Biography

Early years / Patti’s farewell / Viennese triumph / Brahms listens / America 1896 / Paganini’s violin / Marriage / World War I / America 1921 / Europe 1925 / Political tension / Riots in Vienna / Stolen Strad / Palestine / World War II / Liberation

Palestine Symphony

In August Huberman announced that he was resigning from the teaching staff of the Vienna State Academy in order to devote himself to the Palestine Orchestra. The New York Times reported that the news “was received with dismay by the musical public of Vienna, where the violinist has been a popular idol for years,” but the pro-Nazi Wiener Neueste Nachrichten thought that the Viennese would accept it without regret, writing:

“In the last few years he has exchanged his bow for the pen of the political agitator and has not alone endeavoured at all costs to place himself among front line fighters for the Pan-European idea, but, besides being an active propagandist for the aims and interests of international Jewry, openly attacked German artists and artistic life and regarded himself as the mouthpiece of those large groups and cliques which despise the words ‘nation,’ ‘nationalism,’ ‘folk,’ ‘loyalty.’”

Orchestral fundraising continued through the year. Huberman gave a recital in Amsterdam in October for the benefit of “Comité voor Bezondere Joodsche Belangen” on condition that 30% of net receipts were devoted to the Orchestra fund, and a drive was organised amongst the wealthier Jews of Vienna and Czechoslovakia. As the first concert of the Palestine Symphony drew closer, he involved himself in every detail of organisation, insuring the musicians and their instruments, and trying to find Maestro and Madame Toscanini comfortable and private accommodation for their stay. He had modestly declined the Maestro’s invitation to be soloist at the opening concert, as didn’t want to distract attention from the artistic solidarity created by the conductor.

Huberman had always been impresssed by the enthusiasm for music in Palestine, and noted that out of a Jewish population of 280,000 in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel-Aviv, 8000 regularly attended concerts. “If in New York a simlar proportion of the population went to concerts,” he said, “every symphony concert would be attended by 300,000 persons.” Since it was these people of Palestine that had inspired the creation of the orchestra, Huberman was determined they should benefit by it, and boasted that “For the first time in musical history, the principle will be adopted that only the best is good enough for working-class audiences.” With the help of the Workers’ Branch of the Palestine Orchestra Association, two subscription concerts were planned in each city; the second identical in artists and programme, but designed for workmen with tickets at a quarter to a fifth of the price of the series for ordinary concert-goers.

Finally on 26 December 1936 Huberman’s vision became a reality when Toscanini conducted the first performance of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in Tel-Aviv, playing Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Brahms. Toscanini described it as the happiest moment of his life, and one of the highest points of his career. After conducting 4 concerts in Palestine and 4 in Egypt, he refused any payment, or even reimbursement of his travelling expenses, and was so impressed with the orchestra and “unique audiences” that he decided to return the next year.

In January 1937 Huberman toured England with Schnabel, and on 17 February received a five-minute ovation at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, when he appeared on stage for a concert that had been sold out for a week. After the concert he was given a deed to a garden near Tel Aviv purchased from the Jewish National Fund, as an expression of Dutch Jewry for his efforts on behalf of German emigré musicians and musical culture in Palestine.

During an American tour in May which included benefit concerts for the PSO and chamber music with Schnabel [review], Huberman had a breakdown, and some concerts had to be cancelled. The enormous job of organising the PSO was finally taking its toll on him and his secretary Miss Ibbeken. He left California on 25 May for his first Australian tour traveling on the S/S Monterey via Honolulu, having time during the boat trip to recover his health. ABC manager for western Australia Conrad Charlton described Huberman’s concretizing in Perth:

“On the opening night of his season here, just after he had commenced the Kreutzer Sonata, a motor horn tooted in King street. Mr Huberman stopped playing and appealed to someone in the audience to close the doors. All the doors were closed, but I immediately left the theatre and spent the rest of the night in the street controlling traffic that came along King Street, and beseeching motorists not to sound their horns. The rest of the night passed off quietly. For the remaining concerts I had the assistance of the Commissioner of Police and three constables parading King and Hay Streets to see that the noise of the traffic was kept down to a minimum. We could not of course hold up the trams.”

At the end of his Australian tour in August, Huberman was to have sailed from Fremantle to Java, but at the last minute decided to fly via Darwin instead, thus making the journey in four days instead of two weeks. On the way to Darwin, the pilot landed for fuel at a remote airstrip in the middle of the desert, and was very surprised to see another small plane on the runway. Huberman got out to stretch his legs, and was greeted on the runway by his Polish compatriot Artur Rubinstein with the words “Dr Huberman, I presume?” Both had thought neither was coming to Australia, as both had accepted late offers, and so they were amazed to have met in such an isolated spot.

On 6 October during his tour of Indonesia, the Royal Dutch airliner Huberman and his secretary were traveling in crashed near Palembang, Sumatra, killing four of the nine passengers. Huberman had sat at the back of the plane as a precaution, which was just as well, since 3 of the 4 crew who had been at the front of the plane were among the dead. Radioscopes revealed Huberman’s left radius was broken close to the wrist but had not moved from place, while two metacarpal bones of the right hand were broken. Both hands were painful and swollen, and Huberman is reported to have cried after the crash, “I shall never be able to play again, but thank God nothing worse happened to me.” A few days later he contracted Pneumonia from a broken rib that had punctured his lung, and treatment for his hands was postponed. He and his secretary were hospitalized at Pladjoe, a station of the Shell Petroleum Company, for 5 weeks, and then transferred to Batavia and Bandoeng on Java for another two weeks before sailing for Europe at the end of November.

The second season of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra began on 24 October in Tel-Aviv under the direction of Steinberg, and continued under Toscanini in Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa in April. Toscanini again refused to accept any fee or travelling expenses, however, on returning back to America to fulfill his contract with N.B.C., he was receiving a weekly personaly salary of $10 000! Huberman had been scheduled as soloist at the first concert of this second season, but had to postpone it till next season because of his injuries. After leaving Palestine he had a very difficult and painful time caused by strenuous treatment for his hands in Montecatini, and he wrote to Szell in March that his violin practice was “orthopedic rather than musical.” By July 1938 things were improving, and during rehearsals with Feuermann in Brahms and Beethoven trios he felt he was playing well, and was certain that his hands would be fully up to their task by the time of his concerts in Palestine. At last in Egypt on 19 November, Huberman performed for the first time since his accident, and for the first time as soloist with his orchestra. At concerts in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv in December, where the audience characteristically contained “all elements of the music-loving population” from the most distinguished to laborers in shorts, Huberman received ecstatic receptions, and felt that his playing was better then it had ever been. A newsreel survives of Huberman farewelling residents of Ein Harod before entering an armored car at the end of a visit during this trip.

In February 1939 he wrote that his last six concerts “not only aroused amongst musicians and audiences greater enthusiasm than my best concerts before the accident, but that even my most severe critic could not help being satisfied: myself.” By this time the Palestine Symphony had performed under the baton of Toscanini, Sargent, Steinberg, Dobrowen, Szenkar, Taube and Horenstein, and in April Huberman tried to negotiate a deal with the Broadcasting authorities. He felt that Radio might be in the best position to take over the orchestra, as it “could safeguard its economic and spiritual interests” with more stability than a private association, provided that they be obliged to continue the workers’ subscription series.

After a busy European concert season in the non-nazi countries, Huberman was resting at his country home in Switzerland when war was declared on 1st September. He volunteered his services in concerts for the benefit of the Red Cross and other charities, and after playing in Holland and Belgium, took part in a great Charity Concert at the Opera in Paris in January 1940. From Paris he went again to Palestine and Egypt, playing with the PSO in Cairo in the presence of the King of Egypt for the aid of Anatolian earthquake victims, demonstrating “the mission of music as an instrument of international goodwill.” He had been intending to travel back to Europe via Ankara and Istanbul, but a sudden and generous offer from Johannesburg saw him sailing to South Africa at the end of March. Audiences and critics were very receptive [read review], and Huberman thought of extending his stay, but the strong anti-British and anti-Jewish resentment from the minority Boer population, combined with the uncertainty of future transport out of the country, made him suddenly change his mind. Plans to travel back to Europe via Palestine were scrapped as Italy’s entry into the war barred the way northward, and in August by chance he managed to get passage to America.

Toscanini and Huberman, first Palestine Symphony concert, 26 Dec 1936.

Vienna, 1937

Meeting Rubinstein by accident in the Australian desert, 22 Aug 1937.

Bali, Sep 1937

Royal Dutch Airline crash, Palembang, 6 Oct 1937

Toscanini and Huberman on Natanya beach, Tel Aviv, April 1938.

Newsreel of Huberman in Ein Harod, 1938

Tel Aviv, 1938

Tel Aviv, 1938


Top photo: c. 1935