No Second Fiddle: Violionist Ivry Gitlis

Ivry Gitlis

Ivry Gitlis: “It was not love at first sight [with a Stradivarius violin] — it took a year and a half to know it, and for it to know me.”

Acclaimed violinist Ivry Gitlis has made history with his virtuosity and a rare talent to improvise.

Ivry Gitlis is a living violin legend, a famous Parisian, and an inspiring Epicurean figure. Gitlis could never be accused of being a reproduction of anyone — past or present. He has made history not just with his virtuosity but also because of a rare talent to improvise in our regimented bourgeois world.

Gitlis was born in 1922 to a Ukrainian Jewish family in Palestine and grew up in Haifa. “I wanted a violin since the age of four,” he tells me. For his fifth birthday, his family gathered the funds to buy him his first half-size violin. He began lessons with a pupil of Adolf Busch and quickly became renowned as a child prodigy.

“You don’t know that you’re a child prodigy,” says Gitlis. He has just returned from a trip to Israel and Cyprus teaching, playing and organising festivals. Gitlis speaks Hebrew, German, Russian, French and English perfectly and, more importantly, with vigorous charm. He explains that, as a child, the violin was a friend, something he could confide to: “When sad or upset I could tell myself the stories that were in my mind.”

I’m reminded of how close to Epicure’s ideals he manages to live: in a commune of likeminded people, who are devoted to discovering freedom in life; a life free of petty entanglements, while nonetheless never shying away from commitments and discipline. His apartment in Paris is simple and seemingly uncared for. But in each of the many towering piles on the 200-year-old Parisian parquet floor are pieces of paper with thoughts, photographs of friends, music sheets — precious and integral mementos to who he is and those who have been in his life.

I met here for the first time his tool of the trade: a rare ‘golden period’ Stradivarius violin. A family in New York helped him seize the opportunity to buy it some 50 years ago. He pulled it out of its case from under the grand piano and above more piles of scores and notes of his own. The bridge, holding the strings up, was shrunken from having been played on for what seemed like decades. The instrument was delicately kept in a silk pocket and velvet cushioning.

The violin is an acoustic technology that we have not made any significant modifications to since Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). We still have conservatories, orchestras and concert halls full of violin players across the continents, playing on that same violin model, whether a real ‘Strad’ or not.

“Everyone should have a violin symbolically that they can use as a mirror. You can share with others what you don’t know you have,” says Gitlis. While most machines are thought of as a separate entity to oneself, in the case of musical instruments, they are an extension of the self, or perhaps even a fulfilment of the self. “I could improvise and bring tears to my eyes expressing things I had no words for,” he explains.

A Stradivarius violin is a difficult instrument to play for most. “It was not love at first sight — it took a year and a half to know it, and for it to know me.” Gitlis goes on to explain that love at first sight might not make a long affair, but a “happy marriage is one with many problems you know how to manage”.

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