Obituary: Joseph Fuchs

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The American violinist Joseph Fuchs enjoyed a performing career that spanned almost 70 years - a phenomenon in the history of the instrument. His final Carnegie Hall recital was in 1992 and he last played in a concert at the Juilliard School of Music in New York in 1995. His style of playing was described by Boris Schwarz as "vigorous and large-scaled, with a masterful technique and a rich, warm tone". He was also a fine teacher and had been a professor at the Juilliard since 1946.

Fuchs was born in New York City into an immigrant Polish-Jewish family who loved music, and his father, a frustrated violinist, quickly noticed his son's budding talent. At the age of three he would repeat the melodies he heard in the synagogue and if anyone sang out of tune he would cover his ears. His introduction to the violin came about by sheer accident. At the age of three and a half, he fell off the kitchen table and received a compound fracture of the left elbow. His arm was in a plaster cast for three months, after which the doctor suggested he should have violin lessons as therapy.

His progress was so rapid that, after some initial instruction from his father, he had lessons with Mark Fonaroff, who was so impressed he took the boy straight to the School of Musical Art (now the Juilliard). Though only six years old he was accepted into the violin class and at 11 became a student of the great Franz Kneisel. Fuchs graduated in 1918 with some $2,500 in prizes.

In 1926 he became leader of the Cleveland Orchestra, a position he held until 1940 when he resigned in order to pursue a solo career. During his time with the Cleveland he was out of action for the best part of a year due to a problem caused by the childhood injury to his left arm. The surgeon told him that extraneous bone pressure on the ulnar nerve had caused the muscle between the third and fourth finger of the left hand to atrophy, and if he kept playing he would develop a claw hand. So he agreed to an operation whereby some nerve tissue was transplanted from the back of the arm to the front. Everyone doubted that the operation would be a success, but he was prepared to take the risk and within a year he was not only playing again but had resigned from the leadership of the orchestra in order to follow a solo career.

From 1941 to 1943 he led the Primrose String Quartet, with Josef Gingold as second violin, the Scot William Primrose on viola and Harvey Shapiro on cello. He made a successful Carnegie Hall debut in 1943 and during the Second World War was a tireless performer in military hospitals. At this time he was also co-founder of the Musicians' Guild, a chamber music ensemble which he directed until 1956. From this point onwards he became constantly in demand as a soloist and toured extensively in Europe, appearing at the Prades Festival under Pablo Casals in 1953 and 1954 and in South America, the Soviet Union and Japan. In the United States he appeared as a soloist with every major American orchestra. He also played at the opening concert of the Philharmonic Hall at the Lincoln Center in 1962.

Although his repertoire contained all the classic works, Fuchs was a great supporter of new music. He obtained a Ford Foundation grant in 1960 which enabled him to commission Walter Piston's Violin Concerto, the premiere of which he gave that same year in Pittsburgh. He also gave first performances of works by a number of composers, including the revised version of Vaughan Williams's Violin Sonata with Artur Balsam in 1969, and the posthumous American premiere of Bohuslav Martinu's Sonata for two violins and piano in 1974. Martinu also dedicated his Madrigaly for violin and viola to Fuchs and his sister, Lillian, who premiered the work in 1947.

Fuchs was appointed Violin Professor at the Juilliard School of Music in 1946, and in 1971 he received the Artist Teacher's Award from the American String Teachers' Association. He retired in 1995, after which his students went to his apartment for their lessons. Fuchs was convinced that players make the best teachers. He would say: "You must have experience in order to put yourself in a student's shoes." He would also quote the Russian violinist David Oistrakh who once, when visiting the Juilliard, was asked what was the best method of teaching, and replied: "I don't teach by method but by example. When words run out I pick up the violin and play those 10 bars. They mean more to a talented student than all the words." This, too, was Fuchs's credo.

Margaret Campbell

Joseph Fuchs, violinist: born New York 26 April 1900; married first Lillian Kessler (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1940), second Doris Levy (died 1997); died New York 14 March 1997.