Trickle-down fiddling: How a master teacher lives on
The most influential violin teacher in town might just be a Hungarian man who died in 1944 and barely stepped foot in Boston.
His name was Carl Flesch. He was an eloquent and patrician soloist but, most of all, he was a superb pedagogue who in many ways created the modern art of teaching string instruments. He wrote with unusual clarity about the mysteries of musical performance, and he had incisive technical advice for any student wishing to brave the task of placing a stubborn box of wood under one's chin and coaxing it into song.
Whether or not local string players realize it, Flesch's teachings have been spread across New England and beyond by two pillars of the Boston-area violin world: Roman Totenberg and Eric Rosenblith. Both men studied with Flesch in Europe between the wars, and taken together, they have instructed hundreds of students over more than six decades of teaching. Next Sunday and Monday they will participate, along with the violinist Ida Haendel, in a symposium on Flesch presented by the Longy School of Music. The program will feature master classes, a performance, and of course plenty of reminiscing about a legendary teacher.
These three violinists are direct "descendants" of Flesch, but if the roll call were broadened to include the next generation of Flesch students once removed, there would be far more than could fit onto a concert stage, including some of the brightest lights in the field today. The glittery violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, for one, has called herself "an artistic granddaughter of Carl Flesch." And with Flesch disciples having earned important teaching posts at conservatories around the world, Mutter is just the beginning.
Flesch was born in 1873 into a Hungarian Jewish family and spent most of his career performing and instructing in various European capitals. And yet, despite his eminence as a soloist, few of his recordings have survived, and he is known today almost exclusively by students who use his book of demanding scale exercises (and may therefore, sadly, associate his name with vague feelings of dread).
Flesch would have been perplexed that this scale book is his remaining claim to fame, since his true magnum opus was "The Art of Violin Playing," a comprehensive two-volume work in which he analyzed the many technical hurdles that string players face, and wrote deeply about the subtle challenges of interpretation.
Some of his most memorable comments in the book address the tension between self-restraint and self-expression in realizing the vision of a composer. He had a gift for articulating a certain interpretive golden mean that still eludes many performers today, whether their playing is marred by a dry literalism or by a melodramatic philosophy of hear-me-feel! To both sides, Flesch replied: "An artist needs to put himself at the service of the work of art without becoming its slave. It is an error to believe that a work can speak for itself. Its soul slumbers and only finds its ability to speak when touched and awakened to life by the magic wand of a like-minded artist."
Those words come courtesy of Rosenblith's new edition and translation of Flesch's "Art of Violin Playing." (The first volume was brought out in 2000 by the publisher Carl Fischer, and the second volume is due out this winter.) For Rosenblith, the project caps seven decades of working within Flesch's framework to realize his own ideals in performance and teaching. Born in Austria in 1920, he first met the great violinist as a teenager and ultimately studied with him in London from 1937 to 1939. Speaking by phone from his home in Newton, Rosenblith still vividly recalled the atmosphere of artistic and intellectual excitement that infused Flesch's studio.
"It was stupendous for me," he said. "I was there five mornings a week, as were most of my colleagues, listening to at least two or three lessons. And as the saying goes, the kitchen was very hot. We really had to produce a lot. One would learn a complete concerto like Brahms or Sibelius in three lessons over 10 days."
The lessons were usually conducted as master classes in which students played in front of their peers while Flesch listened, never interrupting but making notes in the margins of the violinist's score. When he or she had finished, Flesch would offer an incisive public critique, full of detailed analysis of both technique and interpretation. Then he would conclude by performing the work himself, not as an example for his students to parrot but as an opportunity for them to become inspired.
The overarching emphasis, said Rosenblith, was always on playing that was both true to the score but also personally authentic. "What makes something artistic is a melding of what is in the work of art with the psychology and life experience of the performer who plays it," Rosenblith explained. "That is not very often stressed, but it was the most important thing to Flesch. Though of course he recognized that if you don't have the means to do that, you are lost, so you have to fashion the means, the technique, to accomplish it."
For Totenberg, the teaching of the fundamental tools that enabled independent study was the greatest gift that Flesch imparted. Born in Poland in 1911, Totenberg first met Flesch as a teenager when Flesch came to perform as a soloist in Warsaw. He later studied with him as a scholarship student in Berlin, from 1928 to 1932. During the summers, Flesch's students joined their teacher in the spa town of Baden-Baden, where lessons would continue at the maestro's villa.
When Hitler's rise to power compelled Totenberg to move to Paris, Flesch furnished him with letters of introduction to the local violin luminaries, including Jacques Thibaud and Georges Enesco. Both men attended Totenberg's first Paris recital, he speculated, out of respect for Flesch.
"I think Flesch's message was that, with some amount of talent, you can achieve practically anything," said Totenberg by phone from his home in Newton. "You can become a fine musician, if you go about it properly. I feel very much that I continue in his dynasty, so to say, trying to develop students both musically and technically, but also in a way that they can help themselves."
These two cherished local violinists also perpetuate the Flesch tradition in their sheer commitment to teaching. At 96, Totenberg still instructs students every week and maintains his faculty affiliation at Boston University, where he ran the string department for most of the 1960s and '70s. He also served as the director of the Longy School in the early 1980s. Rosenblith, who studied with Thibaud and the Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman in addition to Flesch, chaired the string department at New England Conservatory for over 25 years. He still teaches on the faculty of Longy and still performs. (He will play a recital at Tufts University on Oct. 28.) It should be fascinating to hear both men reminisce at this week's symposium.
In his posthumously published memoirs, Flesch trained his sharp diagnostic eye on his own playing and was extremely self-critical. But looking back, he also happily noted that artistic greatness was not the only path to immortality. "What a noble mission - a spiritual propagation - is the transmission of one's knowledge and experience to the younger generation," he wrote. "[O]ne can live again not only in one's children but also in one's pupils."
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.