“What did Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Hindemith, Rachmaninov, Joachim, Auer, Heifetz, Piatigorsky, Prokofiev, Martinu, Schoenberg—and other men of genius just as disparate—have in common? Close, collegial and friendly relations with … Richard Burgin.
“[…] For forty-two years he was concertmaster of the Boston Symphony, one of the country’s top orchestras, and for twenty-one years, its Associate Conductor. After he retired from the BSO, Florida State University had the glory of having Burgin on its Music Faculty as Professor of Violin, Conductor of the Chamber Orchestra, and member of the Florestan Quartet during the years 1963-72.
“Born in Warsaw, and trained in Berlin and St. Petersburg, he became a guiding light in musical culture from 1920. During the summers, when he taught at the Berkshire Music Center, and at numerous Congresses of Strings, there was hardly an American musician, who did not benefit from his inimitable training in orchestral playing, conducting, and chamber music. As a violinist, he was second to none among all the great concertmasters. As a conductor he was so aware and enthusiastic about new music that his list of American (and several world) premieres includes such diverse works as Mahler’s Third Symphony, Schoenberg’s difficult scores, and the compositions of the constantly changing avant-garde.
“Although distinctions were showered on Richard Burgin throughout his life—he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1947) and the French Legion of Honor (1954), received the Bruckner-Mahler Society Medal (1951)As a conductor, Burgin pioneered the revival of interest in Mahler’s music in the United States. as well as numerous honorary doctorates—no great musician remained so consistently and sincerely modest. During his years at FSU, I never heard him raise his voice at a rehearsal or after a concert. The only occasion he did raise his voice in anger … occurred while playing his beloved game of bridge.”
Thus, in October 1981, did Edward Kilenyi celebrate Richard Burgin’s life in music, a life which spanned the greater part of the twentieth century. From 1903, when Burgin gave his debut as a child prodigy with the Warsaw Philharmonic, to early 1981, when he suffered a fatal stroke while playing bridge near his home in Gulfport, Florida, music was Richard Burgin’s life. Asked if he planned to retire after being forced to leave the faculty of Florida State University—because of his age—in 1972, he exclaimed, “Never! As long as I can play the violin and conduct, I will do so.” The list of his numerous activities during the last eight years of his life which can be found in Memoralia Part 2 shows that he did precisely that.
Burgin has certainly not been forgotten. He has garnered his fair share of academic studies and personal memoirs, and most recently, some of his ideas on violin playing and music making went into the creation of Daniel Jacobus, the fictional violin teacher and amateur detective in Gerald Elias's The Devil’s Trill.Information from an email forwarded to me by Lois Gosa to whom I recommended Elias’s Devil’s Trill. Yet, Burgin himself never managed to write his own memoirs although he had the intention of doing so. He was about to begin dictating them to me on the day before he suffered his speech-destroying stroke. Now, to mark the 30th anniversary of Burgin’s death on April 29, 1981, I have decided to realize his intention with this compilation of his Memoralia.Memoralia is a word of Burgin’s own coinage which he used to refer to memories and memorabilia. I view it as a form of belated compensation for the promised dictation that never took place.
The main source of Memoralia is my transcript of Burgin’s often expansive answers to questions on a wide range of topics asked him by Dr. Elias Dann of Florida State University in a 1974 interview he conducted at Burgin’s home in Tallahassee, Florida.Dr. Dann graciously made a copy of these invaluable tapes available to me after Burgin’s death. I have rearranged the order of Burgin’s responses during this interview to conform to the chronology of his life and, in doing so, I have separated the autobiographical part of his remarks, which concerns his musical life until 1920, from the reminiscences and comments on musicians, music and teaching that are related to his professional life from 1920 to 1972. In the interests of clarity, I have finished off a few sentences and words left hanging in the transcript and I have edited Burgin’s sometimes too-Russian syntax and word order while trying to maintain the rhythm and characteristic emphasis of his speech.
Into the framework of Dann’s interview I have interpolated, where thematically appropriate, material from other “oral” sources: a tape-recorded interview with Tom Godell of the Koussevitzky Society about Koussevitzky; directly quoted stories and remarks of Burgin’s as well as remembrances of him in various printed interviews, newspaper articles and books that appeared from 1920 to the late 1970s; some passages from his unpublished personal correspondence; and stories I heard him tell over the years. (A list of all my printed sources is given at the end of Memoralia.) The rule that governed my selection of material for Memoralia proper was to use only Burgin’s own words, what he actually said or was quoted as saying about his musical life. In organizing and cobbling together this disparate material, my goal was to produce a coherent, quasi-chronological, quasi-thematic first-person narrative that is part-autobiography, part-reminiscences, and part-commentary and that will hopefully sound like Richard Burgin to anyone who knew him.
Memoralia is divided into three sections. In Part 1,The contents of Part I was in large part “versiphrased” by me in Richard Burgin. A Life In Verse, published by Slavica, 1989. A second, corrected edition can be found on my web site: www.dianaburgin.com. Burgin tells the story of his musical education from childhood through his years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory; talks about his first positions as concertmaster in Scandinavia; and relates how he came to be concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Part 2 represents a miscellany of Burgin’s reminiscences about various musicians he worked with and knew well; his thoughts about music, conducting, teaching and playing the violin, as well as other of his oft-repeated precepts, short anecdotes, and pieces of “wisdom.” Each of the major segments of parts 1 and 2 is preceded by a bracketed introduction in italics that provide either biographical information or some sort of context for Burgin’s remarks. Memoralia concludes with a brief sample of other musicians’ memories of Burgin.
Richard Burgin was a talented raconteur. Many of his gently but pointedly ironic anecdotes have been quoted here and there over the years. Perhaps the key to his effectiveness as a storyteller lay in the urbane, dispassionate perspective from which he viewed the subjects of his stories and the self-irony and modesty with which he spoke of himself. His stories were sometimes disarming in the literal sense of the word—they brilliantly undercut any potential attack from a less-than-friendly interlocutor—but at the same time, they managed to hit their mark. A man of considerable reserve, Burgin also enjoyed being in company, where he radiated a quiet charisma. His wife noted of him that he “loved to be sociable and see people, even people he didn’t especially like.”
Given the nature of their sources, the stories and “memories” Burgin “relates” in these Memoralia are necessarily limited by what he was asked about by his interviewers and, for the most part, what he chose to say for public consumption. Yet, without prompting, it’s unlikely he would have remembered or touched upon a much broader spectrum of events, topics or people if he had actually written or dictated his own memoirs from scratch. As he himself admitted, he had no great fondness for “memoralia” and did not really like to recall the past. When I asked him why, he said, “You can’t do anything about the past and remembering it often just makes me sad.”
What he did have an incredible memory for, and spoke about willingly, was music. His colleagues testified to his capacity to draw upon his memory’s neatly stored selection of solutions to musical problems in actual performances, things he had observed in the efforts of conductors and players to make printed notes come alive. No doubt his total immersion in the music he was performing or studying at the moment explained part of his notorious absent-mindedness in every-day life, which became a staple of BSO folklore.
He would frequently forget his bow in the strangest places, and once he even left his Stradivarius on a commuter train. Another time, he journeyed to Concord, Massachusetts for a solo engagement and was amazed to find no one there who knew of any such concert. A telephone call to Boston revealed that the recital was supposed to take place in Concord, New Hampshire. On another occasion, Burgin arrived at an auditorium for a performance and found the place locked and in darkness. After a bit of investigation he discovered he had turned up a month early. And more than one student, showing up for a lesson, experienced first-hand Burgin’s proclivity for not being in the right place at the right time.
Most mysteriously, Burgin’s habitual failure to have a mute on him when needed led to a veritable sub-genre of anecdotes. The three violinists who sat nearest him reportedly always carried spare mutes to give him when, after fumbling in his pockets, he discovered he had forgotten his own. To correct the problem, one of his students even devised a mute which could be permanently attached to a violin in a position where it was instantly accessible but did not interfere with playing when it wasn’t needed. Burgin readily agreed to try it out, and expectation ran high in rehearsal as the orchestra approached a passage for muted strings. But when the passage came, the un-losable mute wasn’t in its appointed place on Burgin’s fiddle. He began fumbling in his pocket as Alfred Krips, Assistant Concertmaster, proffered his usual spare.
Self-ironic as he was, Burgin tolerated the oft-repeated stories of his absent-mindedness with at worst a benign smile. However, he would often say in his “defense,” “But I never forget anything important.” His violin, bows, performance and lesson schedules—not important??!
That may strain credulity, but it also may have been true. Next to his beloved music, Burgin probably accorded top “importance” to very few things, foremost among which were his wife and his family. How this priority came to be constitutes the most important missing story in Memoralia, and I would like to tell it in the remainder of my Introduction. Far from making him sad, this personal and musical memory always gave him pleasure, and I shall never forget how he smiled while sharing it for the last time in his life during dinner the evening before his stroke.
For the first fifteen years of Burgin’s life in Boston, there seemed little chance that wife and family would ever play the central role in his life that they ultimately did. Pursued unsuccessfully by several Boston ladies (one of whom sent him a dozen yellow roses before every Friday afternoon symphony concert for years), he had the reputation of being not only one of Boston’s most eligible, but also most die-hard bachelors! This reputation began to totter in the mid-thirties after Burgin met the young American virtuoso, Ruth Posselt (1911-2007).
Actually, Burgin may have remembered that he had met Posselt for the first time back in April, 1923 when he went backstage at Symphony Hall to congratulate the 11-year-old child prodigy after her debut. Little did either of them suspect, then, that they would end up spending a large portion of their lives together as husband and wife.
During the dozen years that passed until their next meeting, the eighteen-year difference between their ages seemed to shrink. The Medford-born Posselt had grown up, attained to European fame as a virtuoso, and had just returned from a ground-breaking tour of the Soviet Union—one of the first American violinists to concertize there. By then, Burgin had long since become a US citizen, solidified his position as concertmaster of the BSO and had recently been named assistant conductor. Then, in March, 1935 their respective musical orbits moved significantly closer when Posselt was preparing for her first appearance with the BSO and Koussevitzky.
In her eighty-third year, Posselt still would vividly recall the beginning of her and Burgin’s relationship: “It was my first time with the Boston Symphony and I was still in my twenties. Koussevitzky was Russian, and world famous, and they said at that time he was a terror; I don’t know if he was or not, but I was nervous. So, I decided to call Burgin up,—I didn’t know him at all but he had the reputation of having a calming influence on Koussevitzky,—and ask if he would have a few minutes to listen to some of the Tchaikovsky because, after all […] . He said he would be delighted to. So I went to his house in Jamaica Plain with my pianist, Mary Tower, and I played and I played and he just stood there, smiling. When I finished playing, he said, ‘I think it’s wonderful, I don’t know what you’re so worried about.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if Koussevitzky will like this interpretation,’ and he said, ‘Anybody will love that interpretation. If you can play it like that, it’s marvelous.’ And oh, that gave me so much confidence, I’ll never forget that.”
Boston concertgoers got their first view of an unexpected interaction between Burgin and Posselt during the performance of the Tchaikovsky, on Monday evening, March 25th. As reported the next day by Warren Story Smith in The Boston Post, it went like this: Miss Posselt’s “playing last evening provoked applause that was more than commendation, applause that deserved the overworked characterization, enthusiastic. From Dr. Koussevitzky and his orchestra she received generous and eloquent support, and from at least one member of it a very special service. In the course of the first movement a hair of Miss Posselt’s bow became unloosened at one end and hung trailing down until Mr. Burgin arose from the concert master’s chair and snapped it off while Miss Posselt in apparent unconcern continued her performance. [Italics mine: DLB]
The day after the concert, the orchestra’s bass clarinetist, Boaz Piller, a long-time friend and supporter of Posselt’s, invited Ruth for tea, and she said, “‘Why don’t you ask Richard Burgin, too, he was so nice to me.’ Piller replied, ‘Oh, I could ask him but he probably won’t come, he doesn’t like women, he thinks they’re stupid.’ But I said, ‘I don’t think he thinks I’m stupid, why don’t you ask him?’ So he did ask him, and Richard said he’d love to come. He already had a little yen for me, I think. Because we used to have tea after that, just he and I, whenever I was in Boston and we just talked back and forth, back and forth. I don’t know, there seemed to be always something interesting to discuss. He could talk about European history, politics, mythology, he spoke four or five languages. I don’t know, I was sort of captivated by all that.”
The relationship developed slowly, from a collegial to a more personal friendship, then into a romance and finally, it blossomed into love. The moment that determined their future seems to have taken place at Burgin’s house on Saturday, December 4, 1937, judging from a letter from him to her dated the following Monday: “Darling Ruth, Since you left me last Saturday I am in an exalted state of mind. Those wonderful words you spoke to me that afternoon are still ringing in my ears. They made me feel so sublimely happy that it seems like a dream. You see, sweetheart, for so many years I have been daydreaming about you that it seems hard to believe that this vision has turned into reality. I love you I love you I love you forever. Richard.”
Boston was quite a prudish town back in the 1930’s. It did not take long for the Burgin–Posselt “friendship” to become a favorite subject of “talk” in the high society circles which patronized classical music, young virtuosos, and the BSO. Posselt told the story of how they came to get married: “Well, we couldn’t stay apart. We used to stay together longer and longer. We’d have dinner, and we’d talk, and we hated to leave each other, you know, and once he brought me home, it was about 1:30 a.m., we parked the car in front of my house, and we were doing whatever we were doing, and then a police car came down the street, stopped, and flashed the light in the car and said, turning to Richard, ‘What’s your name?’ He said, ‘Richard Burgin.’ ‘Richard Burgin, and I suppose that’s Charlie McCarthy over there.’There may be some readers who remember the popular ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen, and his puppet, Charlie McCarthy.
“Then, somebody saw me leave Richard’s house with him around twelve o’clock, and that started some rumors, and one elderly society matron who had known me for years said to her friend, ‘You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ruth Posselt and Richard Burgin were living in sin!’ Somehow, it got to Koussevitzky and Koussevitzky told Richard. The memory still lingered of Monteux having been forced to leave his post with the Boston Symphony because it was revealed he was having an extramarital affair. And so, when Richard told me the gossip about us, he said, ‘You know, we have to do something, either we have to get married or we can’t see each other, or if we see each other, we have to get home at 9 o’clock.’ So we decided to get married.” They went about it in rather an offbeat way.
They were married on July 3, 1940 by a justice of the peace in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. That’s not very original, but the site of their marriage was—the justice of the peace also happened to be a car mechanic, and so the Burgin-Posselt union began in a country gas station, presided over by the town clerk in his greasy overalls. From that improbable nuptial setting, the newlyweds hastened to a wedding breakfast arranged by Paul Hindemith, who played the Wedding March on the French horn as the other guests beat time on pots and pans.
The marriage proved fruitful in personal and musical ways. In 1943 their first child, Diana, was born, and four years later, they had a son, Richard. Unlike many women virtuosos, Posselt did not give up her career on the concert stage after marriage or having children. In fact, her husband was probably the most active supporter of her career, encouraging her not to give it up even when she herself leaned in that direction. Throughout their forty years together, Burgin and Posselt were often musical collaborators.
They gave over thirty joint performances—he conducting, she appearing as soloist—with the Boston Symphony, including the world premiere of the Dukelsky Violin Concerto and the first Tanglewood, and then Boston, BSO performances of the Khatchaturian Violin Concerto. In 1949, they made a tour of Finland, Norway and Poland. In the fifties, they played and recorded together with the Cambridge Early Music Society, and participated in numerous chamber and concert performances in Boston and New England. In the late sixties and seventies, they played together in the Florestan Quartet at Florida State University, where they were both on the faculty, and made appearances at other concert venues in the United States and Canada. At the end of Burgin's life, they both played in the Boston Opera Company orchestra.
Burgin’s marriage to Ruth Posselt provided the accompaniment to almost half of his life in music. As Edward Kilenyi noted in the obituary with which this introduction began, it was a long, multifaceted and fruitful life that brought close relationships with some of the world’s greatest 20th-century musicians and that saw several generations of students make successful careers in music. Burgin’s legacy as a teacher continues to be passed on, from those he taught in the 1960s and 1970s to those they are teaching today. It is possible that namely as a teacher Richard Burgin made, and continues to make, his most lasting and truly living contribution to music. As one of his conducting students at the International Conducting Symposium in Jacksonville (May 1975) wrote to him: “You are an outstanding musician, teacher and human being. For the first time in my life I have seen it all in one person. […] There is a lot to learn about conducting and a good deal of it is not music! But, from you, one can learn all.”