Curtis’s First Commencement, 1934
The first commencement proceedings occurred on May 22, 1934 at 3:00 pm. The Polish National Anthem was performed in honor of Wladyslaw Sokolowski, the Counselor of the Polish Embassy who was to give one of the addresses, and the two recipients of honorary doctorates (both Polish nationals), Marcella Sembrich and Leopold Godowsky.
The two diplomas given to Sembrich and Godowsky were handmade on parchment by Mrs. Bok’s friend, Edwin (Ted) Fetterolf, beautifully crafted, and gifted to Curtis by Mr. Fetterolf. Unfortunately, Madame Sembrich returned hers and asked that it be remade following the Commencement ceremony because she wished for it to “bear her maiden name” (in the words of Mrs. Bok)! Mary Louise was mortified, and insisted on paying Ted for the newly made diploma. The Archives still holds the original, rejected, diploma.
Earliest Commencement Awards
Beginning with the 1940 commencement, various awards were presented to students . The first awards were the Josef Hofmann Award (a recital in Town Hall, New York City), granted to Jorge Bolet, and the Curtis Award (a check for $100), granted to Lynne Wainwright. The Curtis Award was described in the Director’s papers of 1942 “as representing the type of student the Institute would most like to produce.”Also in 1942, Curtis presented its first Alumni Award. Unlike today’s Alumni Award, this was in fact an award given by the newly formed Alumni Association to a current undergraduate. The first recipient was Seymour Lipkin. From the first issue of the Alumni Association newsletter:
One of the first official acts of the Alumni Association was the decision to create an Annual Alumni Award to be given to the outstanding undergraduate of Curtis institute at the Commencement Exercises. A prize is already given by the Institute to the outstanding graduate.
The recipient of the first Award in the form of a set of Grove’s ‘Dictionary of Music and Musicians’, was Seymour Lipkin, a piano student, pupil of Mr. Serkin.
In presenting the books, Mr. Constant Vauclain, member of the Alumni Committee, pointed out that this award was made for general scholastic excellence as well as for outstanding musical ability.
Good work, Seymour!
Efrem Zimbalist retired at the end of the 1968 school year. Planned, but not listed in the program, was a short tribute to the director. Fortunately, we have an audio recording of the proceedings in which an unknown man (perhaps someone on the board) announces that the FBI was invited to Curtis Commencement!
Applause has been removed from this track for the sake of time.
Zimbalist Sr. delivers a stunning piece of oratory in thanks.
Commencement speakers and honorary degrees
Curtis has invited many fine speakers to give commencement addresses through the years, including such notables as Polykarp Kusch (Nobel Prize winner in Physics), Ralph Ellison, Isaac Stern, local politicians Ed Rendell and Michael Nutter, in addition to alumni Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Ned Rorem, and George Rochberg. We have granted honorary degrees to 83 people. Modern commencements include student speakers in addition to invited guests, and we recognize more of our students with awards for artistic and academic achievement than in the past, but still we come together yearly to celebrate our graduates with music, song, and ceremony.