In the early 1980s, Sino-US Rapprochement brought the eyes of great musicians to China. Professors such as Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, and Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld were among them. These internationally well-known musicians were the pioneers who made the earliest musical visits and gave masterclasses, lectures, and concerts at the Central Conservatory of Music as well as the ShangHai Conservatory of Music. They built cooperation with Chinese musicians and established sponsorship of music students, enabling further study and career development on an international scale.
Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld were acclaimed string pedagogues and performing artists in the 20th Century. Alice (1921-2019), elder sister and violinist and Eleonore (1925-2007), younger sister and cellist were born into a German musical family. The sisters received excellent musical training from an early age. Eleonore was accepted into the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin at the age of 14, and studied with Professor Adolf Steiner. Under the tutelage of Professor Karl Klinger, Alice performed with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra when she was only 10 years old. She was universally acknowledged as the third generation successor of Joseph Joachim, the leader of the German violin school in the second half of the 19th Century. Joachim was the authoritative interpreter of Classical and Romantic music. The development and maturation of the Joachim’s violin school were closely connected to Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schumann and Bruch as well as other great German musicians, and it became enormously influential to musical development all over the world. This profound legacy led the German violin school into a rigorous, yet brilliant style and legitimate pedagogy. The appealing style of playing highlighted the performers’ standardized playing technique, combined with drama and scenic imagination.
The sisters used art as a tool to preach human kindness after their firsthand experience with WWII. Through music, the international language, they advocated integrity, truth and beauty of spirit throughout their lives, providing a nurturing environment to musicians from different countries.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1952, the sisters performed with world famous conductors and orchestras. The duet dazzled audiences with their outstanding technique and beautiful artistry. Releasing more than three hundred recordings on international radio stations, they became greatly renowned in the music field. Since 1959, the sisters taught at the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California, along with Jascha Heifetz (Professor at the Thornton School of Music from 1962 to 1987) and Gregor Piatigorsky (Professor at the Thornton School of Music from 1962 to 1976). For more than twenty years, Eleonore served as the Chairman for the International Piatigorsky Seminar. The sisters fostered countless students in more than sixty years. Many of their students were winners of various major competitions. Most of them became well-known performers or pedagogues, and their students can be found in almost every first-rate orchestra in America.
The University of Southern California was the first university to establish a relationship with China, and the university also currently has the largest number of international students. Built in 1884, the Thornton School of Music, in its earliest stages, was a training center for aristocratic students. In its centurial history, the employment of leading professors Arnold Schoenberg, Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, Miklos Losza and other musical authorities made the University the best music school in Western America. As members of this reputable faculty, Professors Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld became the key persons to open the aristocratic school door to Chinese students.
The Thornton School of Music was the first music school to provide Chinese students with significant scholarships. The Schoenfeld Professors personally recommended Chinese students, and over one hundred Chinese students were recommended for scholarships to the Thornton School of Music since the 1980s, a greater number than any other music school. Students under the Schoenfeld sisters’ tutelage include Suli Xue (Artistic Director of the Schoenfeld International String Competition), Timothy Landauer, Xinhua Ma, Yi Du, Liang Chai, Nan Xie, Xueqing Chen, Frank Su Huang, Yingying Zhang, Ingrid Kuo Chun and others. There are approximately fifty performers who are currently active in the international music circle. As Suli Xue and Timothy Landauer recalled, the Schoenfeld Professors not only taught them music, but also cared for students’ lives. As the head of the strings department, Eleonore Schoenfeld and her sister Alice often provided extra lessons and fine instruments to the students who were going to music camps, playing concerts, or taking part in competitions. Moreover, they often personally encouraged students to various competitions. The achievements these young musicians made-- for example, Timothy Landauer winning international competitions, and Suli Xue achieving tenure position in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as becoming the first Asian violin professor at the University of Southern California-- are inseparable from their professors’ contributions.
Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld contributed extensively to western classical music playing and teaching. They also, however, paid close attention to Chinese musical compositions of the time. Renowned violinist Suli Xue developed his own Chinese style of playing under Professor Alice’s guidance, integrating Chinese Hu Qin, Horse Head String Instrument playing techniques with modern violin playing techniques.
American Chinese artist Frank Su Huang recalled that, at the University of Southern California in the mid-1980s, his professor, Eleonore Schoenfeld, asked him to play some compositions with Chinese characteristics. He promised to hold a special concert for this repertoire. In 2010, he performed the repertoire as promised, and released a CD: “Red Classic Cello.”
Professors Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld have long been avid connoisseurs and supporters of Chinese people and Chinese music. This spirit is illustrated in the competition named after them. The Schoenfeld International String Competition committee commissioned outstanding Chinese composers to compose both a violin and cello piece as part of the required repertoire for participants. This action demonstrates the Schoenfeld professors’ friendly sentiment to their international colleagues. Along with the enhancement of Chinese compositions, the live performance of this Chinese music is one of the distinguishing features of the competition.
In consideration of the outstanding achievement of professors Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld and their lifelong contribution to the University of Southern California’s education, the University set up the “Schoenfeld Endowed Chair” and honored them with the “Lifelong Excellent Teaching Prize.” Additionally, the American String Teachers Association has bestowed the “National Artist Teacher Award” upon them. This prestigious award is the top achievement in the music teaching field, received by acclaimed violinists Stern, Menuhin, and Heifetz.
On October 28, 2012, the Thornton School of Music of the University of Southern California named their newly constructed concert hall the “Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld Symphonic Hall”, in honor of their legacy. Although the younger sister Eleonore passed away in 2007, the Schoenfeld International String Society, founded by the elder sister Alice and the 2013 International Strings Competition (Hong Kong), continues to use both sisters’ names. Professor Alice Schoenfeld spent a great amount of her own personal savings to encourage and support young musicians. Her love disseminates through her students worldwide. In the very earliest stages of the competition, international masters of conducting such as Zubin Mehta, Christoph Eschenbach, and Michael Tilson Thomas strongly supported the competition, which drew worldwide attention immediately. The Schoenfeld International String Competition quickly found its place among the most influential and authoritative international competitions.