Classical musicians are not A-list celebrities today, but that was not always the case. If you think of the total span of recorded music, from the earliest commercial recordings of the late 1870s to the present, classical music was for the first half one of the most popular genres.
Fritz Kreisler is one of our favorite classical performers from that period — his recorded range from 1915 to 1950, and due to his popularity were pretty widely re-issued on LP and now on CD.
Kreisler was half-Jewish but a convert to Catholicism, and had been baptized at twelve. He served as an officer in the Austrian army early in World War I, but was quickly wounded and honorably discharged (his recollection of this time was published as Four Weeks in the Trenches: The War Story of a Violinist). During both World Wars he settled safely in the United States, making New York his home and becoming an American citizen in 1943.
Between the wars Kreisler was one of the most distinguished and influential musicians in the United States and Europe. His tone was expressive and instantly recognizable, and his interpretations highly personal, as reflected in the original works for which he is probably best remembered today.
His own compositions were often pistaches of the composers he most admired, from Beethoven and Brahms to Italian opera composers like Paganini. Kreisler adapted Paganini’s D major violin concerto, a showpiece for a re-tuned violin in the hands of a virtuoso, for a 1936 recording with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Around this same time he revealed that many of his transcriptions of early works were in fact his own compositions, much to the chagrin of critics who hadn’t seen through the ruse. Many of these original pieces were popular encores, before and after this time, especially “Liebesfreud.”
His later life in New York was marred by two automobile accidents, leading to poor health which limited his performing and recording. By this time his concerts consisted largely of his own material, and his repertoire was restricted. Regardless, he remained enormously popular. He made his last recordings in 1950, and passed away twelve years later at the age of eighty-six. Kreisler was interred in Brooklyn’s Woodlawn Cemetery, where one might also pay homage to many jazz legends, including Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Miles Davis.
In his lifetime, Kreisler owned and played a number of legendary violins, including ones made by Stradivarius and the Guarneris — some of those he owned are now named for him, including one now owned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.