A Foe of Facts: Fritz Kreisler and His Vivid Imagination

September 13, 2017, 5:16 AM · Of the two biographies of Fritz Kreisler, the first, Fritz Kreisler by Louis Lochner (1950) has a chapter called "A Glutton for Making Music But a Foe of Practicing." The second, Fritz Kreisler: Love's Sorrow, Love's Joy by Amy Biancolli (1998), has a chapter called "Tall Tale Teller: The Kreisler Apocrypha." His delightful personality comes through in his preference for the amusing anecdote, at the cost of the more boring rendition of the truth. For me, the memory of his tone weaves itself throughout my reflections on his life and personality. He was, and probably still is, the most beloved violinist who ever lived. When Heifetz ruled alongside Kreisler, it was Heifetz’s virtuosity, ego, perfection and cool that people were attracted to. With Kreisler, it was his heart and gentle sincerity.

Fritz Kreisler
Fritz Kreisler.

Pulling the Wool Over Our Eyes

Biancolli writes about eight incidents in Kreisler’s life in which the truth may have been exaggerated or completely ignored. However, there is one comment she made on page 26, written as the truth in a matter-of-fact way that may be a perfect example of Kreisler being up to his usual shenanigans. "Thus it was far from unusual that Salomon Kreisler [Fritz’s father], whose path crossed with many of Vienna’s intellectuals, counted among his friends an amateur fiddler named Sigmund Freud, whose bearded presence entered the Kreisler house for many an evening of chamber music."

Really? I have not been able to find a record of Freud playing the violin. In fact, it was made very clear to his family and colleagues how much he disliked music. If he was out in public and had to listen to a band in a restaurant or beer garden, he would put his hands over his ears. Even though he treated Gustav Mahler for depression and anxiety, and Bruno Walter for torsion dystonia, and he had a profound respect for literature and sculpture, he could not abide any type of music, except for a few bland operas. His reason made sense, considering his need for a rational understanding of everything: "Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me." (That’s quite a rationale for someone who felt he needed to explain why he didn’t like music. Maybe other joys in his life eluded him because, if he couldn’t tie them to his psychoanalytic theories, what use were they? Sorry Sigmund, I couldn’t resist head-shrinking you a little.)

Can Siri Clear This Up?

Did Kreisler make up the story of Freud playing chamber music with Salomon Kreisler? Let’s investigate this further by looking at the earlier biography and see what Lochner wrote. There was no mention of Freud playing the violin, but instead he had played chess with Salomon. I googled "Did Freud Play Chess?" Nothing came up, so no conclusions can be drawn. Or the obvious one that Kreisler pulled another fast one.

At this point, I would simply congratulate Kreisler on his ability to make up harmless stories that sound good when you read them in a book. Joseph Gingold was reported in Biancolli’s book as saying "that many of the stories in Lochner’s book are pure fancy." Kreisler told some of his friends that Freud played chess, and others that he played the violin. Two different biographies simply report the stories Kreisler handed down to his friends. Future generations may discover that they played bridge or arm- wrestled.

Among Kreisler’s fans, discovering a new bon-bon brought great satisfaction. His charming short pieces, very loosely inspired by relatively unknown composers such as Pugnani and Louis Couperin, the grandfather of François Couperin, delighted and surprised everyone.

In its own way, discovering a new hoax by the best storyteller classical music has given us is just as pleasurable.

Turning the Rules of Practicing Upside Down

As free as he was with the facts, Kreisler made up his own ideas about playing. His sound was so warm and joyous, it had the personality of a Sinatra, Streisand, or Bennett. He wasn’t a violinist that was merely compounding what the violin seemed capable of. He was bending it to his will. Rhythm and timbre had no limits with him. He pulled everything he needed out of the violin to match his imagination. What he felt in love and tenderness came through in his glissandos and phrasing.

Just as he shared his personal fingerings in all his editions, he was generous with his advise about practicing. Pages 89-92 in Lochner’s book list many of Kreisler’s suggestions. For any young violinist who can’t or won’t think while he or she is playing, his words may awake in him a new perspective on how to make music:

"I believe that everything is in the brain. You think of a passage and you know exactly how you want it. It is like aiming a pistol. You take aim, you cock the pistol, and you put your finger on the trigger. A slight pressure of the finger and the shot is fired."

BELOW: An hour of Kreisler plays Kreisler!

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September 13, 2017 at 05:56 PM · what's not to love about Kreisler?

September 13, 2017 at 07:10 PM · Just a minor point: Louis Couperin was not the grandfather of Francois Couperin, but his uncle.

But the rest of this article is quite nice!

September 13, 2017 at 08:42 PM · Nicely written, interesting article. Thanks.


September 13, 2017 at 10:20 PM · Very entertaining article!! Knowing he had this "playful" side makes listening to him play all the more enjoyable. You can hear his sense of fun and excitement in the way he approaches the music.

September 13, 2017 at 11:45 PM · The comparison of Kreisler and Heifetz: It's well documented, isn't it, that Kreisler was a massive fan of Heifetz's? Anyone know to what extent the reverse is true?

September 14, 2017 at 01:03 AM · I believe that Heifitz was also a massive fan of Heifitz. :)

September 14, 2017 at 02:31 AM · It is well known that Heifetz's favorite violinist was Kreisler.

September 14, 2017 at 04:21 AM · Was Heifetz a fan of Kreisler?

September 14, 2017 at 08:19 AM · I heard Beethoven violin concerto on very old records, so old it was more than 8 records... I loved it, I was 5 years old 1960 it was sending me the way to play...It was played by Fritz Kreisler...

September 14, 2017 at 08:19 AM · "Was Heifetz a fan of Kreisler?"

Very much so, they held each other in mutually high regard.

September 14, 2017 at 08:22 AM · Arguably Heifetz was one of the best of his generation, although he didn't perform a lot but gave valuable lessons

September 14, 2017 at 03:56 PM · Gerard, you must be talking about a different violinist?

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