The violin Joshua Bell can’t let out of his sight has twice, and for many years, been in the hands of thieves. Yet it helped save the lives of 1,000 people.
The French poet, dramatist, novelist, writer, journalist, and critic Theophile Gautier is credited for birthing the phrase, “All passes, art alone endures.” Technically, it was “enduring” within a longer passage (“All passes, art alone enduring stays to us; the bust outlasts the throne, the coin, Tiberius…”). But a tour of the Louvre, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the concert halls of London, Tokyo, San Francisco and Buenos Aires, the local violin shop, provides ample evidence of the basic sentiment.
As does the Gibson “ex-Huberman” Stradivarius violin. Now in the worthy hands of virtuoso Joshua Bell, the violin’s history is perhaps one of the most storied among the few hundred surviving fine Italian violins crafted by Antonio Stradivari of Cremona. It was stolen – twice – and was used to help Jewish musicians escape the Holocaust. Composer Johannes Brahms heard his own composition – the difficult violin Concerto in D Major – played on the instrument and it is said to have brought him to tears.
Why tears? Branislov Huberman (1882-1947) played a Brahms (1833-1897) concerto at the age of 14. The composer wept with joy to observe and hear the prodigy’s quality of play and interpretation.
That had to have been joyful for Huberman as well, but the acclaimed Jewish-Polish violinist who studied in Berlin, where he met Brahms, experienced much sorrow and ultimately triumph with his Strad.
First, there were the thefts. The “Gibson” (named for an earlier owner, George Alfred Gibson, an Englishman) was stolen in 1919 from Huberman’s hotel room in Vienna but recovered due to inept fencing (attempt to sell it) within three days. But in 1936, while Huberman was playing his second violin (a Guarnerius) on stage in New York City’s Carnegie Hall, it was stolen again. The thief, Julian Altman, a Julliard-trained violinist who later played it with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., only confessed to his wife on his deathbed in 1985 that he had the stolen instrument.
Huberman died in 1947 and never saw that Strad again. But that fateful concert in Carnegie Hall was part of a much bigger cause that, in many ways, proves true the words of the French poet.
Huberman watched the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany with alarm and responded in a way that ultimately saved the lives of about 1,000 European Jews. He did this by creating – with the help of many others, including the Italian anti-fascist conductor Arturo Toscanini and physicist Albert Einstein – the Palestinian Symphony Orchestra (later renamed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra). Musicians were recruited and auditioned from the European capitals at risk from the impending Holocaust. But they also needed money to buy their freedom, and that of the musicians’ families, so Huberman traveled to New York to raise those funds from concerts and personal connections.
The plan worked, and we can assume today that least some of the children, grand children and great grandchildren of those 100 or so musicians make their way through the Brahms concerto.
Bell, himself of maternal Jewish lineage, bought the instrument in 2001 from British violinist Norbert Brainin, for $4 million, saving the instrument from a collector (in Germany) who planned to put it in a museum. Bell had another Strad he sold to purchase the ex-Huberman, understanding its provenance and the work of the Polish violinist who saved artists, and, art itself.
“I never connected so quickly with an instrument,” says its current owner. “This is my violin. I can’t let it out of my sight.”