Obituary: Felix Galimir

Margaret Campbell
Monday 15 November 1999 01:02

ALTHOUGH SMALL in stature, the violinist Felix Galimir was a giant in his influence on two generations of musicians. His vast musical knowledge and outstanding gifts as a teacher were demonstrated until his death - at the Juilliard School and Mannes College in New York and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

He was born in Vienna in 1910, the son of a textile manufacturer who had little interest in music but none the less decided that his four children should have music lessons. Felix began playing the violin at five and entered the Vienna Conservatoire when he was only 14 as a student of Adolf Bak. He was also coached in chamber music by Simon Pullman, and at 19 he formed the Galimir String Quartet with his three sisters.

Felix Galimir considered Pullman to be one of the greatest influences on his career; he was also an authority on contemporary music and encouraged the young players to explore the quartet literature of the time. One of the works in which they specialised was the Alban Berg Lyric Suite which was often described as being "unplayable". However they worked on it and later invited the composer to their first public performance. Berg was amazed and after the concert inscribed Galimir's score, "To Felix Galimir, the outstanding quartet leader - famous violinist, wonderful musician, in remembrance 9 April 1931". He was just 21. They went on to make the first recording of this quartet and were awarded the French Grand Prix du Disque.

The following year Galimir spent studying with Carl Flesch in Berlin and Baden-Baden. He recalled later that he had benefited greatly from Flesch's methodical approach, which focused on security and precision.

On his return to Vienna Galimir continued to give concerts with the quartet and they made a name for themselves throughout Europe as exponents of contemporary works. On one occasion when they were playing the Ravel Quartet, the composer happened to be present and was so delighted with the performance that he invited them to record the work in Paris, where it was awarded the Grand Prix du Disque.

In 1935 Galimir auditioned successfully for a vacancy in the Vienna Philharmonic but at the time Jewish musicians were being weeded out, so he was not allowed to play. He was then invited by Bronislav Huberman to be assistant leader and soloist of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic), which Huberman had founded for the many Jewish musicians fleeing from persecution in Europe. At the opening concert, the conductor was Arturo Toscanini and Galimir immediately fell under his spell. In 1938 he emigrated to the United States to become leader of the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini, and there, except for two years' US Army service during the Second World War, he remained until the maestro's retirement in 1954. He was also the leader of NBC's Symphony of the Air from 1954 to 1956.

Galimir had made his solo debut at the Town Hall in New York in 1938; the same year he re-formed the Galimir Quartet with leading string players of the time. He knew many of the famous European musicians, and it was his friendship with the violinist Adolf Busch - of the Busch Quartet - which brought him into contact with the pianist Rudolf Serkin; after Busch's death in 1952 Serkin invited Galimir to take his place at the Marlboro Festival, one of the most celebrated summer events in the United States. Arnold Steinhardt, leader of the Guarneri Quartet, who worked with Galimir, was once asked about his skills as a teacher:

Above all, Felix has cogent, well-defined musical ideas which he presents without any nonsense. He goes to the core of the music without high-flown language or poetic allusions. He doesn't say that he loved your playing or hated it - but simply tells you what has to be done. He's like a carpenter explaining to a colleague that this beam has to be reinforced because it holds up this wall. You climb inside the structure of the piece as if the composer were leading you by the hand.

Galimir taught chamber music at the Juilliard from 1962 and violin at the Mannes College from the mid-Seventies. He was Head of Chamber Music at the Curtis Institute from 1972. He said, "I love my students. To be with young people, especially when they are eager to learn, recharges my batteries." He was a musician of the old school who felt that today technical accomplishment has led to making everything sound the same. He said:

There's a tendency to make every note exciting, every note beautiful - and the beauty of non-vibrato is overlooked. I sometimes tell my students that vibrato is a string-player's lipstick. One shouldn't always paint the lips bright red. When you get dressed up you use a little more; when you go on a trip to the mountains you use a little less.

Galimir loved watching football and was a keen supporter of the New York Giants; he also collected antique clocks. The writer David Blum described him as "intellectual without display, modest, droll, laconic, warm and enthusiastic".

Felix Galimir, violinist: born Vienna 20 May 1910; married 1945 Suzanne Hirsch (died 1998); died New York 10 November 1999.

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