Century-old violin took a dramatic journey
When Alexander Marte plays his violin, the instrument sings in a way that it hadn’t in close to 70 years.
Before the small violin made it into the local teen’s hands, its wooden body sat silent in a velvet-lined case stored in a succession of basements and closets. Those idle decades were a terrible fate for an instrument that had once performed symphonies with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
As Marte plays the violin after many decades of disuse, he picks up where a young Jewish musician left off when he fled the Nazi occupation of Europe.
Telling the story of the instrument in his family’s living room, Marte starts not with his own musical interests or the violin, but with the birth of Peter Fuchs in 1908 in Austria.
A dark moment in history
As a young man, Fuchs studied at the Vienna School of Music. He was tutored in musical composition, piano, violin and conducting. From there, he emerged as second violin in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, under conductors that included Bruno Walter and Richard Strauss.
Because Fuchs was Jewish, he and other musicians in the orchestra played under a cloud of uncertainty — knowing they might be pulled out of the organization at any moment.
Retelling what he knows
of this moment in history, Marte explains why some musicians and conductors like Walter were targeted for removal under Hitler’s social policies.
“Hitler didn’t think Walter could express the music properly because he was Jewish,” he said.
Fuchs and his mother escaped Austria sometime around the annexation of
the country by the Nazis in 1938. The two Austrians headed to France, thinking that country was a safe place for Jews.
History proved them wrong, however. The pair was captured and sent to a small work camp, where they awaited the inevitable move to a concentration camp.
They escaped that fate, however, because Fuchs’ brother, Martin, was a diplomat in France at the time. Martin Fuchs managed to maintain his government position by posing as a Catholic, and was able to get his mother and brother out of the camp.
“Martin somehow got the violin and some family jewels from where Peter and his mother had lived in France,” Marte said.
Martin Fuchs then arranged for his family members to board a ship in Portugal and sail to the United States. Peter Fuchs and his mother emigrated sometime in 1940 or 1941, according to a loose collection of family documents.
Life in a new land
Once in America, Peter Fuchs continued to make a living as a musician – this time as a pianist — playing in New York clubs, hotels,
on the radio and at several resorts in the Catskill Mountains of upstate
New York. Among photos of Fuchs performing, none show him playing
His daughter, Paula Fulton, told Marte she never remembers Fuchs
playing the violin he had spirited out of Austria. But the instrument wasn’t forgotten by him. In his last moments before dying, Fuchs asked her to take care of the violin.
While she did keep the instrument with her, it stayed inside its case.
Years went by, and circumstances brought Fulton to live in Morgan County, and to meet Heidi Marte – Alexander’s mother — at a social function. Conversation led around to Alexander, who has been playing violin since he was 8.
Over the course of several months, the violin came up in their chats, and Fulton wondered if Alexander could make use of the instrument.
“She called me after she found it. It had the original catgut strings when she took it out. It hadn’t been restrung in 40 years,” said Heidi Marte.
When she looked at the violin the first time, she wasn’t very hopeful it could come back to life. Trips to two experts in the Washington area gave Marte more information about the condition of the violin, which they said was made in Germany around 1900.
While Marte said it’s not an expensive violin, the instrument has a warm and beautiful sound – one that easily could have been lost, either to war or to disuse.
The cost to bring the instrument into playing condition has been fairly significant, but Heidi Marte insisted that it be done.
“It must not sit like this,” Marte told Fulton, when the two were considering the fate of the violin.
A new beginning
Alexander Marte likes the violin very much. It is now his, and he’s played it during his winning audition for the Rink Scholarship award and with the Montgomery Philharmonic. It’s his instrument of choice for several concerts around the region since it came to him in 2009.
When he auditioned for the Rink Scholarship, Marte taped a photograph of Peter Fuchs to his music stand.
It made him sad to think about Fuchs losing his chance to make music in his home country because of prejudice against his religion and culture, or the way he looked. But the larger lesson of the instrument is positive in his book.
“It made me feel good that I was part of the history of the violin. That such a great player had played on it,” Alexander Marte said.
His mother said their family’s pleasure at having the violin is amplified by the fact that they can connect Fuchs’ daughter back to her father through the instrument.
“When Alexander played it, that was the first time she had heard the violin,” said Heidi Marte.
“It was beautiful from the very beginning,” she said.
Alexander Marte plans to continue his musical training, and wants ultimately to play in an orchestra. He also knows he wants to be a doctor.
Marte currently plays with the Springs Chamber Ensemble and the Berkeley County Orchestra. He will perform at a Concert on the Hill at the Presbyterian Church on Sunday, April 17. The concert will help him raise funds to pay for the final repairs to Peter Fuchs’ violin.