Memories - Sebastian Guertler

An Austrian violinist, student of Hirshhorn in Utrecht in 1990s.

“Tu comprends mon chou?”
[You see what I mean, my dear?]

I became acquainted with Philippe Hirshhorn in 1994. On the recommendation of our common friend, a master violinist from Lyon, I enrolled in the master class in Utrecht and awaited with impatience my meeting with a man about whom I had a certain image going back a long time ago, from a musical festival of chamber music in Lockenhaus in the 1980s. Back then, I was still a music-making youth and I kept no recollections of the violinist Philippe Hirshhorn. He, in turn, was aware that a young Austrian violinist whom he did not previously know would be taking part in the master classes.

And so it happened that in the corridors of the Utrecht Conservatory the first “sampling”of the essence of this special person took place. Our paths crossed by chance and I, knowing who he was, briefly looked at him. When he in response looked at me, I was certain that he understood who I was. He not only knew who I was but how I play the violin, how I conduct myself, how I speak and how I laugh. This man could in an instant determine not only the immediately visible but also the whole complex of features. Not only see the control panel, but the whole circuit of wires behind it.

On that day, after lunch, we “officially” became acquainted in the classroom. I played the first and second movements of Bartok’s 2nd concerto for violin. When I finished, Philippe briefly made some comments. He was amazed (by my playing) and he needed a 2 minute break.. After he said this, a deadly silence settled on the classroom, which was overfilled with students. During these two minutes, he slowly went up to a table where a thermos stood, calmly filled a cup of coffee for himself, sat down in an armchair, cast his eyes down on the cup and very slowly stirred it with a teaspoon, as if there were a seismograph in it. Then he drank one gulp, put down the cup, looked at me, pursed his lips and made me a compliment. These were the longest two minutes in my life. It was the biggest compliment which I ever received and the biggest sense of relief in my life though I was acquainted with him for just a couple of hours.

Philippe Hirshhorn was a person who aroused contradictory attitudes towards himself in different people. I was among those who idolized him. I did not socialize with him outside the profession, but I can very well imagine that in everyday life he was by no means an easy person to get along with. Yet he possessed a magical force of attraction that was impossible to resist. It was something hypnotic.

And when we heard his famous phrases, which he often said in front of the students – “You see what I mean, my treasure?” or “It’s not too much?” or “You see what I mean, my dear?” – when we heard these words and he transfixed his interlocutor with a glance from his big, dark eyes, then it was impossible to say “no.” Even if what he said was not understandable. That would be a betrayal. In any case, as a still young student I understood it that way.

His grand technique of playing billiards etched itself into my memory. He handled the cue with just his right hand, as if it were a bow. And he pocketed the ball!

There was once an amusing incident. I had the ability to imitate foreign languages, including Russian, without my saying anything that made sense, simply a collection of sounds. I was sitting with a Russian student in the student cafeteria over coffee and a pastry. Philippe sat at the next table. The game was that I spoke in my pseudo-Russian and my interlocutor answered in real Russian. Moreover, I tried to speak only when Philippe himself was conversing and could not overhear me.

I noticed that he was surprised that I seemingly spoke Russian. In any case, he gave himself away by pricking up his ears in my direction when he wasn’t speaking himself. Because it sounded believable! This continued for a while, until he left.

At the next lesson, he suddenly began to speak with me in Russian and I pretended to understand. I interwove in my speech several words that I knew, pronouncing them with an ideal accent. For a while, everything went well – until my trick was exposed and we both had a good laugh. I had to repeat a couple of phrases as best I could, and he burst out laughing again. At me, and at himself.

In gratitude for the many private lessons which he gave me at various places around the world, I often sent him parcels of home-dried “white” mushrooms [transl.: boletus edulis or ceps]. In characteristic word play, Philippe nicknamed me “Sep”, instead of the familiar “Seb”, for my first name, Sebastian.

Once, late at night in Prague, Philippe was rehearsing the Strauss violin concerto. In the hall, where till shortly before lessons were being given, there were still several students. At a certain moment, he said it would be good if we disappeared so that he could practice in peace. And we did so. However, we gathered outside the door, listened to his playing and took turns looking through the keyhole to see how Philippe was playing. The passages with double notes laid out as triads sounded with unbelievable brilliance and strength, and in conspiratorial manner we nodded knowingly to one another, as if we had found the Holy Grail.

The strongest impression of my life I consider those moments during our studies when he himself played in the classroom. I was lucky enough to hear this in immediate proximity. This literally knocked you off your feet. The concentrated force, which was at the same time fragile in the highest degree, went straight through the listener. And if some little note did not come out quite as he wanted – and he wanted a great deal – then right there, in disappointment, he would put his violin to one side and would take it up again only in the next lesson. Nevertheless, he told me, “Don’t be stupid. Don’t be such a perfectionist as I am.” At the time, I could not understand that. Now I can.

In order to bear his sometimes cynical manner, a student had to have strong nerves. Especially in the last two years, in connection with his grave illness, he became more and more sparing in words and more philosophical. He sat in his armchair, spoke very little or was just silent and stared into space. Or he sat down at the grand piano and dived into a passage from the Brahms violin concerto, holding down one sound for around 10 seconds and commenting: “Ca, c’est tres jolie….et ca….c’est tres jolie aussi!.” [This is very pretty,…and this is also very pretty!] as if he played this sound for the last time. My heart ached to see him that way. News of his death deeply shocked me, and I felt strangely lost. I traveled by train from Vienna to Brussels for his funeral, and the weather was as appropriate as possible for this sad event. Cold, rain, fog.

I learned a great deal from him. First of all, his point of view that music is a gesture, a sculpture which you have to shape. This was one of his interesting philosophical postulates. Although his teaching was based on mastery of the instrument, he was never academic. There was the feeling of touching the fourth dimension. To be more precise, touching time. He was delighted with pianists who could play a crescendo from one chord to another, simply on the back of their feeling for time and the power of suggestion necessary for that. He possessed that quality himself to a more than sufficient degree.
Generally, Philippe very rarely spoke about violinists. More often about singers and pianists or about poets. I thank God that He put me together with this person, unique, one of a kind, and in the course of my whole life I will carry with me my memory of him.