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Artist Spotlight: Robert Levin

By Adela H. Kim, Crimson Staff Writer

It is impossible to play music at Harvard without being impacted in one way or another by Robert D. Levin ’68, the Dwight P. Robinson Jr. professor of music. Throughout his career, Levin has approached classical music from all its angles. He is a professor, classical performer, musicologist, and composer, as well as the artistic director of the Sarasota Music Festival. After earning his A.B. in music at Harvard, he was named head of the Theory Department at the Curtis Institute of Music. He later served as professor of piano at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany. In 1993, he returned to Harvard as a professor of music and was a head tutor from 1998 to 2004. He is renowned for his restoration of the Classical period practice of improvised embellishments and cadenzas.

After almost two decades of teaching at Harvard, Levin is retiring from his alma mater this year. To celebrate his retirement, the Music Department has created a prize in his name that rewards outstanding musicianship for a graduating student each year. On Jan. 26, Levin also gave a solo recital at Sanders Theatre to cap off his career at Harvard.

The Harvard Crimson:  How does Harvard’s music program compare to that of a music conservatory? How was your experience different?

Robert D. Levin: It would have never occurred to me that I would’ve attended here. My teacher, Nadia Boulanger, was responsible for me coming here. I thought I would attend Juilliard, but she told me, “No, you are going to get a liberal arts education; you are going to Harvard.” She understood the virtues of a far-flung, broadening, critical acumen-producing liberal arts education. Here, I took courses in history and literature, French literature and philosophy. Harvard isn’t like a sweatshop conservatory. Rather, there is a broadening awareness of culture. The undergraduates and graduates here play their instruments very well; they are very intelligent and thoughtful. They approach the drama of music making with a broader view, as well as being experts at the technical aspects of music.

THC: What are some things you did here at Harvard?

RDL: During my tenure at Harvard, I made a big deal about supporting student composers. I initiated the undergraduate senior thesis concert for music concentrators. When I was the head tutor, I would ask the senior composers, “Are you going to perform your pieces? Why not?” I told the department that [the concert] was something that needed to be done. It was a coming-of-age as a musician. Some colleagues disagreed, saying that it was going to be hard for students to get their music played in the real world. But I felt that it was important to raise the importance of the survival of our art, which is conditioned by the process of renewal. You keep the connection alive—you have to find some music that’s being written now. In supporting the musicians you believe [in], you are keeping the culture.

THC: Speaking of modernity, you are an expert on music from the Classical period, but music written then wasn’t for the modern piano. How do you address this issue?

RDL: We have no way of knowing if they would have preferred the modern piano. But one thing is certain—to the extent that when fashion designers fit their clothes for the runway show exactly to the model, these composers wrote music for specific instruments. The composer is tailoring his music to the instrument. And as a musician now, you need to have experienced how that specific instrument sounds. Then you can come back to the modern piano and transpose. It’s not going to be exactly the same. It’s been a voyage of discovery to immerse myself in these various textures and sounds that come out of these instruments. I investigate how I can reproduce the sounds—is it something that I can make...happen by altering the technique? Some people insist on overriding certain textures to reveal their individuality, but I want to put myself into service for music.

THC: What are your plans for after retirement?

RDL: Teaching has been a very important part of life. I think I’ve more or less accomplished what I would’ve liked to do coming to Harvard, and I had an extraordinarily inspiring two decades with these marvelous Harvard students. But I’m not going to stop teaching, performing, researching and doing my creative work. I have masterclasses lined up in Germany [and] Switzerland and will be attending the Salzburg Music Festival this summer. I’m also working on completing a volume of Mozart fragments with my completion to be published with Henle-Urtext. That being said, I’d also like to lower my pace to a slightly less life-threatening one.

-Staff writer Adela H. Kim can be reached at

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