Concerning Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid
A common corequisite of being a classical composer is being a good musician. I cannot name a composer who was not proficient in at least one of the instruments they would compose for; Chopin had the piano, Bach had the organ (among others), and Kreisler had the violin.
To provide a bit of background, Fritz Kreisler (1875 - 1962) was a gifted violinist. He won the Premier Grand Prix de Rome gold medal at age 12, competing with 40 other players who at least 20 years old. Kreisler began to focus on his compositions when he was around 30 years old. The pieces that he composed reflected his liberal use of portamento (sliding the pitch from one note to another to create a sort of glissando) and tempo rubato (slightly speeding up or slowing down), which promoted the expressiveness of the music.
Specifically, Kreiseler composed a set of three pieces called Alt-Wiener Tanzweisen, or Old Viennese Melodies in English. The first of these melodies was the cheerful Liebesfreud (Love's Joy), which was followed by the profound Liebesleid (Love's Sorrow), and the lighter-hearted Schön Rosmarin (Lovely Rosemary). Published in 1905, the melodies became part of Kreisler’s performing repertoire by 1910. These pieces are extremely emotive, and any violinist performing the melodies must infuse their performance with the appropriate feelings and phrasing to convey the sound of Love’s joy, sorrow, and its rosemary.
Musicians share similar struggles to actors when it comes to portraying sadness; it needs to be dramatic, but not sensational, or the audience won’t buy it. In Kreisler’s liebesleid, the notes are not difficult, but too much portamento, not enough rubato, or the wrong kind of vibrato can make the sadness the musician wished to portray sound phony or superficial, similar to bad acting. Luckily, we can listen to Kreisler play his pieces on early audio recordings and hear what stylistic measures he took. Kreisler composed the music, so his rendition must be the way he envisioned it, right?
This is where things get complicated. For there exists a video on YouTube of the legendary Fritz Kreisler playing Liebesleid at two different times: one during a performance in 1930 and one in 1942.
Apart from the quality of recording and the orchestral intro in the latter recording, hypothetically, the two recordings should sound almost the same. But they don’t. They sound… different. I thought that listening to the composer play his piece would be the ultimate guide on how it should be be played; the standard, if you will. However, in the span of 12 years, the “standard” changed. When I first listened to the recordings side by side, I had a gut instinct that the two recording were significantly different, but I could not easily point my finger to what was different. However, I did notice that I was left at the end of each piece feeling two distinctly different types of sorrow.
When I listen to Liebesleid, I imagine listening to someone tell the story of a recent heartbreak. In the 1930 recording, Kreisler’s playing sounds slightly timid, an effect created by the spaced phrase endings, which evokes the effect of someone trying to distance themselves from their story of sorrow. During the piece, he explains his feelings to the fullest extent, but not getting completely lost in them. This is enforced by the shortness of notes at 0:50 of the video and when the major section that follows is saturated with rubato. With the reprisal of the opening theme at 2:05, the notes are more connected, showing how the speaker is more comfortable with his story, though there are still slight hesitations though rubato use at 2:18 and 2:33. The speaker’s turmoil is somewhat resolved towards the end with the return of a smoother and more calming rendition of the major section, which is how the piece ends, with the speaker seeing the end of Love’s sorrow.
The 1942 performance puts the sadness, elongated and molto espressivo, on display. Unlike the 1930 performance, nothing is being withheld from the listener. Kreisler focuses on the note intensity instead of phrase endings, making some notes light and whispery and others quite bold. The introduction of the major melody, in which the speaker recalls happier memories, is devalued with sadness, as the run leading to this melody at 4:36 is slowed down, and the high note introducing the major melody mimics the sound of a wail. The repetition of the intro is as long and expressive as the beginning, but something is off. It becomes evident that the speaker’s sadness has gotten worse, as the note played at 6:22 seems like a hesitation and the note at 6:29, which is supposed to end the phrase, is swallowed up, leaving an unresolved statement of sadness. Coincidentally enough, a second phrase that had its ending swallowed up (at 6:49) is followed by the return of major theme. Instead of a happier tone, Kreisler combines extreme rubato with light, whispered, notes, making the second major theme and resolution sound unstable and grim.
Kreisler wrote Liebesleid to convey sorrow. While the 1930 performance is timid and reserved but ends optimistically, the 1942 is expressive and grim throughout. Kreisler successfully portrays the emotion of sorrow, but they do not follow the same musical journey or reach the same resolution. So how did Kreisler envision the piece to unfold? What rendition are musicians expected to follow to stay true to his vision? I guess it doesn’t matter. Either way, Kreisler shows his audience how versatile a piece of music can be. Perhaps Kreisler had changed his rendition to showcase how the use of different techniques can put the sadness in Love’s Sorrow. Or maybe, at the tender age of 67 in 1942, Kreisler could no longer see the silver lining of Love’s sorrow, and that in reality, sorrow ends only when the violinist takes his bow off the string and the orchestra pauses to turn the page.