Carl F. Flesch: Writer and son of the violinist

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:18

When I rang Carl F. Flesch on his 97th birthday last summer and asked how he was, his response was typical: "Well, I can't see and I can't hear and I can't walk, but apart from that I'm fine!" He could see and hear and walk, of course, but was protesting the vicissitudes of old age with the self-deprecating good humour that always animated his conversation.

Best of all, he could think – old age made no inroads on his mind, which remained as sharp as ever. He wrote a fortnightly column on developments in the London markets for Versicherungswirtschaft, a German insurance publication, until he was 96. The last of his four books, Who's Not Who, an engaging blend of reminiscence and (often contentious) thinking aloud, likewise appeared in 2006.

Flesch was one of twin sons of one of the most distinguished of all classical musicians, the violinist Carl Flesch – hence his life-long insistence on his middle initial to prevent confusion. Daily proximity with an iconic musician inculcated a healthy scepticism about some of the rituals that surrounded concert-giving, but Flesch always understood that growing up in such a family was a privileged position, and maintaining his father's legacy was a concern that ran like a leitmotif through his own life. His first book, And Do You Also Play the Violin? (1990) – published when he was 80 – was a collection of reminiscences of growing up in the Flesch household, its title recalling the question he was most frequently asked as a child.

It was law, not music, that attracted Carl Flesch as a profession, and he studied at the universities of Freiburg, Heidelberg and Berlin, graduating in 1931. The next step up the legal ladder was to become a Referendar, an unpaid position in the civil service intended to furnish three years' experience in legal administration. As the Flesches were Hungarians, Carl was ineligible for the civil service, and since he was under-age he could not take German citizenship – a double barrier that his father deftly circumvented by naturalising the entire family. Carl later observed ruefully that if only he had spent two years longer on his studies, the advent of Hitler would have spared them the disadvantages of being Jews with German passports.

After January 1933 and the Nazi seizure of power it was, of course, the Jewish civil servants who were first shown the door. Unlike many, the 22-year-old Carl Flesch read the writing on the wall and left Germany that August, spending six months in the Netherlands (his mother was Dutch) before deciding to move to England.

Inter-war immigration to the UK was never easy and was to be made more difficult as the noose tightened round the necks of Germany's Jews. Flesch, though, sailed through: his father was booked to play a sonata-recital for the BBC and put Carl on his papers as his secretary; thereafter he was able to renew his residence permit without difficulty.

Having wasted five years learning German law, he wasn't about to waste five more developing an acquaintance with the British legal system and decided, instead, to enter the insurance business, establishing the company Leroi, Flesch and Co with a fellow refugee.

Discovering to his "agreeable surprise" that he had not relinquished his Hungarian nationality when he took German citizenship, he was able to have himself classified as a "friendly alien" and thus escaped internment. For a year and a half he busied himself with voluntary war work in factories until able to resume his career in insurance.

Leroi, Flesch and Co prospered after the war, one of the firm's specialities merging his background with his business experience by offering insurance against musicians' cancellation of concerts. He recalled with amusement how the concert promoter Harold Holt turned down one of his propositions: "Flesch is willing, but we are not".

When Flesch was in his mid-Fifties, an ill-advised merger with another firm brought his company low and he resigned. He became an underwriting member of Lloyd's but here, too, unreliable partners steered the company on to the rocks and, once again, he lanced the boil by resigning.

He was now nearly 70 but couldn't brook the thought of inactivity and so applied to the 12 biggest Lloyd's brokers in the country. After eight years at the top of the insurance industry, he finally left salaried employment at 78.

Having managed to establish the Carl Flesch International Violin Competition in London in 1945, only a year after his father's death in Swiss exile, he was deeply disappointed when in 1992 the City of London withdrew its support and the enterprise collapsed. Generating support for a revival of the competition became one of the major themes of his later years.

When e-mail arrived 15 or so years ago, Carl Flesch embraced the technology and at 97 was my oldest e-mail correspondent by several years. By then, admittedly, he had had to give up playing table tennis but it was almost his only concession to old age.

Martin Anderson

Carl Franz Flesch, lawyer and insurance broker: born Rindbach, Austria 23 June 1910; married 1937 Ruth Seligsohn (died 1986; one son, and one daughter deceased); died London 11 February 2008.

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