Brian Lewis on Teaching Individuality in the Music of Fritz Kreisler

June 7, 2011, 2:50 PM ·

Those little pieces that the early 20th-century violinist Fritz Kreisler "found in a monastery" make wonderful music for teaching students about expressive possibilities, said Brian Lewis Thursday at the 2011 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies in New York. Brian is Professor of Violin at the University of Texas, a soloist and also the Artistic Director for the symposium.


Brian Lewis
Photo by Nan Melville for The Juilliard School.

The truth of the matter is that Kreisler didn't find them in a monastery, library or anywhere else; he wrote them himself, as well as many other works he actually did claim as his own.

There is a long list of pieces Kreisler attributed others, some of the more popular ones including Praeludium and Allegro by "Gaetano Pugnani"; Sicilienne and Rigaudon by "François Francoeur"; and even Violin Concerto in C major by "Antonio Vivaldi"! The deception enraged a number of critics, though many musicians had known or suspected the hoax all along. His wife would joke to friends that her husband was "in the library, 'discovering new pieces.'"

We've all forgiven Fritz long ago. He gave us the gift of some 150 compositions and arrangements -- musical gems, full of expressive capability, and almost always pleasing to an audience. Despite the huge selection, violinists often gravitate to just a handful of these pieces.

"Sometimes we play the same six Kreisler pieces," Brian said, "it's nice to have a variety."

Brian recommended taking a look at the four-volume Fritz Kreisler Collection, which includes virtually everything the violinist wrote. Volume 3 and Volume 4 came out just recently, he said.

At the Symposium we reviewed four pieces by Kreisler: Polichinelle (Sérénade); Liebesleid (Love's Sorrow); March Miniature Viennoise; and Schön Rosmarin. These pieces are excellent building blocks for both technique and expression. You would not want to start a student with Praeludium and Allegro first, said Brian, it's a very difficult piece, and students who play it often are not ready.

"We are trying to develop and aesthetic sense in our students," Brian said. "These are all great precursors, before we get to the really difficult stuff."

A Kreisler piece -- or any piece -- should be approached from a number of different angles: melodically, rhythmically, harmonically and in terms of colors, patterns and harmonic rhythm (how fast the chords change).

"Shorter pieces and character pieces take a lot of work to sell," Brian said.

As for the bowings, they should be considered and they should serve the piece, but they aren't the central issue.

"My favorite thing about bowing is that we have only two choices: up-bow and down-bow," Brian said.

In the piece "Polichinelle," (which we're pretty sure has something to do with a "clown"), the compositional quirks are what open the door for teaching expression to students: the grace notes, the pizzicati, the harmonics, accents and slides.

"We want to find exceptions in the music because we want to bring those out," Brian said. "It's the grace notes in this piece where we have a lot of individual expression." This piece also allows the performer to play with time. For example, the beginning sequence can speed up as it cascades downward.

"It's very conversational, and I think that's why people like listening to Kreisler," Brian said. Many of Kreisler's works were recorded by the violinist himself and can be found in collections like Fritz Kreisler: The Complete RCA Recordings, or in smaller collections.

During the class we listened to several versions of each piece, and it was apparent that Kreisler himself seldom played his own pieces the same way twice. The manuscript was just a general map.

"Find out exactly the articulations Kreisler wanted, and this is our launching point for individuality: what is on the page," Brian said. "We all have the same road maps -- what makes individuals different from each other is what we find in the music."

"Polichinelle" is also a piece where we can teach the aesthetics of shifting and sliding, Brian said -- though one has to be judicious with sliding. Brian recalled a quote from Northwestern violin professor Roland Vamos: "shifting is like underwear -- we know it's there, but we don't want to know about it or see it."

Sliding should be special; not used with every repetition of a phrase. Emotionally, a slide down "sounds more mournful."

A student can be given choices where to slide, but a teacher should set this up the choices so that the student wins. "Always give your students choices where there's no wrong answer," Brian said. "Everything is in the details. The more things we plan our in the practice room, the better our performances will be."

With fingerings, discuss the pros and cons of several fingering options, and then let the student decide. "My goal is not to make cookie-cutter images of what I do on the violin," instead, a teacher should challenge students to make their own decisions, within certain parameters.

For Dorothy DeLay, those parameters were: good sound, secure technique and imagination. You wouldn't let a student make a choice that falls short on good technique, etc.

Next we talked about Kreisler's Liebesleid or "Love's Sorrow." Brian said to consider the Ländler dance rhythm (1, 2, 3, 123-123) in playing this piece, rather than thinking of the beginning as being syncopated, and that gives it a more dance-like lilt.

He had pianist Pamela Viktoria Pyle play us the piano part alone, to show that the first statement is pretty basic, then in the second statement, the piano has all kinds of detail and added harmony. In order to allow the pianist to play out here, the violinist should also play louder for the second statement.

"Kreisler pieces are a good way to get our kids reacting to and listening to the piano part," Brian said.

Brian mentioned that kids sometimes will listen to a Youtube recording once -- which is different than the way he would listen to a recording as a student -- hearing it some 48 times and really taking it in. "In these pieces, we start drawing connections to the past," Brian said. "This is a tradition handed down from master to master."

On the second day of pedagogy with Brian Lewis, we warmed up our music-making muscles with wrist rolls; then interlocking the fingers and gently rolling, rubbing the hands together, swinging the arms and bending the knees, "squeezing three lemons" between our shoulder blades and of course, pinkie stretches, with the help of Brian's Suzuki Rap.

We tuned, and we talked about pitch: Dorothy DeLay tuned to A-443. The Berlin Phil: A-444. In Houston: A-440. The piano today: A-441. Why does that "A" seem to get higher and higher?

"It was done for brilliance," Brian said. "But don't tune higher than that!"

Then we turned to Kreisler's Schön Rosmarin, a piece Brian's mother Alice Joy Lewis, was studying when Brian was very young, and both he and his mother were Japan, studying with Shinichi Suzuki.

What is the technical issue in this piece? Up-bow staccato. The Suzuki books prepare a student for up-bow staccato with tunes like Country Dance (in Book 5). Also, Suzuki tunes can be used to prepare for up-bow staccato: Twinkle (a down-bow and four up-bow 16th on each note), and Perpetual Motion (down bow on the first note and then every 16 notes, the rest up-bow staccato).

It's important to try this technique on something that is easy in the left hand, so the student can concentrate on the right. Dorothy DeLay had another solution: "Practice Kreutzer Etude No. 4 every day, for five minutes," Brian Lewis said, "for a YEAR! It was the only Kreutzer etude she made us all memorize."

That preparation work is important; "we are responsible for setting up success for our students," Brian said.

In doing up-bow staccato, try setting the bow fingers a little closer together than they normally would be. "Closer together means less control, and less control means we can go faster," Brian said.

He had us try up-bow staccato with just two fingers (the index and middle) and thumb on the bow, then with just the index and thumb, to get that feeling of balancing the hand toward the first finger. Then we put all fingers back on the bow, trying to retain the feeling we had when just playing with the index and thumb.

For up-bow staccato, it should be possible to feel some flex in the bow, otherwise, it is wound too tight, Brian said. Also, when going quickly, only use a tiny bit of bow; "The smaller the bow, the faster you go," he said.

The Marche Miniature Viennoise is just what it says: very short, just one page! It can be played with a lot of style, rhythmic nuance, slides, harmonics and more.

For a student, a Kreisler piece is a reasonable goal, and for a teacher, it's something we can learn in a month or less.

"My goal in choosing Kreisler was to find some pieces we an give our students, and our selves, for renewal," Brian said.


June 8, 2011 at 02:26 AM ·

Thank you!  Very interesting.  It's a pleasure to have the links to these Kreisler volumes.  I had no idea he had written as much... as we very often hear the same ones.  That's very precious! 

June 8, 2011 at 11:55 AM ·

Marche Miniature Viennoise played by Alexander Labko has some delicious larking around in it.on U tube. There is a glorious smeared note in it. But all in very good taste.(not).It`s the best bit of violin fun I`ve seen in years.

June 8, 2011 at 01:52 PM ·

 Among the glories of Kreisler's playing are the gorgeous audible shifts. Some of Kreisler's contemporaries (Quiroga, Thibaud, Ysaye and others) gave us truly beautiful recordings of Kreisler pieces but nowadays the shifting has been neutered and the pieces are pretty well dead. Yes they are fairly "playable" in a technical sense and so they get played but musically they are like the desiccated crab lying on a sunny beach--just a shell, a reminder of the life once contained but now gone.


June 8, 2011 at 07:40 PM ·

This was a stellar class! Brian really communicated well how individual technical skills were borne of the various ways to interpret the works.

June 9, 2011 at 02:44 PM ·

Corwin  Spot on there.   Maybe we need a detailed examination of a few pieces , note by note , as if it was a masterclass.   

June 13, 2011 at 04:19 AM ·

Evidently, Polichinelle was a puppet character that originated in the Comedia del'Art.   He sort of looks like a clown.  Here is a picture.

June 13, 2011 at 05:48 PM ·

 Yikes, scary puppet! Thanks for finding that, Richard!

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