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A second great concertmaster has died

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has announced the death of Michel Schwalbé, Herbert von Karajan’s concertmaster.

Schwalbé, who was born in Poland in 1919, held the position from 1957 to 1985, almost the entire period of Karajan’s conductorship.

While his family were reounded up and murdered in Poland, Michel escaped to Switzerland mid-war and was snapped up as concertmaster by Ernest Ansermet at the Suisse Romande orch in Geneva. Although strong-minded and undisguisedly Jewish, he established a mutual respect and admiration with the ex-Nazi Karajan and appeared as soloist on many of his recordings, most famously in Scheherezade and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

He died, aged 93, on the same day as Theo Olof, formidable concertmaster of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. May their rest be sweet.

Here’s the BPO announcement:

Ehemaliger Erster Konzertmeister der Berliner Philharmoniker
Michel Schwalbé gestorben
Die Berliner Philharmoniker trauern um Michel Schwalbé.
Der 1919 in Radom (Polen) geborene langjährige Erste Konzertmeister, der dem Orchester
von 1957 bis 1985 angehörte, ist in der Nacht zum 9. Oktober kurz vor seinem 93. Geburtstag
in Berlin gestorben. Musiker wie Kritiker schwärmten und schwärmen von unvergesslichen
Geigensoli des Ersten Konzertmeisters Herbert von Karajans. Legendär ist seine Interpretation
des Soloparts im Heldenleben von Richard Strauss.
Den ersten Violinunterricht erhielt Michel Schwalbé im Alter von acht Jahren von Maurycy
Frenkel in Warschau. Ab 1933 studierte er am Pariser Konservatorium bei Georges Enescu,
Jules Boucherit und Pierre Monteux. Die angestrebte Solistenkarriere kam durch den Ausbruch
des Zweiten Weltkriegs nicht zustande. Michel Schwalbé nahm seine erste Orchesterstelle
in Lyon an, musste jedoch wegen der drohenden Deportation 1942 in die Schweiz flüchten.
Ernest Ansermet engagierte ihn 1944 als Konzertmeister des Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.
Michel Schwalbé trat in diesen Jahren solistisch auf und führte von 1946 bis 1948 in
Zürich ein eigenes Streichquartett an. Er war Konzertmeister des Schweizerischen
Festspielorchesters in Luzern und unterrichtete seit 1948 in der Nachfolge von Joseph Szigeti
am Konservatorium in Genf.
1957 bot ihm Herbert von Karajan die Stelle des Ersten Konzertmeisters bei den Berliner Philharmonikern
an. Michel Schwalbé zögerte zunächst, nahm das Angebot dann aber an – als
Zeichen seiner Aussöhnung mit dem Nachkriegs-Deutschland, das ihm zu einer neuen Heimat
Von 1963 bis zu seinem Ruhestand unterrichtete Michel Schwalbé als Professor an der Berliner
Hochschule für Musik. Er trat in vielen Ländern als Solist, mit kammermusikalischen Ensembles
wie den Philharmonischen Solisten und als Dirigent auf. Nach seiner Pensionierung
war er als Jury-Mitglied, Lehrer und Berater für junge Geiger sehr gefragt.
Regelmäßig und sehr gern hat Michel Schwalbé die Proben und Konzerte ‘seines’ Orchesters
besucht, sich leidenschaftlich mit seinen philharmonischen Kollegen ausgetauscht und bis
zuletzt regen Anteil am philharmonischen Leben genommen.
Berlin, den 9. Oktober 2012


First concertmaster of many years Michel Schwalbé who was a member of the orchestra from 1957 to 1985, died in Berlin during the night before 9 October, shortly before his 93rd birthday. Musicians and critics alike raved and rave about the unforgettable violin solos of Herbert von Karajan’s first concertmaster. His interpretation of the solo part in Richard Strauss’ Heldenleben is legendary.

Born in Radom (Poland) in 1919, Michel Schwalbé received his first violin lessons at the age of eight from Maurycy Frenkel in Warsaw. From 1933, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Georges Enescu, Jules Boucherit and Pierre Monteux. His chosen career as a soloist did not come about due to the outbreak of World War II. Michel Schwalbé took up his first orchestral position in Lyons, but had to flee to Switzerland in 1942 following the threat of deportation. In 1944, Ernest Ansermet hired him as concertmaster of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. During this time, Michel Schwalbé appeared as a soloist, and led his own string quartet in Zurich from 1946 to 1948. He was concertmaster of the Swiss Festival Orchestra in Lucerne, and from 1948, he taught at the conservatory in Geneva, succeeding Joseph Szigeti.

In 1957, Herbert von Karajan offered him the post of first concertmaster with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Michel Schwalbé initially hesitated, but ultimately accepted the offer – as a sign of his reconciliation with post-war Germany, which was to become his new home. From 1963 until his retirement, Michel Schwalbé taught as a professor at the Academy of Music Hans Eisler in Berlin. He appeared in many countries as a soloist, with chamber music ensembles such as the Philharmonische Solisten, and also as a conductor.

After his retirement he was much in demand as a jury member, teacher and advisor to young violinists. Michel Schwalbé regularly enjoyed attending the rehearsals and concerts of “his” orchestra, talking with his former colleagues and was actively involved in the life of the orchestra until the end.

Here’s a lament for lost concertmasters that I wrote last year in The Strad.

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  1. ruben greenberg says:

    It is a great pity that Schwalbé was never offered an official teaching position in France. In spite of spending most of his life abroad, he felt profoundly French. He was an absolutely marvelous musician that had not only a great influence on the string players of the Berlin Philharmonic, but also on its wind players, such as clarinettist Karl Leister.

  2. Stuart Green says:

    This truly is the end of a legend,one of the truly great concertmasters.

  3. Schwalbé was indeed a wonderful musician, violinist and concertmaster–

    but what I don’t get: is it really necessary, even when honoring a musician like Schwalbé, to throw in works like “ex-Nazi” Karajan ????

    Besides: what is an “Ex” Nazi??and if he is an “Ex” – as in “former” Nazi – why is it really relevant to point out? particularly when the article is not about Karajan and his political past, not even about Karajan’s musicianship but about Schwalbé?

    I find these articles posted here increasingly bias towards Germany and Germans- as an observer of this from overseas I find this particularly one sided and disturbing. While it is certainly a topic to discuss how long we want to through those buzz words into the room whenever we want or can or feel the need to show superiority (is tis why it ‘s been done some much in these posts?) I don;t think it has any place in an article that is not about political issues but soley about honoring a musician’s life. —-

    maybe it’s time to stop visiting this blog.

    • Bi, then.

    • gigli- In the context of this post it is absolutely appropriate to note that Karajan was an ex-Nazi. As a Jew, Schwalbé’s life was nearly destroyed by these goons. Undoubtedly he had family and community who were indeed annihilated. That he (the violinist) was able to reconcile with a representative of this evil is remarkable, if not baffling to some of us, and certainly worthy of exploration or, at least, mention. Also, notice that NL does not describe him as a Nazi– which he surely was at one time was– but a former one (which he was at another time). Norman is not focusing on Karajan’s full past, rather the time of his life when he had a relationship to the late concertmaster.

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