Dissonant Chords: A musical tale of heroes, Hitler, humanity and Hatikvah

Valerie Sobel

Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77, by Johannes Brahms; a prolific artistic feat the great composer dedicated to his friend, distinguished Hungarian violinist, Joseph Joachim.

With time, Brahms grew somewhat disillusioned with the concerto, conceding the idea he will never hear what he put down on staff paper and what he hears in his head. Disappointed and frustrated, Brahms generally avoided all performances of his masterpiece. The composer almost caved to pressure at the relentless insistence of Viennese composer, Johann Strauss, to hear just one more performance of the concerto. In the end, Brahms politely declined the invitation, citing his limits with the oversaturation of mediocre playing at the hands of diamond dozen vaunted musicians.

But swelling curiosity had its own designs on Brahms just as a 13 year-old soloist was about to pick up the bow for Johannes’ mammoth composition. Only human, Brahms yields at the last possible moment, and unbeknownst to Strauss or anyone else, proceeds to take the last open seat in the remote balcony section of the concert hall.

A student of Joseph Joachim and a prodigy of his violinist father, Polish-born Jewish youngster with handsome looks, Bronislaw Huberman, takes the stage.  Some forty three minutes later, Brahms faith in his masterwork, the only violin concerto he ever wrote, is vigorously restored. And to the sound of thunderous applause, the career of a legendary violinist Bronislaw Huberman is launched. Yet the applause is drowned out by the crowd’s obliviousness to the history-pivoting rescue mission and the rebirth of humanity, this teenager was about to launch.  And the 1713 Stradivarius violin of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D fame, then in the hands of the young Huberman, will have absolutely nothing to do with it.

Now fourteen, Bronislaw Huberman never takes another violin lesson again in his life.

His extraordinary career takes him all over Europe, including Palestine in 1929. The desert land of his ancestors mesmerizes him, as his dream for the culmination of culture and classical music for Shamron and Judea is born.

With the looming rise and spread of Hitler’s Third Reich in the 1930s, Huberman presages the horrific fate of the Jewish people.  Rescue plans to save Jewish musicians by getting them out of Europe begin to taking shape in his imagination. He declines invitations to perform in Germany with prominent conductors and even dares German intelligentsia to awaken their consciousness by pleading for empathy and humanity in an open letter.  But deaf are their ears when violins are muted.

Foreseeing the immense tragedy about to unfold before his eyes, Huberman attempts to raise hefty funds for the establishment of an orchestra in Palestine. He performs countless concerts all over the world and in October of 1934 travels to America to play a sweeping forty-two concert blitz in just sixty days.  After soloing with the New York Philharmonic,  Huberman meets John Royal of NBC. The latter casually suggests that Maestro Arturo Toscanini, a pre-eminent figure in the anti-fascist movement, should conduct the first performance of the orchestra. The noble Toscanini had already defied Hitler by refusing to conduct at the 1933 Wagner festival in Bayreuth.

To garner more attention for the plight of Jewish artists overseas, Huberman founds the “Association of Friends of the Palestine Orchestra”, enlisting Albert Einstein to chair the organization.  He returns to Europe in summer of 1935 and finds that the Nazis have named him “the greatest enemy of the Nazi regime among world musicians.” Even Huberman’s long-time piano partner, Siegfried Schulze, is now forbidden to associate with the Jewish virtuoso.

But a worse disaster is about to strike.

During his concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Huberman decides to leave his 1713 “Gibson” Stradivarius in the dressing room, preferring to test-drive his newly acquired second violin, a valuable Guarnerius, for the second part the concert.  An unkown nightclub violinst, Julian Altman, clandestinely makes his way backstage and walks out with the prized violin. The Strad had been stolen once before, only this time,  Maestro Huberman will never see his violin again.

The virtuoso continues to fundraise and ferociously advocate for the imperiled Jewish musicians of Europe. The construction of what was about to become one of world’s leading orchestras is firmly in the hands of Huberman. But how does one select who lives and who dies? How does one select whose children will breathe and whose children will march into gas chambers to the sounds of Wagner?

Having personally known many of the best musicians of Europe (who happened to be Jewish), Huberman cleverly devises a way to make professional judgement the only criteria for his selections.  Huberman blindfolds himself while sitting turned to the wall as he holds his auditions.

A string player Huberman considered to be the finest cellist of the day plays at one of the auditions.  Instantly, Huberman recognizes the uncanny unforgettable sounds of a cello belonging to his favoured player. He immediately enlists him in the orchestra.

Huberman goes on to arrange 70 exit visas for the elite group of musicians who have now been fired from lead positions in European orchestras for the crime of being Jewish. Huberman understands he’s not just saving individual lives of musicians, but entire families, by enabling them to flee to Palestine.  His prized first chair cello and his family included.

As Huberman begins rehearsals, the first chair of the illustrious cellist remains curiously empty.  Huberman doesn’t understand the disappearing act. Eventually the vacancy is filled, as another audition for cello’s first chair is held, with the Maestro as usual, blindfolded and facing the wall.

Huberman’s dream becomes a reality in 1936; The Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra is born. The first performance takes place in Tel Aviv on December 26th under the baton of, none other than, Arturo Toscanini.  In the audience are three thousand people, including the Russian-born Golda Meir and the future first Prime Minister of ISRAEL, Polish-born David Ben Gurion.  Toscanini, for his part, savoured the idea of a performance by an orchestra of Jewish émigrés as a powerful anti-Nazi statement. Toscanini’s own daughter, Wanda, only three years prior, married a very Jewish Russian-born pianist by the name of Vladimir Horowitz.

Modern State of Israel proclaims independence in 1948 and Huberman’s legacy orchestra is renamed “The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra”, the IPO, today under the direction and baton of Maestro Zubin Mehta.  But Huberman dies in June of 1947, never knowing the officially established independence of his beloved country.

The fate of the disappeared cellist also remained unknown to him. Decades after Huberman’s death, the cellist was spotted in a Tel Aviv bakery, wearing an apron and a baker’s hat. The humble baker admitted to staging the missing in action act to force Huberman’s hand. To compel one more rescue of a Jewish family from the hell of death-doting Nazi Europe. He deliberately relinquished his beloved career the second he walked out of the Huberman audition, never for one moment intending to play a note with the orchestra.  Saving one more life was sacrosanct and never in question, as he later explained. A humble baker in a ubiquitous bakery of Tel Aviv lived out his life in complete obscurity, never sounding his strings on stage again, but knowing he played God to aid God’s Chosen Huberman and maybe, God, himself.

But this bigger than life story doesn’t end here. And is about to get bigger. Perhaps, pricklier and chillingly prophetic.

David Ben Gurion, Isreal’s first Prime Minister, calls for the orchestration of “Hatikvah”, the eternal minor-key hymn of Jewish diaspora for 500 years.  The commission goes to Bernardino Molinari, an Italian orchestra conductor. In 1948, he arrived in Palestine on a British bomber, claiming the Virgin Mary had appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to help the Jews.

Molinari spends three years with the Palestine Orchestra as head conductor. After successfully endeavoring to orchestrate “Hatikvah”,  it was he who conducted the inaugural performance of the now-official national anthem (Hatikvah) when David Ben Gurion declared independence in Tel Aviv in May of 1948.

Then, as Israel began to hunt down Nazi collaborators, Molinari disappeared. It emerged that he was put on trial in Italy as a Fascist sympathizer who had corresponded with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.  As head of a Jewish orchestra, it turned out he had betrayed  the Jews to the Fascists, only some years before. His flight to Palestine was a failed deliberate attempt to evade punishment, or perhaps to pay penance.  Molinari was found guilty and died isolated, in a monastery.

So what exactly did the Fascist Nazi sympathiser orchestrate for Israel’s national anthem? …this is the chills-worthy part.

Before we even contemplate that Israel has adopted an orchestration of their beloved 500 year old Sephardic prayer by a Nazi collaborator…let’s note the words to Hatikvah, as they were written in 1886 by Austro-Hungarian Naphtali Herz Imber:

“HATIKVAH” (Hope)

“As long as within our hearts
The Jewish soul sings,
As long as forward to the East
To Zion, looks the eye –
Our hope is not yet lost,
It is two thousand years old,
To be a free people in OUR land
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

In the musical orchestration, Fascist Molinari, conspicuously injects seven consecutive, very unsettling-sounding dissonant chords that pierce the ear to the core. And he does it right before the word “OUR”, as if to question or undermine the very belief in Jerusalem as the Jewish homeland.  But more significantly, to remind the Jewish Nation that what is  “OUR” will always be contested and be fought for with blood, sweat and tears.

Molinari the Fascist belonged to Hitler in the same way Richard Wagner did. The same Hitler who collaborated with the Sunni Muslim Grand Mufti of Jerusalem  to wipe Jews off the planet in the 1940s.  Unknowingly but ever-so prophetically, Molinari left a bitter musical reminder, that be it Nazi Germany or Islam of 2019, Jewish homeland will never be left in peace.  And he did so, astonishingly, in Israel’s National Anthem.  For eternity.

And what of Huberman’s stolen “Gibson Strad”?

The two-bit, club-playing thief, Julian Altman, eventually joined  the Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra, and performed on the stolen Stradivarius for almost 50 years!  It wasn’t until 1985 that the world learned the truth. Altman made a deathbed confession to his wife that he had stolen the precious violin. Two years later, Altman’s wife returned the violin to the insurer Lloyd’s of London for a substantial finder’s fee. After a long restoration,  Jewish American violinist superstar,  Joshua Bell,  was able to purchase the violin in 2001 for just under $4 Million.

Today Huberman’s violin lives and breathes in the hands of another worthy Maestro on stages all over the world, fueled by the spirit of Huberman and the very strings that Brahms propelled to stardom. The stardom that, in turn, helped save hundreds of lives and gave birth to thousands more in Israel today.

The legacy of Huberman and his brainchild, the IPO, is vibrantly alive.  The children and grandchildren of the original rescued players are members of today’s preeminent IPO.  And with all those handed down violins, cellos, trumpets and trombones of their European ancestors, they often sound the dissonant chords of hope in “Hatikvah”.

Valerie Sobel is the Special Contributor of Blitz.

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