Miserable news: Ivry has died

Miserable news: Ivry has died


norman lebrecht

December 24, 2020

The great violinist Ivry Gitlis died this morning in Paris. He was 98.

Recent visitors told us he was miserable in a care home after nurses took away his violin for hygienic reasons, or safekeeping. I never saw him without that violin in his hand.

He was a joy to know and a delight to hear.

Born in Haifa in 1922 to new immigrants from Russia who soon divorced, he went to Paris in 1933 to study with Enescu and to London in 1939 to work with Carl Flesch.

He took the name Ivry that year, meaning ‘Hebrew’, so that Hitler should have no doubts about his identity, or so he told me.

A magnificent player in his prime, he scorned the formalities of the American concert stage and made his life in Paris, where he had his own TV chat show and was popular far beyond the musical confines. I once saw him park his old car illegally at night outside a bistro on a main boulevard. When the cops showed up, a waiter rushed out crying ‘mais c’est le voiture de Monsieur Gitly!’ and they turned a blind eye.

He was irreverent, fun in five languages, unconventional in his relationships and always respectful of music. We shared an adoration for the great chanteuse Barbara.

Among other distinctions, he was a formidable interpreter of the Berg and Sibelius concertos.


  • Nigel Goldberg says:

    Truly the end of an era, the last of the greats and a unique voice in the world of music

  • Luca says:

    A long innings with many runs.

  • Nijinsky says:

    How could they take a violin away for hygienic reasons?
    I don’t mean to be disrespectful, certainly given recent times. But which of the two would have more problems incubating bacteria and such, a hospital or a violin? I can’t but help thinking it’s was just because it’s something unusual in a hospital, because I don’t see how it could be more unhygienic than anything else in a hospital.

    I just don’t get it….

    And am waiting for an explanation.


    And it’s a great loss.

    • Simon Scott says:

      I can’t speak my mind about this. The comment may well go unpublished…..

    • Steven Isserlis says:

      Sorry, but I can’t resist answering this one. I was in constant touch with him at the clinic, and there was no way he could have played the violin. I often asked him about it, but he just didn’t feel like it. Well, he didn’t have the strength. And unfair to blame the nurses – four of them were with him when he died this morning.

      • Nijinsky says:

        Yes, but in the interview Norman published last year from Romania, he said he sometimes just likeed to look at it, to think that it was in the hands of Stradivari, where I can’t but know Ivry is now, being in Heaven, but I still don’t see how having the violin with him to just have it there, I can’t see how that would be “unhygienic,” except for pretense and rules.


      • David K. Nelson says:

        While in point of fact rosin dust could have hygienic implications for someone with severe respiratory issues, still, it seemed rather outrageous and compounded the sadness to think that he wanted to play but was not permitted to do so. Thank you for clarifying things, Mr. Isserlis, and our sympathies on the passing of your friend. One could see the increasing physical effort it was for him to play (one feared for both violin and bow) in those most recent videos (which caused so much difference of opinion amongst his admirers, but now that is all water over the dam and mean nothing).

        To my mind his supreme achievement in the recording studio is Concerto No. 2 and Unaccompanied Sonata by Béla Bartók. I am glad I had a chance to hear him play that Sonata in concert in his prime. It is a strong memory.

      • Gareth says:

        Steven, this is a great great loss.
        Ivry constantly talked about life and death throughout his long life.

        Our last visit to him in Paris, the wonderful way he greeted our children in Parnu, when he came to play at Neemi’s concerts, the courses in Pont St Esprit they will remain for ever in our memory.
        Unforgettable Ivry.

      • Nijinsky says:

        I simply was asking for a legitimate response as to how a violin that was a man’s dear partner for years, and that he liked to just have with him just to look at if not play, because it was made by Stradivari, how that would be removed for hygienic reasons.

        This doesn’t explain how a violin would be unhygienic. And it’s also a very good example of a strawman argument, as if my question as to how a violin could be unhygienic instead was trying to blame the removal of it on the nurses. It also in an attempt to honor nurses exploits them in a bad light, as if the good work they do excuses other policies in the hospital they might have nothing to do with. In fact that excuses a whole list of other things (and hospital procedures or practices) that one then can’t question in a hospital setting, whether the question is valid or not, saying it’s not the nurses fault. That’s avoiding explaining how a violin would be seen as unhygienic. I further don’t see how when it’s not played on that it’s unhygienic. I’m also not against keeping a hospital hygienic.

      • Nijinsky says:

        I need to bow out of this discussion. It would be unfair to the memory of great man otherwise. My point was nothing more than the thought of allowing a dying man to be with his lifetime partner, his violin. And I don’t see how taking the violin away for hygienic reason makes anyone’s life more safe, instead it’s reported that it made him miserable.

        I forty years ago sat with both my grandmothers and heard them both go on with quite a bit of rigor about the medical profession and how they don’t let you die peacefully anymore. And I truly fail to see how Ivry couldn’t have died with his life partner by his side, even if he couldn’t play on it anymore. He had said that he liked to just look at it at times, and think that it had been in Antonio Stradivari’s hands, and I can only see how having the instrument by his side would help him to see and experience during his last moments the beauty in time itself, or what there is beyond that.

        And it’s a great loss that someone who didn’t at all kowtow to the system has left us. What with the whole plethora of artists that seem to be trained in how to make politically correct remarks, and display their ability to create media interest with their snippets regarding cognitive and intellectual insight or human interest blurbs about their private life, all neatly within the realm of what’s media savvy and politically correct. Ivry was completely himself, and in the last interview from Romania Norman shared last year, you hear things no soloist in these times would dare to say. Well, most of them wouldn’t. But the expansion of corporate media, and then the World Wide Web bringing people within a click of each other has created a widening gap between people and what it is to be human, people thinking so much about how something will come across that they aren’t saying anything, and finding fault with those that do speak their mind. People utterly confusing how something comes across with the truth. There’s quite a formula in how to give yourself an image based on stuff neatly packaged within a whole array of separate groups all depending on the difference of their image with that of the other groups to validate their own image. We’re right they’re wrong. We’re cool they aren’t. We’re good they’re bad. The fabrication of image being more important than being human, or even showing interest in it, what lies beneath the surface of all of us.

        Well. I think Ivry was very very human, in contrast.

    • My experience is that nurses are working-class Joes who will make up any excuse to do what they want.

    • C says:

      There was probably reasons beyond sanitation. When he was in his last few months, his health greatly declined, so it was probably very difficult and risky for him to be playing violin. I would hate for him to accidentally drop his prized strad, due his fragile hands dropping it.

  • E says:

    oh can it get any worse.

  • Novagerio says:

    Baruch Dayan Ha’emet.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Ivry Gitlis.
    One of the first violinists I took note of in my young days, because his records of the Sibelius and Berg concerti were on a cheap record label (VOX).
    Ever since, I compare in my mind every performance of those two concerti I have heard to his.
    “Recent visitors told us he was miserable in hospital after nurses took away his violin for hygienic reasons.”
    The man was 98 years old – 98! – and nurses took away his fiddle, which he played for a lifetime, and around which his entire consciousness revolved, FOR HYGIENIC REASONS????
    That’s elder abuse, that’s what that is.
    Now my memory of a towering musician and one of the 20th century’s greatest violinists will be tinged with pain and anger.
    Those nurses should be ashamed. Ashamed and investigated.
    Rest In Peace, cher Monsieur Gitly.

    • violin accordion says:

      There are protocols to be observed in such medical situations. And peace and quiet for others. The risk of dropping and damaging violin by a frail person . Apart from which he probably hadn’t cleaned it for 20 years……..

      • Greg Bottini says:

        What is wrong with you, “violin accordion”?
        The man was 98 EFFING YEARS OLD!
        If he wants his violin, he should have his violin!
        And the arguments you offer are specious in the extreme.
        OF COURSE he regularly cleaned his violin, or more likely had a luthier clean it for him. It’s a Strad, for god’s sake.
        He certainly would not have been alone when he played – or as David K. Nelson said, merely held – his violin; there of course would have been someone with him to keep an eye on him AND the fiddle.
        “And peace and quiet for others”?
        I should LOVE to have had Ivry, at any age, disturb my “peace and quiet”!

  • Ricardo says:

    That’s it, then. The last one of that generation. I’ve always admired this man. To my eyes he was free. Rest in peace and deep respect.

  • Neil says:

    RIP Ivry. He lived an amazing life and enriched us all. I will be playing his Bartok 2nd today, and his fantastic performance(s) of Hindemith Concerto.

  • William Safford says:

    I’m listening to the video with Stephane Grappelli as I type this. What fun! It also reminds me of Grappelli’s piano chops in addition to his violin playing. I never hear Gitlis live, alas, but I did hear Grappelli live once: mostly on violin, but with a couple piano numbers.

  • Gareth says:

    The last link with Jacques Thibaud has gone, – to whom Ivry himself said he owed a great musical debt. Studying with him he said “was like meat”, with the extraordinary style J T had of giving tutoring. (so he said).

    There was something in the Op78 Brahms sonata that he got from J T that always seemed to move Ivry almost to tears…even when working on it with students.

    Which reminds me of the even sadder end to the wonderful pianist/accompanist of those years, Brigitte Vendome, who I recently discovered died a decade ago of Brain cancer.

  • Nick says:

    WOW! Speechless!