get a proper education. Robert Levin himself was a living example of a talented artist who had had to make his own way with no backing from Norwegian institutions, apart from his legendary private tutor, Nils Larsen, and the many dance halls and restaurants that paid for his services.

With his natural generosity and in the spirit of the pioneering age, which was also the spirit of improvisation, he often allowed his students to benefit from the international circle of friends he had acquired as an active concert pianist. For instance, if Rita Streich or Yehudi Menuhin came to Oslo to give a concert with Robert Levin, he arranged for them to rehearse at the Academy and afterwards persuaded them to give a lecture or a master class. He even persuaded violinist Camilla Wicks to move from the USA to a vacant professorship in Oslo.

Essential chapters of this century's Norwegian musical history are also Robert Levin's history. Today he can look back on an explosive development that he has not only experienced but also influenced; he can see Norwegian singers appearing in a multitude of European concert halls and opera houses and Norwegian instrumentalists signing international recording contracts. A less modest person might have said to himself “I have helped to build the foundations for this - as a musician and as a teacher”.
But primarily, I believe, as a human being.

His peaceful battle for life in music, for music in life, cannot be viewed in isolation from the fact that Robert Levin grew up as a Jew among Jews and at the same time as a Norwegian among Norwegians, and gradually as a human being among the world's human beings. In the deepest sense, it is his Jewish fate that has taught him to be grateful for his existence. He may not always have known whom to thank for surviving the Holocaust, but one thing is certain: he has offered his thanks through his music.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.3 - 1995 No. 2
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