Memories - Véronique & Nina Hirshhorn

Ilze Medne interview.

– What are your first recollections of your father?

Veronica: – My father and I played a lot together, fooled around. My father loved games. And, of course, the violin. I fell asleep listening to the sounds of the violin. In the daytime, as well, you could always hear it.

– Did he allow you to be at his side when he was practicing?

No. But when we went to master classes in France, I really wanted to be present during the classes and practice sessions. However, I think that as a child I bothered him a lot. Sometimes he let me sit somewhere in the corner on a little chair, and I sat there very quietly. I was around ten years old. If I sat in on such lessons today, I’d understand a lot more about what was going on.

– Was there a a difference between what your father was like at work and at home?

People say that even in class he could be different at different times. He was a strong personality and a very sensitive man. Students say they never knew what mood they would find him in. At home, as well, when he was in a good mood, everything was fine and his sense of humor was splendid, even if sometimes it was black humor. But at other times he was deeply engaged in his own world, was thinking about something and it was better not to approach him.

– What could you do to please him?

Play some game with him – cards, backgammon or something else. I had a game about Europe (about knowledge of Europe) and we sat and played for hours in the mornings, still in our dressing gowns. In the summer, we kept an inflatable pool on the balcony and I splashed around there. My father would come to join me there and we’d engage in a water fight using plastic bottles. Usually, before I went to sleep we’d have a pillow fight. Pillows flew around the whole room. It was very amusing for me. We also fought over what we would watch on television. In the evening I’d watch cartoons, but when father had his tennis or football programs we fought over the remote control. 

Nina: – And tears were shed sometimes. 

Veronica: – After classes he often took along his students and they went to play Flipper.

– Do you remember any remarks or how he called you?

I had many different nicknames. He loved to play with words, and he and my mother thought up new non-existent words, names or surnames crossed with various objects or flowers. I also took part in this. When I was fifteen, father was already ill. At that time my first boyfriends appeared. One of them came to see us and the two of us sat in our garden and chatted. My father came out, half undressed, just took a look at us and left without saying anything. I felt really embarrassed. I understand that this was his way of expressing his attitude to what was going on. But I recall that he gave me two pieces of advice. “Be careful with the boys, with men. Sometimes men don’t understand that you are saying “no”.”

– Why didn’t he want you to learn how to play the violin?

I think he had a very hard time making his way in the world, where it’s not just music that counts but you also have to know your way around PR. My father was a sensitive man, and he just wanted to protect me. He was afraid that if I study music it will become my profession, and knowing how this world works, he wanted to protect me.

– But wasn’t the musical world in some way attractive for you: concerts, Philippe’s friends, this circle of people?

This was interesting for me but I was very shy. There was a big pressure on me after all : PAPA. Music was in some way unattainable. Such was my feeling.

– What are your relations today with the world of music?

Now I have a different attitude to the world of music. I no longer look at music or art through the lens of my father or my mother. As you know, my mother is also an artist, a person in the arts. Now I have my own relationship with art and that is good. This became a possibility for interrelating with my father. When I ask myself some questions or when I draw, I often address myself to him and ask: “how did you do that ?”. Or I imagine how he would have felt. This helps me a lot. So through art I continue to have relations with him.

– Do you have a memory of sounds from those times in the past, the sound of his violin?

Of course.

– How was it? Can you find the words to describe him?

Very sensitive.

– In all repertoires?

Sensitive in the sense that in his playing, in the sound, he himself was always present.

– Do you have some impressions from when you were in the concert hall?

Yes. I sat there when I was quite small and was all aquiver. It was a big experiencel because I was listening to music and was at the same time delighted that it was my father standing there on the stage.

– What did you inherit from your father?

A well tuned ear. And languages.

– How many languages do you know?

Five, or one might say six. This is my profession. Keen hearing and my profession… And then my relationship with my profession. For me, this is also a kind of art. I am a simultaneous translator and I understand very well why my father put so many questions to himself. It was not just that he was self-critical. He was searching to find himself. My father was always searching for his identity and I am the same way.

– Do you know your own worth?

I try to, but I think that for my father it was more difficult to know this.

– A lot of time has gone by. Are your recollections still fresh?

Yes. I hear his voice and his laughter. The sounds of his violin.

– When you listen to his recordings – are they the same or not?

No. Look, in addition to concerts I listened to his practicing, and that is an entirely different feeling.

– How did he feel about living in Belgium?

I don’t know. My father traveled a lot. That was the world he was in. Then he returned to us and this was “our world”. being at home. Then he left again on his travels.

– Did he like to talk about that world?

He never told me anything about it, but then I was young. Now it would be very different. If I could have my wish, I would choose to sit with him for a day and discuss everything that is going on today like two adults, and not like a little girl with her father.

– What do the photographs tell you?

There are some very funny photos. When he was in a good mood, he often put on all sorts of shows. He played the violin wearing gloves. He played lying down. He could play the violin switching hands. He could play it as if it were a cello. He knew how to open a bottle of champagne with a saber, as they say: by slicing the neck off the bottle with one blow. In French, they have the verb “sabrer” for this. He loved abstract jokes. He’d show you a “one-handed flutist” or “a drunk in the metro” , how a drunk wakes up in the morning … My father really liked our Northern Belgian sea. We spent Easter and summer holidays there. We rented a small house together with some friends. And every autumn we set out for the forest to collect mushrooms.

– What did he read? Did he advise you to read something?

He didn’t say anything to me.

Nina: – He in some way was always au courant about everything. When he found time to read things and where, I don’t know. I never saw him lying down with a book. The only thing is that when I arrived he was busy studying the Bible for two years. Only the Bible, and he read it inside out. He had what was entirely his own approach to the Bible. He was certain that everything written there happens in man himself – these falls, these flights to the heights, this payment, punishment. And within man, it seems, God also has his place. He did not talk about this, but this is what I think. Not one God for all, but each having his own God who judges him. And when a man says something, he always already knows that he is doing something wrong and that he will pay for it later. That’s what the Bible is about.

– Did he find answers there?

Nina: – I don’t know. It seems to me even at the end of life, all the same there won’t be answers to anything.

Veronika: – Do you think father accepted himself?

Nina: – I don’t even know if he set such a task for himself, whether it was on his mind.

Veronika: – But wasn’t he seeking to find himself?

Nina: – He was searching, like any man on his level. Of course, in music he was looking for what he experienced several times and what he was striving for. But this is what art is about for any person who is seriously engaged in it.

– But not everyone attains this, right?

Nina: No one attains it. It is not possible to achieve this. There always remains something more, still higher and in the end each person has his limits. People say, after all, that the higher you climb the lower (more painfully) you fall, and this is the bill to pay. You were shown some sort of light, you were thrilled by it, but you will later have to pay for this (by falling). As they say, if you dare to do many things, you will later be crying. It often happens that on the next day you will be a bit sad. Whether or not Philippe accepted himself, I think that he remained true to himself with all the unpleasantness which came his way, because he, of course, was vulnerable and sensitive. But he swallowed everything, maybe not in one go, but he swallowed it for the sake of remaining himself. He was always very honest. He never played games with people, smiling to someone, writing “Dear Vasya, signed Bunny Rabbit”, as we used to say. He did not participate in these intrigues. This spoiled his professional life, but he was not very capable in these matters; he just didn’t accept falsehood. Philippe was finely attuned to false notes – in music, in human behavior, in movements, in everything. He remained true to himself and, for the most part, he won out – he was not broken, he didn’t end up in a psychiatric ward, he wasn’t an ass-licker, he didn’t become a drug addict or an alcoholic… He, of course, knew his own worth, and it is very difficult to live with this valuation. But he never demanded to be paid “his price”. He did not have the concept of “this is who I am and this is what I get”. When he was young, he had something of this. If they didn’t send a taxi for him, he wouldn’t go to the concert. Now when I think it over, how could it be that they promised the soloist a taxi and the taxi did not come. Someone else would go on foot, would arrive under his umbrella all wet, would change his clothes and go out and play. But Philippe said: “they all can go to hell”, and he was right. I can do this now when I am almost seventy. But he allowed himself to behave this way at twenty. Quite a strong fellow!

– Yet wasn’t he weak at the same time ?

And who is strong without also being weak? But, nonetheless, I cannot call him weak. Delicate – yes. But delicacy is not weakness.

Every musician longs to be on the stage. Did he have such an urge? In order to be on the stage there are a number of actions which you have to take nowadays to be there.

He didn’t know how to do this. He studied, tried to study. He had stage fright. I think that everyone has gone through stage fright and knows what it is. But perhaps they don’t talk about it. It cannot be that a person could always fly out on stage in an evening gown or in a well-ironed suit and always be ready and not be afraid of anything. One person will be afraid that he will forget something. Another is afraid that he will cough. A third has experienced something in the morning… Yes, he had stage fright. You have to be able to turn away from everything else, and you cannot be in such a state every time. There is no diagram according to which you can switch something on , press down some lever and end up in this condition. And always after a concert, when he came home, the first sentence he tossed to me was: “I played like a swine”.

– What did that mean?

That he wasn’t satisfied with himself. It’s not that technically he couldn’t do something or forgot something. And if he actually forgot, he could always recover, because he had such great speed of reaction that even before he forgot he knew that he would forget. With this, he had no problems.

– Weren’t there some concerts with which he was satisfied?

Yes. But he never said “wow!”. He just said: “Yes, it was ok. It worked out. It worked out”. That meant that everything went well. He never got me upset over his work. I remember it happening just once. We were living in Holland in the house of our friends. Veronika wasn’t born yet. I don’t remember what he was playing, but he played from morning to night one and the same passage. And I remember that he got me so annoyed that I told to myself, “if I hear this one more time, I won’t be able to stand it, I’ll leave”.

– And did you hear it again?

Of course. I heard it another hundred times. He remained unsatisfied. With what? Only he could say – whether with the sound or with himself.

– Does that mean he knew what the ideal must be?

He knew, in any case, that it was possible to play better.

– Why did he enjoy playing chamber music most of all?

I cannot say. For Philippe, music was always music, in any form. He could sit in the last row of the orchestra, play in the toilet if there was nowhere else to practice. He played only for music’s sake. Of course, he had to make a living and he agreed to perform concerts for the money, but how he played was only for music’s sake.

– Did he divide music into the good and the bad?

He said that there is no bad music. He could take four ropes, pull them taut and play whatever you’d like, Vivaldi, for example. Or tap out “Happy Birthday” on a single plate. Very simply, without any problem. When we lived in Holland, he was rehearsing once with a lady violist. I sat with her husband. The rehearsal session went on for a long time. At first Philippe came over, then the viola player came and placed her instrument on the table. Philippe got up abruptly, took the viola and, though he had never played the viola – he began to play it. Before our eyes, the violist went grey, and when he finished there was total silence… To be sure, there was no need for him to do this, but he acted this way without special intent… It was just an impulse, very natural for him. He simply grabbed the viola, and this was some kind of expensive, very good viola… and began to play. But how he played!!!

– How was he with conductors?

That was awful, just a nightmare. He was not content with them, with the majority of them at least. If the conductor is not talented, then he simply kills the music, he just doesn’t give the music a chance to sound and develop.

– Were compromises possible?

Compromise meant playing from the beginning to the end together with the orchestra, to take this torture to the finish.

– Is it true that he refused Karajan’s request to record Tchaikowsky?

I don’t know. That was before my arrival. I do know that he played with Karajan.

– But he didn’t want a recording?

He didn’t want his recordings. He believed that one could play better.

– What about the Orchestra of Wallonia?

That was in 1981. We lived in the Belgian countryside. Some people from the orchestra management came to see us and began persuading Philippe to accept the post of musical director. This was the former orchestra of Lola Bobesco (Orchestre Royal de Chambre de Wallonie) consisting of twelve performers which was at the time in bad shape. Philippe agreed. He went to work in the morning and returned at 12 midnight. They rehearsed in Mons, in some sort of semi-basement which was kept warm by gas heaters. The place always smelled of gas. Philippe fought with the management, seeking to get more suitable premises. He jokingly called his chamber orchestra “l’orchestre de la chambre du gaz” [the gas chamber orchestra]. After a certain time, they began giving concerts around Belgium, visiting various villages. Often he would bring home either a basket of fresh eggs or a slab of butter and cheese. These were gifts from the villagers. It was very nice and touching. A record was put out, but soon after Philippe took the orchestra on tour to Spain for the first time he was fired. It was just that someone wanted to occupy his place, as often happens. Everyone liked Philippe, but in the final analysis nobody needed him… Apart from the students, who remember him to this day.

– Did he enjoy that work?

Yes, he got very involved with it and gave himself wholly over to it. In general, he could do anything he wanted. He was a man with an exceptional set of gifts from birth. To say that Philippe was an outstanding performer is to say nothing.

Everyone knows Rossini’s gift of repartee. In answer to the question “who is the greatest composer” he said:
– Beethoven.
– What about Mozart?
– Mozart? He was the one and only.