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JAKOB GIMPEL: A BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY
by Peter Gimpel

Copyright © 2004 by Peter Gimpel

(Earlier versions of this article appeared previously in the booklet notes to "Jakob Gimpel at Ambassador Auditorium [vol. 1]: All-Chopin Recital - May 11th, 1978," published in 1996 by Cambria Master Recordings; and in the Jewish Press of New York (September and October, 1990). Permission to include previously published portions of this article is gratefully acknowledged.)

Thomas Mann, writing in The Origins of Dr. Faustus, saw in him "the archetype of the indefeasible, ever-regenerant East-Jewish virtuoso." But my father was much more than that, both as a musician and as a man. He stood courageously for something which in the musical world of today is little understood and much endangered—something, in fact, that was probably foredoomed in the immigration of the old musical culture of Europe to our new American shores. The flood of refugees from the orchestras and concert halls of Russia, Poland, Germany, Austria, Italy, etc., gave rise to an industry that sold classical music as it might have sold cars and refrigerators, and to impresarios who promoted musicians as they had promoted circuses.

Salesmen (for that is what impresarios are) are not usually interested in more than they can sell. When my father arrived in the United States late in 1938, music managers had their hands already full with refugee talent. They did not need another great pianist. It did not help my father that he was both too modest and too proud to push his way through to the fore. Like all salesmen, artist managements sometimes disparaged what was not theirs to sell and what they could not have sold without challenging the vaunted primacy and uniqueness of their own products. The uneducated musical taste is quick to associate the "outsiders" with that group of talent condescendingly referred to as "second tier:" excellent artists, perhaps, but lacking in "something." A student once said to me that she had heard that the reason for my father´s difficulties was that "he didn´t project." Such is the conforming power of the cliché! She didn´t know that Sol Hurok, a confessed musical ignoramus, had one measuring rod for any artist: viz, whether he or she "projects." No one, including Hurok himself, ever knew for sure what Hurok meant by "projects," and certainly no one ever suggested that my father was not a powerfully commanding presence on the stage; but here the conventional wisdom had found a useful rationale to explain the unexplainable: a legendary artist residing for over fifty years in relative obscurity in the Land of Opportunity. It must be that he didn´t "project!" More to the point, perhaps, my father lacked, in the eyes of some, that certain charisma (called "image") bestowed by constant media exposure.

The American mass media work hand-in-hand with sales and celebrity. They are generally uninterested in hidden luminaries, because their hiddenness is an embarrassment. The greater the luminary, the greater the embarrassment. I still find it remarkably eloquent that not once in all those years—not even after Zubin Mehta "discovered" him in the latter ´Sixties—did PBS approach my father for an interview. The many inaccuracies that have found their way into the little that has been written about him compound the need for an authoritative biographical sketch.

My father was born April 16, 1906 in Lemberg (Lwow), a Polish town then under Austrian rule. His grandfather and namesake, Yaakov Ber Gimpel, was one of the two great pioneers of the Yiddish theater (the other being Avraham Goldfadn), and the founder of the famous Yiddish Theater of Lemberg. His father, Adolf (Aaron), was a clarinettist with the Lemberg Symphony, Musical Director of the Yiddish Theater, and Choir-Director of the Lemberg Synagogue. Having begun piano lessons with his father at age six, my father had his union card by the age of eight— and a steady job playing in the theater orchestra. He studied privately with a revered and much loved teacher, Cornelia Tarnowska, while attending the Lwow Conservatory. He graduated with honors at age fifteen, and shortly thereafter left for Vienna to complete his studies with pianist Edward Steuermann. During his first year in Vienna, he also studied composition privately with Alban Berg. A phenomenal sightreader, and an assiduous student of the rich concert life of Vienna, my father acquired early on a prodigious knowledge of all areas of the musical literature. He gave his first important recital in Vienna at age seventeen, to the acclaim of the revered critics of the day. His orchestral debut, three years later (with Pierre Monteux and the Concertgebouw, playing Rachmaninoff´s 2nd Piano Concerto), was by all printed accounts sensational, and established his reputation throughout Europe as a musician of world class. A participant in the first International Chopin Competition in Warsaw (1929), he scored major victories with the public and press, but came away with only an honorable mention—an upset marked by general indignation and the angry resignation of one of the judges.

In addition to solo and orchestral appearances, my father toured frequently and far, as a young man, with such great violinists as Erica Morini, Nathan Milstein, and, of course, with my father´s more famous younger brother, Bronislaw. He became a close associate and protégé of the great violinist Bronislaw Huberman, with whom he completed two world tours, and with whom he collaborated closely in the realization and foundation of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (then known as the Palestine Symphony). In 1937, my father appeared with much acclaim in that orchestra´s 100th concert and official opening of its Second Season. Despite the primitive and dangerous conditions then prevailing, he went on to give some thirty recitals in villages and kibbutzim throughout Palestine.

In 1938, having timely taken heed of the tragic developments which were to culminate in the Holocaust, he emigrated with his wife Mimi (my mother) to the United States, never again to see his parents, who perished in the Holocaust along with more than thirty other known relatives, or his older brother Karol (a gifted pianist and conductor), who was said to have died of "dysentery" in a Soviet prison. Unknown in America, and unadept at the musical powerplay that characterized the New York "scene," my father took up residence in Los Angeles, where he supported his family through teaching and recording for "the studios," a routine punctuated by occasional concerts across the U.S.

My father´s American career is a study in itself, and one which should be of interest to a nation which nurtures a sincere belief in artistic freedom and the inevitable emergence of excellence. His sporadic appearances in several U.S. and Canadian cities invariably produced outstanding successes with press and public alike, yet failed to win him billing as a major artist. An early "breakthrough" with Columbia Masterworks brought forth one outstanding album—his premiere recording of Szymanowksy´s Twelve Etudes (1940), but led to nothing further.

Ironically, it was the Hollywood of the golden years that gave my father´s American career its first real boost. Featured recording appearances in classic films such as "Gaslight," "Possessed," "Letter from an Unknown Woman," "Strange Fascination," "Three Stories of Love," and (in his later years), "Mephisto Waltz," introduced my father to millions of moviegoers, most of whom would never hear him in a concert hall. There were also two classic cartoons: "Rhapsody Rabbit," in which my father played a comically disrupted version of Liszt´s Second Hungarian Rhapsody, and the Academy-Award-winning "Johann Mouse," in which a virtuoso Tom played my father´s stunning paraphrase of the "Blue Danube" for a dancing Jerry. Although my father understandably belittled his contribution to Hollywood, his modest movie-fame led to several best-selling recordings with Vox in 1944-46, and a contract with NCAC management. Yet the rewards were in keeping with his own modesty: few crumbs were thrown in his direction. An adventurous spirit, he undertook a forty-concert tour of the new State of Alaska in 1960, flying gamely from town to town in rattletrap aircraft and braving subzero temperatures to play on rattletrap pianos.

Determined to break out of his American shell, my father had resumed his career in Europe in 1954, his way paved, in part, by his brother´s triumphant return there seven years earlier. There, both brothers attained unparalleled public and critical acclaim, each playing as many as a hundred concerts a year. However, it was in West Germany that my father´s success reached historic proportions. Just one example of my father´s preeminence with the German public was his 1957 concert season, when he "sold out" five times in a row in Hamburg, six times in Berlin. Wherever he played, additional seating had to be installed on the stage. The applause would sometimes continue after the house lights were extinguished. Several beautiful recordings followed with Electrola and Europaïscher Phonoklub, most of which were never released in America. My father´s increasing European commitments led, intermittently, to several years´ residence in London, Geneva, Rome and Basel. For his "extraordinary services to German music" he would later be decorated with the Verdienstkreuz Erster Klasse of the Bundesrepublik.

In 1961, my father returned to Poland for the first and only time since the war. The circumstances were dramatic. He was greeted by a representative of the Jewish Community, who explained apologetically that the Jews of Warsaw had just decided to boycott the Philharmonic in protest over the resurgence of official anti-semitism. Deeply upset by this development, my father explained that, owing to the involvement of the U.S. State Department, he could not simply cancel at the last minute. "Then don´t cancel," replied the representative: "We know what to do." That evening, when my father walked onstage, the capacity audience broke into a seemingly endless ovation which shook him to the core. My father might not have realized it, but this was not merely the homecoming welcome of a long absent son. These people knew my father from his many Radio Free Europe broadcasts from West Berlin! Even more emotional was the reaction to his playing. When he had finished, and the applause had finally subsided, more than half of the audience suddenly got up as one man and walked out of the hall. From the wings, my father watched with grim pride as the orchestra continued playing to a sparsely populated hall. The Jews of Warsaw had come to hear my father in spite of their boycott! In solidarity with the Jewish protest, my father declined subsequent invitations to return to Poland. For comparable reasons, he turned down invitations to play in South Africa, then under Apartheid.

Despite his European successes—and his triumphant 1948 Carnegie Hall appearance as a featured artist in the U.N.-sponsored Chopin Centennial celebrations—my father had to finance his own New York recitals in order to play in that city—an exercise he gave up as pointless in 1957. That same year, he broke with NCAC. Unable to secure representation by any other major American concert management, he remained virtually unrepresented in the U.S. ever after. Shortly before the breakup, NCAC had given my father to understand that as a result of his European successes, his next American season was going to be "extremely busy." After declining a large number of European dates to make room for the expected American tour, my father learned from a friendly insider that "no American dates are pending." Concurrently, my father was charged with alleged heavy publicity expenses, which he claimed never to have authorized.

When the great Soviet Jewish violinist David Oistrakh invited my father to tour the Soviet Union in 1963, American management (without whose assistance such a tour could not be arranged) first promised, then declined to send him, or subsequently to include him in a cultural exchange program. Incredibly, my father never appeared in any major American music festival, or with any major U.S. symphony, excepting Pittsburgh, Boston and Los Angeles. Despite the clamorous success of his 1968 "debut" at the Los Angeles Music Center, playing the Chopin f minor Concerto with Zubin Mehta conducting, New York remained closed to him. As late as 1985, the National Symphony Orchestra turned down a private offer to bring him to Washington D.C.

More tragically, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), perennially dominated by the sometimes questionable influence of the New York Music Establishment, long ignored my father´s pleas to perform again in Israel. Negotiations initiated in 1981 ended in disappointment. The episode had promised to right a long pattern of undeserved neglect. My father had raised substantial funds for the Orchestra, and had hired many of its original members, including such outstanding musicians as violinist Felix Galimir and composer/cellist Joachim Stutchewsky. It was my father who performed (playing the Bach-Busoni Toccata & Fugue in C major) at the historic banquet where Huberman announced his plan for a Palestine Symphony. Yet a 1968 book documenting the history of the IPO (An Orchestra is Born, published under IPO auspices) omitted all mention of my father´s name while describing events in which he was closely involved. There exists a well-known drawing of Huberman performing with an unidentified pianist. The drawing is reportedly exhibited in the IPO Guesthouse in Tel-Aviv. The pianist is unquestionably my father, and is known to be, yet it has been claimed that the drawing portrays someone else.

During the Huberman centennial in 1984 and the IPO´s 50th Anniversary in 1986, my father´s presence and name were noticeably omitted from the festivities—despite the fact that the Huberman "Gala Concert" was staged in my father´s home town of Los Angeles!. As if by that Power which invisibly directs man toward what is right and good, the IPO later found itself in Los Angeles on the day my father died there, yet issued no statement!

The reasons behind such egregious behavior are beyond speculation. In 1938, my father left Palestine a hero with many loving friends. Many of those friendships endured long afterwards, including, significantly, that of Harry Beilin, first Consul of Israel in Los Angeles, and later Chargé d´Affaires in Copenhagen. In 1975 my father was honored by the State of Israel for his many beneficences to that nationīs defense and cultural life.

In his later interviews, my father sometimes alluded to the extraordinary obstacles placed in the path of his American career—among them, the artificially created myth of his "unsuccess" with the American public. Indignant at the pall which this myth had cast over his local activities, a devoted group of Los Angeles admirers formed "F.O.G.—Friends of Gimpel" in 1969 or ´70, and underwrote his first major recital in the city which had been his home for nearly thirty years. That sold-out Royce Hall recital (1971) was the first of several recitals—recalled by critics as "legendary"—at major venues throughout Southern California.

Indeed, since that time, and throughout the remainder of his life, my father became probably the most frequently heard artist in Los Angeles, with numerous solo and orchestral appearances (not counting his bi-annual Faculty Concerts at CSUN) at the Music Center, the Hollywood Bowl, Royce Hall and Ambassador Auditorium—where for many years he held the record for sold-out houses. One UCLA recital, as noted by his reviewer, had the San Diego freeway backed up a quarter of a mile.

My father´s last years were dimmed by the loss of his brother Bronislaw, whom he loved dearly and admired as the last of the Great Violinists. Though handicapped in his old age by partial blindness and by a severed tendon in the right shoulder, my father continued to perform both at home and abroad, with few if any concessions to his severe shoulder pain. In this he was sustained by his unflinching devotion to his art, his Beethovenian faith in the redeeming power of music, and by the loyal devotion of his audiences. If one had to sum him up in a short phrase, the London critic said it best who called him "an artist of sterling integrity." That should apply to the man as well as to the artist. He was a musical activist who quietly did wonderful things for a good many people and many a good cause.

Among the latter, he established in his brother´s memory the Bronislaw Gimpel Memorial Scholarship at California State University at Northridge (CSUN), where my father taught, between concert tours, from 1971 to 1986 as Distinguished Professor in Residence. That good work still continues in the name of both brothers.

As hinted, my father´s beneficences to Israel and Jewish causes were legion. Among them, in 1948, he conceived, organized and soloed in a symphony concert at the Hollywood Bowl (recruiting William Steinberg to conduct) to benefit the Hebrew University. With similar initiative, an emergency Israel Survival Concert quietly organized for the local Community during the Yom Kippur War raised some $65,000.

With all the difficulties he endured, I still cannot imagine my father ever preferring the role of a mass media celebrity. He had an aversion for self-promotion and self-serving politics in an age which has increasingly witnessed the capitulation of musical dignity to the circus idealogy of mass media opportunism. It can truly be said of my father, as of my beloved uncle Bronislaw, that the fame he attained was achieved by word of mouth and music of ear. No press agents were hired, no strategies plotted, no scenarios concocted.

My father´s playing was as selfless as his professional ethic, and many in his audiences realized that it was a service of devotion. Freely acknowledging his distance from religious practice per se, he would sometimes say, "I pray when I play." I have never heard another pianist, including Rubinstein (in many ways a kindred spirit, and one who moved me profoundly), who could so deeply penetrate the hearts of his listeners. My father´s touch was characterized by a vibrant, orchestral forte that was unique among the pianists of his time, and by a mezzoforte kaleidoscopic in texture, color and nuance. His rubati were inimitable, his feathery pianissimi inimitably translucent to a world of microcosmic expression. He knew literature and art well, read widely in Polish, French, English and German and numbered many great musicians, writers and artists among his friends. Toch, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ugo Strelitzer, Ernst Krenek, Frank Campo, George Shearing, Lion Feuchtwanger, Henry Miller, Victoria Wolff, Max Band, are some of the luminaries I personally remember as frequent visitors to my parents´ home. There were many others. My father was able naturally and effortlessly to draw from his broad intellectual awareness to impart musical meaning to every note and phrase. His musical interpretations had a profound philosophical and spiritual impact which transcended mere "interpretation." They were a refined and sophisticated language of intensely poetic mood and drama that today, alas, has been all but lost.

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