"The most nearly perfect violinist of his time"

Nathan Milstein The story of
Nathan Milstein
by Loke Hoe-Yeong


Nathan Milstein (1903 - 1992) was called the "prince of the violin" (and at one time, the "prince of the bow"). Harold Schonberg, in his obituary of Milstein published in The New York Times, wrote his famous line, "He could well have been the most nearly perfect violinist of his time".

However, the name Milstein is rarely mentioned or known among the music-listening public. Which is a sad thing considering the esteem and admiration professional violinists and musicians alike then and now hold for him. But this problem can be easily explained; Milstein was a not "commercial" musician who could "sell". Rather, he was repelled by the demands of celebrity and never indulged much in publicity.

The little-known fact is that Milstein's career is the longest ever in the history of violin playing - 72 years, from his official debut playing the Glazunov concerto with the composer conducting(!) in 1915, to his final concert in 1987 playing the Beethoven concerto with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. Some time after his final concert, the violinist broke his arm, bring his career to an abrupt halt. A pity, considering that the healthy musician's career could have been ever longer!

He was born Nathan Mironovich Milstein on 31 December 1903 (frequently mistaken to be 31 December 1904; Milstein himself claimed he was born in 1903) in Odessa, Ukraine, a city on the Black Sea, fourth child of seven, to a middle-class Jewish family with virtually no musical background (unlike Heifetz, to cite an example). It was a concert by the 11-year-old Jascha Heifetz that inspired his parents to make a violinist out of Milstein. So he started having violin lessons at age 7, which means that he cannot be considered a child prodigy.

The Milstein tone was in fact quite unique. First, it had an aristocratic poise which awed listeners. His dignified appearance in concert augmented this image he carried. The tone was descibed best described as silvery. However in certain recordings of the 1950s, this silvery tone was made to appear very sharp and piercing to the listener's ear due to the strange recording quality (it was not really an outright bad one). Sadly, this earned him quite a bad reputation and created anti-Milsteinians out of listeners.

His technique and accuracy of intonation was said to be second to Heifetz - this was because he sacrificed a slight bit of his intonation work to perform "extrovertedly". His remarkable mastery of the bow contibuted to his "extrovertedness", earning him the title, "prince of the bow". This made his recitals very exciting, one that the audience would remember for life. There was never, or seldom a bad Milstein recital or concert.

His concept of the vibrato was not that of the 20th century. Neither was it the ananchronistic concept of say, the previous century's generation of Joachim. Generally, Milstein did not use a wide vibration - in fact it was used sparingly. And his style was to greatly widen the vibrato oscillation during climaxes to heighten the excitement. Playing in a generation which used a lot of "slides", Milstein was also quite economical in this device. While other violinists used it to sentimentalise and achieve a sensuous tone, Milstein used it to nobilise himself; thus, he was the "aristocrat of the violin". It is very hard to describe. Probably listening to him on his recordings will explain everything.

His first great teacher was Pyotr Stolyarsky, also the teacher of David Oistrakh. From young, Milstein developed a very independent mind, refusing to be dominated by his teachers. He retained this character into his adult life, especially when he worked with conductors.

His opportunity came in 1915: Milstein was invited to perform the Glazunov concerto with the composer himself conducting, as part of his 50th birthday celebrations. In his autobiography From Russia to the West (with the ghosting of Solomon Volkov) published by Limelight Editions, Milstein relates:

At the rehearsal I played something at the beginning of the concerto in my own way. Obviously I was a brazen boy - the presence of the composer did not intimidate me. Glazunov looked down at me through his pince-nez and murmured, "Don't you like the way I wrote it?" I played it his way then, but when the rehearsal was over Glazunov turned to me and said, "Play it any way you want!" Because he saw that my version was better.

In 1916, Stolyarsky fully realised the talent of his pupil and brought him to audition for Professor Leopold Auer, also the legendary teacher of Heifetz and Elman. The professor was delighted and invited Milstein to come and study with him at the St. Petersburg Conservatory (of which the director then was Alexander Glazunov). However, Milstein did not think very highly of this teacher. In fact, he would offer derogatory remarks about Auer in future. Once in an interview, Milstein said, "Some of what you hear about the great teachers amount to no more than myths... Auer was no teacher at all - he picked only pupils who didn't need him." During another occasion, he said, "I don't feel that Professor Auer had a great influence on me. It was the surroundings and the atmosphere in the class where we worked, because there were so many very gifted young people playing from whom you learned more than from the teacher. In the class of 50 to 60 pupils, only two or three played." These are very strong remarks, which are quite true after all.

Despite this, Milstein called his period of stay in the neo-classical Petersburg (or Petrograd) as his most enjoyable of his life. Throughout his life, he spoke of his love for the capital, recalling the grandeur and atmosphere of the city.

After playing many different violins in his earlier days, Milstein finally acquired the 1716 "Goldman" Stradivari in 1945 which he used for the rest of his life. He re-named it the "Maria Teresa" in honour of his daughter Maria and his wife Therese.

When the February Revolution of 1917 happened (not the October Revolution of the Bolsheviks but that of the provisional government headed by Kerensky - a bit of Russian history here!), Auer fled Russia for good. Milstein thus returned to Odessa. Now, his musical education was over, and at age 13, he had a built his career.

Then the October Revolution of the Bolsheviks transformed Russia. Initially, Milstein did not feel much change. Later, he met the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz in Kiev, 1921, and began to give concerts (sometimes Russian premieres) all over the country to critical acclaim. They were then known as the "Children of the Soviet Revolution".

The most memorable of Milstein-Horowitz performances were the Petersburg concerts, ending with a lengendary programme of Milstein's performance of the Glazunov concerto with the composer conducting again, and Horowitz's rendition of the Liszt and Rachmaninov Third piano concertos.

The turning point in Milstein's career came when Leon Trotsky granted the duo permission to leave the country for Europe and "show them how much we care about art". Little did Milstein knew that he would be leaving Russian forever and never to return (but Horowitz returned in 1987). He performed his debuts at important European cities nad even crossed the Atlantic to South America. In spite of playing with great conductors like Mengelberg, Furtwangler, Knappertsbusch and Muck, the public only began paying attention to Milstein when he made his Viennese debut, performing to an audience which included Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Karl Amadeus Hartmann and the critic Julius Korngold, who wrote a raving review of the concert.

Milstein in old age In the summer of 1926 while in Paris, Milstein sought the violinist Eugene Ysaye. But the Belgian said, "You play Paganini well, Bach, too; what more do you want?" Still, Milstein spent a few months with him, practically learning nothing, but left Paris with the inspiration of Ysaye.

He played Goldmark's First concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski in his 1928 American debut. He took up American citizenship during World War II, although after that, he was alternately based in Paris and London. He also taught privately and at the Julliard School and the Zurich Conservatoire in his later years, but not to the extent of Menuhin. He said of teaching, "I try not to impose my way on them, not to teach them to play, even, but to help teach them to think." Violinists taught by him before included Salvatore Accardo and Erick Friedman.

At age 82, Nathan Milstein gave a recital which was to be his last (but he did not expect it to be so) in Stockholm. It was recorded and filmed as a documentary titled "Master of Invention" (LD, not available at the moment). Then came his final 1987 concert, mentioned above.

On 21 December 1992, Milstein died in London.

* * * * *

Major References

  • FROM RUSSIA TO THE WEST: The Musical Memoirs & Reminiscences of Nathan Milstein by Nathan Milstein & Solomon Volkov. Limelight Edition, 1991.
  • NATHAN MILSTEIN by Tully Potter, 1995. From CD booklet notes (Testament SBT 1047).

    For more information, visit the Nathan Milstein - A Life web site.

    Also featured at the Inkpot: Leonid Kogan

    Besides Milstein, Loke Hoe Yeong also admires Heifetz, Oistrakh, Kogan, Kreisler, but he still feels that Milstein's playing influences him the most!

    Back to the Classical Index!... or read about more famous musicians in the Inkvault Archives!

    511: 30.6.1999 ŠLoke Hoe Yeong

    Readers' Comments

    From: Derek Lim ( / Monday, August 9, 1999 at 19:43:17)

    The amazing video "A Quiet Musician" tells of Milstein, after having broken his arm, taking up the piano so he could play more Bach. He also tried transcribing the Preludes and Fugues for violin (!). I think the greatest contribution Milstein offered was the number of years he performed -- an equivalent, perhaps, to Toscanini's equally amazing number of years spent conducting.

    From: Johann D'Souza ( / Wednesday, August 18, 1999 at 22:39:18)

    I will remember Milstein for his Brahms violin concerto- I have yet to hear another one of such stature, his cadenza and his opening bow stroke in the introduction are truely him. It was amazing that at his age, most orchestral players would often comment that he still had the same dash in his playing like that of his youth- he never aged in his technical ability but grew in wisdom, vitality and poise every time he took to the stage.


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