Obituary: Alexander Schneider

Peter Pastreich
Saturday 13 February 1993 00:02 GMT

Alexander Schneider, violinist, born Vilna 21 October 1908, died New York City 2 February 1993.

ALEXANDER SCHNEIDER was a violinist, chamber musician, conductor, teacher, mentor, chef, philanthropist, connoisseur and gourmet.

Born in Vilna, in 1908, and concertmaster in Hamburg by the time he was 19, Schneider was a member of the Budapest String Quartet for 21 years (his brother Mischa was its cellist). He was also a member of the Schneider Quartet, the New York Quartet and the Albeneri Trio, played in a duo with the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, founded the Brandenburg Ensemble and the New School Concerts, and was one of the organisers of the Israel Music Festival. He made hundreds of recordings and in 1988 received the Kennedy Center Honors. He taught at the State University of New York, the universities of California, Chicago, Michigan and Washington, and was in residence with the Budapest quartet at Mills College from 1939 to 1944. 'Sasha' Schneider conducted the San Francisco Symphony in chamber orchestra concerts in every one of the San Francisco Symphony's first 10 years in Davies Symphony Hall.

None of this gives an idea of Schneider's influence on music and musicians in this century, or of the unquenchable energy that fired that influence. When Pablo Casals refused to leave Prades in protest against the recognition of Franco's Spain by foreign democracies, Schneider went to Casals, cooked dinner for him, offered to bring the music world to him, and then made good on his offer, organising the Casals Festival in Prades and later in Puerto Rico.

His passion for music-making changed the lives of hundreds of young musicians who played for and with him at the Marlboro Festival and in the New York String Seminars. He brought the players of the Guarneri Quartet together, encouraged and coached a dozen other chamber ensembles, and was responsible for the American debuts of Peter Serkin, Murray Perahia, and the Cleveland, Lenox, Ridge and Vermeer Quartets and the Tashi chamber ensemble.

Isaac Stern, who was 18 when he met Schneider in San Francisco in 1939, said, 'I can think of no musician today who has had as wide an influence on instrumental players in this country as he.'

I asked him to conduct the San Francisco Symphony as soon as I became its Executive Director in 1978, and when he arrived I suggested that we go out together for lunch. He proposed dim sum and we walked to Chinatown, where he remembered a place he used to eat when he was here with the Budapest. When we walked into the Hang Ah Tea Room, which he hadn't visited since 1944, the old Chinese man at the door said, 'Hello, Mr Schneider.' I never knew any performer with a surer eye for visual beauty or a more colourful command of language. A US citizen for 50 years, he loved to declare in his heavily accented speech, 'I'm a 100-per-cent American]' and when he declared heatedly that 'we have a responsibility to young pipple,' he wasn't just talking.

Schneider championed the music of Haydn, playing and recording virtually all of his chamber works. He gave the first US performances of all six Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas. Through his positions as vice- president of the Fromm Music Foundation and music director of New York's New School concerts, he was responsible for commissions and performances of works by Milton Babbitt, Luciano Beric, Pierre Boulez, Lukas Foss, Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions and Igor Stravinsky.

Schneider read constantly in French, English, Russian and German. His homes in Provence and New York were full of paintings and photographs, many by his friends (these included Saul Steinberg and Henri Cartier-Bresson). He lived for many years with the photographer Margaret Bourke-White and was married to the actress Geraldine Page.

In 1970 Schneider wrote a letter to Pablo Casals, then 93, on behalf of the Georgian Caucasian Orchestra, whose members and conductors were all over 100 years old (the letter was signed by Astan Shlarba, President, aged 123), inviting Casals, because of his conducting talent and in spite of his youth, to conduct them. Casals at first took the letter seriously, not finding it implausible that there should be such an ensemble.

(Photograph omitted)

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