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

Stolen Strad

Raising his hat as he stepped off the Berengaria, Huberman returned to America on 24 Oct 1934 after an absence of eight years. Forty-two concert engagements over sixty days were organised by his agent S. Hurok, starting the very next day in Baltimore, with several new compositions to be given American premieres. Concerts included two appearances with the New York Philharmonic under Bruno Walter, chamber music with Schnabel, and a Symphony concert broadcast series sponsored by General Motors, who had also hired Toscanini, Milstein, Gershwin, Kubelik, Challiapin, Schnabel, and Schipa. Through December Huberman was also lecturing, addressing the Mailamm Association of New York on Zionism, and the Polish Institute of Arts and Letters on his vision of a future Pan-Europe. The Mailamm Association (American Palestine Music) speech must have gone down well, as they elected him honorary vice president a few days later.

Because of January engagements in England, some concerts were cancelled at short notice. At his single Carnegie Hall recital on the 30th with his pianist Siegfried Schultze, Huberman played Bach’s A minor concerto accompanied by a string orchestra, the G minor solo sonata, and then Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata, Szymanowski’s “Narcisse”, and his own arrangements of the Chopin Waltz in E minor and Waltz Opus 70. Olin Downes noted a strident tone quality and inaccurate intonation, but wrote:

“… it was in the unaccompanied sonata that Mr. Huberman reached his full height. The polyphonic music was performed with a fine clarity and a technical certainty that enabled the player to devote himself entirely to interpretive problems. An eloquence that went deeper than that of musical pattern weaving also was given it.”

On 12th January 1935 Huberman sailed for England on the French liner Champlain, returning the next month, and on the 19 February he played Brahms at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia under Otto Klemperer. This time, Olin Downes complained about a strident tone and feverish style ...

“The tendency to play sharp is in all probability a deliberate one. The violinist of Mr. Huberman’s temperament doubtless desires the maximum of brilliancy when his tone is to match that of the orchestra. This brilliancy, however, is with him achieved at cost of pure intonation and tone quality. Tone in fact was forced, and the inherent repose which is obviously a quality of the great symphonic composition was conspicuous by absence.”

If you want “inherent repose” then Huberman isn’t the artist for you, as his searching style of interpretation demands more than a smooth, so called beautiful sound with a constant vibrato. Neville Cardus described it well when he wrote “Huberman played in his own revelatory way. His tone was not of the rich, yielding kind which goes with the superficial contemporary view of Brahms, as a composer of a middle-aged, uncle-ish softness of disposition.” However, Downes was correct I think, in supposing that the tendency to play sharp was deliberate. Huberman had used this creative intonation to highlight certain notes in a phrase since he was a child, and his recordings show that he was consistent in the way he chose to apply it (the two Tchaikovsky concerto recordings of 1928 and 1946 are a good example of this).

A sonata recital with Schnabel on 23 February received a more favourable review by O.T., who also complained of sharpness, but described the beginning of the Schubert Fantasy as “a vision as of another world”. On 1 March Huberman left for Europe on the Cunard Whie Star liner, and on arriving back that summer he found the Nazi government had named him “the greatest enemy of the Nazi regime among world musicians,” and officially ordered his German pianist of 12 years, Siegfried Schulze, to severe relations with him. Schulze agreed to this, and Huberman had to find a new accompanist, Jakob Gimpel.

In December Huberman toured the Middle East, playing to full houses in Egypt, and giving 15 concerts in 20 days in Palestine to audiences of between 1500 and 3500 people.

He returned to New York on 28 January 1936 on the Ile de France. Sonata recitals with Schnabel where planned through February and March, and chamber music with Emmanuel Feuermann on cello forming a trio. The Town Hall Endowment Series presented Schnabel, Huberman and Feuermann in a sonata recital on 7 February, playing Brahms sonata in B, Op. 8, Beethoven Sonata in D, Op. 70/1, and Schubert sonata in B flat, Op. 99. N.S. wrote

“It happens that although Mr. Schnabel and Mr. Huberman had joined forces in the past, this was the first time anywhere that they appeared with Mr. Feuermann in an evening of trio playing. It was not strange, under the circumstances, that the Brahms trio, which opened the list, was not up to the standard of excellence expected of musicians of this high caliber. Each of their temperaments was in conflict throughout a large part of the interpretation of this work, with the result that if certain sections were satisfactorily played, as a whole the rendition was uneven and none too convincing.”

Huberman lunched at the Waldorf (where he had performed as a boy in 1897) with Mr John Royal from NBC, and while talking about his dream child the Palestine Orchestra, was discussing who should conduct the opening concert. “Why not ask Toscanini to conduct for you,” suggested Royal. Huberman did so, and admitted afterwards experiencing something akin to shock when the great conductor immediately agreed. Toscanini was a well-known anti-fascist, having refused to conduct at the Wagner festival in Bayreuth in June 1933, and he saw the formation of the “orchestra of emigrés” as a powerful anti-Nazi statement. In February the news that he was conducting the inaugural opening concerts of the PS in December created a stir throughout the United States.

Huberman had founded an “Association of Friends of the Palestine Orchestra,” in the U.S. with his good friend Albert Einstein as a Chairman. The Professor’s involvement in the organization, writing letters and hosting functions, generated a lot of publicity, and when Huberman visited him at his home in Princeton to discuss news of Toscanini’s involvement in the orchestra, the New York Times published a photograph of the pair. Einstein, himself a German exile, suggested a concert to raise money and eagerly offered to bring his fiddle!

Disaster struck on 28 February at Huberman’s only Carnegie Hall recital of the season, when his 1713 “Gibson” Stradivarius was stolen from his dressing room during the performance. Huberman had played the Stradivarius before the concert, and then placed it back in his double case, using the Guarnerius for the recital. Like the previous season, the performance started with a Bach concerto with chamber orchestra. After the intermission, while Huberman was playing the Franck sonata, his secretary Miss Ibbiken, noticed that the Stradivarius was missing, and told Huberman during the applause at the end of the piece. The police were immediately called, but Huberman carried on with the concert, and the audience remained unaware of the theft.

Next days review did not mention the robbery, although a headline article “Huberman Violin Stolen At Carnegie” described how the thief had left 6 six bows valued at $1500 each untouched. Despite a large investigation (Milstein was apparently removed from a train the next day after he admitted he had a Stradivarius) the 20 year old thief Julian Altman was never caught, and Huberman eventually claimed his £8000 ($30 000) insurance from Lloyds of London.

Nearly 50 years later, Altman confessed on his death bed to his wife Marcelle Hall. She negotiated a finder’s fee with Lloyds pretending that Altman had bought it from the thief, and returned the violin in 1987 receiving $263 000 for her trouble. The Strad ran an article on the incident called “Lost and Found” reporting that Marcelle was “overjoyed at its return to legitimacy.” Altman’s daughter (and only surviving descendant) twice won a lower court ruling against her step-mother Marcelle for a share of the money, but by this time it was all apparently spent, and Marcelle was living in a caravan park.

Back to April 1936, and after recovering from the trauma of the theft Huberman’s itinerary continued with concerts, broadcasts, a lecture at the Steinway Hall on “Matters of Political and Artistic Concern,” and a reception at the American Palestine Music Association. On 5 April Huberman and Schnabel gave a Sonata recital, playing Beethoven Sonata in C minor Op. 30/2, Sonata in F Op. 24, and Mozart Sonata in E flat. Their collaboration the previous year had been described as having “the excitement of a virtuoso recital.” Not so this year, with N.S. commenting on the moderate enthusiasm of the small audience, and writing:

“There was no attempt at display or even to achieve brilliance in any of this playing. It was deadly serious – singularly lacking in charm, in power to awaken a keen response in the listener, or to grasp attention firmly – sometimes in the Beethoven sonata in question, stretches of much suavity of tone would issue from the instruments. But often Mr. Schnabel’s fortissimo outbursts gave the impression of anger and irritation in their curt abruptness, where these qualities were intruders in the scheme of things, and still more often, Mr. Huberman’s violin emitted sounds not any too sharply defined in pitch and of scratchy character … There was something rather cut and dried and academic about it all.”

When Huberman left America on 23 April, he could take some pride in the success of his efforts for his orchestra. Sixty first class players had been chosen from hundreds he had corresponded with and the two hundred he auditioned. These included former first-desk members of the Berlin Philharmonic, Frankfort Museumgesellschaft, Munich Orchestra, Hamburg Philharmonic, Dresden Symphony, and other important orchestras in Germany and Central Europe. The services of one of the most famous conductors in the world had been secured. Finally, the recent American fund-raising drive had been very successful, and the orchestra was economically secure. While traveling to Europe on the Ile de France, Huberman wrote to Colonel Kisch in Haifa asking that the strong financial position be kept secret, so as not to discourage further contributions. Strong reserves for the following years that might contain “financial or political disturbance” would be crucial.

Publicity photo, Nov 1934

NYT ad, 23 Dec 1934

Musical Courier, 26 Jan 1935

On stage, 1935

NYT Ad, 29 Jan 1936

Einstein and Huberman discuss the PSO at Einstein's home in Princeton, Feb 1936

Advertisement for the recital where Huberman’s violin was stolen, NYT, Feb 1936

The double violin case containing the “Gibson” Strad and Guarnerius

Huberman and Schnabel, 24 March 1936

Schnabel, Walter and Bodanzky at St. Moritz, 1937

Top photo: 24 Oct 1934