Born: January 20, 1891; Talnoy, Russia
Died: April 5, 1967; New York, NY
Elman was the second prodigy pupil of Leopold Auer (after Efrem Zimbalist) to become internationally famous before adolescence. Their Hungarian-born teacher -- a student of Joachim and subsequent mentor of Toscha Seidel, Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein -- was appointed professor of violin at the St. Petersburg Imperial Conservatory in 1868. He remained until the Revolution, then moved to the U.S. In 1878, Tchaikovsky dedicated his violinRead more concerto to Auer, but withdrew the honor when the latter declared it "unplayable." Later on, Auer recanted, performed the work repeatedly, and made a point of teaching it to all his students including Elman, who came to cherish it as his own.
Mischa was 11 when his father brought him to Auer, vacationing in Odessa, where the family had moved to further the boy's natural talent. When he played Paganini's 24th Caprice and the Wieniawski Second Concerto, Auer insisted the Imperial Conservatory accept him immediately. In St. Petersburg, Mischa gave private concerts for arts patrons, one of whom, the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, gave him an Amati violin. Progress was so rapid that Auer decided Mischa should play a concert in Berlin (where a 10-year-old protégé of Joachim had created a sensation in 1903).
On October 13, 1904, the day before his debut, Elman played privately for Joachim, who could only manage to say, "I am speechless." Not so the audience, which cheered the 13-year-old phenomenon. In 1905 he took England by storm, and joined Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso in a concert at Buckingham Palace for Edward VII and Alfonso of Spain. Called "the greatest violinist in the world" by London critics, Elman made his American debut in Carnegie Hall on December 10, 1908 -- one month shy of his 17th birthday -- playing the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Russian Symphony Society of New York. Victor Records promptly signed him to a contract (salon music mainly, played with impeccable intonation and rich tone, but with nineteenth century mannerisms forever retained). Elman also made a series of recordings with Caruso and Frances Alda, and excerpts from works by Dittersdorf, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert with an "Elman String Quartet." By 1912, he had appeared with every major U.S. orchestra, including 31 performances with the Boston Symphony! By 1913, his annual record royalties were $35,000, and in 1916 Carl Sandburg wrote a paean to his playing entitled Bath.
Then Heifetz, who was Auer's masterpiece, made his American debut in Carnegie Hall on October 27, 1917. He was 16, a decade younger than Elman, who asked his box-partner at intermission, "Isn't it getting hot in here?" "Not for pianists," Leopold Godowsky famously replied. Elman continued touring far and wide, but a supernova had usurped his celebrity -- a technician nonpareil, a musician in the "modern" tradition, although Elman continued to be celebrated as "the violinist with the golden tone." In 1926, Vitaphone made a six-minute "full-sound" film of him playing Dvorák and Gossec. Then came concerto recordings: his first Tchaikovsky in 1929, others later, although he didn't make a complete sonata recording until after WWII. In 1951, Elman switched to London Decca, recording concertos conducted by Boult, the young Solti, and Krips (Mozart with treacle). The last decade found him recording in Vienna for Vanguard, but never the Martinu Second Concerto he commissioned in 1943 -- only Khachaturian's populist artifact. In 1962, A Golden Hour from the Royal Opera House on BBC-TV sandwiched Elman, playing two salon trifles, between flamenco by José Greco and a Royal Ballet pas de deux. Then Callas and di Stefano came on, and got the lion's share of attention and applause. Read less
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