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avior byron

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

November 21, 2009 at 8:36 PM

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.


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 22, 2009 at 12:38 PM

 This is an interesting blog!  Thank you for introducing us to Huberman, I had not heard of him before.  Thinking about your question, I think I have experienced the most sublime or transcendent moments in music outside of the concert hall.  Rather, it has happened in church, or when I am listening to a recording but doing something else in addition.  Or, while playing in an orchestra.  There seems to be a need to be part of something larger than myself, but really actively part of it, not just watching it.

From Royce Faina
Posted on November 22, 2009 at 2:57 PM

To answer your questions..... Yes!  Most Definitely!

 One of my most favorite composers & string players is King David of Israel and his Psalms recorded in the Bible.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on November 23, 2009 at 2:11 AM


Huberman was true legend of the violin.  The youtube avialbale recording of the Chopin nocturne is out of this world.  His recording of the Bach e major is full of thing we are -not supposed to do- such as spicatto,  massive portamento etc.  Except when one opens the ears it all makes complete sense . A thousand times more powerful than some of the rumto tumpty tum monochrome Bach we have to endure these days.

Recently I saw a video clip of Milstein at 83 playing the sow movement of the Handle amajor sonata.  This wa sso perfect it almost mad emy heart stop.Really was a voice beyond our ken speaking.   Thereis in my opinion no finer explanation of -the violin- and why it is so cnetral to human experience.

When I perform I am usually on some kind of high.  Except one time I performed the four seasons and my imagination became so absorbed in an image of summer with me sitting under a tree somewhere in Italy with mosquitos buzzing lazily arounfd I was actaully transported there  and ha da great deal of trouble figuring out where I was after the slow movement finished.




From Bonny Buckley
Posted on November 23, 2009 at 2:54 AM

Wow am I glad to read this bog.  I was just last week having a discussion with a friend about religion, how I do not subscribe to any, but perhaps violin is a kind of religion in a way, but it is not a religion.  It's never started any wars, that I know of.  Maybe it is just more of an experience...I do not know but I have similar feelings but they can come any time on or off of a stage.  I'm glad you're talking about it.  Thank you. 

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on November 23, 2009 at 10:35 AM


well there is that shoulder rest thing;)



From Charles Bott
Posted on November 24, 2009 at 12:46 AM

Buri, I think Milstein also played the Bach Allego Assai on that same dvd at age 83. My jaw dropped!  Huberman gained some notoriety when his violin was stolen in NY during a concert where he was playing on another instrument or am I getting my facts wrong.  Someone will correct me or agree, I'm sure.  The clip of TC, is remarkable especially his "slides" as Mehnuin would say.  Thanks for reminding us of what a great violinist he was. 

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on November 24, 2009 at 1:25 AM


Charles,  you are right and frankly,  everything on that DVD makes my hair stand on end.  The Handel is so poignant it made me want to weep but you could just as well have picked the Kreutzer or the chaconne.   That Kreutzer is,  in my opinion,  the greatest performance of that work from anyone. What he does with the bow is so devilish and unorthodox at times it defies any words to define.  On top of which,  as the intro points out,   Milstein wa sinjured and relearnt(?) those pieces to allow for very limited use of the first finger......



From Ray Randall
Posted on November 24, 2009 at 1:49 AM

Can you give us a link to those?

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on November 24, 2009 at 3:36 AM


Ray, not sure if they are up on yutube yet. I think the DVD is quite new.   The younger Milstein Kreutzer and Chacconne are up but the one done in his old age (?!) have gone beyond those in extraordinary ways.



From avior byron
Posted on November 24, 2009 at 11:27 AM


Thank you for all of your comments. It is exciting to see how many people are interested in Huberman.

You can find some of Youtube videos of Huberman in my blog on performance. If you want to follow my research on Huberman you may consider subscribing to my blog (see the email form at the left side of my site). 




From Pauline Lerner
Posted on November 25, 2009 at 10:05 AM

I definitely believe that music is or can be a transcendental experience.  I get this feeling sometimes in all of my musical experiences:  listening to live music, listening to recorded music, playing by myself, and playing with others.  At these times, I feel that I am part of something much bigger than myself, and I feel great.  These feelings are similar to those described by Karen Allendoerfer.  We're both Unitarian.

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