Putting on the Fritz: Kreisler as pianist, and his version of La Cinquantaine

January 26, 2018, 9:43 AM · Fritz Kreisler was undoubtedly one of the greatest violinists of all time. But I am a firm believer that he might also have been one of the greatest musicians ever. He was always a hero of mine because he had such a beautiful sound and in part perhaps for the legendary tales of his not practicing.

We are all aware of his wonderful compositions and his wonderful violin playing. But while listening to some recordings on Youtube.com, I came to realize that he was an incredible piano player as well. I had always read that he was a capable player but not to this level.

Fritz Kreisler
Fritz Kreisler at the piano.

The stories I read show that he really liked playing at parties. Nathan Milstein mentioned seeing Kreisler at a party playing background music. Milstein recounted, “[Kreisler] sat down and played a waltz. Turning to me in delight, he said, “Nathan, this is my life. Here’s what I love: good light music, the divine waltzes of Strauss, Lanner…” And suddenly he began improvising on the theme from the slow movement of Brahms’s violin concerto. I had never heard a more astonishing improvisation in my life! It mixed different styles: Beethoven, and something from the Russian symphonies, and Bierdermeier, all so cleverly crafted that you couldn’t tell from where he too what. I listened in awe, holding my breath.”

Fritz Kreisler plays Heuberger's "Im chambre séparée" or as we violinists know it "Midnight Bells":

His piano-playing ability was apparently well known to other musicians. Paderewski once stated, “I’d be starving if Fritz had taken up the piano, How beautifully he plays!”

The Strad Magazine dedicated a full issue to him on the 25th anniversary of his death. Glowing tributes with reminiscences from many of the greats of the 20th century. Louis Kaufman was at a chamber music party where he often played with Kreisler. George Gershwin was at the party because of his genuine love of chamber music. After the chamber music, Gershwin was asked to play some of his popular songs to which he gladly obliged. After he finished Gershwin turned to Kreisler and asked “would you please play some of your lovely tunes from Apple Blossoms (Kreisler’s musical operetta which was a hit on Broadway).” I’m not sure I would have had the audacity to play after Gershwin.

According to Kaufman “Kreisler played with the same engaging charm and beauty of tone on the piano as he did on the violin. There can be few great pianists who would not have envied his singing and expressive legato on the piano.”

As a child Oscar Shumsky had the opportunity to play with Kreisler the pianist. Kreisler did not look at the score and “recomposed” the accompaniments on the spot. They contained new harmonizations and countermelodies.

In Efrem Zimbalist memoirs he told some interesting stories as well. Zimbalist was the only violinist to have recorded with Kreisler. They recorded the Bach Double Concerto. Heifetz, Zimbalist and Kreisler partook in a novel competition. Each would play a movement of Mendelssohn and then accompany the other. Zimbalist accompanied Kreisler in the first movement, Heifetz accompanied Zimbalist in the second and Kreisler accompanied Heifetz in the last movement. Kreisler was the best pianist of the bunch.

Oh to have been at those parties…..

Heifetz was a huge Kreisler fan. The eleven year old Heifetz (who shared the same birthday February 2nd) was accompanied by Kreisler. After hearing the lad play, Kreisler turned to the assembled people and said "We might as well take our fiddles and break them across our knees."[

Out of reverence for the master, Heifetz kept a signed Kreisler program in his studio at USC and rarely played Kreisler pieces in public. He did in private and could do a spot on impression, even once fooling Kreisler to think that he was listening to an old record!

Heifetz was no slouch at the piano....here he is accompanying Carol Sindell during his masterclass

RCA looked at recording Kreisler as a pianist because of his ability on the piano. We are fortunate that one of the test pressings survived.

Kreisler playing Dvorak Humoresque on piano

He did make piano rolls for Ampico. Though obviously this is not the same as hearing a recording, it does give you an idea of how he was at the piano. Ampico was proud of having him as an exclusive recording artist: “To Hear Kreisler, the violinist, is the privilege of the whole concert going world-to hear Kreisler, the pianist is the exclusive privilege of the owner of an Ampico.”

Kreisler plays Caprice Viennois

His playing is not that of a violinist playing the piano but is that of a pianist who is a consulate musician. There is a lilt to his playing and he plays his own pieces with finesse, elán and sophistication that is beyond reproach. He is not possessed of the electric technique of a Rachmaninov or a Godowsky but then isn't that the case with his violin playing? He was not Heifetz but we listen because we love the wonderful tone and the impeccable phrasing. His playing on both instruments is beautiful and inviting.

Naxos has a set of recordings where he played with his brother Hugo. Hugo was a cellist, and on one recording he accompanied Hugo. This is a wonderful artifact. Kreisler is an attentive accompanist and I can only assume he improvised his accompaniment for his brother. I admit to having listened to these recordings again and again to try get the flavor and understand the magic. Kreisler accompanies his brother in Liebesleid and it is my opinion that he plays the accompaniment (with little changes) better than any of the pianist who accompanied him in his own classic recordings

Of particular interest to me is their recording of the classic La Cinquantaine. This is not the accompaniment we see regularly and of course I wanted to play it this way. I can only assume that Kreisler recomposed the accompaniment on the spot.

Compare that to the standard um-pah accompaniment as heard performed by Ivry Gitlis with pianist Shuku Iwasaki.

He makes this oft-abused, I mean oft-played “student” piece into a sparkling gem for both parts.
I so very much wanted to play this but because of the fact there is no sheet music I had once again ask my dear friend Dr Paul Levi to notate the piano part. Paul is the master of notation and because of his masterful work I am proud to present the first modern recording of Kreisler’s arrangement of Gabriel Marie's La Cinquantaine

I would like to thank Dr. Paul Levi for his help in this project
Also thanks to Alex Beyer for taking time out of his schedule to record this little ditty with me


January 29, 2018 at 08:54 AM · thank you Darwin, I thoroughly enjoy your blog, well researched, very interesting, and a fine performance!!

January 30, 2018 at 12:18 AM · Another violinist who was no slouch on the piano was Enescu. But I've read or heard that although he was superior technically to Schnabel, he lacked Schnabel's sensitivity to the music.

January 30, 2018 at 04:54 AM · Thank you for your kind comments.

I did look at the aspect of violinists who played the piano as well but decided to try to keep it to Kreisler and his birthday twin Heifetz. There are plenty out there. Grumiaux, Enescu, Szeryng, Julia Fischer and James Ehnes

January 31, 2018 at 08:07 PM · To Darwin Shen ~ January 31st, 2018

Re: Beloved Fritz Kreisler ~ 'In Memoriam' on this day, January 31st, 1962

As 1 of the original 7 pupils of Jascha Heifetz, in his first International Violin Master Class at USC's Institute for Special Music Studies, I met one of Mr. Kreisler's most reverent/ardent admirer's on January 31st, 1962, named Jascha Heifetz!!

Invited to audition for Heifetz (after his incognito in-audience attendance of my L.A. Debut as violin soloist w/ the USC 'power' Symphony in the Aram Khachaturian Violin Concerto, at Bovard Auditorium, (thankfully unaware 'God', aka, Jascha Heifetz, was in the Sold Out Hall!), my principle teacher-father 'ordered' me to audition for Heifetz with the formal day of the audition being on this most poignant January 31st, 1962, 'End of an Era' Day ...

Whilst travelling to USC's Clark House (then putting finishing touches on a specially built Studio for Mr. Heifetz, we heard over our car radio the dire news of the great Fritz Kreisler's Earthly passing in NYC, just 2+ hours prior to my LA audition time, 11:00 AM ~ Witnessing my rarely pedigreed musician parents in tears, always loving Fritz Kreisler's great musical violin playing with his unique Viennese lilt and enchanting personal charm, the idea of meeting and playing for Heifetz was ever more daunting ...

Being calmed in a last minute whispered phrase of advice from my father, a Door then opened half way with a host inviting me inside the newly built USC Heifetz Studio w/ the famous face of Jascha Heifetz, directly in front of me - & then a very young girl ~ in surreal disbelief by being 2 to 2 & 1/2 feet away from Heifetz! Studying his face momentarily, I saw reddened eyes with a tear rolling down the right cheek of Jascha Heifetz ... In that moment I realised the Great Heifetz was grief stricken and quietly offered him the deepest sympathy of both my parent's and my tearing up Condolences saying, 'I'm so deeply sorry & saddened upon the huge loss of your great & beloved friend & colleague, Fritz Kreisler, dear Mr. Heifetz. Please accept my most sincere sympathies ...'

Providence must have been on hand for The Great Heifetz then took my hand into both his fabled Hands, saying,"Thank you, young girl; today is a very sad day for me." Our shared sorrow in a stilled pause allowed me to 'See' into the very tender heart of the great & grieving Greatest Violinist in the World - that of Heifetz, and his deeper than the Ocean depths Soul of The Heifetz who recorded the 'Havanaise' of Camille Saint Saens as none other has nor ever shall ~

After a few pieces of candy, I began my audition for Heifetz, which went very well w/ Mr. Heifetz sweetly scolding me about scales in 3rds, especially 6ths, fingered octaves & tenths, then inviting me to play some Unaccompanied Bach (the Adagio of the g minor 1st Sonata, & the Khachaturian w/ pianist, *Brooks Smith.)

Upon conclusion, although still overwhelmed, we smiled and Heifetz led me to the door with kind countenance ~ If Truth be told, I didn't want to leave because Mr. Kreisler's passing had left a truly grieving & wounded heart of his admiring colleague and Yes, Friend - Jascha Heifetz ...

In reading your article on Fritz Kreisler, Mr. Shen, with rare spotlighted focus on Kreisler's natural pianistic gifts of easy technique fused with 'Fritzi's' 'folklore' Viennese charm, I wish to thank you for your efforts and debuted reading by Dr. Levi of Kreisler's most difficult to duplicate/ notate rare impromptu pianistic accompaniment of himself to his fine 'cellist brother, Hugo's, also lilting La Cinquantaine! The Viennese 'Lilt' of Fritz Kreisler in the classically framed child-like 'romp' through the piano accompaniment is vintage Fritz Kreisler whether he be at the piano or holding the fiddle under his adorable & natural cantankerous chin! How Wondrous in a World now so deeply in need of enchantment and Hope ~

To my knowledge, Mr. Shen, Heifetz never kept his treasured signed programme of Kreisler in his USC Studio where our 3 Days a Week Violin Master Classes took place from 11:00 AM to 4:00 ish in the afternoons. Very few were ever invited into Mr. Heifetz's specially designed & built by Frank Lloyd Wright private studio attached to his Beverly Hills residence, so it may be best to err on the side of caution if stating Heifetz always kept Kreisler's signed programme in 'his Studio' for few of us were honoured to play & have private coaching from Heifetz, but as one of those pupils so honoured, I can't recall right now seeing the programme of Fritz Kreisler in the performing area of the private Heifetz Studio which was his sanctuary the rest of his life once Mr. Heifetz had left New York for Beverly Hills & his Beach House delight in Malibu, CA!

Being the 1st private concertising pupil listed on the Violinist Roster w/ & of Nathan Milstein, at his home in London, for way over 3 & 1/2 years, and enjoying many conversations following minimum 3 & 1/2 to 4 hour violinistic 'tutorial's', Mr. Milstein never uttered your attributed to his words 'in total' to me about his also much beloved colleague & friend, Fritz Kreisler, but spoke glowingly of Kreisler's great Viennese charm and grand artistry as a Violinist with warmed compliments regarding Mr. Kreisler's piano skills fused with "his adorable-ness"!!! To be sure, your focus on Kreisler's musical span on 2 instruments is very intriguing w/one of the contributor's also validly naming several Great Violinists with formidable pianistic near-concert artist skills ~ especially Julia Fischer, perhaps not in the 'other world' of Violinistic Greatness & unique individuality of JH, NM Kreisler, or Grumiaux, but Ms. Fischer is truly unique in that her pianistic skills enable her to beautifully interpret major Piano Concerto repertoire as the Grieg and other favourite staples of Piano Concerto literature which is concrete and noble evidence of her truly fused musical gifts ...

Again, accept a huge Thank You for your research; fidelity to Kreisler's Violin & Piano Art as expressed in public concert violin performance/recording & in more intimate performance salon environments, not the least of which are Fritz Kreisler's extraordinary original legion of compositions for Violin w/Piano accompaniment which are whistled 'war horse' encore's and in Concert 'waited for's'!! (As my late & gifted principle teacher - father/Conductor/ Hollywood composer & Arranger for School to Pro orchestra's, Ralph Matesky, used to say, "One cannot teach that which one cannot do!") *see below*

On this still poignantly nostalgic day of January 31st,'18, thank you, Darwin Shen, for somehow syncing up your 'Homage' to Fritz Kreisler's lesser known gifts as a pianist & accompanist - extraordinaire, whilst unknowingly adding Joy to this Day I give Thanks for Every Year for reasons mentioned above ~

Your musically from America ~

Elisabeth Matesky * & **

*In our YouTube JH Violin Master Class films, one can hear/ &

view Mr. Heifetz accompanying my class-mate, Carol Sindell,

in the Bach Violin Concerto #1 in a minor or a portion thereof

w/ JH's sensitive touch on the ivories so musically knowing ...

**Milstein once loaned me his Book on Fritz Kreisler 'to read ~

my dear violin 'guinea pig' to inspire you to go further into the

world of composition for the Violin, making another Cadenza

as grand stylistically as your 2nd to 3rd Mov't in Beethoven's

Violin Concerto!' When I go 'Up There', I'll return it to him as I

was to be on my way to London, when the Violin World lost a

Giant, my Mentor/Friend of decades ~ Icon, Nathan Milstein.

February 2, 2018 at 12:31 AM · Terrific job Darwin! Very well researched and well written! I enjoyed your playing, as usual! Bravo!

February 2, 2018 at 02:15 AM · What a nice way to spend the evening. Thank you. I was so surprised to hear La Cinquantaine played in two videos. I spent days and months learning to play this in my early days of learning the violin. It was like a foreign language and now I find myself humming it note for note. Pure enjoyment.

February 2, 2018 at 02:41 AM · Thanks Warren!

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