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Fritz Kreisler

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Personality in Art

The influence of the artist's personality in his art finds a most striking exemplification in the case of Fritz Kreisler. Some time before the writer called on the famous violinist to get at first hand some of his opinions with regard to his art, he had already met him under particularly interesting circumstances. The question had come up of

writing text-poems for two song-adaptations of Viennese folk-themes,

airs not unattractive in themselves; but which Kreisler's personal

touch, his individual gift of harmonization had lifted from a lower

plane to the level of the art song. Together with the mss. of his own

beautiful transcript, Mr. Kreisler in the one instance had given me the

printed original which suggested it--frankly a "popular" song, clumsily

harmonized in a "four-square" manner (though written in 3/4 time) with

nothing to indicate its latent possibilities. I compared it with his

mss. and, lo, it had been transformed! Gone was the clumsiness, the

vulgar and obvious harmonic treatment of the melody--Kreisler had kept

the melodic outline, but etherealized, spiritualized it, given it new

rhythmic _contours_, a deeper and more expressive meaning. And his rich

and subtle harmonization had lent it a quality of distinction that

justified a comparison between the grub and the butterfly. In a small

way it was an illuminating glimpse of how the personality of a true

artist can metamorphose what at first glance might seem something quite

negligible, and create beauty where its possibilities alone had existed



It is this personal, this individual, note in all that Fritz Kreisler

does--when he plays, when he composes, when he transcribes--that gives

his art-effort so great and unique a quality of appeal.


Talking to him in his comfortable sitting-room in the Hotel

Wellington--Homer and Juvenal (in the original) ranked on the piano-top

beside De Vere Stackpole novels and other contemporary literature called

to mind that though Brahms and Beethoven violin concertos are among his

favorites, he does not disdain to play a Granados _Spanish Dance_--it

seemed natural to ask him how he came to make those adaptations and

transcripts which have been so notable a feature of his programs, and

which have given such pleasure to thousands.



[Illustration: FRITZ KREISLER, with hand-written note]





He said: "I began to compose and arrange as a young man. I wanted to

create a repertory for myself, to be able to express through my medium,

the violin, a great deal of beautiful music that had first to be adapted

for the instrument. What I composed and arranged was for my own use,

reflected my own musical tastes and preferences. In fact, it was not

till years after that I even thought of publishing the pieces I had

composed and arranged. For I was very diffident as to the outcome of

such a step. I have never written anything with the commercial idea of

making it 'playable.' And I have always felt that anything done in a

cold-blooded way for purely mercenary considerations somehow cannot be

good. It cannot represent an artist's best."





In reply to another query Mr. Kreisler reverted to the days when as a

boy he studied at the Vienna Conservatory. "I was only seven when I

attended the Conservatory and was much more interested in playing in the

park, where my boy friends would be waiting for me, than in taking

lessons on the violin. And yet some of the most lasting musical

impressions of my life were gathered there. Not so much as regards study

itself, as with respect to the good music I heard. Some very great men

played at the Conservatory when I was a pupil. There were Joachim,

Sarasate in his prime, Hellmesberger, and Rubinstein, whom I heard play

the first time he came to Vienna. I really believe that hearing Joachim

and Rubinstein play was a greater event in my life and did more for me

than five years of study!"


"Of course you do not regard technic as the main essential of the

concert violinist's equipment?" I asked him. "Decidedly not. Sincerity

and personality are the first main essentials. Technical equipment is

something which should be taken for granted. The _virtuoso_ of the type

of Ole Bull, let us say, has disappeared. The 'stunt' player of a former

day with a repertory of three or four bravura pieces was not far above

the average music-hall 'artist.' The modern _virtuoso_, the true concert

artist, is not worthy of the title unless his art is the outcome of a

completely unified nature.





"I do not believe that any artist is truly a master of his instrument

unless his control of it is an integral part of a whole. The musician is

born--his medium of expression is often a matter of accident. I believe

one may be intended for an artist prenatally; but whether violinist,

'cellist or pianist is partly a matter of circumstance. Violin mastery,

to my mind, still falls short of perfection, in spite of the completest

technical and musical equipment, if the artist thinks only of the

instrument he plays. After all, it is just a single medium of

expression. The true musician is an artist with a special instrument.

And every real artist has the feeling for other forms and mediums of

expression if he is truly a master of his own.





"I think the technical element in the artist's education is often unduly

stressed. Remember," added Mr. Kreisler, with a smile, "I am not a

teacher, and this is a purely personal opinion I am giving you. But it

seems to me that absolute sincerity of effort, actual impossibility

_not_ to react to a genuine musical impulse are of great importance. I

firmly believe that if one is destined to become an artist the technical

means find themselves. The necessity of expression will follow the line

of least resistance. Too great a manual equipment often leads to an

exaggeration of the technical and tempts the artist to stress it unduly.


"I have worked a great deal in my life, but have always found that too

large an amount of purely technico-musical work fatigued me and reacted

unfavorably on my imagination. As a rule I only practice enough to keep

my fingers in trim; the nervous strain is such that doing more is out of

the question. And for a concert-violinist when on tour, playing every

day, the technical question is not absorbing. Far more important is it

for him to keep himself mentally and physically fresh and in the right

mood for his work. For myself I have to enjoy whatever I play or I

cannot play it. And it has often done me more good to dip my finger-tips

in hot water for a few seconds before stepping out on the platform than

to spend a couple of hours practicing. But I should not wish the student

to draw any deductions from what I say on this head. It is purely

personal and has no general application.


"Technical exercises I use very moderately. I wish my imagination to be

responsive, my interest fresh, and as a rule I have found that too much

work along routine channels does not accord with the best development of

my Art. I feel that technic should be in the player's head, it should be

a mental picture, a sort of 'master record.' It should be a matter of

will power to which the manual possibilities should be subjected.

Technic to me is a mental and not a manual thing.





"The technic thus achieved, a technic whose controlling power is chiefly

mental, is not perfect--I say so frankly--because it is more or less

dependent on the state of the artist's nervous system. Yet it is the one

and only kind of technic that can adequately and completely express the

musician's every instinct, wish and emotion. Every other form of technic

is stiff, unpliable, since it cannot entirely subordinate itself to the

individuality of the artist."





Mr. Kreisler gives no lessons and hence referred this question in the

most amiable manner to his boyhood friend and fellow-student Felix

Winternitz, the well-known Boston violin teacher, one of the faculty of

the New England Conservatory of Music, who had come in while we were

talking. Mr. Winternitz did not refuse an answer: "The serious student,

in my opinion, should not practice less than four hours a day, nor need

he practice more than five. Other teachers may demand more. Sevcik, I

know, insists that his pupils practice eight and ten hours a day. To do

so one must have the constitution of an ox, and the results are often

not equal to those produced by four hours of concentrated work. As Mr.

Kreisler intimated with regard to technic, practice calls for brain

power. Concentration in itself is not enough. There is only one way to

work and if the pupil can find it he can cover the labor of weeks in an



And turning to me, Mr. Winternitz added: "You must not take Mr. Kreisler

too seriously when he lays no stress on his own practicing. During the

concert season he has his violin in hand for an hour or so nearly every

day. He does not call it practicing, and you and I would consider it

playing and great playing at that. But it is a genuine illustration of

what I meant when I said that one who knew how could cover the work of

weeks in an hour's time."





I tried to draw from the famous violinist some hint as to the secret of

the abiding popularity of his own compositions and transcripts but--as

those who know him are aware--Kreisler has all the modesty of the truly

great. He merely smiled and said: "Frankly, I don't know." But Mr.

Winternitz' comment (when a 'phone call had taken Kreisler from the room

for a moment) was, "It is the touch given by his accompaniments that

adds so much: a harmonic treatment so rich in design and coloring, and

so varied that melodies were never more beautifully set off." Mr.

Kreisler, as he came in again, remarked: "I don't mind telling you that

I enjoyed very much writing my _Tambourin Chinois_.[A] The idea for it

came to me after a visit to the Chinese theater in San Francisco--not

that the music there suggested any theme, but it gave me the impulse to

write a free fantasy in the Chinese manner."


[Footnote A: It is interesting to note that Nikolai Sokoloff, conductor

of the San Francisco Philharmonic, returning from a tour of the American

and French army camps in France, some time ago, said: "My most popular

number was Kreisler's _Tambourin Chinois_. Invariably I had to repeat

that." A strong indorsement of the internationalism of Art by the actual

fighter in the trenches.]





The question of style now came up. "I am not in favor of 'labeling' the

concert artist, of calling him a 'lyric' or a 'dramatic' or some other

kind of a player. If he is an artist in the real sense he controls all

styles." Then, in answer to another question: "Nothing can express music

but music itself. Tradition in interpretation does not mean a

cut-and-dried set of rules handed down; it is, or should be, a matter

of individual sentiment, of inner conviction. What makes one man an

artist and keeps another an amateur is a God-given instinct for the

artistically and musically right. It is not a thing to be explained, but

to be felt. There is often only a narrow line of demarcation between the

artistically right and wrong. Yet nearly every real artist will be found

to agree as to when and when not that boundary has been overstepped.

Sincerity and personality as well as disinterestedness, an expression of

himself in his art that is absolutely honest, these, I believe, are

ideals which every artist should cherish and try to realize. I believe,

furthermore, that these ideals will come more and more into their own;

that after the war there will be a great uplift, and that Art will

realize to the full its value as a humanizing factor in life." And as is

well known, no great artist of our day has done more toward the actual

realization of these ideals he cherishes than Fritz Kreisler himself.








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