Heinrich Schiff: Bach saved my life, literally

Special to Slipped Disc from Steven Isserlis:

I have spent the past few days in Belgrade, playing Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the (lovely) Belgrade Philharmonic under the baton of a great musical figure, Heinrich Schiff. Alas, Heinrich’s health is far from good, and he no longer plays the cello (although he still teaches); but he is an inspiring conductor – it was touching to see the orchestra giving him their all in Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony. And for me, it was a very special experience to play with him for the first time, having known and admired him for so many years. I told him that, looking up at him onstage, he reminded me of Sandor Vegh (a younger, better-looking version, I hastened to add!) We spent quite a bit of time together; despite his health problems, his crystal intelligence and his unique sense of humour are unimpaired.

One story that he told me really struck home. I was complaining (as usual) about the pressures of performing the Bach suites. He looked at me, and said quietly: ‘Bach saved my life.’ I asked him what he meant; and he told me that a few years ago, he had a serious stroke, and was in danger of losing all mobility on his left side. As soon as he got to hospital, and realised what was happening, he started (almost instinctively, I imagine) to go through the fingerings of the Prelude to Bach’s first suite, moving his fingers ceaselessly to the imaginary music. He did this for about 20 hours a day, he thinks; and gradually his whole body came back to life, powered by those fingerings. It is an amazing story (and he said he was happy for it to be generally known).

Today you would never guess that he could have been half-paralyzed, possibly even incapable of speech – or worse. The miracle of Bach – and of Heinrich.


(c) Steven Isserlis/Slipped Disc

Heinrich Schiff died on December 23, 2016 in a Vienna hospital.

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  • I wish him well. I have a copy of his EMI Bach Suites and enjoy the ripe, rich sound he brings and the unforced way the ideas and forms are balanced. (It was made, incidentally, in a Swiss church, but apparently not the one on the cover!)

  • I think the ‘literally’ in the article title is literally wrong. It wasn’t a life or death situation

    • Schiff did not use “literally”, mr Lebrecht did.

      To be fair, I think that what Mr lebrecht meant to say is that the fact that Bach helped improve Mr Schiff’s physical condition makes his use of the phrase “save my life” closer to its literal meaning than most uses.

      • That being said, saving someone’s life “as an X” (fill the blank) is NOT the literal meaning of the phrase “save someone’s life”.

        Getting to a dinner party:
        Max : “Oh my god I forgot to bring wine!”
        Joe : “Oh it´s allright, I brought some”
        Max: “thanks, you saved my life as a wine bringer”


  • Perhaps the following reminder is appropriate: Misuse of “literally” makes me figuratively insane.

    • Sadly for some, the English language evolves and has always been one of figurative and speech, as well as a lot of regional differences with words and particularly grammar. In the North where I live, there is a lot of ‘I was sat’ … been accepted for years. Communication is always the better policy … I must say I get fed up with people saying ‘less’ when they mean ‘fewer!’

  • As a neurolinguist working with stroke patients for three decades now I can tell you: Stroke patients are stroke survivors. I was lucky to watch H. Schiff playing in August 2008, Wiesbaden, Rheingau Musik Festival, Schubert Trios (with F.-P. Zimmermann and Chr. Zacharias), and I really enjoyed it. Suddenly, there was this bright smile on his face, and I felt : “That’s what he’s living for”. Well, one week later I went to our local music school and started playing the Cello (never had touched one though wishing to from time to time, always thought, I was too old …). Experiencing enormous benefits I needed to learn more, so three months later I started studying music therapy. As a certified music therapist working with stroke patients for five years now I can tell you: Music can change everything. H. Schiff did perfectly right in activating his brain, interaction of hemispheres, giving himself structure (rhythm is it!) and perhaps, hopefully, comfort. – I am grateful to this passionate musician, whose impulse enriched and changed my personal and professional life and already helped several stroke survivors with coming back to language and moving their hands. I wish him all the best.

    • What an inspiring interview! Cello playing as joy, a reason to live (1989 ?! – Amazing!).
      It’s the spirit that makes the difference between “good” and “great”. –
      Thank you so much, Una, for posting this link!

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