Obituary: Walter Trampler
Friday 03 October 1997
In 1994 the BBC honoured Walter Trampler with a memorable invitation concert at the Maida Vale Studios in London. Before an enraptured audience he performed an evening of 20th- century viola repertoire.
During a break in the performance I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his career, and he captivated us all with wonderful stories of his musical life. One in particular is worth recounting. Stravinsky (who for same strange reason used to refer to Trampler as El Capitano) always arrived at recording sessions with two bottles of whisky - a superior malt for himself, and an inferior brand that he handed out to the musicians after work.
Trampler was born in Munich in 1915. He was taught initially as a violinist by his father, and later attended the State Academy of Music in Munich until 1934. At the age of 17 he was appointed violist in the Strub Quartet, and a year later became principal violist with the German State Radio Orchestra in Berlin, during which time he played under the baton of Richard Strauss.
As Germany darkened under the threat of Nazism, Trampler (an ardent and outspoken anti-Fascist) emigrated to the United States in 1939 in sympathy with his Jewish colleagues. Shortly after his arrival he met Serge Koussevitzky, who appointed him to a position as violist (his first study in Germany) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
After a brief spell in the US Army, he began to establish himself in New York City as a leading chamber music performer, first with the New Music Quartet, and later as a founder member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Throughout this period he was a frequent guest artist with, among others, the Juilliard Quartet and the Budapest Quartet, with whom he made a number of recordings, including magnificent performances of both the Mozart and Brahms String Quintets.
Throughout his career he was a dedicated teacher, holding appointments at Juilliard, the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Yale, Boston University and the New England Conservatory in Boston. As recently as 1996 he taught at the Mannes College of Music in New York.
I knew Walter Trampler both professionally and as a great friend for more than 25 years. He was a musical inspiration and when in the mid- 1970s he commissioned me to write him a concerto, I had one of the finest exponents of contemporary viola music performing my work. He had a great commitment to contemporary music, and was willing to take on and master the most complex techniques. One of my earliest memories of his playing was his RCA recording of Luciano Berio's Chemins 2, a fiendishly difficult work (written specially for him) displaying a constant tremolo viola texture. I remember Trampler's jokingly remarking that he had to practise on a vibrating machine to get in training weeks before a performance.
Although we lived many miles apart, we met frequently in New York, where I was always greeted by him and his wife Ruth with more than one very large dry Martini (a Trampler speciality). He was a man of immense style, elegance and culture. This extended well beyond his musical activities, and could be seen in the surroundings of his beautiful Manhattan apartment, and in the renovated colonial church he transformed into a magnificent home in upstate New York.
With his death in his beloved Nova Scotia, the musical world has lost one of the last surviving links of a great European-American performing tradition. Thankfully he made many legendary recordings during his lifetime. For me, perhaps the greatest were the performances of the two late Brahms viola sonatas, which he recorded with Mieczyslaw Horszowski. It was playing of innate warmth and musicianship, a sound that will be with me for ever.
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