Henri Temianka

As a child Temianka used to pray each night “Dear God, let me be a second Huberman or, should this not be possible, a second Flesch.” I have never understood why, since Huberman and Flesch had such utterly different aesthetic ideals. Temianka makes some very interesting observations in this article, and also some very misleading ones. I’m surprised at his harsh evaluation of Huberman’s recordings, and also his statement that during the war-time years in America, Huberman was a man “condemned to inactivity.”

This article is from the American Etude magazine, February 1957.

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Bronislaw Huberman
by Henri Temianka

The other night, as so often before, the conversation turned to the subject of personality. Everyone tried to define it and no one succeeded. What is personality? Is it that elusive quality that compels the world’s attention regardless of one’s shortcomings? Is it the enviable secret of commanding the respect and love of those around you through what you are rather than through what you do? Was it perhaps the outward radiation of a man’s hidden strength and convictions, unconsciously sensed by others?

As the debate waxed in intensity, my thoughts turned to the violinist Bronislaw Huberman. Although little known in North America, Huberman had been one of the most revered artists of the European concert stage for almost two generations. Like Paganini before him, he had only to announce: “Huberman will make his violin sing,” and concert halls were sold out in a matter of hours. The devotion of European audiences to this extraordinary artist was unique. Women carried his photograph with them wherever they went. Princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, statesmen and captains of industry could be found in the anterooms of the idolized violin virtuoso.

Huberman was born in 1882, near Warsaw in Poland, the son of a Jewish lawyer. At the age of twelve he played the Brahms Concerto in Vienna, in the presence of Johannes Brahms himself, and the master embraced him after the performance. From this moment on, Huberman went from triumph to triumph, and his career as a prodigy was comparable to that of Yehudi Menuhin some thirty years later. When I heard Huberman for the first time, I was a mere boy, a budding violin prodigy myself. My excitement while waiting for the great man to appear on the stage was uncontrollable. Finally an invisible hand opened a door and Huberman stepped out on the stage. He did not walk; his flat feet shuffled along the floor. As he came closer I saw a small, balding man, with a bony head, a grotesquely protruding lower lip, and a big, impressively curved nose. He was flat-chested and had sloping shoulders. But the outstanding characteristic that struck everyone the moment they saw him, were his eyes. He was as wall-eyed as any man I have ever seen. One eye looked in one direction and the other looked completely in the opposite direction. When he appeared to be looking at one person, he invariably was looking at someone else, as I was to discover later on when I met him.

Huberman hardly smiled as he acknowledged the audience’s initial applause with a bow. He was intensely nervous and went through a number of agonizing motions before he could bring himself to settle down to the business of playing. First he produced a piece of rosin from his hind pocket and proceeded to draw the hair of the bow across it several times with unnecessary vehemence, surely a job that he could have done just as well backstage before the concert. Then he began to tune his violin, turning each peg. After he had tuned his violin thoroughly and loudly, he went back to putting on some more rosin, evidently oblivious to the fact that he had already done so. Then he repeated the tuning formula, producing sounds no member of the feline family could have improved upon.

Finally he appeared to be ready; he drew his violin up to his chin, at the same time striking out with his bowing arm. And in this self-same instant an incredible transformation took place. He had closed his eyes and he was no longer wall-eyed. He had raised his violin Heavenwards, and his whole body seemed to participate in this Heavenward upsurge. There was no longer a flat-chested little man with sloping shoulders. Huberman had become all spirit, a divine messenger of the world’s greatest music. A wave of exaltation seemed to engulf him and his listeners alike.

At the end of the concert Huberman received a delirious ovation. No Clark Gable, no Frank Sinatra ever aroused greater enthusiasm among the bobby-soxers of our time, than did Huberman among adults and adolescents alike. In fact, to the people of that day, only thirty years ago, Huberman was Clark Gable. He achieved the incredible paradox of being grotesquely homely in repose and superbly beautiful in action.

From whence did this extraordinary power over his audience stem? Did it stem from the perfection of his playing? Recently I listened to some recordings that Huberman made at the height of his career. I received a cruel shock. Judged by objective standards, Huberman’s playing was so full of flaws that these recordings of his should never have been allowed to reach the public. No violinist revealing such imperfections could hope to run the cruel gauntlet of the critics of our day. Yet Huberman’s success had not been created by the ignorant. From Brahms onwards, all the greatest musicians and intellects of the age had acclaimed him as one of the greatest artists of their time. What accounted for it?

Much of the conviction that Huberman’s playing carried, I concluded years later, resided not in his playing but in the convictions he carried as a human being. The integrity of his playing was simply an extension of his integrity as a person. In his thirties, at the height of his career, he had become intensely interested in the Pan-Europe ideas of Count Coudenhove–kalerghi. He promptly stopped playing the violin and enrolled for courses in the social and political sciences at the Sorbonne in Paris. Here he stayed for two years without playing a single concert.

Such an act of renunciation at the height of a great career would have been a sacrifice for any person. In the case of Huberman it was a double sacrifice, for by nature he was endowed with an excessive regard for money. How many of us would willingly part with a fabulous income rolling in at a steady pace year in, year out? To Huberman every dollar lost was like a hundred dollars. Yet he had the strength to give up this money, plus the adulation of his public, in order to devote himself single-mindedly to a new ideal.

After finishing his studies at the Sorbonne, Huberman traveled all across Europe, making speeches in favor of a great Pan-European movement that would unite that unhappy and torn continent into one great unit. Had men like Huberman then succeeded, a second world war might never have taken place. But Europe was not ready for it.

Huberman was not a natural orator. He had a pronounced lisp, and this, in addition to his appearance, would have discouraged a lesser man. But Huberman seemed oblivious to his own handicaps; he spoke with such tremendous conviction that he made his listeners as oblivious to his handicaps as he was.

He must have been about fifty when his plane crashed while on a tour of Indonesia, sometime around 1930. The plane crashed into a tree, and among those who survived was Huberman. Every bone in every finger in both hands had been broken. For two years he suffered grievously both physically and mentally. Huberman’s career as a concert violinist seemed ended forever. With the mad obstinacy of a man incapable of realizing that he is defeated, Huberman underwent treatments of every imaginable kind. He had daily massages. He devised painful exercises for his fingers and his hands, which he carried out for hours on end, day in, day out.

Two years later I heard him again, when he resumed his career in Holland. He played more beautifully than ever. During the two years of his enforced idleness he had gone through a purifying process, both technically and emotionally. The concerts which he gave during the following years were among the most memorable of his entire career.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Huberman’s mysterious hold on people was the fact that this hold could be sharply divided along geographical and racial lines. His success in Germanic countries, such as Germany, Austria and Holland, was fabulous. So was his reception in Slavic countries, such as Russia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. On the other hand, he was consistently unsuccessful in almost every Latin and Anglo-Saxon country he ever visited. Time and again he visited the United States, but always as a stranger. In the British Isles the success of his appearances was equally unpredictable, as was also the case in Paris and other Latin centers. I could never explain this phenomenon to my own satisfaction, except that Huberman had a mystic quality that was perhaps in harmony with the Slavic spirit. As to the Germanic peoples, both his mysticism and his solemn dedication to his art must have had a profound appeal for them. On the other hand, the cynical, elegant, esthetic-minded French did not find in Huberman the qualities they sought. To the Slavic and Germanic psyche, what mattered were Huberman’s unforgettable moments of exaltation and ecstasy. Huberman took them into a different world that had nothing to do with violin playing. If there were imperfections in his playing, they were oblivious to them. But to the Anglo-Saxon mind, ecstasy was immoderation, exaltation a lack of understatement.

In 1933 Hitler came to power, and throughout Germany the rights of human beings were trampled underfoot. Huberman immediately cancelled all his engagements in Germany and declined to make any further appearances in that country. Very few men indeed, in those early days of Hitlerism, had either the integrity or clarity of vision to make so clearcut a decision. Artists who cherished their careers wanted to believe that Hitler’s bark might be worse than his bite, and that business would continue as usual. Huberman stood to lose more than almost anyone else. Russia and Germany had been the two great scenes of his triumph ever since childhood. The first of these he had lost since the advent of Bolshevism. The second he now voluntarily renounced. Huberman reigned so supreme in the world of art that it was to him that Furtwangler, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra, turned to address an impassioned plea that Huberman be the first “to break down the wall that keeps us apart,” and to return to Germany to play for the German people. Huberman’s reply, in the form of an open letter to Furtwangler that was published on the front pages of the world’s leading newspapers, remains an enduring testimonial to the noble dignity of one human being. In this letter he resolutely refused to accept for himself alone privileges which, for racial, religious or political reasons, were now denied to his fellow artists of lesser prominence.

He went on to define the interpretation of great music as “the artistic projection of that which is highest in man,” and exclaimed: “Can you expect this process of sublimation, which demands complete abandon to one’s art, from the musician whose human dignity is trodden upon and who is officially degraded to the rank of a pariah? Can you expect it of the musician to whom the guardians of German culture deny, because of his race, the ability to understand ‘pure German music’”?

And Huberman continued: “In reality it is not a question of violin concertos nor even of the Jews; the issue is the retention of those things that our fathers achieved by blood and sacrifice, of the foundation of our European culture, the freedom of the individual and his unconditional dignity unhampered by fetters of caste or race.”

So saying, Huberman renounced the Germany of Hitler, and with it the largest part of his career, forever.

In 1938 Austria and Czechoslovakia also came under the Nazi heel and the great artistic empire over which Huberman had once reigned supreme lay in ruins around him. It was near Vienna that Huberman had resided for many years, in the historic castle of Schoenbrunn, the Austrian Versailles, where before him Austria’s princes and emperors had held their sway. Now these princes of the blood only traveled to Schoenbrunn to pay homage to Huberman. With the invasion of Austria, all this came to an end, and Huberman became a wanderer for the remainder of his days.

But although Huberman’s career as a concert artist was almost finished, his greatest task in life still lay before him. The persecuted Jews were fleeing before the hordes of Hitler, first in Germany, then in Austria, Czechoslovakia and when the war broke out, in Poland and elsewhere. For many of them the only haven of refuge left was Palestine. Huberman conceived the then fantastic idea of creating a national Jewish orchestra in Palestine. From this moment on, there was no rest for him. He traveled back and forth between Europe, Palestine and the United States, collecting money for the orchestra wherever he went, speaking at gatherings and giving benefit concerts. He auditioned thousands of orchestra players. The task of raising a complete symphony orchestra from among thousands of destitute refugees scattered all across the globe, many of them without passports, then transporting them one and all to a small and turbulent territory in the Near East, establishing permanent homes for all of them, and organizing a concert schedule that would keep the new orchestra going throughout the year – all this would seem a mad project for one single human being to carry out, or even attempt. Huberman carried it out. He established one of the world’s top notch symphony orchestras in a part of the world that had never before known what it was like to have any symphony orchestra at all. The violin section of the orchestra was so extraordinary that the baffling problem arose of choosing a concertmaster. Every single violinist in the section was a former concertmaster. In a final spirit of compromise five concertmasters were appointed, each to serve alternately in that capacity.

As a crowning achievement, Huberman brought Toscanini to Palestine to conduct the miraculous new symphony. Maestro, then already in his seventies, flew all the way from New York, refused to accept any fee, and insisted on paying his own expenses. For months on end, the whole Jewish population of what is now the State of Israel lived in a delirium of excitement. One woman who gave birth to twin girls during Toscanini’s unforgettable visit, named them Tosca and Nini. In 1938 Huberman himself appeared as soloist with the orchestra, before an audience of thirty thousand.

During the years of the second world war Huberman lived very quietly in a suburb of New York City, playing only a very occasional concert, an almost forgotten man in the mad hustle and excitement of the industrial New World. But while he was himself condemned to inactivity, he still found time to encourage others as he had always done in the past. Ever since my childhood, I had occasionally played for him and benefited by his advice and wisdom. Now, for my first appearance in New York, Huberman had specially come to the city to be present, and at the end of the concert, with his customary generosity to a younger colleague, he stood up and shouted “Bravo.” Afterwards he wrote me a warm, encouraging letter.

Despite the disparity in our ages, our warmly personal relations continued, and I visited Huberman in his suburban retreat whenever I was in New York. At the conclusion of the war Huberman returned to Europe and established his residence in Switzerland, near Vevey. It was here that he died in 1947 of cancer, at the age of 64. It was almost incredible that he was only 64, for Huberman’s name had been known to millions ever since 1894. He had been a legend for over half a century. He had been a symbol of another age. And old Europeans wept when they thought of the little boy who had played for Brahms more than fifty years ago.

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