Merrill Kenneth Wolf, 1931-2011

Ken Wolf,my friend, accompanist,concert pianist, scientist, physician died several days past. He died in his sleep, but had been quite ill with both Congestive Heart Failure and Kidney failure for the past year. He had been on dialysis for a year, suffering several three and a half hour painful sessions each week, and had been in hospice care at hs home, his only agreeable ingestion being a daily scotch and soda. He has willed his remains to his Medical School Faculty.

Kenny was an incredible presence in the lives of both me and my wife for more than 60 years, as well as the many he taught, performed with and for, and knew and loved him.

I first heard of him from John Bavicchi,Professor of Composition at the Berklee College, composer and friend, who told me that” there is a pianist who can play anything and could do multiples of 5  digits across in his head”. At that time Dr. Wolf was teaching Anatomy of the Brain at Harvard Medical School, while maintaining an active musical career, performing in many of the concerts of contemporary music in Massachusetts. Kenny knew from memory all the music he had ever played, including the complete sonatas for piano of Beethoven and of Mozart, as well as all the Piano Concerti of both of those composers. He could sightread anything and also performed baroque music on the harpsichord, He later enlarged his playing and performing Baroque organ music .

But even before this time, I had read about Kenneth Wolf in Life Magazine, when I was 15 .. There was this boy of 14 or 15 years of age who had just graduated from Yale University with a degree in Music, at that time, the youngest graduate in the history of Yale. He was for a number of years listed in the Guinness Book of records for that distinction.

Kenny was born in Cleveland in 1931, the son of highly educated parents, who were both lawyers. The parents were highly influential in his life, as, after his graduation in Music from Yale, he would be given no more money for tuition in Music, only medicine, and he graduated from Case Western Reserve University when he was 21.

He first demonstrated precociousness at the age of about 16 months.This was the era of the player piano, in which piano rolls were inserted and from the tiny holes placed on the roll,music would emanate. There are many recordings of composers from the turn of the 20th centry and before, whose work was recorded on piano rolls.Ravel and Debussy and many others recorded on piano rolls. The family had such a piano in their home and frequently would play recordings of composers of music for the piano. Once, they left Kenny in the room with the piano and they heard the music of a work by Liszt coming from the piano. It was not a recording. It was their 16 month old son who was playing the piano.(He had spoken in complete sentences  at four months). He had not been given any instruction, just started playing from hearing the work. From that point his parents directed him toward music, specifically the piano,first by his parrents and then culminating  in study with Arthur Schnabel,in Berlin and composition with Paul Hindemith at Yale.

I am a bit cloudy of what transpired in the life, careers, and education of Kenny from that point. Clearly, he was a genius, but there had been some kind of unpleasant ness that had occured between the young man and George Szell, the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.My inference was that Szell had simply written the young pianist “Off” as the saying goes. I simply do not know the details save for the fact that Kenneth Wolf had to pursue a career in medicine, and that he recieved his medical credentials at an extremely early age. I think he was 21, having received his music degee from Yale at age 14.
From then on, he actually pursued the two careers of music and medicine.

I know of his success in both, but also, that he  suffered by the many comments such as, “for  a musician , it is amazing that he is actually a Professor of Anatomy of the Brain at Harvard Medical School”.

I played in many concerts with Kenny as my accompanist, and conducted him in all of the Concerti of Beethoven, the two Brahms Concerti, several of Mozart. In my opinion  Wolf was a great genius regarding all of his many achievements.

I first met Kenny while rehearsing with the Boston Civic Symphony. I was the first clarinetist in that orchestra,Paul Cherkassky of the Boston Symphony was the conductor. The particular program included both a purported first performance of a concerto by Stamitz, with me as soloist and the Brahms D Minor Concerto with Dr. M. Kenneth Wolf as soloist. He came to rehearsals with a full beard, and he was quite short and possessed a high  voice, as I recall. We had no particular reason to communicate. We were on the same program as soloists.

The concert went extremely well . There was only one strange thing. Dr. Wolf played his Brahms without any race of the full beard. He was clean shaven.
I later learned that he had been studying with the famous Madame Vengerova in New York. As he was about to leave for Boston to perform the Brahms with the Boston Civic Symphony, Vengerova forced him to shave off his beard for the reason that he was touring the following summer to many Piano Competitions in Europe. Madame Vengerova suggested that the beard would do him no good, and so he shaved it off for the Brahms Concerto in Boston.

It has been so many years since she passed away and can hurt nothing by saying that Venerova taught at the Curtis Institute for many many years, having some of the most famous pianists and composers as students and is remembered (by those who dare,) as a terrifically egotistical bully of a teacher who was not without talent, but it was the talent of her students, which each brought to her that has remained, not because, but in spite of her.

My days playing music with him, the reminiscences of his playing, both with me and those which I witnessed, the times that Emily, his wife, and Linda, my wife had, will always remain with me as the happiest of my life.The yearly organ concerts in Wentworth, NH, were especially enjoyed by our children who got to drive to New Hampshire, go to the concert, attend the gigantic party after the concert, and then go to Boston in the morning for a few hours of shopping before returning.
Kenny and Emily had bought a house in Wentworth and renovated it for those parties.They used to call it “Wentworth,where their Worth Went”.

Goodbye, Kenny


3 Responses to Merrill Kenneth Wolf, 1931-2011

  1. Ann Kennedy says:

    I have just read with great interest this post on Ken Wolf. My father was a graduate student at Yale when Ken was admitted. In an old letter I have from my mother to my grandmother, there is a clipping from the New Haven newspaper (April, 1944) about Ken. My father told me many times, the story about this young student, and how after class he could be seen toting a large briefcase, often skipping across campus, or balancing on curbs and skipping over sidewalk cracks as any young kid might do. I’m delighted to learn more about this amazing man and thank you for this post!

    • here is the Life Magazine Article I read so many years ago. I was fascinated then, he became my best friend, and I am still fascinated and sorrowful now. SF
      file:///Users/sherman/Desktop/LIFE – Google Books.webarchive

      • I am Marvin Rubenstein, I was at Yale, as a instructor in an Air Force program. I and Kenny became good friends. His Mother-MANNYA, had me me over for dinner many times. I finally was able to contact Kenny a few years ago by phone. I told him who I was, I guess he had cut out our past association, He said he didn’t remember me, and hung up the phone.

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