Wolfgang Schneiderhan

Violinist of stylish superiority and balanced artistry

Friday 22 November 2013 06:15
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Wolfgang Eduard Schneiderhan, violinist: born Vienna 28 May 1915; married 1948 Irmgard Seefried (died 1988); died Vienna 18 May 2002.

The violinist and teacher Wolfgang Schneiderhan was never a great virtuoso, but his performances were always distinguished by a stylish superiority and balanced artistry. Throughout his long career, he appeared as a soloist with most of the great conductors and as a recitalist with many of the most celebrated pianists of the era.

Schneiderhan was born in Vienna in 1915 and had his first lessons on the violin from his mother – a music teacher – when he was three. At five he gave his first public recital and two years later went to Pisek in Czechoslovakia to study with Otakar Sevcik, then one of the most important teachers in Europe, but also the most controversial. Schneiderhan once said that Sevcik was like a man obsessed, who wanted to make a Paganini out of every one of his pupils and that he "drilled" rather than taught. As a reaction to this disciplinarian method, he completed his studies with Julius Winkler in Vienna who opened up a completely new world of spiritual and musical beauty. Perhaps because of these contrasting experiences Schneiderhan eventually became the most classical of all Austrian violinists.

His international career as a soloist began when he was only 11, playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in Copenhagen. In 1932, at 17, he was appointed leader of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and four years later took over the leadership of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. He always considered it important for any young musician to spend some time in an orchestra regardless of soloist ambitions. He would say: "It teaches you to listen – how long the wind and brass have to breathe. It is like playing in a string quartet. The benefits are slightly different, but complementary." String quartet playing was also something close to his heart and in 1936 he formed the Schneiderhan String Quartet with Otto Strassner, Ernest Moravec and Richard Kroschak.

In 1951 he resigned from the orchestra in order to devote himself to solo and chamber music; the latter included the celebrated trio he had formed in 1949 with the pianist Edwin Fischer and cellist Enrico Mainardi which was disbanded in 1956.

Teaching was also was a very important part of Schneiderhan's musical life. He was appointed Professor at the Hochschule Für Musik in Vienna when he was only 22 and continued to teach there until 1950. He was also active as a teacher at the Salzburg Mozarteum from 1938-56 and in 1949 he succeeded Carl Flesch at the Lucerne Conservatory continuing to give the master classes previously made so popular by Flesch. It was also here that, together with his pupil Rudolf Baumgartner, he founded the Lucerne Festival Strings in 1956. Three years later he appeared as soloist in their first highly successful visit to the Edinburgh Festival in 1959 and a subsequent US tour.

He also appeared in concerts with his wife, the soprano Irmgard Seefried. In 1964 they gave the first performance of Hans Werner Henze's Ariosi at the Edinburgh Festival and in 1968 they took part in Frank Martin's Magnificat which was written for and dedicated to them.

The Viennese tradition of violin playing was important to Schneiderhan, and he was very conscious of his inheritance. He would quote the famous names who had started their careers there, such as Joseph Joachim and the great Leopold Auer who was in Vienna before he started the Russian school. The most famous of all was Fritz Kreisler who, he would point out, was not only a great violinist but also a philanthropist who was always ready to champion a worthy cause. It was in gratitude to this "very fine man" that when he initiated the first ever Austrian violin competition for young musicians in 1992, he called it the "Fritz Kreisler".

He was known mainly for his interpretations of the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, many of which are included in his extensive discography. He recorded all the Mozart violin concertos in which he also directed the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and his historic recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Wilhelm Furtwängler was recently reissued on CD. He also gave some excellent performances of contemporary music. He once said: "Music does not stop with Debussy or Respighi. Modern music will only die if it is not good music."

Margaret Campbell

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