Rudolf Serkin — with Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz — was the last of the European-born troika of keyboard geniuses who set performing and aesthetic standards that their younger contemporaries still are emulating.
Though not as flamboyant a stage presence as either Rubinstein or Horowitz he nonetheless was an essential and peerless artist, capable of exerting all the inherent forces in Beethoven yet coaxing warmth and nuances from Schubert and Brahms.
His debut came as guest artist with the Vienna Symphony. He was acclaimed by critics and patrons but his parents turned away prospective managers and insisted that the boy continue to live and study at home.
At age 17 he had a chance meeting at a train station with Adolf Busch, the famed violinist. Busch auditioned him and encouraged the youth to move into his home in Berlin, a city that offered a greater selection of teachers. The Serkins judged Busch a proper influence for their son and agreed to let him accept the older man's hospitality.
Serkin first came to the United States in 1935 to perform with Busch at the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Festival in Washington. Within a year, Arturo Toscanini invited him to become a soloist with the New York Philharmonic.
He was guest soloist for his old friend, cellist Pablo Casals, at the festivals Casals established. He expanded his repertory so that by his death he was considered the premier interpreter of composers ranging from Bach to Bartok, and established himself as an artist whose greatest strength lay in the intellectual forces he combined with his talent.
President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1967 on the occasion of his 100th performance with the New York Philharmonic. In 1977, he became the first artist invited to perform at the White House by President Jimmy Carter, and in 1981 received Kennedy Center honors, considered the nation's highest official tribute for a performing artist.
His was a lengthy and fabled career that extended from his debut at age 12 in 1915 to his last major concert in 1988.