Sergius Kagen


Some story and writing about Sergius Kagen…

Sergius Kagen sat at the piano in his Juilliard studio, pipe clenched between teeth, and awaited the arrival of Janice Ruetz. At the end of his repertoire class, she’d asked to speak with him, and he’d instructed her to his office. A man of average height, he maintained a permanent hunch—sitting at the piano, his desk, or standing— making him always appear smaller than he was. An unassuming figure, he was not pudgy or overweight, but soft and fleshy, with large hands and face, which dominated the rest of him, marked by a solid square jaw, round, full cheeks, and a long forehead crowned by a dark receding hair line. Though he wore glasses, the distinctive features were his dark, thick eyebrows that rose in the center of his brow when he emoted, arching above his long nose almost to an inverted V, rendering his face always expressive and jovial, and bringing to mind Frank Capra’s Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life.

He was never without his black pipe, another identifying feature.  Back and forth it went, between hand and mouth. He spoke through clenched teeth, or softening the hold, tapped it there habitually.

He tapped it now against his bottom teeth as he waited.

It was 1952, and he was about to accept as a vocal student the young woman who would become his favorite student, although he’d never say. As a member of his vocal repertoire class that semester, she was the epitome of excellence: hard-working, professional, intelligent, curious, seemingly unfettered by the needs of the ego. He didn’t take many voice students, but this one was going to do well, he knew. He also knew her teacher this year, her first at Juilliard Bernard Taylor, was leaving, and Miss Ruetz needed to find a new mentor, but still, he wanted her to explain why it was him she wanted as her next teacher.

He wanted to know her reasons.

It was a logical inquiry for this pianist, music editor, teacher and composer who recently, in fact, had laid down his pedagogical theories for vocal instruction and study in what would become a small but seminal book titled On Singing, published in 1950 and 65 years later still be in print. Sergius Kagen believed serious study for a musician, and in this case, the singer of classical music, began with the individual person’s relationship to music, her innate desire to know and learn music because of her love of it. It’s unknown whether young Janice Ruetz read On Singing before she approached Mr. Kagen, but his dictums here would have spoken directly to what she intuitively felt she was missing and must know in order to become the singer she dreamed of being.

His was not an austere or intimidating presence, but clear and strong. Jan stood before him, saying, “I recognize somehow that you know all the things about music I’m yearning to know, but I can’t say what they are.” She was young. She was perplexed. She was earnest. He invited her to be his student.

Born to intellectual parents of wealth in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1909, Kagen began to play piano at the age of nine. An older brother who had died in the Russian Revolution was also training to be a pianist. In 1920, the family moved to Berlin to flee the revolution, and in 1921 Kagen began study with pianist Leonid Kreutzer and composer Paul Juon at the Hochschule für Musik. The family immigrated to America in 1925, and in 1930, after becoming an American citizen, Kagen began studies at Juilliard with German pianist Carl Friedberg; Marcella Sembrich, the great Polish coloratura soprano who sang at the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House, and Covent Garden; and Rubin Goldmark, American composer, pianist, and teacher of prominent composers including Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. Kagen earned his diploma in 1934.

From 1918 until her death, Marcella Sembrich taught vocal students at both Juilliard and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, many of whom would become important sopranos and vocal teachers throughout the United States. When she died in 1935, Kagen essentially took her place. He was appointed her students, and in 1940, formally joined the faculty at Juilliard where he would teach voice and vocal repertoire until his death in 1964.

Inside the walls of the prestigious institution, many students would challenge the middle-aged teacher’s authority to teach vocal arts. Once Jan began her studies with him, her friends would relentlessly question her choice, insisting a person who himself was not a singer could not effectively teach singing, and to find another teacher.  He certainly understood singers; as a Juilliard student, he’d studied piano and voice with a renowned teacher whose work he was asked to continue. He became an accomplished and lauded accompanist to well-known singers Povla Frijsh, Ezio Pinza, and Mack Harrell. He was a member of the Bach Aria Group, formed in the 1940’s. He even married a singer, the soprano Genevieve Greer. And he composed during the last fifteen years of his life as many as 70 songs of which 20 were published.

Juilliard School of Music, Claremont Ave. NY, NY

The Juilliard School of Music, 120 Claremont Ave, NY, NY.

Any serious voice student trained in the United States from the mid-1940’s on would have used until soft and threadbare any of the 39 volumes of songs and arias Kagen edited for the International Music Company. For nearly two decades, he edited vocal literature ranging from opera arias to Baroque to German Lieder to 20th century French composers for the powerhouse publishing company. In order to edit these scores which time has told well, Kagen would have brought a keen knowledge and understanding of not only the music from various historical and social contexts as well as the composers’ intentions, but also an innate and clear understanding of the singer’s challenges and work in bringing the songs to life; that is, in recreating them. This work culminated in his own catalog of vocal literature published in 1949 titled Music for the Voice.  But perhaps his most important legacy is that small book On Singing in which he clearly and intelligently shares his knowledge of, theories and personal opinions about the study and performance of the vocal arts.

On Studying Singing by Sergius Kagen

1960 edition

It might have seemed strange, then, that this man of modest demeanor who was not a public or performing singer was granted the opportunity to teach voice at what has always been estimated as the finest conservatory of music in the country. Week after week, Jan sat attuned and alert during his vocal repertoire class becoming more and more convinced he was the teacher she’d been searching for.

Kagen was an anomaly.  A fish breaking upstream. A man who was not a professional singer who was a professional teacher of serious singers. In those days, voice teachers hailed from two paths: that of the professional careered-singer who upon retirement opened a studio or those who studied and performed seriously, faithfully, only to never have broken through to a full time, lasting career. Those, as Kagen would argue, who were not truly interested in the art of teaching and would assail their students with the same limitations and poor habits they themselves had developed, perhaps even ruining their talented students.

Is it any wonder then that a young woman called Jannie by her closest friends would find a home under his tutelage?

Sergius Kagen, Composer, Musicologist, Vocal Teacher

Sergius Kagen at Juilliard School, circa 1948



About dhaines54

Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in the hill country of North Central Mississippi where she's writing a book about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and teaching writing at Oxford High School. Her work has been published in Poets and Writers magazine, Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, and WILLA. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.
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