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Emanuel Feuermann

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Biography

Emanuel Feuermann came from a family where great musical gifts manifested themselves early. His father was a self-taught violinist and cellist. Emanuel's elder brother, Zigmund, quickly showed himself to be a prodigy on the violin. Their father, clearly hoping lightning would strike again, presented Emanuel with a violin. But he boy insisted on holding it upright, like a cello, so the father bought him a small training cello. The family moved to Vienna so Zigmund could continue his violin studies and launch a concert career. When Emanuel was nine years old he received lessons from Friedrich Buxbaum, the principal cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic and also a member of the famous and historically important Rosé String Quartet. Later, Feuermann became a pupil of Anton Walter at the Vienna Music Academy. It was when Feuermann was ten years old that he heard a recital that changed the course of his studies, the debut of Pablo Casals in Vienna in 1912. Feuermann realized that the great Catalan cellist was "truly re-creating the instrument." He demanded to study more substantial works, such as the Boccherini B-flat and Haydn D-Major Concertos. His teacher recognized that there was a strong musical presence quickly developing in young Feuermann. The lad made a concert debut in Vienna in February, 1914, playing the Haydn D-Major with Felix Weingartner conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The debut was a success, but not spectacular. He joined his brother on a concert tour with his father, and the family seems to have accounted this early performance as not a big thing, possibly because the father was committed to pushing Zigmund. Unfortunately, that young man snapped under the pressure and later suffered mental illness. He died at the age of 52 of a brain tumor. In 1917, Emanuel went to study with Julius Klengel. In accepting the young man as his pupil, he remarked on the fact that the boy had a very small repertoire. Now Feuermann began to soak up training, music, and general knowledge. He systematically divided his day into practice sessions, work in music theory, piano practice, and building a repertoire. He interspersed this with avid reading, for he now realized his general education had been neglected. (He remained a constant reader for life.) In 1918, the cello professor Friedrich Grützmacher (nephew of a famous cellist with the same name) died, leaving open his position at the Gürzenich Conservatoire in Cologne. Klengel proposed Feuermann to replace him. The search committee for that position thought that Klengel had gone silly, nominating a 16-year-old boy, but decided to hear for themselves and hired Feuermann as a teacher, with the full responsibilities of a professorship, but not the august title, which they deemed inappropriate for a teenager. During the '20s, Feuermann added frequent and arduous concert tours and appearances to his schedule, and began making his series of classic recordings. He was widely acclaimed, although he found his repertoire too conservative. He joined the faculty of the Berlin Hochschule für Musik in 1929; by then he was ready for the title of professor. He formed a string trio with Joseph Wolfstahl (later replaced by Szymon Goldberg) on violin and Paul Hindemith on viola. This famous trio made several recordings, including a famous one of Hindemith's String Trio, No 2. Feuermann now expanded his repertoire into the twentieth century. The ascension to power of the Nazi Party in 1933 ended this situation. The Hochschule failed to renew his contract, and gave him a "leave of absence" until the current one expired. Looking for a place to settle, he took a world tour in 1934 and 1935. A pair of memorable New York concerts took place in January of 1935. The first ones found the critics complimentary of his technique and style, but the musical personality did not get across to them. Eight days later, he gave another recital. It was sparsely attended, so far as the general public was concerned, but the word had gotten out through the grapevine of real musicians, and virtually every cellist in New York was there. After the first piece, they roared their approval, and called him for repeated encores. The critics soon caught on. This pattern was repeated in London. Perhaps preoccupied with the task of getting his wife safely out of Germany, he failed to wow the audiences in his initial 1938 recital, but when he played the solo part in Strauss' Don Quixote, critics fell all over themselves with praise. He and his wife settled in Zurich, where he gave master classes and based his touring career. He traveled to Austria, where he was trapped when Hitler's forces poured in to take the country. Bronislaw Huberman, a famous violinist, managed to get Feuermann out and into Palestine. A month later, Feuermann, his wife, and his daughter arrived in New York and applied for citizenship. He taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and in summers settled into a rented house in Los Angeles, where he gave master classes, to which students from all parts of the free world flocked. Also in Los Angeles he could be close to Jascha Heifetz, the great violinist, and the equally great Arthur Rubinstein, the pianist, making up one of the greatest of trio ensembles. Following the example of his early idol Casals, Feuermann advanced the instrument's playing technique. He worked hard to eliminate the remainder of a nasal tone that had been thought part of the natural sound of the instrument. He stressed the role of the entire body in playing the instrument. He is credited, along with Casals, as having established the cello as a solo instrument. On May 19, 1942, he was admitted for routine, minor surgery. By carelessness, peritonitis set in and he died six days later at the age of thirty-nine. ~ Joseph Stevenson

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