Finest Free Music Training Anywhere

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1924

Mary Louise Curtis Bok, daughter of the family that published the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal, was a volunteer at a south Philadelphia settlement school devoted to “Americanization among the foreign population of Philadelphia.” This charitable work convinced her that there were significant numbers of children among the poor immigrant families of the day who could perform music at a very high level, given good training. So she gave the school $150,000 to start offering classes, then consulted with musical friends like conductor Leopold Stokowski and pianist Josef Hofmann on how best to boost up promising young musicians.

In 1924 Bok put up $500,000 to found a new institution in Philadelphia that would provide top-notch higher education for music students. In 1928 she announced that all of the students at the new Curtis Institute (named in honor of her father) would be admitted on merit and could attend completely tuition free—which she made feasible by providing a $12 million endowment. She recruited a superb faculty of prominent artists, and purchased three mansions and had them joined together and renovated into teaching, practicing, and performance space. Bok remained intimately involved in guiding the school for the rest of her long life, even serving as acting director in various stints. Her second husband, violinist Efram Zimbalist, was artistic director of the college for many years as well.

Today, Curtis continues to provide nonpareil musical training to all of its students, entirely free. It is currently the most selective institution of higher education in America, accepting less than 5 percent of applicants. Alumni have included notables like Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Alan Gilbert, Lang Lang, and Hilary Hahn. At major symphonies like those in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh, a quarter or more of the musical principals are Curtis graduates.

Amazingly, more than half of the Curtis Institute’s operating revenues continue to come from the original endowment established by Mary Louise Bok. But to preserve and extend its remarkable zero-tuition policy the college has undertaken broader fundraising in recent years. While Gerry Lenfest was chairman of the board from 2006 to 2014, he and his wife Marguerite gave approximately $70 million to Curtis. His successor, Nina von Maltzahn, donated about the same large amount after “falling in love” with the school.