How music saved the Isserlis family

By Steven Isserlis, January 9, 2014
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My late father, George Isserlis, was born into war. Making his entry into this world in 1917 in Odessa was perhaps not the best-judged timing; but he was a survivor, dying only a few weeks short of his 95th birthday.

His story, and that of his parents, spans two world wars and some of the most traumatic times in history; the whole family would almost certainly have perished, had it not been for the blessing of music.

The pianist and composer Julius Isserlis, George’s father, was born in 1888 in the Moldavian city of Kishinev, scene of some notorious pogroms. He showed such precocious talent as a pianist that it was soon the talk of the whole local Jewish community. When little Julius was nine years old, the community banded together and applied for him to go to Kiev to study; being Jewish, he needed special permission, which was eventually granted.

After a year, his teacher in Kiev declared that Julius must go to Moscow. Again, special permission was sought, and received; and from the age of 10, Julius attended the Moscow Conservatoire, where his teachers were the famous (and terrifying) piano professor Vassily Safonov, and the composer Sergei Taneyev. Taneyev had been the favourite pupil of Tchaikovsky; later, the relationship evolved, Taneyev becoming Tchaikovsky’s most trusted mentor. He also became the beloved teacher of Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Medtner, as well as my grandfather. (I always feel a frisson of pride when I read entries in Taneyev’s diaries: “Worked with Isserlis”.)

According to my father, Julius was so nervous before his first solo concert that his ears turned green

At the age of 13, Julius appeared as soloist in a major orchestral concert in Moscow; according to my father, his ears turned green from nerves. At 16, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the conservatoire. His name is still displayed in gold letters outside the “Small Hall”; Vladimir Ashkenazy remembers, as a student, puzzling over the strange name “Isserlis”!

After some further lessons in Paris, Julius embarked on a concert career. In Paris, he played for Scriabin, who recommended him to an agent in New York. Julius gave some well-received concerts at Carnegie Hall. However, instead of waiting for further engagements to transpire, he decided to return to his beloved mother in Paris.

Career-wise, this was probably a mistake: just after he had left America, an invitation arrived for a 20-concert tour of the US and Canada. Too late — Julius was already on the boat, sailing away. Nevertheless, on his return to Russia, his career took off. He made frequent tours, both as soloist and with the cellist Anatoli Brandukov, the dedicatee of the Rachmaninov sonata; they frequently performed it together. Julius was also appointed professor at the Imperial Philharmonic Society in Moscow — the only Jewish professor.

In 1916, he gave a recital in Odessa, still relatively unaffected by the war raging in Russia. There he met the Rauschwergers, an affluent local Jewish family. He must have hit it off rather well with their pianist daughter Rita; within a few months, the pair were married.

The Rauschwergers, great patrons of music, used to promote orchestral concerts on the veranda of their large house. My grandmother remembered hearing at these “house-concerts” the 12-year-old Nathan Milstein, the even younger Jascha Heifetz (“he looked like a little angel”), and Serge Koussevitsky, later a famous conductor, but at that point known more as a double-bass virtuoso.

Despite Odessa’s relative isolation, things became tougher with the outbreak of the Revolution; and it was at this point that my father was born. Though surviving, Julius and Rita were desperate to leave; in 1919 they jumped at the offer of passage on a ship bound for Britain.

On the way to the harbour, they were caught in crossfire between the Reds and the Whites — an experience so terrifying that my father, just two at the time, was to remember it for the rest of his life. When they arrived at the ship, they were told that it was far too full, and there was no chance of their boarding. They trudged home; and just a few days later their cup of misery overflowed still further when Julius came down with a severe case of typhoid.

After some months, he recovered, and made his way to Moscow to present himself to the Soviet authorities, who allowed him to resume his career as a performer and teacher. Giving concerts was not without its perils, however: on one occasion, Julius gave a recital with a violinist, including Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata; a man came backstage afterwards, and congratulated them on their performance of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata. My grandfather was tempted to laugh, but some instinct inhibited him – just as well, because it later transpired that the man was Beria, the sinister chief of the secret police. Once home, Julius spent the rest of the evening washing his hands!

Then, in 1922, Lenin decided that it was time for the world to be shown the cultural glory of the Soviet Union; so he gave permission for 12 musicians and their families to tour abroad for six months. A fine idea — except that not one of the 12 returned.

My grandfather was among this elect. His plan was to return to America; but he ended up in Vienna. In his search for a home, one of the apartments they visited was owned by a 102-year-old hausfrau. She was friendly enough, apparently, even ruffling my father’s hair — until Julius mentioned that he was a musician, and would need to practise. “In that case, no,” said the woman, with an abrupt change of manner. “I don’t like musicians.”

“Why ever not?” asked my grandfather, baffled. “Because when I was a little girl, my aunt had a musician lodger who was a filthy old man. He used to spit all over the floor!”

“Who was that?”

“Beethoven!”

Despite that discouraging start, Julius was able to carve out a pretty successful career in Vienna for the next 15 years. His tours were rather limited, though, and it was not until 1938 that he received an invitation to visit the UK. As it turned out, his visit coincided with the Anschluss; so he remained in England, and desperately set about trying to arrange residence permits, while my father and grandmother were still stuck in Vienna.

In my father’s words: “Mother and I had to spend four months in Vienna under these circumstances. The change in attitude by former classmates and friends was terrifying. They would cross the street to avoid me and would have nothing to do with me… a few gentile family friends, however, behaved very well indeed and helped us as much as they could. Knowing the danger to which they thereby exposed themselves, I will never forget their courage and humanity.”

Eventually, the permits came through. A slight hiccup occurred when it became clear that the rich lady who had brought Julius to London, and who had been helping him with arranging the permits, had fallen in love with him. His British agent counselled: “Divorce your wife and marry this lady. She’ll promote you, and you’ll have a great career.” Luckily, not all my grandfather’s British friends were like that.

And so my grandparents lived out their lives in London. Julius was somewhat successful here — much beloved by listeners to the Third Programme; but he was too old to remake his career with much energy. In the early 60s, he developed a form of Parkinson’s that put paid to his piano-playing. Alas: shortly after he became ill, he received an invitation to make a record of Scriabin’s Preludes – his first commercial recording. He couldn’t resist the offer; but at the sessions, he realised that he was unable to play to his former standards. The record gives little real impression of his playing. Fortunately, some BBC tapes, and a few 78s recorded in Poland before the war, survive — beautiful.

In his last years, my sisters Annette and Rachel and I would visit Julius and Rita every Sunday. One by one, we would smother him with kisses before we left. “Thirty kisses!” one of us would announce. The next one’s turn: “Forty kisses!”

And finally, the triumphant announcement from whomever of us came last: “Fifty kisses!”

Julius’s influence, which propelled all three of us to become professional musicians, lives on strongly. We have all been involved recently — I as cellist, Annette as producer, Rachel as sleevenote-writer — with a disc of Julius’s music made by pianist Sam Haywood (past winner of the Julius Isserlis Scholarship, set up in his memory by the lady who fell in love with him in 1938). I have programmed a series at the Wigmore Hall entitled In the Shadow of War — inspired by the very shadows from which Julius, Rita and George so fortuitously escaped.

Two new CDs, Beethoven: Cello Sonatas, with fortepianist Robert Levin, and Isserlis: Piano Music by Julius Isserlis, performed by Sam Haywood, featuring Steven Isserlis, are out now on Hyperion Records.

Last updated: 12:30pm, January 9 2014