Known for his virtuosity and probing musicianship, violinist James Ehnes has performed in over 35 countries on five continents, appearing regularly in the world’s great concert halls and with many of [...]
They spoke about it
“Whatever he has touched is perfumed by his art and smells beautiful. I regard him as a marvelous composer.”
For many, Fritz Kreisler still stands as the dean of 20th-century violinists, and with good reason. Not only was he a gentleman performer who plied his art the world over for an unprecedented stretch—his career spanned over sixty years—with what was described as exquisite taste and an uncanny sense of his audience, as well as being a pioneer of the recording industry, but his ground-breaking left hand technique and pure, sweet tone has had at least some influence on every violinist of note (actually, on every violinist, period!) ever since.
This is, or should be, his foremost claim to fame. He never set dexterous wizardry as an ultimate goal; rather, his truly effortless technique, if not perfectly flawless by today’s standards, was always humbly, stylishly and energetically put to the service of music, the noblest of art forms. “I believe,” stated Kreisler mid-century, “that humanity lived more gracefully, more abundantly, and more deeply appreciative of what the arts meant for human uplift, during the period before 1914 than it could during and after the ravages of two world cataclysms. It has filled me with pride and joy that, while science, alas, has been mainly diverted during my lifetime to purposes of destruction, art, and especially the art of music, has been a healing factor, a powerful stimulus to overcoming national animosities, a harbinger of peace and international brotherhood.”
This splendid attitude of his was carried over into his compositions, whose old-fashion charm and character seem forever almost to define an epoch while retaining to this day their universal appeal. The unique flavour of Kreisler’s compositions comes from a sense of style that was bred in the bone and nurtured at a very early age. He was born in Vienna on February 2, 1875, the son of Samuel Kreisler, a medical doctor and amateur violinist and cellist who frequently entertained friendly string quartet sessions at home. Young Fritz started on the violin with his father at the age of four, studied for a time with Jacques Auber, a local concertmaster, and made such rapid progress that he was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory at the age of seven, studying the violin with Joseph Hellmesberger, Jr. and theory with Anton Bruckner. During this time, he also picked up the piano quite naturally, a talent he was to cultivate his entire life. Merely three years later, at the age of ten, he was awarded the Gold Medal.
From 1885 to 1887, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire, under the septuagenarian Belgian Joseph Lambert Massart in violin, and Léo Delibes in composition. Although Kreisler’s claim to the motif from the famous waltz in the latter’s ballet Coppélia is doubtful, perhaps the master’s pastiches from Le roi s’amuse gave his young student the idea of later trying his own hand at the compositional technique. As for Massart, who had been the teacher of Henryk Wieniawski, Kreisler had this to say about him, and on the origins of his own famous non-stop vibrato: “Massart laid stress on emotion, on feeling, and not on technique. […] I believe Massart liked me because I played in the style of Wieniawski. You will recall that Wieniawski intensified the vibrato and brought it to heights never before achieved, so that it became known as the ‘French vibrato.’ Vieuxtemps also took it up, and after him Eugène Ysaÿe, who became its greatest exponent, and I. Joseph Joachim, for instance, disdained it.” At the end of his Conservatoire studies, Kreisler came away—at only twelve—with the Premier Grand Prix in violin. After that, he was to receive no further formal musical training.
The years 1888 and 1889 were to see him tour the United States as the Wunderkind guest artist of the pianist Moriz Rosenthal, but the youngster met with only lukewarm success. On his return to Vienna, he virtually abandoned his instrument for six years, attending the Gymnasium (junior college), pre-medical school and fulfilling his military service, but he rapidly regained his fluency when he took up the violin again in 1896. After his debuts with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1898 and with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1899, his rise as a touring virtuoso was meteoric. The US soon followed—this time with an enthusiastic reception—and London first succumbed to his lure in 1902. Even Montreal was graced by a performance of his in February 1910. The same year, Kreisler premiered the Violin Concerto Edward Elgar had composed for him. The world was at his feet. He continued playing until 1950, with breaks in 1914 (briefly engaged on the war front with the Austrian army, wounded and honourably discharged), 1917–1918 (in reaction to anti-German sentiment in the US), and in 1941–1942 (recovering from a coma after being struck by a truck while crossing a street in New York City).
The last of many Carnegie Hall appearances took place on November 1, 1947, but among his final public appearances, during the 1948–1949 season, it is interesting to mention a stopover in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He had lived mostly in hotels, but had settled with his American wife Harriet (née Lies, whom he had married in 1902) in a mansion he had had built in Berlin in 1924 (destroyed by allied air action at the end of World War II), and, pressed by the Nazi onslaught, moved to France and finally to New York in 1939, acquiring his American citizenship in 1943. Kreisler possessed many fine violins and bows, upon which he would play alternately, and was an avid collector of rare books and incunabula. The Kreislers also supported many charities of different kinds. Fritz Kreisler died in New York on January 29, 1962.
Fritz Kreisler had a felicitous hand at composing. Although he turned out a string quartet (in A major) and famous cadenzas to the Beethoven, Brahms and several Mozart concertos, his genius lay in the lighter genres. He composed two operettas, Apple Blossoms (with Victor Jacobi, Broadway, 1919, which includes Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois) and Sissy (Vienna, 1932). Speaking of Apple Blossoms, Kreisler stated: “I’m very fond of light music. I adore waltzes and have always wanted to write them.” This is evident also in his numerous transcriptions and arrangements, his pastiches from the so-called Classical Manuscripts series and his other short violin pieces.
These last three categories are what he is most remembered by, and we find them all well represented on this recording. Kreisler’s arrangement of Giuseppi Tartini’s wonderful Devil’s Trill sonata keeps the violin part nearly intact (except the disappearance of the violin’s double stops in the first movement) while simply harmonizing the basso continuo part for the piano. His main contribution is a dazzling cadenza at the close of the piece, which magnifies to breathtaking proportions the wicked trill in the final movement Tartini claimed had been inspired to him by the Devil in a dream.
Kreisler’s original compositions for the violin fall into two sub-categories: the ones originally performed and published under the names of sometimes obscure (especially at the beginning of 20th century) ancient composers in the Classical Manuscripts series—identified since 1935 as pieces “in the style of…”; and those favourites originally published as works by Kreisler, such as the Caprice viennois, Tambourin chinois, Schön Rosmarin, Liebesfreud and Liebesleid (all these copyrighted in 1910). Kreisler purported having found in a French monastery the manuscripts to the 17th- and 18th-century works he “arranged,” until he finally admitted to the hoax when in early 1935, Olin Downes, music critic of The New York Times, came upon the facts. The critic and Yehudi Menuhin were to give a lecture–recital illustrating the differences between the original and the arrangement of the Pugnani-Kreisler Praeludium and Allegro. When Downes could find no trace of the original manuscript, Kreisler “confessed” on all counts. He simply explained it away thus: “The entire series labelled Classical Manuscripts are my original compositions with the sole exception of the first eight bars of the Couperin Chanson Louis XIII, taken from a traditional melody. Necessity forced this course upon me thirty years ago when I was desirous of enlarging my programs. I found it impudent and tactless to repeat my name endlessly on the programs.” Most people accepted this as a “magnificent joke,” but some, such as the London Times music critic Ernest Newman, turned it into a great controversy, which elicited from both parties, Newman and Kreisler, biting rejoinders in The Sunday Times.
Yet, the violinist had attempted twenty-five years earlier to give the music world a tip-off. During a concert in Berlin, he had presented his Liebesfreud and Liebesleid (“Love’s Joy” and “Love’s Sorrow”) as posthumous waltzes by Joseph Lanner (later, we have seen, published as his own works), alongside the Caprice viennois ascribed to himself. A local critic complained: “A feeling akin to bad taste was engendered by the somewhat daring juxtaposition of Kreisler’s Caprice viennois—to be sure a charming offering—and the dances of Lanner, these delightful genre creations filled with Schubertian melos and reflecting the good old Vienna days, for which encores were enthusiastically demanded.” Kreisler then admitted to his authorship of the “Lanner” pieces, but he was unable, in his words, “to explain why [the learned experts, even with this clue] did not stumble upon the truth immediately.”
Among the last of a dying breed—the virtuoso–composer—Kreisler wrote all his pieces primarily for his own use in concert, deeming very little worthwhile was being written for the violin. “People haven’t any feeling anymore for this instrument, for its charm, its loveliness, its intonation, its wealth of possibilities in variegation,” he wrote in 1932. If this attitude does point to a rather conservative view of violin literature (Kreisler disliked atonal and most “modern” music), he did include all those characteristics abundantly in his own pieces, written with much care. His wife, describing his customary manner of composing in their first years of marriage, said: “He never puts them on paper until he has worked them out fully in his head, which is done mostly in the fields when walking. When he is composing he forgets everything else. […] Fritz sometimes got the names of the old masters to whom he ascribed his works by simply looking in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Sometimes friends would come and ask, ‘What is Fritz doing?’ and I’d reply, ‘Oh, he’s composing Pugnani, or something.’”
Well, whether he was composing Pugnani or Couperin or pure Viennese Kreisler, his magic touch, while conjuring up a bygone era, ensured that his works would forever delight.
© Jacques-André Houle, 2001