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

Paganini’s violin

After returning to Europe, Huberman withdrew from the concert scene for three years of private study. In the middle of this interlude he made his very first recordings, two Berliner discs in May 1900. Listen to the beginning of one of these recordings, Moment Musical by Schubert [wma 129k].

Huberman’s father had contracted an illness during the uncertain times in Germany in 1894, and he eventually died “a paralytic” in 1902. Huberman was not of age, and since his considerable fortune had been in his father’s name, the law dictated that everything should be divided equally between mother and brothers. Huberman decided to take the capital under an obligation to provide for his mother, and educate his two brothers. At the youthful age of 20, the stress of his responsibilities made him feel he had been living for half a century.

In 1903 during a tour of Italy, Huberman gave an interesting interview to the writer Edmondo De Amicis in Turin. He described that the calmness he felt prior to a performance would be replaced by a dreadful anxiety and agitation when playing. While appearing relatively passive and immobile, the great effort he exerted to suppress his emotions would invariably react on his stomach. “All my suffering” he said, “is restrained passion.”

A recital concert would often feature the accompanist in solo works as well. For instance, on 13 May at the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele, Huberman’s pianist Wily Klasen played Schumann’s Carnival, Liszt’s Réve d’amour and Sinding’s Seranata, and the violinist played a Raff Suite, Goldmark Andante, Chopin Nocturne Op 27, no 2, Kontski Mazurka, Vieuxtemps Polonaise, and Sarasate Carmen Fantasy.

Three days later on 16 May, Huberman was invited to play on Paganini’s violin, the Guarnerius del Gesù, in Genoa – the only previous violinist to have played it since Paganini’s death had been Paganini’s only student, Sivori. The treasured Guarnerius that Paganini left to the city was ceremoniously removed from its crystal case at the Municipal Museum and taken to the Civic Palace where the concert took place. The invitation for this event read:

“On Saturday the 16th, in one of the chambers of the Town Hall, the famous violinist, Hubermann, will make Paganini’s violin resound. The undersigned begs the honour of your attendance on this occasion.
                          The Mayor,
                             G. B. Boraggini.”

When the violin had been removed from its case and the seals broken in the presence of witnesses, it was found that new strings were required, and that the bridge and the pegs all needed readjustment. The sounds produced were at first dull, but soon improved. Huberman played Bach, Schubert, Chopin and Paganini for an hour, to an ecstatic audience. He then thanked the authorities for the honour accorded him, which even in later years, he regarded as one of the greatest of his life. Various ceremonials were gone through and documents executed, on replacing the Guarnerius in its case.

Several other violinists have received this honor since 1903, most notably the virtuoso Ruggiero Ricci in 1988, who at very short notice recorded the complete 24 Caprices on it over two days.

In 1904 Huberman toured Russia once more. Just before the trip the Austrian authorities denied a passport to his pianist until he had completed his military service, so a replacement pianist was immediately found. In Riga, which Huberman considered the most musical city in Europe, the first concert left a lot to be desired, but after a rehearsal with the pianist the problems were fixed. During the second concert the Tchaikovsky concerto went very well, but received only mediocre applause. Huberman then played some solo Bach and, very much to his surprise, received a standing ovation. All was explained the next day when a reviewer wrote:

“Huberman’s presence of mind is quite wonderful. When he realized the pianist was not up to the standard of accompaniment required for the Tchaikovsky concerto, he sacked him on the spot, and continued without piano.”

During another concert, a well known officer in the audience appeared quite bored until the very final item which was solo Bach, when he became suddenly enthusiastic and animated. Huberman’s impresario Hofer could not resist asking the gentleman the reason for his sudden change of heart. The officer explained:

“I have heard many violinists. There was Sarasate in the rooms of the Musical Society of Vienna who required the accompaniment of 60 musicians, then Joachim for whom three others were enough. I liked Kubelik even more for he needed the help of only one pianist. Huberman is unsurpassed though, as he shows in his performance of Bach that he can manage superbly by himself.”

While amusing, these stories do highlight a real problem for the artist. How is it possible to succesfully communicate with an audience of diverse backgrounds and education? Huberman wrote:

“The development of artistic taste is another benefit of contact with the public. The artist learns what influences the masses, what is better for the elite, and what touches everybody's heart. This is most important. Art does not belong to only the artist. True art must benefit everybody, otherwise it is not art.

I have to say that on the basis of my many observations and experiences I have developed the highest respect for what is called ‘vox populi.’ The public itself presents specific problems. It is frightening how much snobbism, ignorance, and indifference one can see on closer inspection. The percentage of reasonable persons at any given concert is very small. Yet the public is a wonder: full of pure instinct, open heart, and the ability to marvel. At the same time it is lacking conscience and logic, but these are the qualities that the artist must have to be able to learn from his public.”

A devastating earthquake at Messina, Italy, on 28 December 1908, killed between 60 and 100 thousand people. Huberman was once again invited by the city of Genoa to play on Paganini’s violin, this time for earthquake relief. Like Ruggiero Ricci, he later expressed disappointment in the instrument and stated that a great violin should not be kept in a museum. Huberman only played the Paganini items on the violin, and used his own Stradivarius for the others.

c. 1902

c. 1902

c. 1902

13 May 1903, Teatro Vittorio Emanuele

Queen's Hall, London,
6 May 1905.

Grossen Musikvereins-Saale, Vienna, 4 Jan 1909.

c. 1910

Postcard: Huberman in Riga, (Hebensperger) 1904

Top photo: c. 1900

Photo playing violin c.1902, Gottheil & Sohn - Königsberg

Photo c.1910, V Angerer - Vienna

Ricci’s best version of the 24 caprices is from 1959, on Decca 440 034-2, where he uses Huberman’s del Gesu.