Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962)
For many years I was involved with the English Haydn Festival, held annually in the beautiful Shropshire market town of Bridgnorth. Our resident music adviser was the renowned Haydn scholar and larger than life figure, H C Robbins Landon.
Haydn was a prolific composer and with Eastern Europe opening up in the 1990s, there was always the possibility that some lost works of the maestro would turn up in some dusty corner of a museum or monastery. Lo and behold, six sonatas turned up and Robbins Landon verified them as the work of Haydn. It caused quite a stir at the time but not as much as a stir when the Haydn Institute in Cologne declared the manuscripts to be fakes.
Red faces all round. Robbins Landon had to own up to the fact that he had been duped. They were actually the work of Winfried Michel, a very clever and convincing pasticheur.
Even when Haydn was alive, there was a roaring trade in forged works. Perhaps the best Haydn forger was a Bohemian, Franz Kotzwara, who had the maestro down to a tee. London music publishers made a fortune passing of Kotzwara’s compositions. The forger was eventually hung in 1791, not by the judiciary, but in a sadomasochistic experiment in a brothel in London.
The Kotzwara of the 20th century, although without the sexual predilections, was the Austrian violin virtuoso, Fritz Kreisler. A child prodigy, he was admitted to the Vienna conservatory at the age of seven and gave his first public performance two years later. The composer, Anton Bruckner, taught the young Fritz musical theory and he went on to study at the Paris Conservatory. But Fritz decided to put his bow away after a less than successful tour in the States, deciding instead to practise medicine and later to serve in the Austrian army.
But the siren call of Euterpe was too much for Fritz to resist and on the December 1st 1899 he made his comeback with the Berlin Philharmonic. He became phenomenally successful as a soloist and the music crowds could not get enough of him. Elgar even composed his Violin Concerto for him and Keisler was foresighted enough to exploit the nascent recording industry.
The highlight of a Kreisler was the airing of a lost classic from the pen of the likes of Corelli, Pugnani, Vivaldi, and Couperin, which, he claimed, he had found languishing in the archives of libraries and monasteries around Europe. One monastery in deepest France was a particularly fruitful source of these lost treasures. The rediscovered masterpieces became a feature of Kreisler’s performances and were well received by audiences and critics alike. They even found their way int o the repertoires of other soloists.
No one seemed to pay much attention to how Kreisler got his hands on such a stock of forgotten masterpieces. That is until his 60th birthday on February 2nd 1935.
The music critic of the New York Times, Olin Downes, sent Kreisler a telegram – remember them? – wishing him a happy birthday and innocuously commented that it was as if he was the composer of all these lost classics he got his hands own. To Olin’s astonishment, Kreisler said he was.
The revelation of Kreisler’s hoax split the music establishment down the middle. Some critics thought that he had behaved appallingly by foisting these now worthless pieces of music on the classical canon. Others, though, applauded him. More importantly, his paying public did not seem to mind and his career carried on as before, undisturbed by the furore caused by his confession.
As Kreisler rightly pointed out, the value of a piece of music should be judged solely on its merits not by who penned it.
If you enjoyed this, discover more ingenious hoaxing, financial skulduggery and medical quackery in Martin Fone’s Fifty Scams and Hoaxes, an ideal Christmas present