On the very sad occasion of the death of Erich Gruenberg I am proud to have the opportunity to pay tribute to this giant of the violin who made such an enormous contribution to the music profession as a performer, and to the generations of violinists who had the privilege of studying under his guidance at the Royal Academy of Music. He was a tremendously valued friend of the institution who has left a lasting and treasured legacy, always an inspiration to his students and with precious memories of a cherished colleague to us all.
Born in 1924, Erich studied first in Vienna and then in Jerusalem Conservatory. He came to London in 1946 and in 1947 won the Carl Flesch Competition at the age of 23. This was only the third year of the competition and at that time there was no monetary award, but this significant success with its associated opportunities launched his solo career. He gave the first performance in Russia of the Britten Violin Concerto, and was appointed Leader of the Stockholm Philharmonic, then in 1962, became Leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, and in 1972, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, famously under Rudolf Kempe. He was leader of the London String Quartet for ten years and continued to pursue his solo performing. He often shared the platform with his pianist daughter Joanna, and with his violinist daughter Tina – including his debut playing the viola in a performance with her of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante - as well as appearing as a concerto soloist. His recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas with David Wilde in 1984 was enthusiastically received, with the Gramophone review referring to his civilised, intelligent and sensitive playing. These are characteristics that describe Erich as a person very well, indicating that the violinist was also very much the man himself.
His career as a performer showed him to be a master of the instrument with a violinistic heritage of great richness and tradition – also embracing newly emerging repertoire from composers such as Roberto Gerhard and Olivier Messiaen – and an immensely versatile and creative force, excelling in all performance areas.
In parallel with his playing, he was a teacher and mentor of young musicians of exceptional influence. His former students populate the profession worldwide, and they speak of him with the affection, respect, warmth and appreciation that comes with holistic education of the highest calibre. He had an enlightening and enabling manner that gave his students confidence and assurance, as well as a gentle insistence on the ‘non-negotiables’ of fine playing which instilled discipline without undue pressure.
He gave invaluable insight into the range and scope of the violin as an instrument which can offer a multifaceted career – his own being a prime example. Amongst his very distinguished credits as a performer, there are the lighter touches, his session work including leading the studio orchestra on Beatles tracks including ‘She’s leaving home’ amongst others.
His own career launch as a result of international competition success led him to engage with this medium of performance. He was a member of an array of impressive, international competition juries all over the world. In this occasionally volatile environment, his measured, courteous and informed judgements were highly respected.
I have extremely fond memories of the time I shared with Erich at the Academy. He was extremely kind and supportive, and full of care and concern for his students. He was a regular (tall!) presence together with his wife Khorshed at Academy concerts, and no-one who attended his Barbirolli lecture/interview could ever forget the modest way he described his multiple collaborations with legendary figures of the last 70 years of music-making in this country, and around the world.
Erich decided to retire from the Academy last Autumn aged 95. Plans for a party in the summer term were upset by the pandemic, and I know that all my colleagues in the Strings Department, his students past and more recent, and everyone who had the pleasure of knowing Erich Gruenberg will miss him hugely and especially sad not to have had the opportunity to offer our heartfelt thanks then for everything he did for the Academy. Our thoughts are with Khorshed, Joanna and Tina.
August 8th 2020