aug 14

A tribute to Kreisler

It’s hard to imagine a history of violin playing without the great Fritz Kreisler. What would violin playing be like if it weren’t for him? The list of virtuosos who have come and gone is endlessly long, but without the great Austrian virtuoso, would the sound of the violin hold as much class?

Kriesler was one of the last Old World players who composed and presented their very own works. Though this tradition is now largely lost, a performing artist could best represent their style by doing this. And nobody did that better than Kreisler. Coupling his dark and expressive sound with his signature heart-warming ditties, Kreisler became a very famous musician in the early 20th century. Though sometimes overshadowed by the violin-technocrats of his day, ask those players who they loved and admired, and Kreisler’s name would inevitably head the list.

Kreisler’s Opus 6 is an earlier work of his that is played less frequently than I would have expected. It’s a great encore or recital piece which exhibits both seriousness, as found in the first movement, followed by a light-hearted little joke movement; often played at lightening speed. Also, it’s the only known work he wrote for violin alone.

Eugène Ysaÿe, the Belgian violin-virtuoso, was another such player for whom composing held paramount importance. He wrote a slew of violin concertos (almost all of which are lost), string quartets, etudes, etc. Most important of this repertoire is Opus 27 — a dossier consisting of six epic Sonatas for violin alone. Each one of these Sonatas were ascribed to a fellow player and I chose Sonata No. 4, dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, as the perfect fit for my project.

There is some historical evidence that Kreisler played this dedicated work, in concert, attended by Ysaÿe. A story from the event emerged whereby, allegedly, Kriesler was stumped by a demanding passage at the end of the Finale. Ysaÿe gave him some pointers on how to use extensions in the wicked little passage to make it all possible. Kreisler was no slouch fiddler, but next to the great Belgian, there was much that could be learned from him.

There is also the story of Kreisler and Ysaÿe arguing about the last note of the middle movement — and what it should be: la or re? The story goes that Ysaÿe was torn about whether to resolve the recurring four-note motif of the movement in the final measure. Instead of the usual sol-fa-mi—la as it occurs in every other measure, the two bantered about resolving the movement tonally with the use of sol-fa-mi—re.

Kreisler insisted:

‘Non! Keep ‘sol-fa-mi—la,’ as ‘la’ is the perfect lead into the stormy down-beat of the e-minor Finale, if played attacca.’

It seemed that Ysaÿe appreciated his friend’s little suggestion, as that is how it appears in the final edition.