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Franz Kneisel

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The Perfect String Ensemble

Is there a lover of chamber music unfamiliar with Franz Kneisel's name? It may be doubted. After earlier European triumphs the gifted Roumanian violinist came to this country (1885), and aside from his activities in other directions--as a solo artist he was the first to play the Brahms and Goldmark violin concertos, and the Cesar Franck sonata in this country--organized his famous quartet. And, until his recent retirement as its director and first violin, it has been perhaps the greatest single influence toward stimulating appreciation for the best in chamber music that the country has known. Before the Flonzaley was, the Kneisels

were. They made plain how much of beauty the chamber music repertory

offered the amateur string player; not only in the classic

repertory--Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Spohr; in Schubert, Schumann,

Brahms; but in Smetana, Dvor·k and Tschaikovsky; in CÈsar Franck,

Debussy and Ravel. Not the least among Kneisel's achievements is, that

while the professional musicians in the cities in which his organization

played attended its concerts as a matter of course, the average music

lover who played a string instrument came to them as well, and carried

away with him a message delivered with all the authority of superb

musicianship and sincerity, one which bade him "go and do likewise," in

so far as his limitations permitted. And the many excellent professional

chamber music organizations, trios, quartets and _ensembles_ of various

kinds which have come to the fore since they began to play offer

eloquent testimony with regard to the cultural work of Kneisel and his

fellow artists.


[Illustration: FRANZ KNEISEL, with signature]


A cheery grate fire burned in the comfortable study in Franz Kneisel's

home; the autographed--in what affectionate and appreciative

terms--pictures of great fellow artists looked down above the book-cases

which hold the scores of those masters of what has been called "the

noblest medium of music in existence," whose beauties the famous quartet

has so often disclosed on the concert stage. And Mr. Kneisel was

amiability personified when I asked him to give me his theory of the

perfect string _ensemble_, and the part virtuosity played in it.





"The artist, the _Tonk¸nstler_, to use a foreign phrase, ranks the

virtuoso in chamber music. Joachim was no virtuoso, he did not stress

technic, the less important factor in _ensemble_ playing. Sarasate was a

virtuoso in the best sense of the word; and yet as an _ensemble_ music

player he fell far short of Joachim. As I see it 'virtuoso' is a kind of

flattering title, no more. But a _Tonk¸nstler_, a 'tone-artist,' though

he must have the virtuoso technic in order to play Brahms and Beethoven

concertos, needs besides a spiritual insight, a deep concept of their

nobility to do them justice--the mere technic demanded for a virtuoso

show piece is not enough.





"You ask me what 'Violin Mastery' means in the string quartet. It has an

altogether different meaning to me, I imagine, than to the violin

virtuoso. Violin mastery in the string _ensemble_ is as much mastery of

self as of technical means. The artist must sink his identity completely

in that of the work he plays, and though the last Beethoven quartets are

as difficult as many violin concertos, they are polyphony, the

combination and interweaving of individual melodies, and they call for a

mastery of repression as well as expression. I realized how keenly alive

the musical listener is to this fact once when our quartet had played in

Alma-Tadema's beautiful London home, for the great English painter was

also a music-lover and a very discriminating one. He had a fine piano in

a beautifully decorated case, and it was an open secret that at his

musical evenings, after an artist had played, the lid of the piano was

raised, and Sir Lawrence asked him to pencil his autograph on the soft

white wood of its inner surface--_but only if he thought the compliment

deserved_. There were some famous names written there--Joachim,

Sarasate, Paderewski, Neruda, Piatti, to mention a few. Naturally an

artist playing at Alma-Tadema's home for the first time could not help

speculating as to his chances. Many were called, but comparatively few

were chosen. We were guests at a dinner given by Sir Lawrence. There

were some fifty people prominent in London's artistic, musical and

social world present, and we had no idea of being asked to play. Our

instruments were at our hotel and we had to send for them. We played the

Schubert quartet in A minor and Dvor·k's 'American' quartet and, of

course, my colleagues and myself forgot all about the piano lid the

moment we began to play. Yet, I'm free to confess, that when the piano

lid was raised for us we appreciated it, for it was no empty compliment

coming from Sir Lawrence, and I have been told that some very

distinguished artists have not had it extended to them. And I know that

on that evening the phrase 'Violin Mastery' in an _ensemble_ sense, as

the outcome of ceaseless striving for coˆrdination in expression,

absolute balance, and all the details that go to make up the perfect

_ensemble_, seemed to us to have a very definite color and meaning.





"What exactly does the first violin represent?" Mr. Kneisel went on in

answer to another question. "The first violin might be called the

chairman of the string meeting. His is the leading voice. Not that he

should be an autocrat, no, but he must hold the reins of discipline.

Many think that the four string players in a quartet have equal rights.

First of all, and above all, are the rights of the composer, Bach,

Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert,--as the case may be. But from the

standpoint of interpretation the first violin has some seventy per cent.

of the responsibility as compared with thirty per cent. for the

remaining voices. In all the famous quartet organizations, Joachim,

Hellmesberger, etc., the first violin has been the directing instrument

and has set the pace. As chairman it has been his duty to say when

second violin, viola and 'cello were entitled to hold the floor.

Hellmesberger, in fact, considered himself the _whole_ quartet." Mr.

Kneisel smiled and showed me a little book of Hellmesberger's Vienna

programs. Each program was headed:




with the assistance of





"In other words, Hellmesberger was the quartet himself, the other three

artists merely 'assisted,' which, after all, is going too far!


"Of course, quartets differ. Just as we have operas in which the alto

solo _rÙle_ is the most important, so we have quartets in which the

'cello or the viola has a more significant part. Mozart dedicated

quartets to a King of Prussia, who played 'cello, and he was careful to

make the 'cello part the most important. And in Smetana's quartet _Aus

meinem Leben_, the viola plays a most important rÙle. Even the second

violin often plays themes introducing principal themes of the first

violin, and it has its brief moments of prominence. Yet, though the

second violin or the 'cellist may be, comparatively speaking, a better

player than the first violin, the latter is and must be the leader.

Practically every composer of chamber music recognizes the fact in his

compositions. He, the first violin, should not command three slaves,

though; but guide three associates, and do it tactfully with regard to

their individuality and that of their instruments.





"You ask what are the essentials of _ensemble_ practice on the part of

the artists? Real reverence, untiring zeal and punctuality at

rehearsals. And then, an absolute sense of rhythm. I remember

rehearsing a Volkmann quartet once with a new second violinist." [Mr.

Kneisel crossed over to his bookcase and brought me the score to

illustrate the rhythmic point in question, one slight in itself yet as

difficult, perhaps, for a player without an absolute sense of rhythm as

"perfect intonation" would be for some others.] "He had a lovely tone, a

big technic and was a prize pupil of the Vienna Conservatory. We went

over this two measure phrase some sixteen times, until I felt sure he

had grasped the proper accentuation. And he was most amiable and willing

about it, too. But when we broke up he pointed to the passage and said

to me with a smile: 'After all, whether you play it _this_ way, or

_that_ way, what's the difference?' Then I realized that he had stressed

his notes correctly a few times by chance, and that his own sense of

rhythm did not tell him that there were no two ways about it. The

rhythmic and tonal _nuances_ in a quartet cannot be marked too perfectly

in order to secure a beautiful and finished performance. And such a

violinist as the one mentioned, in spite of his tone and technic, was

never meant for an _ensemble_ player.


"I have never believed in a quartet getting together and 'reading' a

new work as a preparation for study. As first violin I have always made

it my business to first study the work in score, myself, to study it

until I knew the whole composition absolutely, until I had a mental

picture of its meaning, and of the interrelation of its four voices in

detail. Thirty-two years of experience have justified my theory. Once

the first violin knows the work the practicing may begin; for he is in a

position gradually and tactfully to guide the working-out of the

interpretation without losing time in the struggle to correct faults in

balance which are developed in an unprepared 'reading' of the work.

There is always one important melody, and it is easier to find it

studying the score, to trace it with eye and mind in its contrapuntal

web, than by making voyages of discovery in actual playing.


"Every player has his own qualities, every instrument its own

advantages. Certain passages in a second violin or viola part may be

technically better suited to the hand of the player, to the nature of

the instrument, and--they will sound better than others. Yet from the

standpoint of the composition the passages that 'lie well' are often not

the more important. This is hard for the player--what is easy for him

he unconsciously is inclined to stress, and he must be on his guard

against it. This is another strong argument in favor of a thorough

preliminary study on the part of the leading violin of the construction

of the work."






The comparison which I asked Mr. Kneisel to make is one which he could

establish with authority. Aside from his experience as director of his

quartet, he has been the _concert-meister_ of such famous foreign

orchestras as Bilse's and that of the _Hofburg Theater_ in Vienna and,

for eighteen years, of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in this country. He

has also conducted over one hundred concerts of the Boston Symphony, and

was director of the Worcester Music Festivals.


"Nikisch once said to me, after he had heard us play the Schumann A

minor quartet in Boston: 'Kneisel, it was beautiful, and I felt that you

had more difficulty in developing it than I have with an orchestral

score!' And I think he was right. First of all the symphonic conductor

is an autocrat. There is no appeal from the commands of his baton. But

the first violin of a quartet is, in a sense, only the 'first among

peers.' The velvet glove is an absolute necessity in his case. He must

gain his art ends by diplomacy and tact, he must always remember that

his fellow artists are solo players. If he is arbitrary, no matter how

right he may be, he disturbs that fine feeling of artistic fellowship,

that delicate balance of individual temperaments harmonized for and by a

single purpose. In this connection I do not mind confessing that though

I enjoy a good game of cards, I made it a rule never to play cards with

my colleagues during the hours of railroad traveling involved in keeping

our concert engagements. I played chess. In chess the element of luck

does not enter. Each player is responsible for what he does or leaves

undone. And defeat leaves no such sting as it does when all may be

blamed on chance. In an _ensemble_ that strives for perfection there

must be no undercurrents of regret, of dissatisfaction--nothing that

interferes with the sympathy and good will which makes each individual

artist do his best. And so I have never regretted giving cards the






Of late years Mr. Kneisel's activity as a teacher has added to his

reputation. Few teachers can point to a galaxy of artist pupils which

includes such names as Samuel Gardner, Sascha Jacobsen, Breskin, Helen

Jeffry and Olive Meade (who perpetuates the ideals of his great string

_ensemble_ in her own quartet). "What is the secret of your method?" I

asked him first of all. "Method is hardly the word," he told me. "It

sounds too cut-and-dried. I teach according to principles, which must,

of course, vary in individual cases; yet whose foundation is fixed. And

like Joachim, or Leschetiszky, I have preparatory teachers.





"My experience has shown me that the fundamental fault of most pupils is

that they do not know how to hold either the bow or the violin. Here in

America the violin student as a rule begins serious technical study too

late, contrary to the European practice. It is a great handicap to begin

really serious work at seventeen or eighteen, when the flexible bones

of childhood have hardened, and have not the pliability needed for

violin gymnastics. It is a case of not bending the twig as you want the

tree to grow in time. And those who study professionally are often more

interested in making money as soon as possible than in bending all their

energies on reaching the higher levels of their art. Many a promising

talent never develops because its possessor at seventeen or eighteen is

eager to earn money as an orchestra or 'job' player, instead of

sacrificing a few years more and becoming a true artist. I've seen it

happen time and again: a young fellow really endowed who thinks he can

play for a living and find time to study and practice 'after hours.' And

he never does!


"But to return to the general fault of the violin student. There is a

certain angle at which the bow should cross the strings in order to

produce those vibrations which give the roundest, fullest, most perfect

tone [he took his own beautiful instrument out of its case to illustrate

the point], and the violin must be so held that the bow moves straight

across the strings in this manner. A deviation from the correct attack

produces a scratchy tone. And it is just in the one fundamental thing:

the holding of the violin in exactly the same position when it is taken

up by the player, never varying by so much as half-an-inch, and the

correct attack by the bow, in which the majority of pupils are

deficient. If the violin is not held at the proper angle, for instance,

it is just as though a piano were to stand on a sloping floor. Too many

students play 'with the violin' on the bow, instead of holding the

violin steady, and letting the bow play.


"And in beginning to study, this apparently simple, yet fundamentally

important, principle is often overlooked or neglected. Joachim, when he

studied as a ten-year-old boy under Hellmesberger in Vienna, once played

a part in a concerto by Maurer, for four violins and piano. His teacher

was displeased: 'You'll never be a fiddler!' he told him, 'you use your

bow too stiffly!' But the boy's father took him to Bˆhm, and he remained

with this teacher for three years, until his fundamental fault was

completely overcome. And if Joachim had not given his concentrated

attention to his bowing while there was still time, he would never have

been the great artist he later became.





"You see," he continued, "the secret of really beautiful violin playing

lies in the bow. A Blondin crossing Niagara finds his wire hard and firm

where he first steps on it. But as he progresses it vibrates with

increasing intensity. And as the tight-rope walker knows how to control

the vibrations of his wire, so the violinist must master the vibrations

of his strings. Each section of the string vibrates with a different

quality of tone. Most pupils think that a big tone is developed by

pressure with the bow--yet much depends on what part of the string this

pressure is applied. Fingering is an art, of course, but the great art

is the art of the bow, the 'art of bowing,' as Tartini calls it. When a

pupil understands it he has gone far.


"Every pupil may be developed to a certain degree without ever

suspecting how important a factor the manipulation of the bow will be in

his further progress. He thinks that if the fingers of his left hand are

agile he has gained the main end in view. But then he comes to a

stop--his left hand can no longer aid him, and he finds that if he wants

to play with real beauty of expression the bow supplies the only true

key. Out of a hundred who reach this stage," Mr. Kneisel went on, rather

sadly, "only some five or six, or even less, become great artists. They

are those who are able to control the bow as well as the left hand. All

real art begins with phrasing, and this, too, lies altogether in the

mastery of bow--the very soul of the violin!"


I asked Mr. Kneisel how he came to write his own "Advanced Exercises"

for the instrument. "I had an idea that a set of studies, in which each

single study presented a variety of technical figures might be a relief

from the exercises in so many excellent methods, where pages of scales

are followed by pages of arpeggios, pages of double-notes and so forth.

It is very monotonous to practice pages and pages of a single technical

figure," he added. "Most pupils simply will not do it!" He brought out a

copy of his "Exercises" and showed me their plan. "Here, for instance, I

have scales, trills, arpeggios--all in the same study, and the study is

conceived as a musical composition instead of a technical formula. This

is a study in finger position, with all possible bowings. My aim has

been to concentrate the technical material of a whole violin school in

a set of _Ètudes_ with musical interest."


And he showed me the second book of the studies, in ms., containing

exercises in every variety of scale, and trill, bowing, _nuance_, etc.,

combined in a single musical movement. This volume also contains his own

cadenza to the Beethoven violin concerto. In conclusion Mr. Kneisel laid

stress on the importance of the student's hearing the best music at

concert and recital as often as possible, and on the value and incentive

supplied by a musical atmosphere in the home and, on leaving him, I

could not help but feel that what he had said in our interview, his

reflections and observations based on an artistry beyond cavil, and an

authoritative experience, would be well worth pondering by every serious

student of the instrument. For Franz Kneisel speaks of what he knows.









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