Jens Nygaard

Fritz Kreisler

Fritz Kreisler

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I was made happy when my friend Douglas Townsend asked me to write a short article about Fritz Kreisler. Now that I have pen in hand and blank paper before me, I shall try to express some of the many deep and wonderful feelings I have about this great artist.


Certainly, Fritz Kreisler was a great performer--one of the greatest of the immediate past. He was an unabashed Romantic who gave an almost-improvisatory glow to everything musical that he touched. His interpretation of all music was very personalized and free. And yet, at all times the architectonic nature of the music shone through. That is why his highly different playing is deeply satisfying, even to people of totally different artistic persuasions. Any personal licenses he felt (and therefore took) were always defined by (and contained within) an over-all awareness of how the composer built the composition. His innate feel for structure is as evident in the shortest encore-piece as it is in the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Only 30 seconds of listening to a Kreisler recording will reveal this important quality.


As a composer, Kreisler is best known by a number of short violin pieces. Many of these little jewels will, I firmly believe, continue to be played and enjoyed for hundreds of years--or as long as people seek truth and beauty in music. Exquisite miniatures need not be less perfect than giant edifices. They are only smaller.


On February 2nd, 1975 (the 100th anniversary of his birth), I gave a concert which showed much of the breadth (and depth) of his compositional output. Since this event contained many rare pieces of music, I shall list and briefly describe some of them.


Fantasie for Violin and Piano. Eight­year old Fritz wrote this as a birthday present for his teacher Hellmesberger. It has, as Donal Henahan of the New York Times says, "melodies which already sound nostalgic and sentimental in the mature Kreisler idiom."


The manuscript of this wonderful little piece (which is in the library of Congress, in Washington) is priceless. The music­paper itself is appropriately ornamented. It is exactly the kind of gift one might expect a loving and grateful pupil to present to his teacher on his birthday.


Nachtgesange. These somber songs (on texts of Eichendorff), will be a real shocker to music lovers who only know the joyous little salon pieces. At times they reveal a brooding intensity reminiscent of Hugo Wolf.

Irish Song. This little gem was written for his friend John McCormack, the great Irish tenor. The Irish flavor is perfectly captured.


O Salutaris Hostia. This religious piece for voice and organ, has a quiet and reverential dignity which is extremely appropriate for the Latin liturgy.


Petite Valse for Piano. This composition was originally written for the piano. It has the same "gemutlich" ambiance as Caprice Viennois or Tambourine Chinois. It is beautifully written for the keyboard and "feels good" in the hands.


In fact, Kreisler was an excellent pianist. He even recorded just the piano accompaniments of a few of his better-known violin pieces. Long before Music Minus One became available, Kreisler had done the same thing. It's a real pity that these accompaniments did not have a wide distribution across the land. What a joy it would have been for a young (or old) violinist in the hinterlands to have played, (let's say), Liebesleid, while a nearby phonograph spun out the accompaniment as played by The Master himself.


Excerpts from the operettas "Apple Blossoms" and "Sissy". "Apple Blossoms" contains many beautiful little songs. One in particular, called "A Widow'', is a perfect example of its type.


"Sissy" is inordinately interesting be­cause it contains the music of several violin pieces in unusual settings. What a pleasant experience to meet an old violin-friend like Liebesleid set as a duet (in f minor), for soprano and tenor (even replete with a short introduction). Or how about Schon Rosmarin as a duet for violin and flute? Perhaps it is not so much that Kreisler incorporated his (by-then) famous violin pieces into this operetta as that the operetta became another way in which these lovely masterpieces could be served to the public.


The Valiants of Wisconsin. In my quest to put before myself all the compositions of Kreisler, this piece was the most difficult to locate. I was really intrigued by the name. When I finally found it, I had a real surprise. It is a rousing and wonderful ''Fighting-song'' written for the football team, (The Valiants), of the University of

Wisconsin. In speaking to Raymond Dvorak, the wonderful bandsman (now retired) from the University, he related that the piece was written at the request of a former administrator of the school who was Kreisler's friend. The piece was played a few times at athletic events, but was dropped because it did not meet with general favor. However, it meets with my favor.


Being nonreformably "corny" (it is not for nothing that I come from Arkansas), I hid a small football inside the piano. After the singers (who pranced like cheer­leaders) had finished the song, we executed a pass play on the stage of Carnegie Recital Hall. Happily, I caught the pass which was thrown to me and ran triumphantly off the stage.


Since I am a rabid sports fan, the sequel to this is thrilling. I learned after the concert that two members of the New York Giants football team had been in the audience. I am sure that they never expected to see a part of their profession in evidence at a '' serious musical event.''


Much has been said about the many slides (or portamentos) in Kreisler' s violin playing. All violinists (or, for that matter, all string players) use them. But oh, how differently! Slides are necessary in all but the most elementary pieces of music. There are technical ways in which many of them can be eliminated from the ear of the listener. It is interesting to note which slides various violinists leave in so that they are audible, and which ones are "camouflaged." What a vast difference in the personalities of Kreisler and the transcendent Heifetz in· this category alone. Kreisler has one little trait in which he "peels off" or slides back slightly with a top note as he is shifting back down. This creates a momentary small smear downward on the note he is leaving, This is but one of the many identifying characteristics of his playing.


Kreisler made arrangements of many popular melodies (such as "Londonderry Air" and "Swanee River") for inclusion on his concerts. He really wanted to reach the hearts of his listeners, many of whom were not musically very sophisticated. Since Kreisler was secure with himself and with his art, he felt no need to put a distance between himself and his audience. Just the opposite--he wished to reach each person as though he or she was also a dignified human being. And yet, Kreisler was one of the most patrician of men. What a beautiful combination! Great men, like Kreisler, who are leaders and inspirers of mankind, need this duality in the right combination.


I am always interested in assessing the moral fibre of an artist. In other words, what did he contribute to society beyond his immediate craft? Did he use his art as a social tool to attempt to ease (although only ever-so-slightly) humanity's vast burdens? By this criterion, Kreisler, like Dimitri Mitropoulos, is not found wanting. Through his art he raised money down South in the 1920s and 1930s for poor blacks at a time when that kind of humanitarian endeavor was all too rare. He saw the need and responded to it. That is a noble application of art towards the furthering of society's highest purposes.


Thank God that this great man lived and worked amongst us. He was blessed with a long and for-the-most-part happy existence. Few artists throughout music history were afforded the opportunity of giving (as he did), so much joy and inspiration to so many.


Jens Nygaard is a conductor, pianist and teacher (of numerous instruments) living in New York City. He has been described by the New York Times as "one of this city's finest musicians", and by Westchester Magazine as "a Renaissance man of music."




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