February 2, 2013
“Did you ever get to perform the Fritz Kreisler String Quartet?” I’ve been asked this question again and again over the years, undoubtedly in response to a scene in “High Fidelity,” the 1987 documentary about our Guarneri String Quartet. In that scene, I bring the Kreisler String Quartet in A Minor, a work I dearly love, to our quartet’s regular reading sessions of music we might consider for future programs. As we play through the Quartet, it becomes increasingly clear that my colleagues, John Dalley, Michael Tree, and David Soyer, are underwhelmed by Kreisler’s music. Despite my impassioned defense of the Quartet’s virtues, it’s voted down. Some of the comments: “too long,” “one big first violin solo,” “not one of Kreisler’s stronger works.” The most stinging criticisms, however, come from our famously opinionated cellist, David Soyer, who caps his displeasure by dubbing a passage in the Quartet’s last movement, “Chinese monkey business.” Kreisler had used the pentatonic scale, a basic element of Chinese music, and all the rage with some early twentieth-century Western composers, when his Quartet came to life in 1922.
I saw “High Fidelity” in a movie theatre when it was first released. While the Kreisler Quartet was being handed its death sentence by John, Michael, and Dave, the camera zoomed in on my face. It looked as though I was about to burst into tears. The audience responded by emitting in almost perfect unison a long, drawn out “Aw.”
Yes, I was disappointed not to look forward to a Guarneri Quartet performance of the Kreisler, but that was the nature of those reading sessions. Time and time again, one of us would bring in a favorite work, only to have it dismissed by the majority. What truly bothered me though was my inability to convince the guys of the Kreisler Quartet’s beauty and originality. Why couldn’t they love the work as I did?
Fritz Kreisler, one of the reigning violinists of his era (born February 2, 1875 in Vienna, Austria, died 1962 in New York City), was also a highly successful composer of works for violin. Some of his compositions showcase the charm and seductive sentiment of his beloved turn-of-the-century Vienna while others venture back in time to pay homage to past eras. Kreisler’s music continues to be performed today, a tribute to his exceptional gifts as a composer, but almost all of it is modest in scope and length, and therefore most often relegated to the lighter end of a program or played as an encore. Kreisler’s String Quartet, his only one in that medium, is a full-length, four-movement work that strives for substance and seriousness beyond the lilting beauty of his slighter offerings.
The audience at “High Fidelity’s” first showing need not have felt sorry for me. I’ve performed Kreisler’s String Quartet often both before and after our Guarneri reading session. As one of four students, I first studied the work with renowned violinist Josef Gingold, who worshipped Kreisler as a violinist, composer, and human being. One day, after we had studied quartet repertoire by such giants as Mozart, Beethoven, and Ravel with Gingold, he brought the Kreisler to us as you would offer a rare wildflower to be handled with care and reverence.
Gingold’s feelings for Kreisler are captured in a speech he gave at the Kreisler Centennial Concert at Indiana University on February 2, 1975:
“Those of us who have heard Kreisler in concert will never forget his sublime artistry. His tone was bewitching; his overall mastery of the fingerboard, his incisive rhythmic pulse, his charm and great musicianship will live forever in our memory. Over a period of 20 years I never missed a Kreisler concert if possible and I always came away from his concerts ecstatic. When he made his stage entrance, his majestic bearing demanded attention even before he played a single note. However, once he put the violin under his chin he was completely transformed. A certainty, modesty, and humility were evidenced as he seemed to say, “I would love to play for you.” I felt that Kreisler played personally for each listener in his audience, so personable was his magnetism.
Last summer, Ida Kavafian and I, violins, Steve Tenenbom, viola, and Peter Wiley, cello, performed Kreisler’s String Quartet at the Santa Fe Music Festival. Our rehearsals were aided by markings in traditional Italian that Kreisler had placed in the score, but also by a host of much more personal descriptions that he had added in his native German. Some of them covered a range of emotions that translate as Impetuous, Passionate, Inward, Heartfelt, Painful, Transfigured, and Chivalrous.
One marking especially caught my attention. At the beginning of the quartet’s last movement, the first violin plays three drawn-out notes that leap up to another like a champagne cork bursting from its bottle. Kreisler wrote the word “Schalkhaft” over these notes. I asked Dorothea, my German-born wife, and her German-speaking friend, Katrin, what the word meant. Dorothea and Katrin looked at one another and smiled. Such an old-fashioned word, they exclaimed, yet the two had trouble coming up with a translation. Finally, I retrieved an answer from my English-German dictionary: Roguish. Waggish.
What kind of man was this Kreisler who composed music that asked for gestures as quirky as ”waggish,” as old-fashioned as ”chivalrous,” and as commonplace as ”passionate” and ”heartfelt”?
Kreisler received a full and richly diverse musical education. He studied harmony with Anton Bruckner and violin with Joseph Massart, teacher of virtuoso violinist Henryk Wieniawski. He knew Johannes Brahms and Joseph Joachim, heard Pablo Sarasate and Anton Rubinstein. When he was in the Vienna Conservatory, he listened to old-timers who still talked of hearing Paganini in 1826, Chopin in 1828, and Jenny Lind in 1849. And as an adult he had lived no musician’s ivory-tower life. Kreisler fought in the First World War, was wounded, witnessed the death of many of his comrades, and wrote a book afterwards, Four Weeks in the Trenches: The War Story of a Violinist. Somehow, this brush with death seemed not to affect his basic sunny nature or the character of his compositions. Kreisler served up even the darker qualities of his String Quartet as fleeting states of mind in an otherwise benign musical world.
At the Santa Fe performance, Ida, Steve, Peter, and I swooned over Kreisler’s exotic harmonies, smiled at his playfulness, and were moved over and over again by the music’s depth of feeling. As the last notes of the work played themselves out ever more quietly, Kreisler’s marking “like a distant memory,” seemed to serve not only as musical instruction but also as his melancholy reflection on a place and time that he so dearly loved but that no longer existed.
I hope John and Michael, my old buddies in the Guarneri String Quartet, have by now warmed to the Kreisler’s Quartet. Unfortunately, David Soyer is no longer with us. I try to imagine Dave running into Fritz in Heaven.
“So, Mr. Soyer,” Kreisler says, smiling avuncularly, “I understand you don’t like my string quartet.” Dave, curmudgeon that he is, merely shrugs his shoulders.
“And what about that ‘Chinese monkey business’ I hear so much about,” Kreisler continues. Dave shrugs his shoulders again.
Josef Gingold, the person who so lovingly introduced me to the Kreisler Quartet, arrives on the scene at this moment and quickly appraises the situation. He whispers something in Kreisler’s ear. Kreisler nods, takes up his violin, and begins to play one passage after another from the Quartet for Dave. Out comes that bewitching tone, the incisive rhythmic pulse, the charm and great musicianship that Gingold adored and that holds me in thrall every time I listen to Kreisler on record. Dave is inevitably swept away by Kreisler’s playing but also by the beauty of his String Quartet. And since I am the writer and director of this imaginary little story set in Heaven, allow me this last bit of dialogue:
“What was your favorite part, Mr. Soyer?” Kreisler enquires.
Dave responds without hesitation: “Why, that Chinese monkey business section, of course.”
Posted today, February 2, 2013, Fritz Kreisler’s birthday.
Happy birthday, Mr. Kreisler.
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