Find out the Mexican story of one of the world’s greatest violinists, who died on March 3rd, and who left his heart in Mexico, the country that gave him shelter.
Within the great diplomatic tradition that Mexico has built for almost a century, thousands of refugees have been received, among them, personalities who have left an important trace in history, as is the case of violinist Henryk Szeryng, born in a suburb of Warsaw in 1918, precisely in the same town where, 108 years earlier, Frederick Chopin had been born.
Szeryng visited Mexico as an interpreter and translator, accompanying General Sikorski, Prime Minister of Poland, who was in exile in Great Britain. He stepped on Mexican soil for the first time in December 1942, already fluent in Spanish. The objective of his delegation was to meet with President Manuel Avila Camacho, in order to find refuge for thousands of Jews who had been forced to leave their country by World War II. Szeryng described this episode, which consisted of five days of talks, as “the translation, the most difficult interpretation of my life, because 4,000 human lives were involved”. The following year, 1453 refugees were received at Hacienda de Santa Rosa, in Leon, Guanajuato. It is said that this new community was referred to as “Little Poland”, or later, as “the children of Santa Rosa”. They had arrived on two ships, one on July 1st, the other on November 2nd. Valentina Grycuk, one of the immigrant girls who arrived in Mexico at that time, recalled at 83 years of age, in an interview for BBC Mundo: “It was wonderful. At the station there were lots of people with flowers, sweets for the children, music and mariachis. It was very warm, as Mexicans are, very warm”.
Before the hospitality of Mexico towards his compatriots, Szeryng showed his gratitude for the rest of his life. Since then he intermittently visited the country, established himself at the north of the capital, and began an enthusiastic concert activity, teaching, and collaborating with the greatest Mexican composers.
Upon his arrival, he started studying Manuel M. Ponce’s Violin Concerto, which he premiered during the 16th season of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, on the evening of Friday, August 27th, 1943, conducted by Carlos Chávez at the Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes). A second performance took place the following Sunday, at the eleven o’clock morning concerts. The program was completed by two other premieres in Mexico, the Concerto Grosso by Geminiani, and the fourth symphony by Glazunov, as well as the symphonic poem “Les Préludes” by Liszt. By the way, within the percussion section was José Pablo Moncayo, who was also in charge of playing the piano and celesta parts in the Orchestra. Even then, Szeryng was giving master classes at the then National School of Music of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), at least a couple of times a year. He had been appointed head of the string department. In 1946, after World War II, he obtained Mexican nationality and in 1956, the Mexican Government named him “Itinerant Cultural Ambassador of Good Will”, becoming the first national artist with a diplomatic passport.
During this period he remained close to Julián Carrillo, whom he always visited at his house in San Ángel, in the south of the city, on Callejón del Santísimo. Years later after the death of the Inventor of Sonido 13, he lived right across the street from that house, at number 18, a house that extended all the way to Reforma Street, on the other side of the block. His daughter Dolores, “Lolita” Carrillo, supported maestro Szeryng until the end of his life; she coordinated many of his activities in the country, as for example, the “superior violin courses” held at the National Conservatory of Music during the summers of the 1960s and early 1970s. Some of the attendees were maestros Carlos Esteva, Miguel Bernal, Payambé Reyes, Manuel Suárez, Rafael Cuervo, Víctor Manuel Cortés, Carlos Marrufo, Enrique Espin Yepes, Luz Vernova, Bárbara Klessa, Luis Sosa Huerta, Benjamín Valdez, María Teresa Nuño, Velia Hernández, Consuelo Bolívar, Tomás Marín, Fortino Velázquez, Ernesto Tarragó, Enrique and Pablo Diemecke, and even the pianists Alfonso de Elías, Erika Kubacek, José Suarez, Nadia Stankovich and Luz María Puente de Osorio.
Lolita Carrillo also received Szeryng’s correspondence in Mexico. Maestro Rafael Tovar y de Teresa sent her several press clippings from 1980 and 1981 from his office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which reported Szeryng’s success abroad. The same happened with other mailers, who used to send from different countries, such as Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, among others, reports and news of similar achievements of Mexico’s cultural ambassador.
In 1954, in Mexico City, he met his compatriot, the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who was in the country to perform at the Palace of Fine Arts. At the end of the concert, the young Szeryng came to compliment Rubinstein and spoke to him in Polish. Rubinstein, surprised, asked what he was doing so far from home. As Szeryng himself narrated in an interview several years later, his answer to Rubinstein was: “I am Mexican but I was born in Poland… I have the privilege of teaching at the National School of Music”. The next morning, both maestros met at the pianist’s lodging, a hotel in front of the “Alameda” in the Historical Downtown.Szeryng began by making himself heard on the violin with Bach’s Chaconne, after which Rubinstein sat down at the piano and invited him to play together, from beginning to end, Brahms’ third sonata, opus 108, in D minor. At that meeting, Rubinstein, touched, urged the young Szeryng to reduce his teaching activity and to perform more frequently abroad, as well as to make international recordings, which he did to the letter, becoming one of the violinists with the largest number of phonographic recordings. He recorded nearly 170 works, and made some 250 recordings over four decades, which earned him a couple of Grammy Awards, six times the Grand Prix du disc, a couple of times the Edison Award, and the Vienna Mozart Society’s Wiener Flötenhur Award for his 1971 recording of the Salzburg genius’ complete concerto works.
Another of the significant contributions he made to Mexican music consisted in the first performance of Carlos Chávez’s Violin Concerto in New York, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, in 1965. -As David Brodbeck points out, in narrating the history of this work (“La música y el mercado”, Carlos Chávez y su mundo, El Colegio Nacional, 2018): the concerto had been premiered 13 years before by Viviane Bertolami on the violin, to whom it was dedicated, and Chávez himself, with the orchestra of Long Beach, California-. Szeryng recorded Chávez’s concerto in August 1966 with the Orquesta Sinfónica de México and Carlos Chávez at the baton under the CBS Records label, within the framework of the “Szeryng Festival”, which commemorated the 10th anniversary of the virtuoso as Cultural Ambassador of Mexico, and his 20th anniversary as a Mexican citizen.
As a child, Szeryng left his native Poland, and moved to Berlin at the age of seven to study with Maurice Frenkel (1925-1927), Willi Hess (1928-1930) and Carl Flesh (1930-1933). In 1933, his parents took him to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, while pursuing extra-musical studies in Humanities, which he came to consider as a profession. Once in the French capital, he continued his violin studies with Jacques Thibaud (1935-1936), and finally with Gabriel Bouillon (1936- 1937), at the legendary Conservatory of the City of Light, from which he graduated at the age of 19. It is then when he received as a gift from his parents his first great violin, named “Santa Teresa ”, built by Andrea Guarnerius in 1683, which, years later, in 1974, he would donate to Mexico. He hand-delivered it to President Luis Echeverría and the former concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Héctor Olvera Curiel. The violin, it is said, had belonged to the composer Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), and later to Camille Sivori (1915-1894), a student of Paganini.
By the time Szeryng donated this instrument to the Mexican State, he had worked for more than 30 years in favor of Mexican music. In January 1974, the ceremony of delivery took place, in which he pronounced the following words:
“May this delivery serve as a stimulus and inspiration to all [young violinists] to improve themselves more and more, since one of the goals of my life is my uninterrupted work to elevate violinism in Mexico…”.
Maestro Olvera, then concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra, and in charge of safeguarding the violin, was succeeded by maestros Manuel Suárez, Luis Samuel Saloma and, currently, Shari Mason. Similarly, Szeryng had donated a couple of years earlier his 1734 “Hercule” Stradivarius violin to the City of Jerusalem, and 11 years later, his 1861 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin to Prince Rainier II of Monaco.
In August 1984, in a radio interview for the program “Retrato Hablado” on radioUNAM, Szeryng said in his own voice:
“I gave as a gift to several of my disciples, among them, to Héctor Olvera… a French violin of great beauty… I also gifted a magnificent Guadagnini to the young violinist Shlomo Mintz, but the most beautiful violin I gave to Mexico…. in the conditions, authorizes the first concertinos of the National Symphony Orchestra to use it, and if necessary, also the concertinos of the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra, and in extraordinary cases, any young and highly talented Mexican violinist”.
He also commented:
“I believe that if I am such a good Mexican, it is precisely because I do not forget my small homeland. Seven years of life are many years, the formative years. And I believe that because I have not forgotten the culture and civilization of Poland, I am able to stand up better, with more strength, with more conviction for the culture of Mexico”.
Other Mexican composers whose music was encouraged by Henryk Szeryng were Blas Galindo, José Pablo Moncayo, Silvestre Revueltas, José Sabre Marroquín, José Rolón, Raul Lavista, Carlos Jimenez Mabarak, Manuel Enríquez, and even Agustín Lara.
In 1987, Szeryng recorded another Mexican violin concerto. It was Rodolfo Halffter’s concerto, conducted by Enrique Batiz and the Royal London Orchestra.
After Szeryng’s death, and on the initiative of the “Orquesta Sinfónica del Estado de México” and its head conductor Enrique Batiz, the “Henryk Szeryng International Violin Competition” was created in September 1992. The first prize was shared between the Mexican violinist Adrián Justus (Mexico City, 1970), and the Polish-Mexican violinist Erika Dobosiewicz (Warsaw, 1967), who is currently the concertmaster of the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra. Other editions of the competition were held in 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2008 and 2013. Among the winners are maestros Lee Chin Siow, Isabella Lippi, Natasha Korsakova, Dimiter Ivanov, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Leticia Muñoz, Dalia Kuznecovaite, Antal Szalai and Maria Azova.
Among the curious facts attributed to Szeryng, it is said that he was born under the surname “Serek”, which, translated from Polish, is equivalent to the diminutive for “cheese”. His father must have changed the surname in order to coin a stage name for the promising Henryk, or perhaps it was just a nickname.
His life is marked around his favorite work, the Violin Concerto by Johannes Brahms, which he recorded three times. It was the first Concerto he played when he made his debut in Warsaw at the age of 14, in 1933, and also the last, which he performed 55 years later in Kessel, Germany, after which he died of a stroke a couple of days later.