September 5, 2023
The Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti was born on this day, September 5, 1892. He began violin lessons at age seven, and because of his great aptitude for the instrument was soon accepted into the class of the renowned violin pedagogue Jenö Hubay.
Szigeti made his Berlin debut at age thirteen. His program consisted of Heinrich Ernst’s Violin Concerto in F Sharp Minor; Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No. 2 and Prelude from Partita No. 3, for solo violin; and ended with Niccolo Paganini’s Le Streghe (The Witches’ Dance). From there, Szigeti began his decades-long international concert career, in which he was admired not only as a violin virtuoso but also as both an inspired interpreter of the great traditional repertoire and a champion of new music.
As a teenager earnestly practicing the violin, I don’t believe I’d ever even heard Joseph Szigeti’s name, much less anything about his playing. My music-loving father often brought home records of the great Russian violinists—Mischa Elman, whose deep- throated tone could bring tears to my eyes, Nathan Milstein, whose brilliance and stylishness took my breath away, and Jascha Heifetz, whose mesmerizing playing made my heart beat faster and my palms begin to sweat. Marinated in the world of these dazzling Russian artists, what could be better than for me to dream of someday joining their virtuoso ranks!
Only as a beginning violin student at the Curtis Institute of Music in 1954 did I first hear about Szigeti from fellow students, and, more specifically, about his recording of Sergei Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto. Szigeti’s performance of the work was flawless technically, but by some kind of magic he was able capture the fairy-tale atmosphere that inhabited much of the work. Unlike the Russian violinists I had listened to so often, his sound was nuanced, somewhat slender, and almost mournful at times. Szigeti was able to cast aside the virtuoso violinist that he undoubtedly was, and transformed himself into a teller of stories. With each phrase he seemed to be in search of the very essence of a feeling or state of mind. Everything Szigeti touched—concertos by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, and Berg, the great sonata literature, modest salon pieces like Hubay’s The Zephyr, and, of course, Bach—reflected his interlocking qualities of intelligence and sensitivity.
Szigeti’s unforgettable playing on recordings prompted me and several fellow students (including John Dalley, who would later become my violin partner in our Guarneri String Quartet) to hear the great violinist live. On March 13,1955, we traveled to Radnor High School in Wayne, Pennsylvania, where Szigeti gave a recital with pianist Leopold Mittman. Already in his sixties, his bow shook and his vibrato was slow enough to provoke muffled laughs when he began. And yet, by sheer will and sense of purpose, Szigeti made his vision of the music triumph over his failing body. The laughter stuck in our throats as he played.
In 1957 we Curtis students were able once again to hear Szigeti, this time with pianist Carlo Bussotti in Philadelphia. They performed in a cycle of twentieth-century sonatas by composers Vaughn Williams, Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, Ernest Bloch, Ferruccio Busoni, Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, Arthur Honegger, Sergei Prokofiev, and Charles Ives. Szigeti was undoubtedly nearing the end of his performing career, and yet here he was boldly plunging into new music. Who was this intriguing man?
Here, fate seemed to to step in as if to answer that question. When I was about to graduate from Curtis in 1959, George Szell, conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, invited me to become its assistant concertmaster. Szell promised me a yearly solo appearance with the orchestra, and one more thing: he offered to arrange for me to study with Joseph Szigeti, who had just retired from the concert stage, and to pay for the trip to Switzerland, where he lived. Szell told me that working with Szigeti would be ideal for my further musical growth. That was the clincher. I accepted Szell’s offer.
At the end of the 1961–62 Cleveland Orchestra season, my final paycheck was unusually large. True to his word, Szell had financed my trip to Switzerland.
Arriving for my lessons, I would often hear Szigeti playing for himself. Rather than ring the doorbell, I would stand transfixed under his window, listening to a rambunctious gigue, or a fugue whose principal voices rose effortlessly to the surface through a maze of two-, three-, and even four-note chords as if he was skillfully reciting the intertwining dialogue of several characters. Szigeti’s playing had faltered enough for him to have given up concertizing entirely the year before. But, inexplicably, his command of Bach, whose music most often exposes a musician’s weaknesses, remained virile and bold; and when the music softened, his sound, unlike the generic solidity of many violinists, became longing and plaintive, qualities that quite undid me.
When Szigeti finished playing, I slipped away from the window like a thief and rang the doorbell. His halting footsteps approached, the door opened, and he greeted me forlornly, in a voice reminiscent of the very sound I’d just heard. A litany of complaints poured forth: he had not slept well, his fingers hurt him, and his digestive system was again not in order. Szigeti’s complaints came as a shock. Gods did not suffer from aches and pains. But aches and pains were forgotten when the lessons began. The violin was a talking instrument in Szigeti’s mind. “Parlando, parlando,” he called out during Béla Bartók’s First Rhapsody. “You are speaking, and there is a rise and fall in the words and stresses on certain syllables that must be emphasized.” Szigeti and Bartók had performed the Rhapsody together, and some of Szigeti’s suggestions had undoubtedly come directly from the horse’s mouth.
As I played, Szigeti, perhaps not trusting my memory, would often write down directly on my music the things he considered most important. In the beginning of the Rhapsody he scrawled the words “art not scholarship”, and later in a languid section interrupted by two biting notes, Szigeti wrote“Impatient.” In the slow movement of Fauré’s First Violin and Piano Sonata, it was “Chopin Dialogue” where piano and violin exchange heartfelt moments. And in Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto, it was the word “Étage”—French for level or floor—to describe the intrinsic differences in the sound of the violin’s four strings, and how I might use them in the service of four phrases that appeared one after another in various registers. The idea was highly innovative and effective. Was Bartók, Szigeti’s close friend, whispering in his ear?
Toward the end of the summer, Szigeti asked me whether I would like to accompany him on his customary two-week vacation in the high mountains. A few days later we traveled by train and then by small cable car up to the high reaches of Riederalp, a small village nestled alongside the Aletsch Glacier, the largest in the Alps. Before the age of cable cars, Szigeti had made the trip by mule.
During our stay I ate meals with Szigeti, took daily walks with him, and had several lessons a week. Filled with music and stimulating conversation, the two weeks passed quickly. Szigeti was about to celebrate his seventieth birthday. He spoke of the great musicians he had known and heard in the early twentieth century—the violinists Joseph Joachim, Eugène Ysaÿe, Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman, and Jascha Heifetz, the composers Ferruccio Busoni and Béla Bartók, and his own teacher, Jenö Hubay. Occasionally he talked about the more recent past—the Nazis, anti-Semitism, art, and the state of music. Lessons, however, remained the core of my Swiss stay, and Bartók and Bach always seemed to take center stage.
Bartók, via their friendship, may have been whispering things of importance in Szigeti’s ear, but I had a similar if undoubtedly irrational feeling that Bach also spoke to him. Bach died in 1750; Szigeti was born in 1892. It was fanciful to think that these two men, separated by 142 years, were connected. Yet something of substance must have been handed down from one generation of fine musicians to the next—ever changing with the styles of the day but nevertheless retaining some essential nuggets of Bach’s intent. Once, passing Szigeti’s hotel room, I heard him play the Chaconne with the sort of freedom that could only come from someone completely at home in Bach’s idiom. How else could he have dared to indulge in such lavish tempo changes and still keep the work alive and the individual variations flowing naturally from one to another? Szigeti was playing for no one but himself, yet it was a performance to be remembered, and one that defied the presumed constraints I as a young musician felt obliged to obey.
In the plane back to the United States, one thing seemed clear: Joseph Szigeti was a template for the musician I would hope to become: inquisitive, innovative, sensitive, informed.
Szigeti died in 1973, but his playful rendition of Hubay’s The Zephyr, the magical aura of his Prokofiev First Violin Concerto, the moving Bach Chaconne I had surreptitiously listened to as he played for himself in that high mountain hotel, and so much more of his unforgettable music making have remained deeply imbedded in me. And even now, some sixty years after that wonderful Swiss summer with Szigeti, when I pick up the violin I can often still hear him saying in that distinctive Hungarian voice of his, “The violin is a talking instrument. You must speak when you play!”
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