On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

IDA HAENDEL: Dec. 15, 1928 – July 1, 2020. Violinist, Child Prodigy, Teacher


Polish-born child prodigy violinist Ida (pronounced Ee-dah) Haendel, who lived in Montreal from 1952 to 1989, died in Miami, Florida on July 1. She was 96.

She was three-and-a-half when she reproduced a song on her sister’s violin. Her portrait painter father, Nathan Hendel, had aspired to become a violinist but was thwarted by his father, a rabbi, and ultimately championed his daughter’s career. The family, originally from Chelm, moved to London, England in 1936 and Ida became a British citizen.

Ida Haendel
Ida Haendel

At the age of seven, she admitted that she could not read music, yet performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto and garnered the Warsaw Conservatory Gold Medal. Two years earlier, she had won the first Huberman Prize in the International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition.

Hendael’s exact age was an ongoing question in music circles, one that was never really resolved. Following a Queen’s Hall debut concert in December 1936, the Guardian reported that “to satisfy the London County council that she would be 14 for a Sunday performance of the Brahms concerto with wood in January 1937, her father came up with a certificate showing a birth date of 1923.”

An astounding prodigy whose career spanned seven decades, she was known for her intense lyricism and classical rigour. One feature of her highly characteristic sound was her perfectly judged use of the expressive slide from one note to another (the portamento). She studied with her musical mentors George Enescu in Paris and Carl Flesch in London.

In 1937, she became a frequent soloist at the famous Promenade concerts in London, playing works of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Shostakovich, Saint-Saens, and Stravinsky, among others. The last of her 68 Prom performances was in 1994 with a concerto written by Benjamin Britten. 

Before the Second World War, she toured France, Holland and the United States with successful post-war tours in the Soviet Union and other countries. During the war, she entertained those serving in the conflict, from factory workers to frontline and returning troops.

From 1940 to 1947, she recorded a range of compositions for Decca, with some reissued in 2000 as a companion to a new recording of works by Bartok, her teacher Enescu, and Karol Szymanowski, the celebrated Polish pianist and composer. She had a passion for German and 20th century music, best exemplified by a tribute to Enescu on a Decca recording of his Violin Sonata with Vladimir Ashkenazy, which earned Haendel a Diapason d’Or in 2000.

Haendel accompanied the London Philharmonic to the first Hong Kong Arts Festival in 1973 and the BBC Symphony Orchestra to China in 1981 as the first Western violin soloist to perform after the Cultural Revolution. She even returned to Chelm in 2006 for a CD-recorded concert.

An admirer of movie stars, “she emulated many of them in trimming a few years off her age in her autobiography (Woman With Violin – 1970), but even with a birth year of 1923 rather than 1928, her early achievement was astonishing,” reported the Guardian. “Any later mention of her age saw an affronted Haendel berating enquirers with a certificate giving 1928 as the year of her birth. In much the same spirit, she embellished her family name so that it shared a spelling with that of the Saxon composer born Georg Friedrich Haendel. As she was quick to point out, they could have been related.”

She moved to Montreal in 1952 and remained a resident to 1989. She also resided in Miami from 1979 on, although London, England was her home base.

Haendel’s violin was a Stradivarius from 1699.

The one thing her career lacked, added the Guardian, “was a sustained series of new recordings in the 1960s and 70s, leaving her feeling that she never had the recognition she deserved.”

Yet, her emotive performances inspired a new generation of violinists, including David Garrett, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Maxim Vengerov – all testament to her enthralling audiences around the globe with a combination of romantic warmth and classical precision.

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is founding partner of tcgpr and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.