Karajan’s first concertmaster

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of Michel Schwalbé

Michel Schwalbé
(Photo: Nachlass Schwalbé/Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

He was Herbert von Karajan’s brilliant first concertmaster: Michel Schwalbé, who led the Berliner Philharmoniker from the first desk from 1957 to 1985 and helped to shape an era. Even today, musicians and critics alike rave about his unforgettable violin solos, such as the both beguiling and intricate solo part in Richard Strauss’ Heldenleben which he could play more seductively and sensually than anyone else. “I always tried to realise what I felt internally – no more than that,” said Schwalbé in an interview for the Magazin der Berliner Philharmoniker.

A violin prodigy

Born in Radom in Poland in 1919, Michel Schwalbé was considered a violin prodigy. He received his first violin lessons at the age of eight from Maurycy Frenkel in Warsaw, then from 1933, he studied at the Conservatoire de Paris under Georges Enescu, Jules Boucherit and Pierre Monteux. As a result of the outbreak of the Second World War, the hoped-for soloist career came to nothing. The violinist took his first orchestra position in Lyon, but in 1942, due to the threat of deportation, he had to flee to Switzerland where new musical paths soon opened to him: Ernest Ansermet engaged him in 1944 as concertmaster of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Schwalbé also appeared as a soloist, led his own string quartet from 1946 to 1948 in Zurich, was concertmaster of the Swiss Festival Orchestra in Lucerne, and from 1948 taught at the conservatory in Geneva as the successor of Joseph Szigeti.

A sign of reconciliation

In 1957, Herbert von Karajan offered him the position of first concertmaster with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Michel Schwalbé hesitated for a long time, but ultimately accepted the offer – as a sign of his reconciliation with post-war Germany, which became his new home. For his outstanding artistic achievements as an orchestral musician, soloist and teacher, the violinist, who died in 2012 at the age of 92 years and who was born 100 years ago on 27 October, received numerous honours and awards, including the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany First Class.

The prodigyThe young violinistWith Herbert von KarajanAt rehearsalDaniel Barenboim congratulates Schwalbé on his 80th birthday