November 2009

What do we hear when we listen to the violin? Bronislaw Huberman

November 21, 2009 13:36

I am not a violinist and I have limited experience as a performer, yet much of my musical training was focused on being a musicologist writing about performance and interpretation. My recent research is on the legendary violinist Bronislaw Huberman. His Nachlass is in the Falicia Blumental library in Tel-Aviv, Israel. This is, perhaps, one the reasons that not many people made research on Huberman. If the archive would be in Europe or the USA we would probably have by now, a book in English and much more articles on this wonderful violinist.

I found that in many of the letters written to Huberman by listeners, and concert reviews, as well as other types of writings, his performance is refered to in more or less religious terms. Take for example the following concert review written by Max Brod. At the end of his review, Brod argued that Huberman in not like a preacher who tries to convince his audience:

“the characteristic attitude of Huberman at the peaks of interpretation [… is that] he turns away, we see him in profile, he lifts the violin high up, he turns right away from us into the background, as though he were playing to some invisible higher being, not to us; he is far away from us now, he has placed his fiddle as a barricade between himself and us. But it is then above all, in the liberation of solitude, that we feel nearest to him.”   

The Italian journalist, poet and writer Edmondo De Amicis wrote in the summer of 1904 about an experience he had meeting Bronislaw Huberman. De Amicis leads his reader to an impression that Huberman’s ‘passion’ during performance is related to metaphysical entities. He wrote that he told Huberman:

"Your quite attitude could not mislead me. I watched you intensely when you played. I saw when your eyes sparkled and when they grew moist, and I saw the shiver running through the muscles of your pale face. Sometimes, when you pressed the violin, you seemed to press a living and adored thing, which inebriated and tormented you; and when you took it from the shoulder, you made a movement as if you were tearing off a vampire sugging [sic.] your blood; and then you took it back to your breast and re-embraced it with even more passionate love and pressed it under your chin with the tenderness of a mother who presses her face against the face of her creature. Oh, I was not misled. I understood, I felt when from the depths of the soul welled up the lamentations, the sighs of love, of joy and sorrow, the sound of the nightingale and the voices of angels, which you poured forth into the theatre; and which out of your two thousand listeners made one single soul; a soul which palpitated, throbbed with you and which loved you."

A letter from an admirer from New York dated 10 December 1942 argues that Huberman performance is ‘great’ in the sense that it is more than perfectly performed with ‘faultless intonation and with complete sincerity. The letter argues that this what makes Huberman’s performance ‘great is not descended from anything on earth at all but that it is a Chelek Eloha Mimaal – [in Hebrew:] a portion from God on High. It is a mysterious blended and glorious whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.’ The writer continued to argue that there ‘was a noble partnership in action on the stage of the Town Hall. The result was a great collaboration of the soul of Huberman, the genius of Bach and the mercy and loving kindness of God.’ Letters by other listeners to Huberman reveal similar experiences. 

What do you experience when you listen to an amazing performance of violin? What do experience when you play at your best? Is it something close to the experiences described above, or do you think that are we living already in a completely different era? I would be glad to read your thoughts.


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