Fritz Kreisler: The Violinist Who Charmed the World

Fritz Kreisler: The Violinist Who Charmed the World

Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) was one of the most beloved and influential violin virtuosos of the early 20th century. Though his playing career spanned over 60 years, he is perhaps best remembered today for his sweet, emotive tone and his charming stage presence.

Caption: Fritz Kreisler Date: 10/04/12 Memo-Hardcopy: 44641 May use only with this Credit: Copyrighted, 1912, by Aime Dupont, N.Y. Published: The New York Times on the Web 04/18/99 29ear

Kreisler was born in Vienna to a musically inclined family. His father was a doctor who loved to play the piano and his mother was an amateur singer. Young Fritz started violin lessons at age 7 and later studied at the Vienna Conservatory. Though his teachers praised his talent, Kreisler was denied the school’s prestigious graduation diploma due to his youth.

Undeterred, Kreisler launched his international career in 1888 when he was just 13 years old. As he toured Europe and the United States over the next decade, audiences and critics alike were struck by his individualistic style and unique sound. Rather than dazzling with technical fireworks, Kreisler preferred to focus on lyrical melodies and rich, warm tone colors. His rubato and flexibility of tempo were also unusual for the time, foreshadowing later expressive players like Heifetz and Oistrakh.

Some of Kreisler’s early playing highlights include his Berlin Philharmonic debut in 1889 at age 14, where he performed Beethoven’s demanding Violin Concerto. Critics praised the young prodigy’s musicality and precocious talent. Over the next decade, he toured extensively across Europe, building his reputation. In 1896, Kreisler toured Britain with famed Polish pianist Moriz Rosenthal, delighting audiences across the country. As his fame grew, he was invited to play with leading orchestras and conductors. In 1902, Kreisler achieved another career milestone when he made his American debut performing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under director Walter Damrosch. He played his own dazzling showpiece “Caprice Viennois” and was called out for numerous encores from the enthralled audience. Over a dozen years later in 1917, a more mature Kreisler appeared again with the New York Philharmonic, this time under Gustav Mahler himself. Audiences marveled at how Kreisler’s playing had deepened in the intervening years, maintaining his rich tone but demonstrating even more emotional resonance and technical assurance. His early concerts with major philharmonics marked great successes in Kreisler’s career trajectory and built his reputation among both public and critics.

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Kreisler’s playing was renowned for its expressive vibrato, phrasing, and sweet tone, characteristics that became synonymous with his name. He had a distinctive style that combined technical mastery with deep emotional expression, allowing him to connect with audiences in a profoundly personal way.

In addition to performing, Kreisler also arranged and composed pieces that expanded the violin repertoire. Works like “Liebesleid,” “Liebesfreud,” and “Schön Rosmarin” are still played widely today. However, in 1935, Kreisler revealed that many of the pieces attributed to other composers were actually his own compositions written in pastiche style. Kreisler said this allowed him to get around “the preconceived limitations and prejudices” of the classical music establishment at the time.

A large part of Kreisler’s legacy was as one of the early pioneers of the recording industry; indeed, this is how we primarily know him today. He was among the first violinists to embrace recording technology, leaving behind a legacy of recordings that continue to be celebrated today. His recordings from the early 20th century capture the essence of his playing style, offering a window into the musical practices and interpretations of his time. These recordings are cherished for their historical significance and the unparalleled artistry they display. He made his first recordings in 1904 on the Gramophone label in England, which had just recently begun marketing discs to the public. Over the next three decades, Kreisler would record extensively for HMV/Victor, Columbia, and RCA Victor labels. He was known for making multiple recordings of the same pieces to capture nuances in interpretation and performance. His polished style and emotive playing was well-suited to early recording technology. Among his most celebrated recordings are Dvořák’s “Humoresque”, his own showpiece “Caprice Viennois”, and Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto in D Major”. His recordings of these concertos with John Barbirolli and the London Philharmonic from 1936-37 are considered definitive accounts. Kreisler’s 1928 recording of the Beethoven concerto with Leo Blech and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra also displays remarkable warmth and fluidity for early classical recordings. Throughout his decades of recordings, Kreisler brought out the singing, vocal quality of his instrument which captivated listeners. Even with the sonic limitations of the 78rpm era, his personality and delicate nuances shine through, leaving a lasting legacy still admired today.

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Even as he aged, Kreisler maintained his sweet characteristic sound almost to the end of his life. His final public concert was in 1950 at age 75. He spent his last decade teaching proteges, including the famed Itzhak Perlman. Though an accident left him blind and unable to play in his final years, his legacy lives on through countless students and listeners still charmed by his captivating violin music.

Select Recordings

Indian Lament

Caprice Viennois

Berceuse Romantique

Liebesfreud