Measure by Measure

Szymon Goldberg’s Journey

Music and war, part one

By Sudip Bose | July 6, 2017
Eugene Cook (1957) /
Eugene Cook (1957) /


On January 12, 1944, the Berlin Philharmonic, under the direction of Wilhelm Furtwängler, performed what turned out to be the final concert at the Philharmonie concert hall, which, in a little more than two weeks’ time, would be destroyed by Allied bombs. Among the works on the program that evening was Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Few people will recognize the name of the evening’s soloist— Erich Röhn—yet judging by the performance, preserved on record, he was an elegant and patrician violinist who had a polished tone and a poet’s sensibility. Röhn, the Berlin Philharmonic’s first concertmaster, was also a prominent chamber musician, and sure enough, he plays this noblest of violin concertos as if it were a chamber work. When I listen to this recording, which I have returned to often over the years, I hear a violinist refusing to preen or strut, but who integrates his lines tastefully with the orchestra’s.

Whatever pleasure I derive from the performance, however, is always tinged with guilt. The war and the Holocaust, of course, hang ominously in the background. I usually have no difficulty separating art from politics, but in Nazi Germany, art was politics. Listening to, let alone enjoying, a wartime performance by the Berlin Philharmonic always raises an ethical quandary. Röhn himself was not a Nazi Party member, it turns out, but he did play a violin acquired from a state bank—an instrument most likely confiscated from a Jewish musician, perhaps someone who’d been sent to the camps. There’s another reason why I have mixed feelings about this particular recording, and this has to do with the story of an earlier concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, one who never should have lost his job in the first place: the incomparable Szymon Goldberg.

Born in 1909 into a Jewish family in Poland, Goldberg was a child prodigy who came to the attention of the legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. Landowska convinced the Goldbergs to relocate to Berlin, so that young Szymon, just eight years old at the time, could commence studies with Carl Flesch, one of the preeminent pedagogues of the age and an exponent of the Austro-Germanic classical style. In 1924, at the age of 15, Goldberg made his solo debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, performing the sort of taxing program that would be unthinkable today—three concertos, by Bach, Joseph Joachim, and Paganini. The musical world took notice, and just a year later, the conductor Erich Kleiber hired him as the concertmaster of the Staatskapelle Dresden—the youngest leader of the orchestra in its long and storied history. Four years later, Furtwängler appointed Goldberg first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. The world has always been rife with instrumental prodigies, but they tend to be soloists, not orchestral concertmasters, bearing all the many responsibilities of that job. At any rate, it was a heady time to be in Berlin, with Furtwängler presiding like a colossus over what was arguably the greatest orchestra in Europe, if not the world. But Goldberg’s tenure at the Philharmonic would last just four years. With the tide of anti-Semitism swelling, he realized that his position as a Jew in Germany would no longer be tenable. Hitler’s ascendancy only codified what had been an unofficial policy at the Philharmonic. As Fritz Trümpi writes, in his intriguing recent book The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, the orchestra had not hired a Jewish musician since 1930; in 1933, only three Jews other than Goldberg played in its ranks.

Furtwängler tried to protect his young concertmaster, but by 1934, the Philharmonic was very much under the auspices of Joseph Goebbels. Goldberg, who had by now married the mezzo-soprano Anna Maria Manasse, would later recount what happened next:

Being Jewish and Polish, I was quite aware that my expectations in Germany under Hitler could not be good, and I took the initiative to dissolve my contract with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra myself, so as not to wait for my dismissal and for the internment of my wife and me. As a result, I was put under pressure and threatened. I was told I would be denied a travel visa. I was also forced to issue a statement at a press conference with American journalists that I had left the orchestra of my own free will, because I was no longer able to combine my extensive activities as a soloist with my role as concertmaster. That’s why I left Germany in 1934 in such a hurry.

Goldberg’s last solo appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic, on February 6, 1933, had been a performance of none other than the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

Having made his successful escape, Goldberg began touring the safer parts of Europe with the pianist Lili Kraus, as well as Asia and the United States (including a Carnegie Hall debut in 1938). Eventually, however, the war caught up with him. In 1943, he and Kraus were performing in Java, when the Japanese arrived in Dutch East India as occupiers. As Goldberg later remembered:

At first this occupation had no anti-Semitic consequences. Only after the Japanese authorities had been enlightened about National Socialist racial persecution by their German comrades—a special delegation had been sent from Germany to Dutch India for the purpose—did they begin racial persecution in Dutch India. This led to a large-scale raid against Jews and Freemasons in Bandung. My wife and I were arrested during this raid, and I remained interned until I was freed on September 6, 1944.

Kraus and her husband were also interned, split up in camps, as Goldberg had been from his wife. Now the violinist, having been forced to leave his beloved Stradivarius behind, was subjected to hard labor, though the Dutch prisoners he befriended went a long way toward protecting him. Even his Japanese captors, upon learning who Goldberg was, allowed him a certain amount of freedom, letting him play a violin that had been smuggled into one of the camps. At Camp Tjimahi, Goldberg even managed to put together an orchestra, making do with 14 violins, a flute, a harmonium, and a broken piano. He played Bach for his fellow internees, but at some point, the violin was taken from him, he was moved to another camp, and the music came to an end. As one of the Dutch prisoners recalled, “When the conditions in the camp worsened, and we were no longer allowed music, I still clearly remember [Goldberg] walking with a little stick in his hand practicing, moving his fingers and wrist beautifully during forced labor.” Only after the violinist’s release did he learn the fate of his Strad. When the Goldbergs were taken from the Jakarta house they’d been renting, a local woman managed to take the instrument and pass it on to an amateur violinist of her acquaintance. He then handed it over to a Swiss family, which, coming to learn the story behind it, returned the instrument to its rightful owner upon his liberation.

Goldberg spent a year in Australia, then resumed his career after the end of the war, settling in the United States as a naturalized citizen. In addition to his solo work, he became an eminent conductor, founding the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra in 1955 at the behest of the Dutch government. In the 1970s, he recorded Franz Schubert’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano with Radu Lupu, but despite the charms and felicities of the interpretations (and the eloquence of Lupu’s piano playing), these performances, readily available today, do not capture Goldberg in his burnished prime. For that, one must go back to the masterly recordings of Beethoven and Mozart that he made with Kraus a few decades before, or to his readings of Brahms’s three sonatas with Artur Balsam. Those Brahms performances are at once dramatic and refined, stylish, full of finesse, revealing so many exquisite shades and colors. Listen to them, and hear a violinist rendering the softest passages with great tenderness, then projecting the loudest, most forceful utterances without the slightest stress or strain in his sound. Indeed, Goldberg had one of the sweetest, warmest tones of any violinist I’ve ever heard.

Whatever resentments may have lingered with him from his time in the camps did not seem to prejudice him in one sense. After his first wife died, Goldberg married a Japanese woman and eventually moved to Japan. He died in 1993 in the coastal city of Toyama. As for Germany, he never played there again, though not for a lack of trying. Not only did the board of the Berlin Philharmonic deny his request to be reinstated as concertmaster, it refused him a pension, too. For years, Goldberg fought for back pay; only in 1970 did he finally receive a settlement. By that time, he was conducting in the Netherlands, where one of his guest artists was Lili Kraus. She and her husband had remained imprisoned in their internment camps many months after the Goldbergs’ release. The two old colleagues did not, Goldberg said, discuss those dark days in Southeast Asia. Collaborating now as pianist and conductor, they dwelt only on the present.

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