Obituary: Jascha Brodsky

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The Independent Online
Jascha Brodsky was, in his younger days, a violin soloist and chamber musician with an international reputation. He was also one of the finest teachers of his generation, described by Jeffrey Cornelius, Dean of Temple-Esther Boyer College of Music, as "a veritable institution amongst the artist teachers of this century. His legacy is manifested in the violin sections of most of the major orchestras in the world as well as in the finest music schools."

Brodsky was born in Kharkov in Ukraine, the son of a violinist who gave him his first lessons when he was six years old. He later attended the Conservatory at Tiflis in Georgia, and in 1926, though only 19, was successfully performing all over the Soviet Union. That same year he went to Paris to study with Lucien Capet. There he also played for Prokofiev and performed alongside the pianist Vladimir Horowitz and the violinists Nathan Milstein and Mischa Elman.

He then went to Belgium for further studies with the legendary Eugene Ysae; Brodsky confessed that Ysae was a taskmaster who demanded from his students an almost impossible perfection in every aspect of playing. He recalled that after only a few lessons Ysae told Brodsky that he wanted him to enter a competition being held in Paris the following week. Brodsky protested, "Maestro, I don't like competitions"; to which Ysae retorted, "I didn't ask if you liked competitions. Send for the list of required works!" The list of 14 concertos duly arrived and Ysae told him to choose the Prokofiev, assuring him, "They hate Prokofiev in Paris. They'll never choose it." But choose it they did and Brodsky won the competition. He said afterwards: "My knees were shaking and when I looked through a keyhole backstage I saw the judges, Prokofiev, Milstein and Jacques Thibaud, and I was even more terrified."

From this point, Brodsky's career went from strength to strength and he toured as a soloist throughout the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe and during this time performed the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No 1 with the composer conducting. Wherever he went he received glowing reviews of his impeccable technique and elegant and stylish playing.

It was Mischa Elman who advised Brodsky to go to the United States, where Efrem Zimbalist was teaching at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. So in 1930 he left the Soviet Union and became a student of Zimbalist. That same year, he and three other students, including the cellist Orlando Cole, formed an ensemble which later became the Curtis String Quartet and achieved international status. They played together for 51 years, disbanding in 1981 after the death of the viola player, Max Aronoff.

Brodsky joined the Faculty of the Curtis Institute in 1932 and latterly held the Efrem Zimbalist Chair for Violin Studies. He was a brilliant teacher who loved teaching. In the history of violin playing there are singularly few examples of great artists who have also been good teachers; this is often because they cannot convey how they do things themselves, the classic example being Paganini, who was described by his one and only pupil as "the worst teacher in the world".

Brodsky was greatly loved and respected by his pupils. There are about a dozen Brodsky students in the Philadelphia Orchestra at present and in any given year. A former student and assistant leader of the orchestra, Robert de Pasquale, said: "Jascha was a beautiful human being, a kind man who was always fair. He was one of the last of the real old-time artist teachers." And his colleague Orlando Cole, a fellow professor at the Curtis, praised his artistry for its impeccable musicianship and refinement: "But his chief characteristic was his gentle modesty, which these young people appreciated."

Brodsky did not confine his activities to the Curtis. It was when he was with the Curtis Quartet that he realised that there was a need to train musicians who did not look for solo careers and who would find their fulfilment in chamber music or in orchestras. So Brodsky and Max Aronoff founded the New School for Music also in Philadelphia especially for this purpose. In 1986, it amalgamated with Temple University as the Esther Boyer College of Music, where Brodsky became Emeritus Professor. He continued to teach at both schools right up to his retirement in 1996 and he also taught in Temple's weekend programme, the Centre for Young Musicians, whose director Nancy Hess, called him "a giant among teachers". One of the graduates from this enterprise is Sarah Chang, now an international soloist.

Brodsky once said that music was his whole life. It was a passion which began when he was six years old in Russia and never diminished over the years.

Margaret Campbell

Jascha Brodsky, violinist: born Kharkov, Ukraine 6 June 1907; married Marian Head (two sons, one daughter); died Ocala, Florida 3 March 1997.