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Bartók's Viola ConcertoThe Remarkable Story of His Swansong$

Donald Maurice

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780195156904

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195156904.001.0001

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(p.177) appendix four Burton Fisch

(p.177) appendix four Burton Fisch

Bartók's Viola Concerto
Oxford University Press

(p.177) appendix four

Burton Fisch

The involvement of Burton Fisch in Bartók's Viola Concerto has proven to be of enormous significance. The contemporary viola community knows little of him, and as there is no biographical information available in the public domain, the following material is supplied, summarized from correspondence and an interview with Fisch in 1997.

A native of New York, Fisch began violin lessons with Constance Seeger (Pete Seeger's mother). As he recalls: “When I was about six years old, my mother was walking down the street, and she saw a shingle that somebody had hung out—a violin teacher—and she thought it would be nice to get me lessons.”

At age eleven he won a scholarship to the Juilliard School, where he continued studies with Conrad Held. Studies at the Juilliard continued for nine years, initially only part‐time due to Fisch's still being at regular school. After graduating as a violinist in 1940, Fisch took up viola, and as he recalls:

I got a scholarship to the University of Miami with a friend of mine who was also a violist and we both went down to school, but after less than a year we quit. It was like playboy school. All the teachers that came down to Miami were from northern universities.They were sick and they wanted to live in a nice climate so they came down there. We came to the conclusion that we were not improving our viola capabilities.

On returning to New York in 1941 Fisch took up private viola study with Emanuel Vardi. This was soon followed by a position in the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, which lasted for only a year and a half, as he was then drafted into the armed forces in November 1942. After two and a half years in the United States serving as a medic and bandsman, carrying and trying to play a tuba in the military band, he was transferred to Germany, just one month before the war ended. At this time he recalls that the Allies were surrounding Berlin. At the end of the war Fisch was stationed in Leipzig as part of the military police. His musical outlet through this period was as a pianist, trumpeter, and conductor in dance bands, as there was little demand for a violist.

On his release in March 1946, Fisch rejoined his wife, whom he had married just before being sent to Germany, in New York. Then began a twenty‐year period of freelance viola playing in New York. He worked with Paul Whiteman in a dance (p.178) band and Hildegard in the Plaza Hotel. After being recommended for the CBS orchestra, Fisch relinquished his position with Hildegard, being replaced by Leonard Davis, who later joined the viola section of the New York Philharmonic. Fisch recalls this period as quite lucrative:

Those days we took jobs for the radio and TV stations—you only worked four hours out of the eight hours a day, five days a week, otherwise it was overtime. So it was much better pay than the New York Philharmonic. In the Philharmonic, those days, they started a pension plan. You got to receive 100% of your pension if you were there twenty‐five years, but as soon as you were there about twenty years they would fire you, so they didn't have to pay you all your pension. In the CBS orchestra on Sundays they would put a big library of music on your stand and we had two hours of playing on the radio while people were driving in their cars and they would just talk through the rehearsal and make sure we all had the same cuts. Also, at CBS, Dave Soyer and I played TV shows like Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan andArthur Godfrey, in addition to our Sunday radio stint conducted by Alfredo Antonini.

After ten years with the CBS orchestra and a further ten years playing for recordings for movies, transcriptions, and jingles and in a number of orchestras, Fisch moved out west to California to live near his daughter and son‐in‐law, who were teachers. For two years Fisch lived in San Diego, where his wife was a professor who instructed student teachers in the Education Department. After two years he decided that even San Diego was too much hustle and bustle. They bought ten acres of bare land in Fallbrook, had a house built, and planted a thousand avocado trees. Israel was experimenting with drip irrigation at that time, and he decided to experiment on his avocados. For six or seven years during the summer he attended a sixweek course at avocado school.

Fisch stopped playing viola totally from 1968 until 1986, almost eighteen years. It was on the occasion of his father's ninetieth birthday that, after some prodding from his second wife, Etta, he agreed to bring the viola out of mothballs. His father had not heard him play since he moved out of his house as a teenager. Etta recalls this performance bringing tears to the eyes of his five granddaughters who had never heard him play, and as Fisch recalls, “I started practicing, and once I got back in shape, I didn't want to give it up anymore.”

Since retiring, Fisch has become very involved in chamber music, attending a summer workshop every year in San Diego and Claremont, California. He also plays with a community orchestra and arranges music on his computer for viola solo and various ensembles.