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Max Brod on Bronislaw Huberman’s violin playing

Max Brod on Bronislaw Huberman’s violin playing

Recordings give us some evidence of the sound that was produced in the first part of the twentieth century. In spite of the distortion of the recording mediums, often influencing tempo, pitch, dynamics, color and practically all musical parameters that were present in performance, there is a feeling that one actually is granted a rare glimpse into the past. Finding a rare recording of Bronislaw Huberman, for example, may be compared to discovering a rare old picture of one’s family member. Yes, it is black and white, and the focus may be distorted, yet it does seem to communicate something of the past. Nevertheless, even if we could travel in time, and sit in a concert of Huberman, a contemporary listener would not hear what previous generations heard. It seems to me that contemporary societies have changed to such a great degree, that they experience music in significantly different ways than in the first part of the twentieth century.

The brutal violence, such as stabbing, that occurred in some of Schoenberg’s concerts seem unbelievable in our days. The expectations, social behavior and experiences were very different, even in more normal concerts in the beginning of the previous century. 
In this and some of the posts of the following weeks, I will present concert reviews and letters from listeners in order to explore one theme that reappears in relation to Huberman’s performances: the experience of music as something divine. The almost religious experience of music seems to me something that is absent the life of most contemporary listeners.  
Max Brod, who is chiefly remembered as the one who translated the operas of Janacek and arranged that the writings of Kafka would not be lost, reviewed a concert by Huberman. The review entitled "Art as deliverance", is dated 13 January 1927 and appeared in the Prager Tagblatt (I found the translation of this newspaper clipping attached to it in the Felicja Blumental Library in Tel-Aviv). The review itself is very poetic and descriptive, as if trying to convey to the readers how it actually was to experience Huberman’s performance. Brod opened his review describing Huberman just before starting to perform:
He steps on the platform – bent, austere. Never have I seen so much suffering concentrated on the small surface of a human face. Strindberg’s "Poor humanity!" is written in all its depth of melancholy on this finely arched brow. Yet below it the expression of the eyes as they glance round is impassive, untrusting. The lips tightly closed together. The corners of the mouth are reminiscent of Beethoven in their tragic solitariness.
Brod wrote that the moment Huberman started to play, the ‘expression of wild suffering fades, the features relax into pure melancholy… The glance has lost its fierceness when the eyes reopen. Only the nervous eyebrows twitch, and the eyelids are as though under spell.’ Brod continued to quote (from memory) a poem by Hofmannsthal, and suggested that ‘All the sorrows of humanity find expression, as in a dream, in this playing.’ He went on in describing the essence of Huberman’s playing as he experienced it:
And now love springs up. Huberman plays nothing but passion and pain; but passion and pain may look up at times to their blue skies above. Here is the outpouring of a happy passion, the peace of a strong love. Even when Huberman paints happiness it is never playful, comfortable happiness. It is the happiness of a heart of passionate storms, brought beneath a blue sky of compassion.
Brod argued that under Huberman’s playing, Smetana’s "Fatherland" ‘had no longer its simple rustic quality, but became the desire and fulfillment of a strongly emotional, strongly inspired soul.’
A theme that appears in this review and reappears also in other sources is the impression that technical difficulties are ’swept aside and completely subordinated to the revelation of the music’s soul.’ Brod describes such technical passages as ‘daemonic speeding’, and ‘an ascent in search of God and deliverance’. He suggested that in Huberman’s performance, ‘one is at peace, one is awakened to the best in one.’ This echoes the romantic concept of the ethical power of music to improve people.
In various parts of the review Brod seems to be embarrassed from the fact the Huberman is performing to a public: ‘Is not one brought to feel that the great artist is escaping from humanity, from us who listen, into the realms of his music? We are troubling him. The lights should be put out and he should be allowed to play in darkness, not to have to gaze our faces, faces unworthy of this music…..’ 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 references to a ‘higher being’ and God, as well as the recurring theme of suffering (see the reference to Beethoven above) is part of a romantic conception of the performer who delivers art from God to passive listeners, that just happened to be there by chance. The performer is a medium that helps regular listeners to connect with higher spheres of existence. The passive listeners are exposed to beauty that was presented by the composer and delivered by the performer, yet the source of this beauty, is clearly divine.
Some of the notions described in Brod’s review appear also in letters written to Huberman concerning other concerts. For example, the notion of the audience becoming one soul is relfected in a letter written by S. R. W. on 19 October 1942 (The Listener Speaks, p. 111):
… the Chaconne … I never heard a greater performance than that of last night. The tones of your violin, in defiance of the law and nature of sound, seemed to gather power as they rose on the air. - It was an evening of enthusiasm and rejoicing. There was in the air that upsurge of good fellowship which draws men and women nearer together after withnessing a great event. 
The notion of the extreme demands of performance on Huberman is also present in the letter by A. J. W.: ‘It’s incredible how you survive one of your playings of Chaconne. You give your life away when you play it. None of us are worth it. I remain awed …. overwhelmed". 
I will continue to explore this topic in the next weeks when I work in the Huberman archive in the Felicja Blumental Library in Tel-Aviv. Subscribe to the Blog and be updated via email or RSS.
The translation of the German text was probably done by Ida Ibbeken who was the secretary of Huberman.

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