News / Arts & Entertainment

Aging New York Piano Virtuoso Looks Back

Piano virtuoso Walter Hautzig plays the Grieg Concerto in the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center, New York. (Courtesy of John DesMarteau)
Piano virtuoso Walter Hautzig plays the Grieg Concerto in the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center, New York. (Courtesy of John DesMarteau)
Adam Phillips

The peaceful atmosphere in the Upper West Side apartment where 92-year-old Walter Hautzig plays his piano amid family photographs and framed honors is many worlds away from the pre-war Vienna where he grew up. In 1938, when Hautzig was a 16-year-old prodigy, the Nazis took power in Austria.

Hautzig says Jews were routinely beaten in the streets. Their businesses were closed.

“That was the Austria I grew up in. You can’t imagine,” he said with a grimace.

Aging New York Piano Virtuoso Looks Back
Aging New York Piano Virtuoso Looks Backi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

Music was the boy’s only refuge. After authorities closed the state music academy he attended, Hautzig made a forbidden visit there, only to find the place filled with German soldiers. Their rifles covered the pianos.

And then a miracle happened.

Hautzig learned that the director of the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music was coming to Vienna to hold auditions for new students. Not knowing where they were to be held, Hautzig arrived at the man’s hotel at eight in the morning and waited. The director arrived at two in the afternoon, only to offer his regrets and leave to hail a taxi.  

Desperate, Hautzig made his move. 

“I jumped into the taxi ahead of him,” he recalled, “and said ‘I’m going with you!’ That took a lot of chutzpah. We got to an apartment and there was a piano. The director pointed to it and said ‘Play! Spiel!’ And I sat down and I played. When I finished, he said ‘I’ll bring you to Jerusalem under any circumstances.’”  

From Nazi-Occupied Vienna to Palestine, then New York

With further chutzpah and some luck, Hautzig obtained an ultra-rare exit visa and left for Palestine, leaving his family behind. His parents later managed to get out of Austria too. His mother joined his sister in New York the very day Hitler invaded Poland. Another sister escaped on skis into Switzerland.

Walter Hautzig in his New York apartment, July 16, 2014 (VOA / Adam Phillips)Walter Hautzig in his New York apartment, July 16, 2014 (VOA / Adam Phillips)
x
Walter Hautzig in his New York apartment, July 16, 2014 (VOA / Adam Phillips)
Walter Hautzig in his New York apartment, July 16, 2014 (VOA / Adam Phillips)

Hautzig flourished at the music conservatory in Palestine, but after a year-and-a-half, went to join his family in New York.

“New York at that time was full of refugees like me. They were at the opera and they were in the orchestras, and they became the conductors of major orchestras," he said. "They brought a lot with them,” including the Romantic musical traditions of the Old World.

Hautzig particularly remembers an elderly habitué of the Jewish cafeterias. Max Graf had been an important critic in Vienna before the Nazis. 

Graf regaled the younger man with stories about Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), whom he had known as a youth, and Johann Strauss (1864-1949), the composer of “The Blue Danube” and many celebrated waltzes. He also spoke of the time he accompanied Strauss to a meeting with Hindemith, the avant-garde composer. 

“And Strauss said to Paul Hindemith ‘Why do you write atonal music? You don’t have to do that. After all you have talent!’” recalled Hautzig with a laugh.

Hautzig’s own talent was widely admired at his New York debut at Town Hall in 1943. He began to tour America, including the racially-segregated South. What he saw disturbed him.

“When I saw "colored” washrooms and that blacks had to sit at the back of the bus, I said to my hosts, ‘You are the same as Nazis!’  And they resented it and gave me all kinds of reasons. It was horrible! Oh, I got into a lot of trouble.”

A king’s handshake and a lover’s look

In 1947, during his first concert tour in Europe, Hautzig played a concert in Norway to benefit Nazi war victims. After the final concert, the King of Norway invited him and a few other artists in Hautzig's entourage to come see him at the palace.  Hautzig was honored, and wanted to get the protocol right.

“So I called the embassy to ask ‘How do I talk to a king?’ ‘Well’ they said, ‘you must remember two things: you never shake hands and you never sit down.’ I come in [to the King’s presence]. There stands King Haakon with his outstretched hand, saying ‘How do you do?’ and pushes me into a chair," he said. "And I laughed. And I told him [what I’d been told], and he laughed too.”

Hautzig met Esther, his future wife of 59 years, on the sea voyage home.  She was 16 years old, and seasick. For him, it was love at first sight. Her moment came later, during their courtship in New York. 

“I played for her the G Minor Ballade of Chopin and she said, ‘Anybody who plays like that has to be good,’” recalled Hautzig, on the verge of tears.     

Hautzig quickly became an international star, touring in distinctly non-Westernized locales as diverse as Kabul, Dhaka, Indonesia, Colombia and Suriname, often under the sponsorship of the U.S. State Department. He had unshakeable faith in the music’s universal appeal, saying “Beethoven and Chopin are as good for the Asians as for the Europeans as for the Jews as for the Gentiles.”

Eleanor Roosevelt reassures the maestro’s wife

On one tour of Japan, Hautzig performed 30 concerts in 27 days.  That feat caught the attention of former First Lady and humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt. She invited him to perform at a home for delinquent boys she supported and then to come with his wife to her home for the weekend.

Hautzig was utterly charmed by Mrs. Roosevelt’s warmth and lack of affectation.  

“And when we said goodbye, I said Mrs. R. - everybody called her Mrs. R. -  I have fallen in love with you! And I’m telling you this in front of my wife.’ And in her high voice, she took Esther by the hand and said ‘My dear, let me tell you that this time, you really have nothing to worry about!’” Mrs. Roosevelt was then in her seventies, and Mrs. Hautzig was in her 30s.

In 1979, when U.S. President Jimmy Carter wanted to warm relations with China, he honored Hautzig by inviting him to tour the country as the first U.S. cultural ambassador there.  Twenty or so years later, Hautzig gave a special concert for Mr. Carter and his wife Rosalynn.

“At the end of it, when I said goodbye I said ‘Mr. President, we are both young. I want to pray for you for the next 20 years, and then we’ll ask for more!’ He patted me on the back and said ‘God bless you.’"

Hautzig taught piano at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore for 27 years.  He is cautious in his assessment of the rising generation of professional musicians.

“They play very loud and very fast and sometimes not very expressively. They are perfectly efficient and so on, but there is something missing [below the surface] with some of them.”

But after a thoughtful pause and a sigh, he adds, with a half-smile “We’ll see what happens. They are good. But we were not bad either!”

"Practice Makes Perfect"

Walter Hautzig practices and prepares for a benefit concert at Lincoln Center:

 

 

You May Like

UN Fears Rights Violations in China-backed Projects

UNHCHR investigates link between financing development and ignoring safeguards for human rights More

Boko Haram Violence Tests Nigerians’ Faith in Buhari

New president has promised to stem insurgency; he’s scheduled to meet with President Obama at White House July 20 More

Social Media Network Wants Privacy in User’s Hands

Encryption's popularity in messaging is exploding; now it's the foundation of a new social network More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”