Emanuel Feuermannby Annette Morreau
The meteoric career of the Austrian cellist Emanuel Feuermann ended with his sudden and tragic death in 1942, aged only thirty-nine. A brilliant soloist and chamber performer, many expected him to inherit from Pablo Casals the reputation of the greatest cellist of all time. The trio he formed with Jascha Heifetz and Artur Rubinstein was considered the world's leading… See more details below
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The meteoric career of the Austrian cellist Emanuel Feuermann ended with his sudden and tragic death in 1942, aged only thirty-nine. A brilliant soloist and chamber performer, many expected him to inherit from Pablo Casals the reputation of the greatest cellist of all time. The trio he formed with Jascha Heifetz and Artur Rubinstein was considered the world's leading chamber ensemble. This new biography of Feuermann - a combination of documentary and oral history and narrative - discusses his life, work and legacy, and gives him the place in musical history that he was denied by his early death.
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By Annette Morreau
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2002 Annette Morreau
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The Beginning 1902–17
Emanuel Feuermann was born on 22 November 1902 in the town of Kolomea in Galicia, eastern Europe. Kolomea (or Kolomyja), situated roughly 300 km south east of L'vov, has suffered a chequered history: in 1902 it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire; after World War I, in 1918, the whole of Galicia was claimed by Poland; today Kolomea is situated just inside the border of Ukraine. In 1900, 'It was an enclave for very poor, very miserable Jewish people', with a population of just over 34,000, of which approximately half were Jewish.
Feuermanns parents, Meier Feuermann and Rachel Hönigsberg, were married in 1897 and had five children: Gusta (b.1898), Sigmund (b.1900), Emanuel (b.1902), Rosa (b.1904) and Sophie (b.1908). They were 'stettl' Jews. A Geburtszeugnis, a printed form filled out by hand, gives the name of 'Emanuel' to a child born on 22 November 1902 who was circumcised on 29 November 1902, but this document is dated 23 June 1912, nearly ten years after Feuermanns birth. Sophie Feuermann maintains that her brother did not acquire the name Emanuel 'until after he became famous'. Throughout his life Feuermann was known to his friends and family as 'Munio', a name derived not from 'Emanuel' but from 'Mendel', the name of Rachel Feuermann's father. Just six weeks before Feuermann was born, his mother's father, Mendel Hönigsberg, had died. The custom in families of religious Jews was to name a baby after a recently deceased relative. Sophie maintains that Mendel was the name given to the child. We have her word alone to support this; no documentary evidence survives to prove it.
Like many great performers, Feuermann was born into an intensely musical family. His father was the 'Klezmer of Kolomea', and his mother also came from a musical family – the six children of her brother Schmuel Hersh Hönigsberg all became musicians. The Hönigsberg Orchestra, a light music orchestra, was well enough established for Columbia to record it commercially. Within the family there was intermarriage: Adolf, Schmuel's eldest boy, married Feuermann's sister Rosa. At the insistence of Toscanini, he became principal trumpet of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. Two of Meier Feuermanns five children – Sigmund and Emanuel – were widely acclaimed as child prodigies. Sophie, the youngest child, became not only an accomplished pianist but also one of Emanuel Feuermann s favourite accompanists. In the words of Sophie, their father Meier Feuermann was principally a cellist but in effect a jack of all trades. He taught most instruments with the exception of the piano – few people in the impoverished circles of the ghetto Jews of Kolomea owned pianos. She maintains that he never really knew what he was teaching. This was no impediment, however.
Meier Feuermann seems to have been an exuberant wheeler-dealer. Sophie tells how he fiddled tickets for his two boys by trying to pay half instead of full fares on the tram. The age limit was ten. When the conductor challenged him, Meier pronounced, undaunted: 'You want to tell me how old my boys are? This one is nine and a half and the other is going to be ten'. No doubt this was a useful characteristic for a man faced with bringing up five children on very slim pickings.
As the family was so poor, Meier was obliged to teach from early morning until late at night. According to Sophie, the two boys, Sigmund and Emanuel, were woken as early as five in the morning and Sigmund would be given a violin lesson while Emanuel watched. The children had no toys, but when Meier disappeared, off came the pegs of their violins, through the scrolls went the strings, and at a stroke violins became little toy carts with which they raced around – like normal children.
There was little doubt, however, that Sigmund was far from normal. At the age of three and a half he had shown unusual aptitude for the violin and Meier had begun to teach him. Meier's attention became obsessively centred on his sons abilities. At five and a half years old, Sigmund performed the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with full orchestra in the city of Lemberg (L'vov). It was not long before Meier decided that a child of such gift needed special tuition. The violin pedagogue, Otakar evcik (1852-1934) had recently been appointed to teach at the Vienna Akademie fur Musik und Darstellende Kunst, and so it was to Vienna that Meier and the family, or part of the family, moved in 1909.
No address is listed in Vienna for Meier (sometimes known as Max) Feuermann in 1909, so it seems likely that he stayed with friends or relatives. A Simon Feuermann is listed as living in the 16th district at Hippgasse, moving in 1910 to Koppstrasse, also in the 16th district. It is only in 1912 that an independent address is given for Max Feuermann, Musiker, Obere Augartnerstrasse in Leopoldstadt, the 2nd district. Although this area of Vienna was associated with poorer, lower-class Jews, the apartment faced the green spaces of the Augarten.
In 1909 evcik began a masterclass at the Vienna Akademie with the aim of 'Advancing players of the violin of both sexes, who show outstanding musical talent and have achieved an advance level of technical ability ... to the highest level of technical perfection'. It is said that Sigmund enrolled in this class and that Emanuel went with him to these lessons. From an early age Sigmund's practising would have been in Emanuel's ear, and under evcik's guidance this practice would have been intensive: he required between eight and ten hours daily of his students. But if Feuermann did attend his brother's lessons in 1909/10, it was not at evcik's masterclass; Sigmund is not listed in the Jahresbericht. Puzzlingly, however, Sigmund is listed as enrolling for the 1916/17 masterclass (which included Erica Morini and Walter Schneiderhan), but according to the 'Schüler Index' for 1917 he attended no sessions.
The lifelong importance to Feuermann of hearing at a young age his brother's violin playing cannot be stressed too highly. At the age of seven, Feuermann would have been deeply susceptible to evcik's teaching, absorbing, perhaps intimidated by, the rigorous approach and exacting standards demanded. But by the age of 14 it would have been an entirely different matter. Besides, in 1916 both brothers were launched on concert careers. The discrepancy in the dates of Sigmund's lessons with evcik is critical. Would the academy have accepted so young a child into the master-class in 1909? Could Sigmund have met the entrance requirements? Although there was no statutory age limit, the entrance exam would have been stiff even for a gifted eight year old: students were obliged to play a Bach sonata, a Paganini study, a Classical concerto or concerto movement, and a modern concerto or concerto movement, all by heart. However, Sophie Feuermann insists that Sigmund attended the 1909 masterclass, proved, she says, by the existence of a class photograph. Her word is all we have, for, as she poignantly puts it, 'Hitler has it.' Since Sigmund was engaged in a busy concert career in 1916, the only possible explanation is that in 1909 evcik taught him privately and that it was to these lessons that Feuermann was taken.
Sigmund's 1916/17 appearance in the academy ledgers nevertheless remains odd. He took an entrance exam (apparently his first at the academy) for the 1916/17 masterclass on 7 March 1917, was excused from attending lectures on violin literature on 21 March and announced his departure on 6 August. He received no marks for the summer semester of 1917 and is not mentioned in the annual report, which normally included students who had left during the year. On the other hand, an application from Sigmund for permission to give concerts, a stipulation of the school, is noted. If Sigmund enrolled merely to obtain an official record of study in Vienna, it was neither granted nor withheld.
In 1909 Emanuel Feuermann began to have cello lessons with his father. His hands were now large enough to begin. Significantly, this coincides with the time Sigmund began private lessons with evcik. One of Meier's young pupil's had left his cello at the house overnight and Feuermann had tried it. Immediately drawn to it, he begged his father to get him an instrument. Up to this time Feuermann is said to have fooled around with Sigmund's violin, playing it between his knees like a cello. An early photograph shows Feuermann fingering a cello the same height as himself, no doubt his father's instrument (see Plate 1). The provenance of Feuermanns first cello is not clear. Sophie maintains that he was given a 7/8-size cello that was half French, half Italian, 'the best instrument Munio ever had'. A cello of this size would be large for a seven year old, in effect a small full-size instrument; however, an instrument that does appear to have been Feuermann's first cello has come to light, and it is in fact ½-size. This instrument, probably Italian, is of exceptional quality with a sound as large as that of a full-size instrument. It may be a late violoncello piccolo. If this was Feuermann's cello, how could the Feuermann family have afforded it?
With the move to Vienna, Meier Feuermann needed a job. His chutzpah and joie de vivre, qualities Emanuel was to inherit, came to the fore. As Sophie Feuermann recalls:
There was an opening in what you would call the Volksoper. He knew he would never get it. So on the morning when he had the audition he said 'Sigmund, pack your violin and come.' My mother said 'You have the audition, you can't take the child.' He went to the audition, the man opened the door and when he saw the child he said 'you can't have the child in here.' He pushed Sigmund in and said 'unpack your violin and play!' He played. My father never unpacked his cello and he got the position!
It seems likely that it was evcik who noticed Emanuel's gift, urging that the boy should be taught by someone other than his father, and it was probably through evcik that a mäzen (sponsor) appeared. Wilhelm Kux, a Czech Jew and wealthy banker living in Vienna, was well known for his patronage of gifted musicians, in particular string players (Sigmund Feuermann and Erica Morini were also sponsored by him). He owned a fine collection of stringed instruments, at least one of which was loaned to Emanuel and another to Sigmund. Kux supported not only the children's basic needs but provided valuable advice. Kux, who never married, came to regard Emanuel as a surrogate son. Throughout his life Feuermann kept in touch with Kux, reporting his progress to him, but most of these letters are lost. Kux lived to a great age, dying in Chur, Switzerland, at the age of 102.
After Meier Feuermann, Emanuel's first teacher was the cellist Anton Walter, who later became a member of the distinguished Rosé Quartet, Whether it was evcik or Kux who recommended him is not clear, but only months after beginning lessons with his father Feuermann began to study with Walter. Little more than anecdotal tales remain about Walter's teaching, but the relationship seems to have been a good one. Evidence of Feuermann's early confidence is suggested by a story in which Feuermann is reported to have said to Walter that he played an adagio movement too fast. In a letter from Walter to Meier Feuermann, which reported that Emanuel had played a work with only five notes out of tune, Emanuel added in his child's handwriting: 'No. There were many more than that.'
As a child prodigy, Sigmund Feuermann's early concerts were extraordinary and invitations to play came pouring in. In February 1912 the periodical Die Musik reviewed a concert from London in November 1911 with the Philharmonic Society conducted by Sir Charles Stanford: 'The 10-year-old violinist Sigmund Feuermann caused a sensation with the Brahms Concerto that was fully justified; one rarely hears the work performed so perfectly by adults.' It so happens that another violinist wunderkind of the same age was also causing a sensation: Jascha Heifetz. Sigmund Feuermann and Heifetz's debuts in Vienna and Berlin interestingly intertwine. Sigmund made his Vienna debut in 1910, Heifetz in 1914. Sigmund's debut in Berlin took place in early 1912, Heifetz's in September 1912. In the light of Emanuel's later involvement with Heifetz, one wonders whether there was any mutual awareness at this time. By November 1912 comments on Sigmund's playing were already less kind.
A young violinist, Sigmund Feuermann, attempted to deceive the public by his lack of years. Technically he succeeded very well because what he played was clean and secure; but with regard to interpretation and spirituality the childishness showed itself everywhere. Beethoven's 'Kreutzer' Sonata! Why drag an immature child, who has learnt so much in spite of his youth and has worked so assiduously, onto the stage before he is ready? Who must bear responsibility?
It is said, somewhat in contradiction, that initially Feuermann was not seriously interested in the cello. He regarded it more as a plaything, something with which he could compete with Sigmund. It is also said that a concert in Vienna given by Casals changed his attitude completely. But which concert was this? Feuermanns biographer, Seymour Itzkoff, points vaguely to a concert in clate 1912 or 1913' in the large hall of the Musikverein, in which Casals played Boccherini's Concerto in B[flat] and Haydn's Concerto in D. Margaret Campbell suggests that Feuermann heard Casals's Viennese debut in 1912, also in Boccherini and Haydn. (Casals's Viennese debut actually took place in January 1910, when he played a concerto by Emanuel Móor.) Casals performed frequently in Vienna and frequently played the Haydn. But at this time he never played a programme that included the Boccherini and Haydn concertos together.
Feuermann would have had ample opportunity to hear Casals in all the standard repertoire of the time – Brahms's Double Concerto, both Saint-Saens concertos, and the d'Albert, Schumann and Dvorak concertos – and also in less standard works; for example, the Móor Concerto for solo cello and Móor's Concerto for two cellos, which Casals performed with Guilhermina Suggia on 11 December 1911. He could also have heard Casals play Bach's unaccompanied suites; as was the custom, a solo work was often included in an orchestral programme: between January 1910 and November 1913 Casals played Bach's G major, C major and D major suites in Vienna. If it is not possible to determine exactly the Casals concerts that Feuermann heard at this time, the breadth of programming combined with the talent of the greatest living cellist would, doubtless, have made a very strong impression on a very musical child.
Excerpted from Emanuel Feuermann by Annette Morreau. Copyright © 2002 by Annette Morreau. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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