Carl Flesch

The noted violinist and pedagogue Carl Flesch wrote about Huberman in his Memoirs. Here he hoped to give honest and objective accounts of the contemporary violinists he had personally known, so he gave strict instructions for the book to be published only after his death. In 1990 Flesch’s son published And do you also play the violin (Toccata Press) in which he printed some of his Father’s private musings on Huberman that were not published in the Memoirs.

In the following excerpt, the highlighted text is Flesch’s private diary entries, the blue is the ‘watered down’ version that ended up published. My comments on this are at the bottom of the page.

back to criticism >

Carl Flesch writes ...

It was in Bucharest, too, that I first met and heard Bronislaw Huberman about whose stature there is sharp disagreement. While most of the violinists of his generation have adopted a negative attitude towards him, he is highly esteemed by a number of his younger colleagues as well as by the general public. If one wants to understand his style, one has to bear in mind above all that he is basically self-trained, for he only took lessons until he was ten, and irregular ones at that. Originally a pupil of Michalowicz and also, occasionally, of Marsick and Joachim, he soon followed his own intuition, sharply defined as his personality was at an early stage. After his sensational success at Adelina Patti’s farewell concert in Vienna on January 12, 1895, he entered a period of triumphs which lasted, approximately, until the age of puberty. His development then seems to have gone through a crisis which was only resolved after a decade, to give way to a renewed ascent. Ever since, he has been playing uninterruptedly all over the world.

Two factors are decisive if we wish to judge a violinist objectively: his technical grounding and his particular personality. Huberman’s technique, though sound, has always betrayed the fact that he left school too early.[His playing represents a catalogue of violinistic, stylistic and general-musical bad manners] His technical basis is that of the 1890’s. He holds the bow in the old manner, employs a pure finger vibrato without participation of the wrist, and intones semitones pianoforte-like, according to equal temperament – a circumstance which becomes particularly unpleasantly striking in his unaccompanied Bach. In tonal respects, too, he follows the tradition of his childhood in as much as he sacrifices smoothness and evenness of tone production, which in our time is an absolute necessity, to extravagant characterization;[Inexact intonation [, ...] glassy tone quality, disregard of beauty of tone when displaying the rhythmic element] in other words, he either ‘scrapes’ or ‘whispers’. His bowings again, excellent as they may be in themselves, leave much to be desired from the tonal point of view. Unreserved praise, on the other hand, is due to his runs and passage work, the precision and verve of which meet the most fastidious requirements.

Musically, too, his style gives occasion for serious criticism. The fact that he was left to his own devices at an all too early stage shows in his frequent neglect of elementary rules of articulation, especially in the form of wrong accents. Above all, however, it is the over-emphasis he lays upon his own personality as distinct from the work of art, that characterizes both his good and his bad performances. His personality is self-willed, sensitive, nervous and excitable, passionate and self-assured.[Musically - strictly speaking beyond the pale [eigentlich indiskutabel], wrong accentuation, unscrupulous alteration of the text, arbitrary, not originating from a spontaneous original intuition, but from the waywardness of a pathological condition [Veranlagung]; footling sentiment, artistically overstrained, over-heated] It does not tolerate contradiction and demands subordination, even of the music. In this way, extraordinary results can be achieved if composition and interpreter are in natural harmony with each other, whereas otherwise Huberman always tries to adjust the tone of the work to the pitch of his own ego. Agreement or disagreement with his interpretation depends chiefly on the degree of sympathy or antipathy which the individual listener feels for a personality so full of contradictions. Side by side with his serious artistic intentions, his extreme drive for perfection, his acute intelligence and his iron will, there is this, at times, downright amusing over-estimation of his own self – which, in favourable circumstances, may yet again result in an extraordinary power of artistic conviction, to whose hypnotic suggestion the receptive listener submits unresisting. The strength of his personality, then, is undeniable, like it or not. Its influence on the younger generation, however, would seem to be unfavourable; young people tend towards self-glorification at the expense of the music, and Huberman’s successes are likely to confirm them in their attitudes.

Huberman cannot be placed in any school or line of development. In the history of violin-playing he will survive as the most remarkable representative of unbridled individualism, a fascinating outsider.

Looked at purely objectively, however - and even in spite of the possible absence of personal sympathy - the suggestive power of his personality, his serious artistic striving and finally his solid albeit old-fashioned technical equipment are beyond question.[In spite of it all, in its way a very considerable individuality, albeit one which I greatly dislike]

Hans Keller, the translator and editor of the Memoirs violently disagreed with Flesch’s opinion of Huberman, and gave his contrasting views in an appendix to the book.

Hans Keller writes ...

Flesch and Huberman were opposite musical characters, and Huberman is the one figure in this narrative towards whom Flesch is unable to maintain his uniquely objective attitude, shown, for instance, in his characterizations of such opposites as Rosé and Heifetz, or in his description of Joachim’s playing, of which I happen to have some idea from a very old record, and with which, paradoxically enough, Huberman’s style seems to have had much in common.

It seems moreover likely to me that Flesch had last heard Huberman long before I heard him first, for not even his purely technical observations apply to the Huberman I knew: since Huberman’s was a strongly developing personality, Flesch and I may at times be talking, as it were, about different artists. At the risk of momentarily extending my editorial function, then, I feel that I might profitably offer a rejoinder and some complementary comment to Flesch’s observations.

Huberman was one of the greatest musicians I have ever come across. Right or wrong, mine is not altogether an eccentric impression: a long line of artists has testified to his towering stature as an artist, violinist and man, including such vastly different musical character types as Brahms, Toscanini, Bruno Walter and Furtwängler.

In general, Huberman’s technique seems to have undergone various changes in the course of his development. It certainly was always individual, and to some extent it depended on his mood, and his on- and off-days. When he was ‘on form’, both hands evinced a virtuoso technique of the utmost brilliance and an almost uncanny verve.

More in particular, when I heard him, he did no longer hold the bow ‘in the old manner’, nor did he ‘whisper’ at a low dynamic level. Typical of his ever-changing interpretations was a tendency towards the sharpest possible characterization and, consequently, an occasional extreme pianissimo of the greatest intensity. I have never again heard the entry of the second subject after the cadenza in the first movement of the Beethoven Concerto played so softly and intensely, yet restrainedly and without incidental noise (Unluckily, I never heard a Flesch concert.)

He no longer used a ‘pure finger vibrato’ when I heard him, nor indeed was his finger vibrato like other people’s. It was determined, on the one hand, by his very original sound-ideals, and on the other hand, by the peculiarities of his left hand which, so far as ‘trembling’ movements were concerned, seemed to function in a highly individual manner. For instance, he would execute the fastest and clearest possible shake with a stiff and stretched fourth finger, by way of a vibrato-like motion. His records show that his vibrato, far from being inadequate, was capable of the subtlest differentiations.

In view of his records, the reader will be puzzled by Flesch’s remarks on Huberman’s intonation. It was the very opposite of a ‘well-tempered’ intonation; in fact, I do not know of another violinist who adjusted his intonation so consistently to harmonic and melodic requirements.

Naturally, with a violinist whose technique can be erratic, critical appraisal will easily be one-sided if his development is not closely followed. While Flesch prefers Huberman’s left hand to his right, Grove IV speaks of his excellent technique, especially of the right hand’: evidently, it all depended on when you heard him. Nor did I find any ‘neglect of elementary rules of articulation’, and as for the ‘overemphasis Huberman lays upon his own personality’, a powerful personality we do not take to will always seem to us egocentric. Huberman’s musical character had affinities with that of Furtwängler, one of his profoundest admirers, whose own intense personality likewise aroused the impression of self-centredness amongst those who reacted against it.

As a man, finally, Huberman showed his passionate intellect and integrity for a United States of Europe, in his famous ‘J’accuse’ (1933) in reply to Furtwängler’s invitation to play in Germany after the Nazis had assumed power and, most important, in his founding, in 1936, (after about a year’s strenuous efforts entailing innumerable auditions), what has meanwhile become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra – an achievement which Toscanini helped bring to fruition.

I’m glad I’m not the only person who thinks Flesch’s opinion of Huberman extremely inaccurate. Although Flesch criticizes Huberman for finishing study too early, Flesch states in an Etude Magzine article of April 1926 that he finished his own study at the age of twelve, and writes that in general, “the real violin talent who is under the best teachers will have a finished technic at the age of twelve, and will usually have started at the age of six.”

Carl Flesch’s son, Carl Flesch junior, was Huberman’s accountant for many years, and told me that he had no idea what caused his father’s antipathy to Huberman. In my opinion, the fact that Flesch gave such a biased and innacurate account of Huberman shows that no matter how hard one tries, it is not possible to be objectve, as no such thing exists. All people can do in the end is try and justify their own intuitive feelings of things.

back to criticism >