On September 22, let’s wish a happy 100th birthday to Henryk Szeryng (22 September 1918 – 3 March 1988), a man of international renown as a violinist, pedagogue, cultural ambassador, and humanitarian. He was born in Zelazowa Wola, a village northeast of Warsaw, Poland (the same birthplace as the pianist and composer Frederic Chopin). In 1946 Szeryng became a Mexican citizen. The Music Division holds the Henryk Szeryng collection, a rich manuscript collection arranged in 13 series which documents his life and career. I encourage you to discover his extensive list of accolades in the finding aid’s Biographical Sketch. In this post, I’d like to highlight aspects of Szeryng’s life through archival documents – maybe you’ll even find some surprises as I did!
Henryk Szeryng with violin at the US Capitol, undated, Henryk Szeryng Collection, Box 23/Folder 2, Music Division, Library of Congress
Page 1 of Henryk Szeryng’s Mexican diplomatic passport, 1971 July 21, Box 4/Folder 18, Henryk Szeryng collection, Music Division, Library of Congress
The documentation of Szeryng’s career as Mexico’s Cultural Ambassador is extensive and may be found in Series 1, Biographical Material. This series includes Szeryng’s diplomatic passports, completely filled with visa stamps from around the world. Series 1 also includes Szeryng’s Mexican naturalization papers. In Series 8, Photographs, there are wonderful photos of Szeryng throughout his private life and career. The oldest photo in the collection is from 1923, taken in Warsaw, Poland, when Szeryng was five years old. Judging by the size and remnants of a stamp on the photo, it was likely for a passport or some other form of official identification. The oldest photo in collection with Szeryng and his violin is a sweet portrait outdoors in Berlin, Germany, dated 10 October 1930.
What about those surprises I mentioned? In all my years as a performing arts archivist, Szeryng’s collection is the first one in which I found a folder in the finding aid entitled “Casual, with animals.” How could I not peak inside? I love what I found – publicity and personal photos of Szeryng with his pets, other peoples’ pets, random animals he met out and about, and zoo animals while on tour! His scrapbooks include more photos with animals, as well. I am torn between two favorites: Szeryng holding a koala during his 1964 Australian tour, and serenading his poodle at home in Paris. To me, these documents are the unsung gems of archives because they demonstrate that the musical giants we love were real people with unique personalities and non-musical passions.
Collection items that tie together his performing and diplomatic careers appear in Series 11, Music, with supporting documentation from Series 8, Photographs. A famous accomplishment of Szeryng was his 1971 reconstruction and world premiere recording of Niccolo Paganini’s third violin concerto. Series 11 contains Szeryng’s holograph score in pencil and embossed with a publisher’s raised stamp, as well as Szeryng’s facsimile with holograph annotations for rehearsals.
While the Paganini concerto is a performance accomplishment and a great service to the musical community at large, cultural ambassador duties are present in the documents related to Szeryng’s professional relationship with Mexican composer, conductor, and educator Carlos Chavez (1899-1978). Series 8 contains numerous photographs of Szeryng and Chavez working together on a revised version of Chavez’s violin concerto through the 1960s, and Series 11 contains Szeryng’s music composed by Chavez. Szeryng gave the New York premiere of Chavez’s revised violin concerto in October 1965 with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. Like Bernstein, Szeryng was Jewish and had strong personal, artistic, and diplomatic ties to Israel; Szeryng donated his 1734 Stradivarius violin to the Israel Philharmonic, among other connections. The New York Philharmonic Archives has digitized the concert program, which includes program notes that describe the Chavez concerto and its multiple versions in depth. Other photos of Chavez with Szeryng in Series 8 from the late 1970s were taken at Mexican embassies with various Mexican ambassadors and diplomats.
Now that I’ve enticed you all with examples from the Henryk Szeryng collection, read the finding aid and come on in to the Performing Arts Reading Room! You may also be interested in the official website of the Estate of Henryk Szeryng based in Monaco, one of Szeryng’s final places of residence; Szeryng also donated his 1861 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin to the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra. The online interactive chronology and documents section include copies of photographs from our Szeryng collection and streaming recordings of this violin master. The additional digitized photos, awards, and scores give you an even deeper sense of the wealth of documentation in Szeryng’s collection here in the Music Division. If you’re interested in research in this collection, Ask a Performing Arts Librarian!