Seventy years ago, on 16 June 1947, virtuoso violinist Bronislaw Huberman died at 64. He founded the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra by bringing Jewish musicians from Nazi Europe to Palestine, giving refuge to 1,000 musicians and their families.
Huberman was a child prodigy. He was born in Poland on 19 December 1882, began lessons when he was six, and gave his first public performance at the age of seven. At the age of nine, he moved with his father to Berlin to study with the great violinist Joseph Joachim. Soon after, he struck up a lifelong friendship with the six-year-old Arthur Rubinstein who had seen one of his concerts. In 1894, Adelina Patti invited Huberman to play in her farewell gala in London. Brahms complimented him after hearing him play his Violin Concerto in D Major when Huberman was just 14; at the same age, he made his Carnegie Hall debut.
The Huberman Stradivarius
It is likely that at this time he was already playing the 1713 ‘Gibson’ Stradivarius, which was famously stolen from him twice. In 1919, it was recovered after just three days, but when it was stolen from his dressing room in Carnegie Hall in 1936, it remained missing for 51 years, reappearing long after Huberman’s death. Joshua Bell is the violin’s current owner having bought it for $4 million in 2001. The violin is now commonly known as the Huberman Stradivarius.
In her novel The Engagements, J. Courtney Sullivan sums up the stranger than fiction story of the violin’s theft:
In 1936, during a fifteen-minute break from his weekly gig at the Russian Bear Restaurant in New York, a small-time violinist named Julian Altman snuck across the street to Carnegie Hall, where the Polish soloist Bronislaw Huberman was performing. Huberman travelled with a double violin case, containing two of the world’s finest instruments: a Guarneri, and the Gibson Stradivarius. Having read as much in the newspaper, Altman’s mother had suggested that he might steal whichever one Huberman wasn’t using that night.
And so, Altman bribed a guard at the stage door with a fine cigar and snuck into Huberman’s dressing room. He snatched the Stradivarius and hid it under his coat as Huberman stood onstage unaware, playing a flawless Franck sonata.
Altman concealed the violin’s identity by covering it in shoe polish. He played it at weddings and pubs for nearly fifty years, only telling the truth on his deathbed.
Huberman was awarded thirty thousand dollars for the loss in the thirties. When Altman’s widow brought the violin to Lloyd’s of London in 1987, it was valued at over a million.
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Having witnessed the First World War, Huberman was a passionate ‘Pan-European’ believing a united Europe as the solution to avoid future catastrophes. He even wrote a book about his ideas.
Huberman visited Palestine in 1929 and was keen to be part of the rapidly evolving Jewish music scene. In 1933, he wrote an open letter turning down an invitation by Wilhelm Furtwangler, the director of the Berlin Philharmonic, to perform with the orchestra, and in 1936 he wrote another letter, published in the Manchester Guardian, to “German Intellectuals” who he said were “guilty of all these Nazi crimes” by being bystanders as the Nazis tore up their society.
Bruno Walter wrote in his memoirs,
I was close to the artist and man, although our paths rarely crossed. Even though he completely devoted himself to his art, he was able to actively interest himself in the events of the day, of which he took part in and found a way to harmoniously balance the two, an enviable synthesis which was denied to me.
During a concert tour of what is now Israel, in 1934, the seeds were laid for forming an orchestra there, and later that year he set about finding donors.
The Palestine Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1936, which was renamed renamed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Many of Europe’s top musicians, especially from Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary, keen to escape from an increasingly aggressive climate, arrived in Palestine with their families. It is estimated that the formation of the orchestra saved the lives of roughly 1,000 people.
The orchestra’s first concert was conducted by Arturo Toscanini, on 26 December 1936. Huberman felt an immediate affinity with Toscanini after hearing that the Italian maestro too had refused to perform in Germany as a protest against the Nazi takeover.
Huberman spent most of World War II in the United States and after the war moved to Switzerland, where he died, in Corsier-sur-Vevey, on this day in 1947.