A Tribute to Lillian and Joseph Fuchs


Volume 116, No. 3March, 2016

Eric Shumsky
Joseph and Lillian Fuchs, the formidable brother and sister duo.

Joseph and Lillian Fuchs, the formidable brother and sister duo.

This Women’s History Month, I would like to pay tribute to the violist Lillian Fuchs (1901-1995), who was one of my teachers at Juilliard. She and her brother, Local 802 member and violinist Joseph Fuchs (1899-1997), were part of a great dynasty of string players who reflected the grand traditions of the 19th century.

I had the great privilege of studying with Miss Fuchs from 1971 to 1975. I never met anyone who truly loved music more than she did. And the love was contagious. To me, she felt like a towering figure – though in reality, she was quite short in stature. At every lesson, at least some Bach was played. Hers was not the tired approach of teaching. She hardly ever suggested that I simply “go listen to recordings.” Her music was alive. Her demonstrations were so poignant. Here was an artist who knew absolutely what she wanted.

When she coached her large chamber music sessions, Miss Fuchs mixed varying levels of players to sight-read the grandmaster repertoire. Never did she put down students who were perhaps reading these works for the very first time. On the contrary, she encouraged them in a very warm manner. This is such a contrast to some of the negative teaching these days where being put down seems to be part of the development of thick skin supposedly necessary for making it.

I remember one of her coaching sessions of the Brahms piano quartet in C minor. The andante movement starts with the gorgeous cello solo. Miss Fuchs had the cellist play it several times to allow the class to listen to just how beautiful the solo is and how great Brahms was. And she knew every note. If the second violinist missed an entrance, Miss Fuchs would instantly fill in the part on her viola. Or she would sit down next to the pianist and admonish him or her not to cover up the string players – especially the glorious viola line! (Some of these pianists are very famous today.) Her dedication was unbelievable, and she was loved.

Rule number one with Miss Fuchs was always to follow her bowings and never question her interpretation. And the manner in which she felt and played music was so beautiful that who could not love it? The main hallmark was taking the necessary time for a beautiful phrase. Don’t rush anything. Let the instrument sing. Always sound beautiful. And when I produced a result that was not desired, she would say, “Now, deary – you know better than that!”

I have seen fine players grimace when they play. Yet to watch Lillian Fuchs as she played – to look at her eyes and see her true love for the beautiful music – was very meaningful and moving. She was not at all self conscious. It was her constant respect for the music and the beauty of her playing that one experienced.

I’d also like to say a little bit about the great Joseph Fuchs, who was Lillian’s brother. He walked the halls of Juilliard during the same period as Lillian. Other luminaries taught there, like Leonard Rose, Harvey Shapiro and my father, Oscar Shumsky. Joseph Fuchs had some remarkable students. (The name Hamao Fujiwara immediately comes to mind.) Like his sister, Joseph Fuchs was also very short in stature, but his style was grand and elegant. He was aware of his prowess and I suspect he scared quite a few students, including some famous names today. Even as a child prodigy, his early studies with the great Franz Kneisel were not easy. His teacher could be terribly critical and almost brutal. But it was obvious that Joe, like his sister Lillian, adored music – enough to dedicate his life to it.

I remember attending several recitals of Joseph Fuchs when he was at the height of his powers, and I also heard him play almost as well when he was 90 years old!. He was an amazing player and a profound musician. Beneath his gruff-seeming exterior, his playing was imbued with great feeling and warmth. I have early recordings Joe Fuchs made of Henryk Wieniawski’s “Souvenir de Moscow,” which are not only technically stunning but also absolutely gorgeous and lush with a warmth and glow that reminded me of Mischa Elman. Joe’s bow arm was terrific, and his steadiness and control – even in his advanced age – were uncanny. I will never forget visiting him at his home when he was 90. He fired off a barrage of staccato bow strokes from the Wieniawski D-minor concerto as he looked directly in my eyes as if to say, “Did you ever hear anything like that?”

And to hear Lillian and Joseph Fuchs play Mozart’s duos for violin and viola was always a thrill. Their styles essentially were the same, but Joe bolted forward and Lillian grabbed the reins. Between the two of them, pure music emerged! One felt a great bond between brother and sister and the greatest mutual respect. It was playing of the absolute highest order. So beautiful was it that Bohuslav Martinů, the great Czech composer, wrote two sets of duos for them that remain magnificent mainstays of the violin/viola duet literature to this day. And there is not room in this article to list all of the awards bestowed upon these two titans.

These reminiscences are not meant to document all of the fantastic achievements of Lillian and Joe Fuchs, but simply to briefly remember and honor their remarkable artistry. For them, to live without music would have been unbearable. Music went far beyond entertainment: it was their life’s blood!

The Fuchs family lives on in nephews, daughters and grandchildren, including conductor David Amado, violist Jeanne Mallow, cellist Barbara Mallow, and Elinor Fuchs, who is a drama professor emerita at Yale!

Violist Eric Shumsky ( is a renowned viola player and the son of the late violinist Oscar Shumsky.