King of Cellists: Celebrating the Life of Janos Starker

Celebrating the Life of Janos Starker: A Memorial Event
Musical Arts Center
IU Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana
September 22, 2013


Thank you, Gwyn [Richards].

The story of the life and legacy of Janos Starker—his passion and skill as an interpreter of the world’s great music, his dedicated work as one of the greatest cello teachers the world has ever known, his love for his family—has become a legendary part of the world of classical music and of the history of Indiana University and the Jacobs School of Music.

I am sure that everyone in this auditorium knows at least part of that story. This afternoon, we are going to hear from some people who will pay tribute to Professor Starker and his remarkable life.

Child Prodigy

His career began in his native Hungary. A child prodigy, he entered the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest at age 7 and made his solo debut four years later.

He made his professional debut at age 14.

He narrowly escaped with his life after being detained in a Nazi labor camp for three months during WWII.

An Extraordinary Musician

And, of course, Janos Starker was universally recognized as one of the supreme musicians of the 20th century.

As one music critic wrote of him, “he is the king of cellists, and having said that, what more is there to say?”1

He was known for his faultless technique; the tightly focused tone and intensity of sound he produced; and his polished phrasing.

He appeared in recital on every continent and performed with almost all major orchestras of the world.

He recorded virtually the entire cello repertoire, and was unrivalled as an interpreter of J. S. Bach. He won a Grammy Award in 1997 for his recording of the Bach suites, which he recorded on several occasions.

A number of great composers—including IU’s own David Baker, and the late Bernhard Heiden, who also served for many years as a faculty member and chair of the composition department at IU—were inspired to write concertos for him.

Janos Starker at IU: An Extraordinary Teacher

For a world-renowned musician of Mr. Starker’s caliber to make teaching a major facet of his career is fairly rare.

But Janos Starker taught all his life. At age eight, he was showing young students the proper way to hold a cello, and by age 12, he had four or five students.2

He said in an interview that teaching fascinated him much more than performing. He became intently focused on being able to explain every aspect of music making and instrument playing in a way that would be understandable to even non-musicians.3

A letter of invitation to become an instructor at Indiana University—sent to Mr. Starker in Paris in 1948 by then IU president Herman B Wells and music school dean Wilfred Bain—allowed him to immigrate to the United States.

In 1958, after ten years of professional activities with the Dallas Symphony, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony, he joined the faculty of what is now the Jacobs School of Music. In 1962, he was named a Distinguished Professor of Music. He and violin master Joseph Gingold were the first music school faculty members ever to earn the rank of Distinguished Professor at Indiana University. And, of course, Professor Starker continued to teach until shortly before his death.

Today, the Jacobs School of Music is considered by many to be the finest school of music in the world. This well-deserved reputation is due, in no small measure, to people like Janos Starker.

He embodied the high standards of scholarship, creativity, teaching, and performance on which the reputation of the Jacob School of Music is built.

As The New York Times recently noted, his presence “turned Bloomington into a Midwestern mecca for cellists.”4

And, of course, the achievements of those students who came here from around the world to study with him—among them some of the world’s most prominent soloists—offer resounding testimony to the quality of his outstanding work as a teacher. 

Professor Starker was the first recipient of the Tracy M. Sonneborn Award, an honor given by Indiana University to a faculty member who has achieved local, national, and international acclaim both for their teaching and for research or creative activity.

In 1999, IU’s 16th president, Myles Brand, awarded him the highest honor an Indiana University president can bestow: the President’s Medal for Excellence.


On behalf of Indiana University, let me say how deeply grateful we are that Professor Starker chose to make Bloomington his home for so many years.

On behalf of my wife Laurie and myself, let me say what a privilege it was to meet Janos, and to have had the opportunity to see him perform.

Few performers achieve the kind of technical mastery, innovation, and scintillating stage presence that defined him. He will always be loved and admired for his willingness to share his tremendous talent and remarkable personal story with generations of aspiring musicians at Indiana University.

I know Rae, Gwen, Gabriella, Alexandra, Nicole, and J.P. miss him profoundly, but they have the solace of knowing that as well as being a loving husband, father, and grandfather, he was a true genius who left an indelible mark on Indiana University, on countless students, and on every music lover who ever heard him play.

For that we are all deeply and profoundly grateful.

Source Notes

  1. Joyce Geeting, Janos Starker, “King of Cellists:” The Making of an Artist, (Chamber Music Plus Publishing, 2008), vi.
  2. Joan Evelyn Ames, interview with Janos Starker in Mastery: Interviews with 30 Remarkable People, ((Rudra Press, 1997), 136.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Margalit Fox, “Janos Starker, Master of the Cello, Dies at 88,” The New York Times, April 29, 2013.