Joshua Bell describes finding his instrument, a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin, as a “kind of love story that only happens once or twice in one’s life.” It’s a love story that involves more than a little bit of luck, too.
Bell was in London to play the 2001 BBC Proms when he stopped by a violin shop for some strings before his performance that night. The shop owners encouraged him to play the famous violin, which happened to be in the shop for that night only before being sent to Germany to be sold.
“I literally just fell in love with it so quickly,” Bell told us as he recounted the story. “I thought ‘this is it, this violin is not leaving my hands, it’s not going to Germany, it’s going to be my instrument for the rest of my life.'” He played it that night at the Royal Albert Hall in front of 7,000 people.
As incredible as Bell’s acquisition of the violin is, the instrument’s history is even more so. Before finding its way to Bell, the violin was missing for 50 years, having been stolen from the Carnegie Hall dressing room of owner Bronisław Huberman and only recovered after the thief’s prison death-bed confession.
Huberman, a Jewish Polish virtuoso, had played the violin while forming the Palestine Philharmonic (now known as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) with Jewish musicians persecuted by Nazis. It’s estimated that Huberman saved nearly 1,000 people—instrumentalists and their families—from the Third Reich.
As a child, Huberman performed Brahms’ violin concerto (a work deemed so technically difficult at the time that it was considered “unplayable”) so exquisitely that he reportedly brought the composer himself to tears in the audience.
It’s this history that Bell feels when he picks up the instrument. “It’s pretty awesome that I play on the violin that was owned by Huberman, who played for Brahms,” he says. “It shows that we’re connected closer than you might think.”
Bell, who is also Jewish, acknowledges the political weight of the instrument’s history, especially in Huberman’s hands during the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. “I try not to look at is as a direct link to party politics, but music is an incredible tool to bring people together,” Bell points out.
He recounts a performance with the Soviet-American youth orchestra when he was 22. “It was a wonderful way of bringing the two countries of the Cold War together. These are youth of both countries playing together and it was a beautiful thing. And a year later the Soviet Union disbanded. I’m not saying we were totally responsible,” he says, then in a moment of light heartedness, he adds with a chuckle: “but we probably were, for the most part.”
This Wednesday only, Bell with bring his violin to perform with the Nashville Symphony, continuing the Violins of Hope initiative that has encouraged a citywide dialogue about social justice, centered around restored instruments played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. The Jewish Film Festival will also host a free screening of the documentary The Return of the Violin, which details the incredible story of Bell’s instrument.
The Nashville Symphony program features Bell performing Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, which happens to be the first major concerto Bell recorded at age 19. In the 30 years since, he says he’s grown a lot with the piece. “[It] inhabits me in an authentic way after so many years of playing. I go through waves of falling in love with it. People talk about that in marriage sometimes, you keep falling in love again and rediscovering new things, and the piece is like that.”
Bell is slated to release a brand new recording of the concerto on June 22nd with Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, this time stepping into the role of conductor as well as featured soloist. The recording, titled Scottish Fantasy, will also feature Bruch's Op. 46 work of the same name.
While one of the most beloved violin concertos today, Bruch’s work was fraught in its gestation. The composer rewrote the piece numerous times and once sent a letter to his former teacher, saying: “I do not feel sure of of my feet on this terrain. Do you think that it is very audacious to write a violin concerto?” He eventually turned to violinist Joseph Joachim for his input, to which the virtuoso returned a detailed list of suggestions.
When asked what input for the concerto he might give to Bruch if they were to meet, Bell lets out a laugh. “First of all, he consulted one of the greatest violinists of history… so I think he was in good hands there,” he explains. “I can’t imagine changing a single note.”
Then, after a pause: “I’d be more curious to hear what he would think of my approach to the piece, and whether he would have hated it or said ‘Oh, that was just what I was looking for.'”
And just like Huberman dazzled Brahms over a century ago, Bell hopes Bruch would be moved by his performance. “Of course, in my mind, I imagine him thinking just that—that I’ve played just what he was looking for.”