Austrian-born violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962) was one of the most famous classical musicians in the world during the first decade of the twentieth century. His rhythmic vigor and his heavy use of vibrato have influenced violinists down to the present day, and his original compositions—some of them originally passed off as works by composers of the distant past—remain staples of the violin repertoire.
Kreisler led a long and colorful life, the substance of which he embellished still further through a consistent habit of exaggeration and storytelling. He served two stints in the Austrian army and was drafted for a third. A natural talent, he rarely studied or practiced the violin after the age of twelve. Kreisler was also something of a link between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in music. He knew the Austrian composer Johannes Brahms personally, and his music was suffused with the mood of old Vienna. Yet he was touched by the modern era of music in many ways; he made numerous records, played concerts on radio, and tailored his violin compositions to the attention spans of popular audiences; his three-minute works were the hits of their day, instrumental counterparts to the best-selling vocal recordings of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. For many lovers of classical music, Fritz Kreisler seemed to sum up the whole tradition of the violin.
First Instrument Made from Cigar Box
Kreisler was born in Vienna, Austria on February 2, 1875. Kreisler's father Salomon was of Jewish background, a fact that Kreisler tried to downplay later in life, but that may have undergirded his staunch resistance to German fascism. Kreisler's father and other relatives often indulged in a leisure-time activity that was very common among Viennese middle-class families: they enjoyed performing music in small groups at home. One occasional visitor to their evenings of music was a young violinist and student of human nature named Sigmund Freud, who later became the founder of psychiatry. Young Fritz looked on as a string quartet was played, following along on a violin made from a cigar box. One time, when he was four, he was handed a child-sized violin and proceeded to amaze the group by playing the Austrian national anthem straight through in perfect time and pitch.
Admitted to the Vienna Conservatory at seven, he became the school's youngest student ever. His mother had lied about his age in order to help him win admission, but soon it was clear that his talents did not need help from any deception. The boy studied harmony and composition with Anton Bruckner, one of Austria's greatest composers of the day, and he taught himself to play the piano. Kreisler made his concert debut in 1884 and was then sent off to the Paris Conservatory in France for a still-higher level of musical finishing. His mother was too ill to accompany him, so he went alone. In 1887, at 12, he was awarded the Conservatory's Premier Premier Prix (First First Prize) over four adult students. The Conservatory had no more to teach him, and at that time his musical education was over.
Such a feat was all the more astonishing in view of Kreisler's lifelong aversion to practicing. He often claimed that playing the violin was something that happened more in the brain than in the hands, and indeed he seemed to have an uncanny ability to absorb musical lessons when he heard a performance by one of the few violinists who was above his own level. He soaked up concerts by the world-famous musicians who came to perform in Vienna, and in an interview quoted by Amy Biancolli in Fritz Kreisler: Love's Sorrow, Love's Joy he said, "I really believe that hearing [German violinist Joseph] Joachim and [Russian pianist Anton] Rubinstein play was a greater event in my life and did more for me than five years of study!" Kreisler realized, however, that he was a special case, and later in life he emphasized the importance of practice.
It is possible that Kreisler's casual attitude toward music actually delayed the flowering of his career by several years. He was signed to tour the United States with pianist Moriz Rosenthal in 1888–1889 and was thrilled with his first view of the New York City skyline. Reviewers, however, were mixed in their evaluations—they were impressed by his technical skills but he plainly did not yet have the interpretive magic he would later acquire, and the tour, while generally successful, did not bring Kreisler the renown he had imagined. When he returned to Vienna, he dropped out of music for several years, finishing his high school education at the Piaristen Gymnasium, a Catholic institution, and then enrolling in medical school at the University of Vienna. His parents, not wanting to rush him into a musical career, supported his decision. "In those youthful days," Kreisler was quoted as saying by Biancolli, "I had some very weird thoughts about my future career. I envisaged myself operating on a patient in the morning, playing chess in the afternoon, giving a concert in the evening, and (in anticipation of a glorious military career) winning a battle at midnight." Indeed, still short of his medical degree, Kreisler enlisted in the Austrian army in 1894. He edged back into music as he and his commanding officer sometimes played music recitals for other officers.
Rebuilt Technique Above Tavern
After he finished his term of service in 1896, Kreisler recommitted himself to the violin. He rented a room in a tavern-inn and began to rebuild his technique systematically, more or less hiding out for eight weeks but emerging at times to play for the tavern's patrons. Kreisler began writing music during this period and produced, among other small compositions, two new cadenzas—a quasi-improvised passage played by the violinist at the end of a movement of work for violin and orchestra—for Beethoven's violin concerto. When Kreisler returned to the concert stage, he did not have the novelty of being a child star any longer, but his playing had gained depth. His 1898 debut with the Vienna Philharmonic was hailed by Eduard Hanslick, the city's top music critic, and he created a real sensation with his Berlin Philharmonic debut the following year.
In 1902 Kreisler married Harriet Lies Woerz, a divorced American tobacco heiress; he had met her the previous year on the Prince Bismarck ocean liner while returning from an American tour and proposed before the ship had even docked. Her wealthy family opposed the match, but the strong-willed Harriet went through with the wedding anyhow. It was possibly to please her that Kreisler avoided talking about his Jewish background, which was well known to other musicians. Kreisler's career steadily gained momentum, and in the years before World War I broke out he often performed more than 250 concerts a year. Russian pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, who sometimes performed with Kreisler, said that it was because he played so many concerts that he did not need to practice.
One of the top concert draws in the world, Kreisler nevertheless enlisted once again in the Austrian army when the war began. He spent most of 1914 in the military and was sent to the Russian front for four weeks. He claimed that thanks to his musical ear he could distinguish the sounds of the different armies' shells as they whizzed past. Discharged in November of 1914 after a wound whose severity is a matter of historical dispute, Kreisler wrote a small book, Four Weeks in the Trenches, about his experiences. The book gained attention in the United States, and Kreisler continued to give successful concerts there for most of the war. When the U.S. entered the war on the side of England and France in 1917, however, Americans with backgrounds in German-speaking countries faced discrimination, and Kreisler was forced to cancel a major concert tour. He was soon welcomed back to the U.S. after the war, but did not perform in France for six years. In the 1920s, Kreisler and his wife lived mostly in Berlin.
In the midst of his growing career before the war, Kreisler found himself short of the kind of convincing but little-known material that would keep his concerts fresh. He composed music of his own but was not convinced that he had the stature to introduce a great deal of original music in his concerts. So he began to write music that was vaguely in the style of almost-forgotten composers from the distant past—France's François Couperin, Germany's Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, and others—and to claim that he had unearthed the music in libraries and monasteries. Older music was little known at the time, and the reverse-plagiarized music became a favorite component of Kreisler's concerts. Kreisler finally revealed the hoax in 1935 when he was jokingly asked by New York Times music critic Olin Downs whether he had actually written the older pieces and answered the question truthfully.
Fakes Caused Controversy
Kreisler's admission touched off an uproar, with some critics attacking his deception while others praised the artfulness of his counterfeits (there were 17 of them) and contended that the audience's enjoyment of the music was the most important thing. Kreisler explained his original reasons for writing the pieces and argued that, unlike in the case of a counterfeit painting, no one had been harmed by his forgeries. Kreisler weathered the controversy; his popularity in the late 1930s was undiminished. Heard today, the counterfeits sound very little like Couperin or Dittersdorf and a great deal like Kreisler's other music. For his entire life, Kreisler was a teller of tall tales that were sometimes accepted as fact; he once claimed, for example, to have been held at gunpoint by a cowboy in Butte, Montana, who wanted to hear a specific violin work by Johann Sebastian Bach.
By the 1930s, the music Kreisler composed under his own name was familiar to most concertgoers, and several pieces remain staples of classical concert life today. Kreisler composed some large, virtuosic pieces (and several littleknown operettas), and various shorter works that were flavored by ethnic or national traditions. His best-known compositions, however, were short, sentimental pieces that showcased his awe-inspiring vibrato and were ideally suited to the length of the 78 rpm records Kreisler made in abundance after being signed to an exclusive contract by the Victor label in 1910. Such Kreisler works as the Caprice viennois (Viennese Caprice), Schön Rosmarin (Beautiful Rosemary), and most of all the pair of works called Liebesfreud and Liebesleid (Love's Joy and Love's Sorrow) could be played either by violin and orchestra or violin and piano, and they closed out many a concert in which a violinist was featured.
Kreisler refused to perform in Germany after the Nazi party took control of the government in 1933, and he left the country for good after being threatened, despite his advanced age, with being drafted into the military when the Anschluss of 1938 put Austria under Germany's control. He briefly took French citizenship but by the following year he was back in the United States. In 1941, Kreisler was hit by a delivery truck on a New York street and spent several weeks in a coma. But he recovered and resumed giving concerts in 1942. He became a U.S. citizen in 1943 and continued to perform through the war years, appearing on the Bell Telephone Hour radio show from 1944 through 1950. His last concert appearance was at Carnegie Hall in 1947. Kreisler and his wife spent much of their energy during his last years on charitable enterprises, including several aimed at indigent musicians. He died in New York on January 29, 1962, at the age of 86.
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Biancolli, Amy, Fritz Kreisler: Love's Sorrow, Love's Joy, Amadeus, 1998.
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"Fritz Kreisler," Legendary Violinists, http://www.thirteen.org/publicarts/violin/kreisler.html (January 29, 2006).
"Fritz Kreisler," Museum of Hoaxes, http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/kreisler.html (January 29, 2006).
Kreisler, Fritz, Four Weeks in the Trenches, http://www.lib.byu./edu/∼rdh/wwi/memoir/Kreisler/Kreisler/htm (January 29, 2006).
"Kreisler, Fritz." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kreisler-fritz
"Kreisler, Fritz." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kreisler-fritz
Kreisler, Fritz (Friedrich)
"Kreisler, Fritz (Friedrich)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/kreisler-fritz-friedrich
"Kreisler, Fritz (Friedrich)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved April 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/kreisler-fritz-friedrich
Fritz Kreisler (krīs´lər), 1875–1962, Austrian-American violinist, studied at the conservatories of Vienna and Paris. He first appeared in the United States in 1889. After studying medicine, then art, Kreisler returned to the violin, making a sensationally successful appearance in Berlin in 1899. In 1901 he played again in the United States and afterward was perhaps the most popular violinist in the country. He served briefly in the Austrian army in World War I; in 1939 he became a French citizen and in 1943 a U.S. citizen. He composed the operettas Apple Blossoms (1919) and Sissy (1933) and numerous famous violin pieces, including Caprice Viennois, Tambourin Chinois, and Polichinelle Sérénade. In 1935 he revealed that a number of the pieces he had published as compositions of old masters were actually his own.
See biography by L. P. Lochner (1950).
"Kreisler, Fritz." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kreisler-fritz
"Kreisler, Fritz." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kreisler-fritz