Kullak was born on 12 September 1818 in a little town called Krotoschin, which is now Krotoszyn in Poland. He began his piano studies as a pupil of Albrecht Agthe in Posen. He progressed sufficiently to excite the interest of the artistic Prince Anton Radziwill in his eighth year. This early ability to attract noble patronage was an art he continued to deploy to advantage for many years to come. In 1829 the Prince used his influence to secure a Berlin Court concert—quite a coup for an eleven-year-old from Posen! He appeared with a co-artist called Henriette Sontag, and so delighted was the usually undemonstrative King that he presented young Theodor with thirty Friedrichs d’or. Six weeks in Berlin was a real adventure, and it was topped off with a concert in Breslau which was received with gratifying applause. The kindly Prince Radziwill then saw to a rounded education for Theodor, sponsoring his school fees in Zullichau.
Alas, Theodor eventually lost Radziwill’s patronage and from the age of thirteen to eighteen had to live with just occasional access to a piano. At nineteen, at his father’s behest, he opted for a sensible profession and went to study medicine in Berlin. A new aristocratic friend, Ingenheim, provided a small stipend which allowed him music studies with Siegfried Dehn and E E Taubert. Ingenheim was also instrumental in providing him with several pupils of rank. Medicine was not close to Theodor’s heart. Music was a more pressing vocation and in 1842 a Frau von Massow interceded on his behalf in the right places, and Friedrich Wilhelm IV placed 400 thaler at Kullak’s disposal, specifically for piano studies. The 24-year-old opted for a Viennese education. Czerny happily took over his pianistic schooling, and Herr Otto Nikolai and Herr Sechter, the theoretical side of things. Liszt and Henselt were also highly revered influences. Kullak played a little in Austria that year but in 1843 returned to Berlin where Fräulein von Hellwig secured him the post of pianoforte instructor to Princess Anna, the daughter of Prince Karl. This was just the beginning. Kullak seemed subsequently to make a speciality of teaching princes and princesses of the Royal house, as well as the offspring of many upper-class families who became aware of his excellent professorial qualifications, connections and, presumably, his unimpeachable manners!
In 1844 he founded the Tonkünstler-Verein in Berlin and presided over it for many years. Two years later, at the age of twenty-eight, he was made Pianist to the Prussian Court, and four years after that founded the Berliner Musikschule (also known as the Kullak Institute) in partnership with Julius Stern and Bernhard Marx. However, during the ensuing five years, dissension reared its ugly head among them and Kullak retired from his institute which then became known as the Stern Conservatoire, with von Bülow as a director.
In 1851 Kullak established a new school, the Neue Akademie der Tonkunst, which proved a lasting success and was affectionately referred to as ‘Kullak’s Academy’. It specialised in the training of pianists and became the largest private music school in the whole of Germany. By the time of its twenty-fifth anniversary it boasted a hundred teachers and eleven hundred students. Kullak was made Professor in 1861 and was also elected to honorary membership of the Royal Academy of Music in Florence. Many other distinctions were also accorded him. His son Franz (1844–1913) received his musical education at his father’s Academy, completing his studies under Wehle and Litolff in Paris. After abandoning a concert career because of a nervous complaint, he taught at the Neue Akademie, succeeding his father as director when Theodor died in 1882.
from notes by Piers Lane © 1999