Josef Hassid: The Forgotten Genius

The first half of the 20th century bears testimony to the tragically ephemeral career of the Polish violinist whose virtuosity belied his age. By Cavas Bilimoria

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air” – Gray’s Elegy

Most teenage prodigies are soon forgotten, but the legend of Josef Hassid persists partly because of his astounding virtuosity, and partly because of his tragic early death. Born Joseph Chasyd, but known professionally as Josef Hassid, on 28th December 1923 in the Polish border town of Suwałki, there has, in the opinion of many, never been a violinist quite like him.

A musical prodigy

After the death of his mother when he was still an infant, he was brought up by his father Owseij Chasyd who nurtured his extraordinary gift. Having started his violin studies with a local teacher who very quickly had nothing left to teach him, he entered the Chopin School of Music in Warsaw at the age of 10. Shortly thereafter, he became one of the youngest competitors in the very first and prestigious Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition held in Warsaw (nowadays held in Poznan) in 1935. He had a memory lapse – perhaps a harbinger of things to come – which did not detract from the beauty of his playing and hence was awarded an honorary diploma. The first prize went to Ginette Neveu and the second to David Oistrakh.

Later, the great Polish violinist and founder of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Bronisław Huberman, arranged for Hassid to study under the foremost teacher of his time, Carl Flesch, at Spa in Belgium. When, after a few months, Flesch moved to London, he invited Hassid to continue his studies with him there. Flesch concentrated on shaping Hassid’s musical and interpretative development since on the technical level the young violinist needed nothing more to learn. Indeed, Flesch in his memoirs wrote, “Hassid was no doubt one of the strongest violin talents of his time.”

During this period of intensive study with Flesch, many of the world’s leading violinists, including Fritz Kreisler, Jacques Thibaud and Joseph Szigeti, who heard him were astounded at his superhuman command over the instrument and deep musicality in one so young. Kreisler opined that “A fiddler like Heifetz is born every 100 years, one like Hassid once every 200 years.” Kreisler lent him his magnificent Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin of 1860 not only for the eight pieces Hassid has recorded but also for the remainder of his tragically short career.

A few weeks later, in the spring of 1940, Hassid was presented in a solo debut at Wigmore Hall and a concert debut at Queen’s Hall during which he suffered another memory lapse while playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto.

Shortly thereafter, Hassid began to record. But alas, before the end of what should have been a momentous year, he became seriously ill, falling prey to further bouts of memory loss, becoming sullen and withdrawn and turning against his father, his violin and his religion. Acute schizophrenia was diagnosed. During a considerable spell in hospital where he was subjected to insulin treatment and electric shocks, his father died of cancer which worsened Hassid’s condition. As a last-ditch effort, delicate brain surgery (lobotomy) was tried but meningitis set in and on 7th November 1950, Hassid was no more.

The recordings

During the period since his premature death, the few facts which survive have become confused and even contradictory. Ida Haendel, a fellow student in Flesch’s class, throws valuable light on some of these in her book Woman with Violin. But all controversy can be effectively put to rest by the irrefutable and inviolate evidence by way of just eight miraculous sides of the 78 rpm records on which eight short pieces were recorded. Before these were made, and aware of the stories doing the rounds of Hassid’s exceptional talent, the Gramophone Company, with the blessings of Hassid’s agent Harold Holt, arranged for a special “test recording” to be made of Elgar’s La Capricieuse with Ivor Newton at the piano. It was such a success that it was suggested that Hassid should immediately embark on a series of recordings and public appearances. He was just 15 years old. But Holt resisted, suggesting that Hassid continue his studies with Flesch for some months more – an astute decision in view of the phenomenal advance Hassid made under Flesch’s guidance.

A year later, in 1940, he recorded eight short pieces with that doyen of accompanists Gerald Moore, one of which was again La Capricieuse. While the earlier recording (September 1939) was phenomenal, the second one with Moore is electrifying.

Here are the eight pieces recorded with Moore:-

Elgar: La Capricieuse

Tchaikovsky: Mélodie (Souvenir d’un lieu cher)

Massenet: “Méditation” from Thaïs

Dvořák (arr. Kreisler): Humoreske

Sarasate: Spanish dance “Playera”

Sarasate: Spanish dance “Zapateado”

Joseph Achron: Hebrew Melody

Kreisler: Caprice Viennois

A transcendental legacy

It is illuminating to read what Moore, talking to the Gramophone magazine in its April 1973 issue, had to say about Hassid,

“Then there was Josef Hassid, the greatest instrumental genius I have ever partnered. I don’t know how to explain his incandescence. He had technical perfection, marvellous intonation, glorious tone – but there was something above that which was quite incredible – a metaphysical quality.”

The recordings have of course been transferred on the vinyl LPs and also on CDs. What do they reveal? The moment Hassid puts bow to string, the ear is beguiled by a captivating and uniquely individual sound, a peerless technique and an arresting and frequently original interpretative approach. Listen to his staccatos in La Capricieuse – like pearls set upon a string, or again to the entrancing double stops in Caprice Viennois, or even to the deeply felt eloquence in Achron’s Hebrew Melody with its incredibly rapid yet perfectly articulated runs and lightning trills. If that is not enough, listen to the “Méditation” from Thaïs where the inner struggle of the courtesan yearning to be free after Athaneil’s exhortations are so vividly painted in sound. Or yet again to “Playera” with a magnificent sense of rhythm and timing along with a rich velvety lower register tone which is irresistible or even his ever popular “Zapateado” with its propulsive dash and pristine harmonics which rival Heifetz.

As long as these precious few recordings exist and are listened to and appreciated by music lovers the world over, we can reassure ourselves that Hassid has not quite disappeared from our midst after all.

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the October 2020 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.