The story of the ‘Huberman’ Stradivari
Huberman was one of the most celebrated musicians of his time, but it was in 1929 that his contribution to humanity took on an added dimension. During that year he visited Palestine and came up with the idea to establish a classical music presence there. During Hitler’s rise to power, Huberman had the foresight to realize he could save many Jewish artists while fulfilling his desire to start a Palestinian Orchestra. Huberman auditioned musicians from all over Europe. Those selected for the orchestra would receive contracts and, most importantly, otherwise impossible-to-get exit visas from their homeland to Palestine.
Huberman raised the money for the musicians and then their families, even partnering with Albert Einstein to set up an exhaustive US fundraising trip in 1936. By the end of that tour, the money for the orchestra was secured and sixty top-rate players had been chosen from Germany and Central Europe. All in all, it was a fantastically successful tour, barring one particular performance at Carnegie Hall on February 28. That night Huberman chose to play the second half of his concert on his ‘other violin’, a Guarneri ‘del Gesu’. During the applause following his performance of the Franck Sonata, Huberman’s valet walked on stage to inform him that his Stradivari violin had been stolen from his dressing room.
This time, Huberman was not so lucky. There are several versions as to exactly how and why the violin was stolen, but what we know for sure is that the instrument ended up in the hands of a young freelance violinist by the name of Julian Altman. Some say Altman’s mother convinced him to steal it; others report that Altman bought if from the actual thief for $100. Regardless, Altman took great pains to conceal the violin’s true identity, covering its lovely varnish with shoe polish and performing on it throughout the rest of his career.
Heartbroken, Huberman never saw his Stradivari again. However, his great dream was fulfilled when the new Palestine Orchestra made its debut in December of 1936 with the great Toscanini on the podium. I like to imagine that my own relatives might have been in the audience on that opening night, as my grandfather was born there and my great grandfather was part of the first ‘Aliyah’ of Russian Jewish immigrants to Palestine in 1882. As for his violin, it was played by its suspected thief for over 50 years, and in 1985, Julian Altman made a deathbed confession to his wife, Marcelle Hall, about the true identity of the instrument. She eventually returned the violin to Lloyd’s of London and received a finder’s fee; and the instrument underwent a nine-month restoration by J. & A. Beare, which noted it was like ‘taking dirt off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.’
The instrument was then sold to the late British violinist Norbert Brainin of the Amadeus String Quartet… And so here I was in 2001, buying some strings at the violin shop and I was introduced to the 1713 Stradivari again. As it was handed to me, I was told it was being sold to a wealthy German industrialist for his private collection. However, after playing only a few notes on it I vowed that this would not happen. This was an instrument meant to be played, not just admired. I fell in love with the instrument right away, and even performed that very night on it at the Royal Albert Hall. I simply did not want it to leave my hands.
Who knows what other adventures will come to my precious violin in the years to come? While it certainly will be enjoyed and admired long after I am not around anymore, for the time being I count myself incredibly lucky to be its caretaker.
Joshua Bell— Jason Price