Tossy Spivakovsky

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Tossy Spivakovsky, Violinist

Nathan "Tossy" Spivakovsky (December 23, 1906 [O.S. December 10, 1906] – July 20, 1998), a Jewish Russian-born, German-trained violin virtuoso who taught in Australia and later settled in the United States, was considered one of the finest violinists of the 20th century.


Tossy Spivakovsky was born in Odessa, in 1906 still part of Imperial Russia. Under the threat of pogroms his family moved to Berlin, where he studied with Arrigo Serato[1] privately and with Willy Hess at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik. A violin prodigy, he gave his first recital at age 10. Together with his elder brother Jacob "Jascha"[2] (1896–1970), a renowned concert pianist, Tossy made his first European concert tour at age 13, performing as soloist with orchestras in a number of countries including Holland, England, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, in 1919, where the brothers played for Danish royalty. At only 18, after being talent spotted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, Spivakovsky became the youngest concertmaster hired by the Berlin Philharmonic. Two years later he left to pursue a solo career in Europe.

During the 1920s he and his brother Jascha performed together as the Spivakovsky Duo. In 1930 Tossy and Jascha established the Spivakovsky-Kurtz Trio together with cellist Edmund Kurtz.[3] The trio was on a tour of Australia in 1933 when the Nazi Party took power in Germany, temporarily ending Spivakovsky's European career. He remained in Australia, where he married Dr. Erika Lipsker Zarden, philologist and Renaissance historian, who was his wife of 63 years.[4] All three members of the Spivakovsky-Kurtz trio joined the teaching staff of the University of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. The youngest of nine, Spivakovsky belonged to a musical family. His brother Albert, a distinguished pianist, also played the cello and conducted orchestras in Germany and Denmark. Another brother, the violinist and cellist Isaac 'Issy' (1902–1977), who had studied violin under Willy Hess, and cello with Hugo Becker and Gregor Piatigorsky, also migrated to Australia in 1934, and for 28 years (1937–1965) taught violin, viola and cello at Scotch College, Melbourne. Adolf (1891–1958), a bass-baritone, also migrated to Melbourne in 1934 and taught at the University Conservatorium where his students included the sopranos Glenda Raymond[5] and Sylvia Fisher.

In 1940 Spivakovsky moved to the United States with his wife and baby daughter, and made his New York debut at Town Hall that year. He became concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra under Artur Rodziński, in that capacity also often performing as soloist. In 1943 the conductor Artur Rodziński invited him to present the première United States performance of Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2. Bartók himself described this performance of his violin concerto as "first rate". Spivakovsky also gave this work its first performances in New York and San Francisco. His rendition of this concerto, which elicited extraordinary critical acclaim, launched his U.S. career as soloist. According to the critic Alfred Frankenstein of San Francisco Chronicle, Spivakovsky's was "The finest violin playing of a generation!" The critic Virgil Thomson of the New York Herald Tribune wrote: "Such unfailing nobility of tone, such evenness of coloration through the scale and, most extraordinary of all, such impeccable pitch...left one a little gasping." "Was this the best since Heifetz," asked Frankenstein after a 1948 performance of the Bartók Violin Concerto, "or was this just the best, period?" Following Spivakovsky's New York performance of the violin concerto by Gian Carlo Menotti, a review appearing in the May 3, 1954 edition of Time stated: "As always, his tone was luxuriant, his pitch impeccable, and he brought the music to full-blooded life." The same article referred to Spivakovsky as "one of the most brilliant violinists alive."

Spivakovsky was soloist in the première performances of Leon Kirchner's Sonata Concertante and David Diamond's Canticle and Perpetual Motion. Accompanied by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he gave the New York premières of violin concerti by Frank Martin and Carl Nielsen. He composed and published his own cadenzas to the Beethoven violin concerto and to all five Mozart violin concerti. For more than four decades, represented by Columbia Artists Management, he travelled extensively throughout the U.S., Canada, South America, Israel, and Europe giving solo performances. He also found time to teach violin and chamber music at the Juilliard School in New York City from 1974 to 1989.

In order to draw from his instrument the richest, most brilliant tone possible, Spivakovsky developed an innovative method of bowing that was described in detail in a book entitled "The Spivakovsky Way of Bowing," by Gaylord Yost.[6] In a lifelong effort to perform his repertoire just as the composers wanted their music performed, he sought and researched their original sheet music. Upon discovering that Bach wanted certain chords in his solo violin suites played without arpeggiation, he wrote an article entitled "Polyphony in Bach's Works for Solo Violin," published in 1967 in The Music Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, in which he provided the evidence for Bach's preference. A curved bow, or "Bach Bow", which Spivakovsky acquired from Knud Vestergaard of Denmark, enabled him to execute the whole four-string chords of the Bach sonatas and partitas with greater ease and sonority.

Honorary doctorates[edit]

LP recordings[edit]

Tossy Spivakovsky's violin in the following LP recordings was The Macmillen Stradivari of 1721:

  • Bach Sonata #1 in G Major, unaccompanied, on Columbia LP Masterworks, 1950.
  • Bartók Violin Sonata #2, Roumanian Dances, with Artur Balsam, piano, on Concert Hall Society, Inc. This was the first studio recording of Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 2 with Arthur Balsam, issued in late 1947. (The earlier version by the composer accompanying Joseph Szigeti was a live performance, and only issued later.)
  • Beethoven Sonata #8 Opus 30 in G Major, with Robert Cornman, piano, on Columbia LP Masterworks, 1950.
  • Beethoven Sonata #10 Opus 96 in G Major, with Rudolf Firkusny, piano, on Columbia LP Masterworks, 1951.
  • Kirchner, Leon Concerto for Violin, Cello, 10 Winds & Percussion, conducted by the composer with Aldo Parisot, cello, on Epic Stereorama.
  • Menotti Violin Concerto conducted by Charles Munch with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on RCA Victor.
  • Robertson, Leroy Violin Cconcerto conducted by Maurice Abravanel with the Utah Symphony Orchestra on Vanguard.
  • Sibelius Violin Concerto conducted by Tauno Hannikainen with the London Symphony Orchestra on Everest.
  • Stravinsky Violin Concerto conducted by Maurice Abravanel with the Utah Symphony Orchestra on Vanguard.
  • Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto conducted by Walter Goehr with the London Symphony Orchestra on Everest.

CD recordings[edit]

  • Bartók Violin Concerto #2 on CD #6 of "Pierre Monteux in Boston" set: "Treasure of Concert Performances 1951–1958" on CODAEX Records.
  • Collection of short pieces by Bazzini, Mouret, Raff, Gluck, Bloch, Kreisler, Paganini, Dvořák, Beethoven, Brahms, Wieniawski, Sarasate on PEARL, Pavilion Records LTD. (Reissued from a number of Spivakovsky's recordings that were made on the Parlophone and Decca labels during the 1920s. He was accompanied on the piano by his brothers Jascha and Albert.)
  • Paganini 24 Caprices for Violin & Piano, with Lester Taylor, piano, on Omega Record Group, Inc.
  • Sibelius Violin Concerto conducted by Tauno Hannikainen with the London Symphony Orchestra on Omega, Everest Record Group, Inc.
  • Stravinsky Violin Concerto conducted by Maurice Abravanel with the Utah Symphony Orchestra on Vanguard Classics, Omega Record Group, Inc.
  • Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto conducted by Walter Goehr with the London Symphony Orchestra on Vanguard Classics, Omega Record Group, Inc.


  1. ^ Loppert, Max; Ramot, Naama (2007). "Spivakovsky, Tossy". Encyclopaedia Judaica. 
  2. ^ Catherine J. Stevens (2002). "Spivakovsky, Jascha (1896–1970)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. 
  3. ^ "Edmund Kurtz". The Independent. Archived from the original on 2014-01-13. 
  4. ^ "Let's Talk of Interesting People: Dr. Erika Spivakovsky". The Australian Women's Weekly. January 9, 1937. p. 2. 
  5. ^ "Glenda Raymond, soprano, 1922-2003". Music Web International. 
  6. ^ Volkwein Bros. Inc., 1949, Pittsburgh.


External links[edit]