Sunday, December 29, 2013

Oscar Shumsky

Oscar Shumsky was a Russian (most people would say American) violinist, violist, conductor, and teacher born (in Philadelphia) on March 23, 1917.  He had a long and busy career during which he almost completely stopped concertizing in favor of teaching.  It has been said that Otokar Sevcik had over 5,000 students over the span of a greater-than sixty-year teaching career.  Shumsky had lots of students but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t more than five thousand.  It has also been said of Shumsky that he had an un-compromising, opinionated personality – in the style of Berl Senofsky.  Shumsky began to study the violin at age three - one source says age 4 - with Albert Meiff.  He first appeared with orchestra at age seven with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski on the podium, playing Mozart’s fifth concerto – known as the Turkish concerto.  At age 8 he began to study privately with Leopold Auer in New York.  Three years later (1928) he entered the Curtis Institute where he continued to study with Auer and later on (beginning in 1930) with Efrem Zimbalist.  He made his New York debut in 1934.  He was 17 years old.  He graduated from Curtis in 1936 but continued to study privately with Zimbalist until 1938.  He joined the NBC Symphony under the ill-tempered conductor Arturo Toscanini in 1939.  He was the youngest member of the orchestra and sat in the second stand of the first violins.  That same year, he also joined the Primrose Quartet as first violinist – William Primrose was also a member of the NBC Symphony.  At the time, many top-flight New York musicians had become members of either the NBC Symphony or the New York Philharmonic because solo work was scarce.  From 1941, he served in the Navy, playing as one of the orchestral soloists and playing in the Navy string quartet with cellist Bernard Greenhouse, violist Emanuel Vardi, and David Stone.  After the war, Shumsky was featured on weekly radio programs on NBC, as were a few other violinists of the time.  However, a very reliable source says that this broadcast activity actually occurred in 1939, before the war.  It may have been both, before and after.  Whether any of those programs survive in recordings is anybody’s guess.  Shumsky also worked as a studio musician, leading the RCA and the Columbia Symphonies as concertmaster on various occasions.  Shumsky taught at the Curtis Institute (1961 to 1965), the Peabody Conservatory (from 1942), Yale University (from 1975), and the Juilliard School (from 1953.)  I do not know how long he taught at each particular school.  On December 15, 1956, he appeared with the New York Philharmonic playing the Beethoven concerto.  Leonard Bernstein was on the podium.  Shumsky made his conducting debut in 1959.  As far as I know, he never conducted any major orchestras.  His commercial discography includes Rode’s 24 Caprices, Beethoven’s concerto, Brahms’ concerto, two Mozart concertos (4 and 5), three Bach concertos, the Glazunov concerto, the complete Mozart Sonatas, the complete Brahms Hungarian Dances, and the Bach solo Partitas and Sonatas.  He also recorded with the Primrose Quartet and those recordings are still available.  Here is a YouTube video of one of his recorded performances.  It is the famous Richard Strauss sonata – the one responsible for the attack on Jascha Heifetz (which resulted in his broken arm.)  Glenn Gould is the accompanist.  Shumsky’s students include Steven Staryk, Stanley Ritchie, Guillermo Figueroa, and Ida Kavafian.  Among many other violins, Shumsky played (and owned) the 1715 Stradivarius known as the Pierre Rode Stradivarius.  The violin was inherited by Shumsky’s two sons who sold it to Tokuji Munetsugu in 2004.  According to at least one source, this violin was subsequently played (at least for a while) by Ryu Goto, brother of the famous violinist, Midori.  Shumsky died (in New York) on July 24, 2000, at age 83.  


  1. This is violinist profile number 371.

  2. Shumsky and Glenn Gould ran a music festival up in Canada for a few years. Evidently, they were able to get along just fine and they performed together quite often. Earl Wild and Artur Balsam were two other well-known Shumsky accompanists.

  3. Have you written a post on the great Ivan Straus, violinist of the Czech trio? One of my favorite violinists of the 20th century but vastly underrated. Associated especially with the works of Martinu.

    1. I have not written about Ivan Straus because there is scant information about him. I do practically all of my research on the internet. If I had a date of birth for him I think that would provide sufficient motivation to dig further into this career. Thanks!!

  4. Dear Sir/Ma'am:

    I am Oscar Shumsky's granddaughter, Allison Glyde Shumsky. My family appreciates you taking the time to write an article about him. He was a tremendous violinist to have graced the musical world.

    While we appreciate you writing the article, please know there are several sections of your article that aren't quite correct. My grandfather performed before the Internet was popular, which might be the issue that you're running into. I suggest the Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, as well as or The last two links contain articles written about my grandfather by my uncle, Eric Shumsky, his son.

    On a side note, I'd like you to know that I loved my grandfather and was close to him. We had many conversations about all sorts of interesting things - literature, photography and biology were just some of topics we discussed. I appreciated his perspective and it greatly influenced the way that I think about things.

    Thank you again for taking the time to write an article about him.