Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

Musical misconduct

Heard an intriguing story on the classical-music station in the car earlier today, and decided to do some digging and post on it.

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.

He knew Sigmund Freud also, an occasional visitor to Kreisler’s parents’ home for their evenings of performing music with family, friends and neighbors, a quite common pastime in Viennese homes back then. Kreisling made his first violin from a cigar box, and received his first real violin as a gift at the age of four. All that is interesting enough, but then we get to the truly fascinating part:

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.

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.

According to the NPR story I listened to today, the NYT ran a blistering article on Kreisler’s sleight-of-hand not in its music or arts section but on the front page. The thing immediately blew up into a HUGE scandal, one which Kreisler seems to have been astonished by. He survived it nonetheless, and went on to even greater success and acclaim even as his life continued on with its tendency to be…uhh, eventful, shall we say.

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.

What a story, eh? I’m kinda surprised I’d never heard of him before now, as much classical as I listen to on the radio every day, but I’m glad I did. It’s the kind of story about the kind of real character you just don’t see anymore in this blander, less lively age.


1 thought on “Musical misconduct

  1. You might be interested in seeing the film “Orchestra of Exiles”. It’s about another great 20th-century violinist, Bronislaw Huberman, who also left Germany during the Nazi tyranny. But he did something more: he decided to rescue as many great Jewish musicians as he could in the years leading up to the war, and got them visas to go to Palestine, where they formed what was to become the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. It really is a fascinating story, and there are interviews with lots of great modern musicians, who talk about Huberman’s genius as well as his humanitarian drive. The IMDb page has the trailer.

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