Gusikow, Joseph Michael

views updated


GUSIKOW, JOSEPH MICHAEL (1802–1837), musician. Descendant of a long line of klezmerim, Gusikow, who was born in Shklov, Belorussia, first took up the flute but had to abandon it because of incipient consumption. He then constructed an improved xylophone consisting of 15 (later 29) tuned wooden staves, with a chromatic range of two-and-a-half octaves laid upon supports of tied straw and beaten with two thin sticks, which he called "Holz und Stroh." With this instrument he began to tour Russia and in the mid-1830s Austria, when he appeared before the emperor. His repertoire by now included many virtuoso and salon pieces originally written for the piano (including concertos), operatic arias, and – his specialty – extempore variations on arias, Jewish and gentile folk tunes, and even national anthems, all without having had a single music lesson. Society lionized him, and his orthodox earlocks became a ladies' fashion – the coiffure à la Gusikow. Concerts in Germany, France, and Belgium followed. In Leipzig, a Hebrew ode was published in his praise (1836). In Brussels his instrument and manner of playing were analyzed by the musicologist Fétis. Gusikow's illness had in the meantime grown worse. He died at Aachen. Lamartine, Félix *Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and his sister Fanny, as well as numerous other musicians of discernment, all attested to his virtuosity and creative power. The English writer Sacheverell Sitwell was therefore not exaggerating when he described Gusikow as "the greatest untaught or impromptu musician there had ever been." One of his tunes was published by Abraham Moses *Bernstein in Muzikalisher Pinkes (1927), p. 114.


S. Sitwell, Splendours and Miseries (1943), 143–66; D. Sadan, Ha-Menaggen ha-Mufla (1947); Sendrey, Music, nos. 3529, 4098–98a, 5812–17.

[Bathja Bayer]