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

Hong Kong Democracy Calls Spread to Macau

Macau and Hong Kong are China’s two 'special administrative regions' which gives them a measure of autonomy More

After Nearly 2 Years, Pistorius Remains Elusive

Reporter Anita Powell reflects on her experience covering the Olympic athlete's murder trial More

Kenyan Coastal Town Struggles With Deadly June Attacks

Three months after al-Shabab militants allegedly attacked their town, some Mpeketoni residents are still bitter, question who was really behind the assaults More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Obama to Ramp Up Anti-Ebola Efforts in Africai
X
Luis Ramirez
September 15, 2014 11:01 PM
President Barack Obama on Tuesday will unveil his plan to ramp up efforts against the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa. VOA White House Correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Obama to Ramp Up Anti-Ebola Efforts in Africa

President Barack Obama on Tuesday will unveil his plan to ramp up efforts against the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa. VOA White House Correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Graham Nash has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – once for his work with The Hollies and once as part of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The legendary folk-rocker joins "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his latest project, “CSN 2012,” which captured on video recent live performances by Crosby, Stills & Nash.