The Virtuoso

He may have been one of the most promising musicians of the twentieth century. Fritz Kreisler reportedly said of him that, "a fidder such as [X] is born every one hundred years, one like [Josef] Hassid, every two centuries".

Born in the Polish town of Suwalki in 1923, Josef Hassid's mother died when he was an infant. After studying with a local violin teacher, Josef was taken by his father to Warsaw to extend his musical education. Beginning at the age of ten, he studied with Mieczyslaw Mihalowicz at the Chopin School of Music and, after only two years, went on to represent Poland at the 1935 Wienawski Competition.  A shy, introverted child, Josef's memory failed him during his final performance at the competition and he failed to make it to the second round (he still managed to receive an honour diploma for his performance). The memory lapse devastated Josef Hassid7[1] who reportedly cried for more than an hour after leaving the concert hall.

In 1937, Josef's father took; his son to Spa, Belgium to study with the legendary Carl Flesch who quickly recognized Josef's talent and took over his musical education. During his time in Spa, Josef met and fell in love with a local girl but the relationship was forcibly terminated by their parents since she wasn't Jewish.  Flesch later arranged for Josef to be brought to London in 1938 for a private recital at the house of Sir Philip Sassoon.; Josef's playing mesmerized his audience. Due to the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 and the Jewish persecution that followed, Josef and his father decided to stay in London where he continued his musical training with Flesch.

On April 4, 1940, Josef Hassid gave his first public performance at London's Wigmore Hall. Billed as the "Polish Boy Violinist", Josef played works by Bach, Schubert, and Paganini among others. Three weeks later, he premiered at the Queen's Hall in a performance with the London Philharmonic.  His brilliant playing attracted the attention of record producer, Walter Legge, who arranged for Josef to give his first (and only) recording engagement. Josef recorded four RPM records at the HMV studios on Abbey Road. Those precious albums are the only surviving record of Josef Hassid's brilliant talent (most of his recorded pieces are available on Youtube).

Shortly after his recording session, Josef's father noticed that his son was becoming increasingly withdrawn and moody. While he had always been prone to episodes of depression and performance anxiety, Josef became even more erratic over time and often went for weeks without even touching his violin. He lashed out at his father and frequently insisted that he would be giving up his music.  Worried about Josef's mental state, Flesch arranged for Josef to be assessed by Thomas Horder (Winston Churchill's personal physician) who arranged to him to be admitted to his private hospital.   In informing the hospital of Josef's arrival, Horder told them: "I am sending you a genius".   After several hospital stays, Josef Hassid was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia.

As Josef's condition worsened, he renounced music and denied ever having played the violin. Carl Flesch wrote numerous letters pleading for Josef to return to his performing.  In one letter, he stated that:"I hope you will do everything within your will-power to get well again as soon as possible. A great artist like you owes it to the world to become active again". After a year in hospital, Josef Hassid returned home and tried to return to his music but he continued to find reasons against giving another performance. As his health worsened, Josef was later diagnosed as having a brain tumour. Following a dangerous and unsuccessful brain operation (not a lobotomy as some accounts stated), Josef Hassid died in 1950. He was twenty-seven years old.

While child prodigies such as Josef Hassid and Yehudi Menuhin routinely face years of gruelling training to develop their talent, we may never know why some musicians are able to succeed when others fail. Whether or not the pressure to perform played a role in Josef's mental illness, the few available recordings of his playing continue to serve as a testimony to an amazing talent that burned out too soon.


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