By Brian Wise
In a century that produced its share of violin firebrands, the Polish-born Henryk Szeryng (1918–88) was the aristocrat of the instrument, favoring a graceful, silky tone and civil onstage discourse over surface flash or provocation. He cut a poised, patrician figure—matched visually with an unusually high bowing arm—and saw the arts foremost as a vehicle for diplomacy and charity.
Much of Szeryng’s career stemmed from his activities during World War II, in which he served as a liaison officer and translator to the exiled Polish prime minister, General Sikorski. Szeryng spoke seven languages—Spanish, Polish, German, English, French, Italian, and Portuguese—all acquired before the age of 21. Taking Mexican citizenship after the war, he traveled on a Mexican diplomatic passport bearing the title “Cultural Ambassador.” In later years, he kept homes in Monte Carlo, Paris, and his adopted Mexico.
“Szeryng recognized that high-minded talk went only so far. He claimed to have donated two-thirds of his income to charity, and starting in the 1970s, gave away several violins from his collection.”
Though fundamentally conservative in his tastes, with a firm foundation in Bach and Brahms, he also favored eclectic recital programs, and even his playing style embodied the convergence of multiple European performance traditions.
The son of a wealthy Jewish industrialist, Szeryng was born in Zelazowa Wola, Poland—Chopin’s birthplace—on September 22, 1918. A five-year-old Henryk began piano and harmony lessons with his mother, and at age seven, he turned to the violin, receiving instruction from Maurice Frenkel, one of Leopold Auer’s leading assistants. But the greatest impact on Szeryng’s playing came from Carl Flesch, with whom he studied in Berlin from 1928 to 1932. Szeryng later called Flesch “a disciplinarian, a technician” and acknowledged that “everything I know, violinistically speaking, I learned from him.”
Further instruction in the French school, from Jacques Thibaud and Gabriel Bouillon in Paris, brought a sheen to Szeryng’s tone and a refinement to his phrasing. After graduating from the Conservatoire in 1937, Szeryng studied composition with Nadia Boulanger, and met Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Igor Stravinsky.
Szeryng’s cosmopolitan upbringing became useful during World War II. He enlisted in the Polish army in 1939, moved to London, and played more than 300 concerts for Allied troops in hospitals and bases. “These were very beautiful years in a way,” he told the New York Times in 1983. “I learned that music is not only a magnificent discipline, but that it can attenuate mental and physical pain, and can bring people together. During the war I promised myself as long as I live that I would try to bring people together.’’
In 1942 Szeryng accompanied General Sikorski on a mission to Mexico to find sanctuary for some 4,000 displaced Polish refugees (who waited on a boat offshore while the two men met with the Mexican president). The following year, the Mexican government invited Szeryng to reorganize the string department at the National University of Mexico. Warmed by the government’s acceptance of the refugees, the violinist became a Mexican citizen in 1948, and settled into a relatively quiet decade of teaching and giving occasional concerts (and supplementing his income with late-night piano gigs in hotel bars).
A turning point came in 1954, when Arthur Rubinstein gave a recital in Mexico, and Szeryng rushed backstage to offer his compliments. The next day he played for the pianist, who recognized his talent and got on the phone to managers in New York and Europe.
Szeryng was introduced to the concert promoter Sol Hurok, who booked him on a 20-city concert tour in 1957. Recordings with leading orchestras followed, including the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Brahms Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra. Szeryng was “a brilliant new find with a polished technique and considerable feeling,” Billboard wrote in a 1959 review of the latter album.
Of the 250 recordings in Szeryng’s discography, of particular note was a world-
premiere recording of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 3 made with the London Symphony in 1971; Szeryng had reconstructed the piece from parts held in the archives of the composer’s great granddaughters. It would sell more than 150,000 copies.
For all of Szeryng’s patrician manner, he could be an idiosyncratic collaborator. During a 1961 tour with the Cleveland Orchestra, he butted heads with the autocratic and exacting George Szell, after the violinist reportedly lectured the ensemble about the Brahms Concerto. The dispute came to a head at Carnegie Hall, when Szell conducted the accompaniment in the concerto so fast that Szeryng struggled to keep up. “The orchestra got raves but Szeryng was consigned to the junk heap,” a Cleveland violinist later wrote. Hurok briefly considered dropping Szeryng from his roster.
Szeryng’s career nonetheless continued to grow, along with his diplomatic activities. He became Mexico’s cultural ambassador in 1960, and a special music adviser to Mexico’s UNESCO delegation in Paris a decade later. But Szeryng recognized that high-minded talk went only so far. He claimed to have donated two-thirds of his income to charity, and starting in the 1970s, gave away several violins from his collection. Among them was the 1734 “Hercules, Ysaÿe, Szeryng, Kinor David, Semel” Stradivari, presented to the city of Jerusalem, and a 1683 Andrea Guarneri “Sanctae Theresiae,” donated to Mexico (both were to be loaned out to gifted violinists). He also gave benefit concerts for a variety of causes until his death following a cerebral hemorrhage on March 3, 1988 (the violinist had married only four years earlier, to a German woman named Waltraud Büscher).
Though Szeryng never experienced what could be called a career slump, critics at times focused on what they heard as a lack of intensity or interpretive daring in his playing. To some, this bordered on emotional chilliness. But in recent years, his performances have drawn admirers on YouTube: His versions of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata, and Ravel’s Tzigane have become among the most-watched videos for those pieces.
To some listeners, a steely tenacity and intellectual firepower lurks behind the gracious surfaces. As Szeryng told the Los Angeles Times in 1986: “If my performances have any freshness and spontaneity in them, after I have played the work all these many years, it is no miracle. It is only hard work.”