The French-born violinist, conductor and music pedagogue, Devy Erlih, was the son of Moldovan-Jewish immigrants. The family ran a café orchestra that performed in a Parisian brasserie, and by the age of 10 Devy was the star attraction with his fearless fiddling - all learned by ear. "It was a wonderful beginning," he told Duchen. "It’s known that a child speaks his mother tongue after about three years of age - therefore he can speak music in the same way." On one occasion the head of a French music society missed his train and called into the café, where Erlih was billed on a poster as "Le petit Devy". After hearing him perform, he asked if the boy could play Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. "My father was certain that this offer was a fake, so he said, 'Oh yes, no problem’," recalled Erlih. But when the offer arrived in writing Erlih had to learn the music. Spurred into action, Erlih’s parents took him to Jules Boucherit, a well-known teacher at the Paris Conservatoire; but Boucherit demanded that Erlih cease his café work, so they went away. When war broke out, however, the café closed and the family returned to the teacher. Boucherit introduced Erlih to a wealthy Italian who encouraged Erlih to spend Sunday afternoons playing for his friends - who, he later learned, included de Gaulle’s private secretary, one of de Gaulle’s ministers and the Papal Nuncio, later Pope John XXIII.
But one night Devy Erlih was given a tip-off and hid in a bookstore before leaving Paris for the countryside. “The next Sunday the Gestapo came looking for 'the little Jew who played the violin’. They knew all about me,” he said. At this point, however, Erlih’s Italian benefactor, a Signor Ferretti, pulled a business card from his wallet signed by Benito Mussolini. The Gestapo troubled Erlih no more.
After the war Devy Erlih resumed his studies, won the Conservatoire’s Premier Prix and began his international career, including an appearance at the Proms in London in September 1946 playing F. Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Basil Cameron. Several London recitals followed, including at the Wigmore Hall in 1952, where a critic noted how “he brought a powerful and beguiling tone, and the intelligence that made Bach’s Chaconne not a display of bravura but an intimate confession”. The following year he played the Second Sonata by George Enescu (with whom he had worked in Paris) with “refreshing zest and brilliance”.
In 1955 Devy Erlih won the Long-Thibaud competition in Paris, the last Frenchman to win (though a Frenchwoman, Solenne Païdassi, won in 2010, when Erlih chaired the jury). Thereafter his career took him around Europe, America and Japan. In the meantime, Boucherit had thrown Erlih out of his class for daring to study works by Béla Bartók. News soon spread that he would champion almost any modern composer. “I made a point that any time I was in contact with a composer I would ask him to write a violin concerto. Why not?”
Devy Erlih combined the raw gipsy music styles of his Balkan heritage and the refined elegance of the French school. He was also a forward-looking musician, performing works by Igor Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Béla Bartók at a time when they were dismissed by the French musical elite. He became passionate about contemporary music, and gave the world premiere of Milhaud’s Second Violin Concerto and the Japanese premiere of Henri Dutilleux’s L’arbre des songe. He also premiered concertos by Bruno Maderna, Henri Sauguet, Henri Tomasi, and others. He championed music by Maurice Jarre and several major works by André Jolivet, including the 1972 Violin Concerto and the Suite rhapsodique. After Jolivet’s death, Erlih married the composer’s daughter, Christine. For Erlih, performing was more than just hitting the right notes: it was also an intellectual quest. “There is constant evolution,” he told Jessica Duchen in The Strad three years ago. “And to me there is no such thing as one way to do things.”
Devy Erlih joined the teaching staff of the Marseille Conservatoire in 1968, and joined the Paris Conservatoire in 1982. He formed Les Solistes de Marseilles in 1973, and from 1977 directed the Centre provençal de musique de chambre. He was president of the jury for the 2010 Jacques Thibaud Competition. His own compositions included La Robe de plumes, commissioned by Rita Hayworth in 1965. If in his later years promoters lost interest, fellow violinists never did. Names such as Isaac Stern, Philippe Graffin and the Manhattan String Quartet would drop by for coaching, mentoring or simple words of encouragement. And, even in his eighties, Erlih could be seen at almost every Parisian concert of contemporary music. He was still teaching up to 80 students a year at the École Normale de Musique.
Devy Erlih died in a road accident in Paris on Tuesday morning, February 7, 2012. He was on his way to the École Normale de Musique when he was hit by a truck. He was 83 years old. He is survived by two daughters of his first marriage, by his second wife, Christine Jolivet, whom he married in 1977, and by their daughter.