A Strad in the Attic

The Rodolphe Kreutzer Stradivarius
The Rodolphe Kreutzer Stradivarius

It’s a familiar and often dubious story which almost always ends in disappointment…A homeowner discovers a long-forgotten violin tucked away in a dusty attic. On a slip of paper inside the instrument’s f holes, the words “Antonio Stradivari” can be faintly made out. Most of the time, on closer inspection, these instruments are determined to be cheap copies. But the recent discovery of a 1731 Stradivarius, which belonged to Rodolphe Kreutzer, proves that rare, miraculous discoveries can happen.

The violin was found in a closet in the New York apartment of late millionaire Huguette Clark. It went up for auction this week at Christie’s and was expected to sell for upwards of $10 million. You can get a sense of the sound of the “Kreutzer” Stradivarius here and learn about its esteemed history here.

The violin disappeared into Clark’s private possession in 1921. Had it spent the last ninety years in the hands of the world’s greatest violinists, it probably would not have remained in such “fresh” condition. At the same time, it’s unfortunate that such a great instrument was apparently withheld from the public, languishing as an art investment and curiosity piece for a wealthy recluse. Hopefully, we’ll hear it on the concert stage in coming years.

Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata

Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831) was influential as a violinist and teacher. He served on the faculty of the Paris Conservatory for thirty years, succeeded by his student, Lambert Massart (teacher of Wieniawski and Kreisler), who inherited his Stradivarius. Kreutzer’s Forty-two Etudes or Caprices (1796) remain a fundamental part of violin pedagogy. Kreutzer was well regarded as a composer (listen to his Violin Concerto No. 17) and conductor.

It’s ironic that Kreutzer is now associated with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, Op. 47. Beethoven originally dedicated the sonata to his friend violinist George Bridgetowerproviding the teasing inscription, Sonata per un mulattico lunatico. Bridgetower performed the sonata with Beethoven on May 24,1803. He was forced to sight read over Beethoven’s shoulder because of a lack of rehearsal time. Following the concert, Beethoven and Bridgetower went out for drinks. Accounts suggest that Bridgetower insulted a woman whom Beethoven admired. The furious composer immediately withdrew the dedication and rededicated it to Rodolphe Kreutzer, writing:

This Kreutzer is a dear kind fellow who during his stay in Vienna gave me a great deal of pleasure. I prefer his modesty and natural behavior to all the exterior without any interior which is characteristic of most virtuosi. As the sonata was written for a competent violinist, the dedication to Kreutzer is all the more appropriate.

Kreutzer ignored Beethoven’s dedication and never played the sonata, calling it “outrageously unintelligible.”

The story of Beethoven and Bridgetower inspired Rita Dove’s poetry, Sonata MulatticaLeo Tolstoy also wrote a novella called The Kreutzer Sonata. 

Here is a live 1964 recording of Beethoven’s “outrageously unintelligible” sonata, performed by violinist Leonid Kogan and pianist Emil Gilels:

  1. Adagio sostenuto-Presto-Adagio 0:00
  2. Andante con variazioni 11:15
  3. Presto 26:18

Songs My Mother Taught Me

Ives Songs My Mother Taught MeIn celebration of Mother’s Day, here are two settings of Songs My Mother Taught Me by the Czech poet Adolf Heyduk. You may be familiar with Antonin Dvořák’s famous song, written in 1880 as part of the cycle, Gypsy Songs, Op. 55. Fritz Kreisler later transcribed it for violin. Here you can hear it played by Itzhak Perlman and then sung by American tenor Richard Crooks. 

The poem deals with the flow of time, continuity and memory:

Songs my mother taught me, In the days long vanished;
Seldom from her eyelids were the teardrops banished.
Now I teach my children, each melodious measure.
Oft the tears are flowing, oft they flow from my memory’s treasure.

About fifteen years after Dvořák, Charles Ives, an ocean away in New England, created his own setting. Here it is sung by mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani:

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Like so much of Ives’ music, this song enters hazy, dreamlike territory. At 1:29 the music drifts off into silence (“from my memory’s treasure“). When the A section returns at the end of the song, notice that Ives adds a crucial new chord (2:08) which wasn’t there the first time. Also listen for the ghostly echo of the final piano note.

To hear more music by Charles Ives visit my previous posts, A Charles Ives Thanksgiving and The Unanswered Question.

Love’s Sorrow, Love’s Joy

Fritz Kreisler
Fritz Kreisler

Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962 ) is remembered as one of the twentieth century’s most important violinists. Born in Vienna, he fled to France during the Second World War and later became a naturalized American citizen. Even through scratchy old recordings we can get a sense of his sweet, sensuous tone, musical warmth and elegant phrasing. His intense, expressive vibrato, used on almost every note, was revolutionary.

Kreisler’s contribution as a composer for the violin is also significant. He performed these pieces as encores at the end of concerts. Some of his music, written in the style of past composers and attributed to them as newly discovered works, were part of an elaborate hoax. (An example is Sicilienne & Rigaudon). Other gems such as Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow) and Liebesfreud (Love’s Joy) represent the last vestiges of pre-war Vienna, a world he watched disappear.

Here are a few of his recordings. Notice that the style of the day included expressive portamento (connecting certain notes with slides) reminiscent of a singer:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Liebesleid[/typography]

This clip features two performances of Liebesleid. The first was recorded in Berlin on February 14, 1930. The second, featuring orchestra accompaniment, was recorded at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in 1942.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”] Liebesfreud[/typography]

This recording of Liebesfreud comes from 1938. In this clip and one which follows, notice Kreisler’s sparkling spiccato (bouncing bows) and perfect sense of rhythmic timing:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Schön Rosmarin [/typography]

Schön Rosmarin, or “Lovely Rosemary” recording in 1936:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Caprice Viennois[/typography]

Finally, here is Caprice Viennois from a 1942 recording:

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