The Austrian-born violinist had many stringed instruments over his long career. And he had fine taste in violins – commensurate with his playing.
The career of violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), while brilliant, is fairly consistent with other European virtuosos of the late 19th and 20th centuries. He was discovered to be talented at a young age, he studied under leading teachers at the time (at the Vienna Conservatory and later in Paris), won an early award at age 12 (“Premier Grand Prix de Rome”), toured at age 13 in the United States, and even had a composition written for him (Edward Elgar’s “Violin Concerto”) when he was just 25, which he premiered.
Kreisler also had a habit of fooling the critics with pretending some of his own compositions – solos for encores, including “Liebesleid” and “Liebesfreud”– were the work of the likes of Antonio Vivaldi and Gaetano Pugnani. When critics who initially lauded the works complained at his fraud, he responded, “The name changes, the value remains.”
It is not unlike times when refined oenophiles declare a wine to be superior in a blind taste test, only to be told they picked the $25 bottle over wines at ten times the price.
His mischievous behaviors aside, he had a storied career and left behind many recordings that can be heard today.
But what might stand out from his career is the colorful history of his several fine Italian violins – including how he exaggerated which violin makers created them. Some he owned, some he was lent. In short order, the stories of his violins are:
Amati – The member of this Cremonese family of violin makers created the three-quarter sized violin is unknown, but it was his award for winning the Austrian State Prize, which he did playing on a half-size violin made by Matthias Thir.
Nicolo Gagliano – This was a gift from an architect friend of Kreisler, who described it as “an old, battered violin.” Only when he looked more closely at it did he realize this was a fine instrument from the shop of the Naples-based Gagliano family, who largely worked in the 18th to mid-19th centuries.
First Stradivari – Kreisler was lent the 1708 Davidov Strad after winning first prize at the Paris Conservatoire, although he never owned it. He received (for keeps) a Gand-Bernadel violin as his prize.
Second Stradivari – Kreisler was also lent a Strad, the 1732 Baillot, when he performed the Bruch G minor Concerto in 1898 with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Third Stradivari – By 1908 (at age 33), Kreisler acquired the 1726 “Greville” Strad, but he sold it within a year.
Fourth (half) Stradivari – The virtuoso acquired the 1733 Stradivarius that now bears his name, the “Huberman, Kreisler.” But it was really only half made by the uber luthier – the scroll was from another maker. He had it retrofitted with a Stradivari-made head a few years later and sold it, with it eventually getting to the ownership of Bronislaw Huberman.
Giovanni Grancino – The first “serious” violin that Kreiser played, for eight years, was from his father. The Grancino family of luthiers was based in Milan, working in the 17th century, and their instruments are the subject of three cultural works of the 20th century: in the 1957 novel “Spring” (author Emily-Jane Hills Orford); Harold Decker’s novel, “Giulia: The View Through F-Holes;” and in the children’s recording by Canadian performer Peggy Hills, “Peggy’s Violin,” in 2007.
Several Guarneris (Pietro, Giuseppe, multiple instruments) – While given or lent many of his instruments, Kreisler actually purchased the 1735 “Mary Portman” Guarneri del Gesu around the age of 25 for $10,000, a princely sum for its time. But four years later, he become enchanted with the sound of the 1734 “Hart” Guarneri (subsequently the “Hart, Kreisler Guaneri”) and managed to pay its owner also $10,000 for it. This is likely the violin on which Kreisler made several recordings in the early 1900s that can be heard today.
For a few years he owned the 1732 Guarneri del Gesu, made by the brother Giuseppe, previously played by Ivadar Nachez of Hungary. Among all of Kreisler’s violins, it has the most colorful and dangerous history. It was once owned by a general of Napoleon, Jean-Andoche Junot, who lost it to British pirates, who sold it to a vicar for £2. The vicar made good coin selling it to a collector, William Thomson, it was bought and sold several times and was considered perhaps the finest instrument Kreisler ever owned. It was also the instrument Kreisler’s wife used to test his cognition in a hospital after he had suffered a head injury (he played the Andante of the Mendelssohn Concerto, presumably to the delight of other patients and hospital staff).