'Fritz Kreisler: Love’s Sorrow, Love’s Joy' by Amy Biancolli (1998, Amadeus Press, $34.95)
A new book explores Kreisler's brilliance, charm, and devotion
There is a new biography for the Kreisler fan on your list. Amy Biancolli’s Fritz Kreisler: Love’s Sorrow, Love’s Joy (1998, Amadeus Press, 447 pp., $34.95) is a beautiful book, well-researched, well-thought-out, and compellingly well-written. It is a fine tribute and memorial to the great violinist whose musicianship and charm so entranced music lovers from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th.
In her preface, Biancolli gives two reasons for writing the book. "My first is the simplest and, I believe, the most persuasive," she tells us. "I wrote a new biography of Fritz Kreisler because I fear he is in danger of being forgotten." Forgotten? At first reading it seems unlikely, but Biancolli has a precise meaning in mind when she writes this.
It is certainly true that Kreisler’s name is still known, and that his compositions are played by every violin student. But many of his distinctive musical and personal qualities may no longer be in the public’s awareness. He was a man of feeling and philosophy who believed that "art ought to be a priesthood, and every artist should be a priest."
That is how he felt and how he conveyed music, and that is what might be forgotten. Contemporary audiences (and many contemporary violinists) may not be attuned to, in Biancolli’s words, "his deeply human playing, and his mystical relation with the instrument."
Kreisler’s beautiful music making defined an aesthetic for this century. The desire to reemphasize his musical qualities in our collective memory would have been reason enough for writing this book, but Biancolli had another motive as well: the quest for historical truth. While paying great respect to Louis Lochner’s 1950 authorized biography, Fritz Kreisler, she points out that it was written under the tight constraint of Harriet Kreisler’s editorial review and censorship.
Biancolli’s paragraph on this subject deserves to be quoted in full, because it delineates some of the differences between this book and Lochner’s earlier work. "This brings me to my second reason [for writing this book]: Lochner’s biography, as exhaustive as it is, contains some glaring (and fascinating) gaps. Because Kreisler’s wife, Harriet, served as censor for the final manuscript, the volume fails to describe with any candor either Harriet’s control over her husband’s life or the intense dislike she aroused in nearly everyone she met. It also overlooks the matter of Kreisler’s ethnic and religious heritage and the complex forces behind his flight from Germany in the late 1930s. On the flip side, Lochner’s biography at times contains too much—Kreisler was an infamous fibber, and several of the yarns spun in those pages are prevarications of the most thoroughly spurious sort. Many of them are by their very natures impossible to confirm or debunk, but I have done my best (in a chapter dedicated to the subject and throughout the rest of the book) to examine them with a critical eye and a good-natured appreciation of their literary worth."
Good-natured appreciation is an important trait of this work. Biancolli admires Kreisler just as much as Lochner did. Of course, he was an admirable man. He was broadly cultured, as a student of the classics (when he awoke from a month-long coma after being hit by a truck in 1941, he could at first speak only Latin and ancient Greek), a two-year medical student who loved gathering early medical texts into his rare-book collection, a linguist, a composer, and an international ambassador of musical goodwill.
He was also "at core an easygoing, unambitious man who, were it not for a practical and highly ambitious wife, would have spent his days with friends and his money on long shots. He enjoyed drinking, eating, gambling, socializing, and a good tale, engagingly told."
And here is the contribution Biancolli makes: she draws connections between Kreisler’s noble public image, as a musical high priest, and the very endearing—and fallible—human being he actually was.
Making those connections is a complex task. To accomplish it, the author devised an appropriate structure for her work, claiming from the start that it is about the artist’s legacy as much as about his accomplishments. "The structure of the book reflects this emphasis on context," she writes. "Unlike Lochner’s biography, which provided a straight chronology of Kreisler’s career, mine is more analytical and less linear. Although the chapters are organized in a loosely chronological manner, many sections are topical in nature and function as essays rather than direct accounts of Kreisler’s life."
The text is divided into 14 chapters, each dealing with a specific theme (and eschewing clever chapter headings in favor of titles that actually let you know what the theme is). Some examples: "Vienna" (a searching and rhapsodic description of Kreisler’s native city), "Fritzi and Harriet" (a not-at-all rhapsodic description of the Kreislers’ domestic relations), "Kreisler and Heifetz" (an examination of the famous pair, summed up marvelously with the observation that "perhaps Oscar Shumsky was correct—perhaps Heifetz was the century’s greatest violinist and perhaps Kreisler was its greatest musician").
Since the book progresses in a sequence that is not a bowstroke-by-bowstroke recounting of Kreisler’s life, it offers byways for thought and contemplation, a reflective meandering. Sometimes certain descriptions or opinions occur in more than one chapter, but that is a natural effect of dealing with themes that are laced throughout the subject’s life.
I will not summarize this book any further. It is rich and thought-provoking, and the reader can enjoy its complexity. But I do want to offer a few personal comments on some of its observations.
In Chapter Six ("Tall-Tale Teller: The Kreisler Apocrypha"), Biancolli addresses the violinist’s "love of mythic hyperbole" and "the breezy manner in which Kreisler manufactured historical source references for what were probably his own conceits." One of the anecdotes she discusses is Kreisler’s claim that he influenced the composition of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht by advising the young composer to change it from a heavily double-stopped trio to a sextet.
I’ve played that sextet, and the unlikelihood of the story is built into its difficult score. In fact, the notion is pretty funny. Biancolli hedges her evaluation of the story’s truth: "This claim of Kreisler’s might be true. It might also be false, the probability of which increases when one understands that the story is not only impossible to confirm but is just the sort of yarn that Kreisler loved to tell."
I did a little informal research of my own on this subject, asking Jonathan Khuner, the son of Felix Khuner of the Kolisch String Quartet, if he had ever heard the story. Jonathan’s direct connection to that period of Viennese musical history carries some weight, and he had never heard it—not from his father, not in his studies. It gave him a good laugh.
"Fritzi and Harriet" is a fascinating and perplexing chapter—a chapter that lasted all of Kreisler’s adult life (the pair were married for 60 years, counting from the first of their four wedding ceremonies). Human beings have always been curious about one another’s private lives and Kreisler’s relationship with his wife was puzzling—and often annoying—to many of his contemporaries. Biancolli addresses the subject with dignity, compassion, and truthfulness.
The anecdotes related here do not make Harriet Kreisler more likable. Her nursing and charitable activities in World War I were honorable, certainly, but on a social and personal level, she could be very hard to take. Even as a young boy I heard stories from musically connected adults about Harriet Kreisler’s brash and domineering style. This book also contains stories of her public rudeness and explosive anger, her embarrassing insults to her husband and his work. The stories describe a very self-indulgent, bad-mannered woman.
But they imply more. They suggest psychological dynamics that are almost diagnosable: the alternations of volatility and debilitating illness, which sent her to a sickbed for months at a time, sound from this distance like an untreated manic-depressive syndrome. The closest Biancolli (or anyone I’ve ever read) comes to suggesting this is in her reference to Harriet’s "frequent, and usually vague, illnesses . . . from severe bouts of influenza to a condition that sounds possibly psychosomatic."
Biancolli does offer a psychological slant on the endurance of this marriage of opposites. "From one perspective, Kreisler’s attachment to his domineering spouse made perfect sense, for it echoed [his father] Salomon Kreisler’s decades-long marriage to the short-tempered Anna. . . . Anna and Harriet were both practical women, both prone to rages, both ill (Anna chronically; Harriet often), both unmusical, both capable of violence, and both wholly, undeniably devoted to their husbands. It sounds hackneyed and almost quaintly Freudian to say so, but Fritz Kreisler married his mother." The suggestion is made carefully, but it is compelling.
Was Harriet Kreisler hard to live with? Obviously. But Kreisler loved her. And he valued her place in his life. "Everything I am as a violinist I owe to Harriet," he said, as quoted in the book. Biancolli comments on this: "It is entirely possible, although some more ardent Kreisler devotees may deny it, that without Harriet Kreisler there to nudge him—to needle him into practicing, to raise his fees, to protect him from the masses—Fritz Kreisler would not have had his career." And she goes on to point out that, despite his great talents, "he was not nearly as ambitious as Harriet and seemed to prefer the company of friends, the dusty comfort of antique books, and the thrills of the poker table to anything approaching hard work."
We could speculate about these mysteries for a lifetime, and this book is an excellent starting place. Interesting and fun, it is a tribute to a great musician and a contribution to the literature. I recommend it highly.