When my cousin Dr. Bossuet Afonso requested me to play my violin at the centenary celebration of his father, the great doctor, scientist, artist and musician and distinguished son of the soil Dr. Emidio Afonso, I knew at once that one piece would have to occupy pride of place, even though I would have to play it unaccompanied: Fritz Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin (Fair Rosemary).
I remember one annual day function of the St. Cecilia Music School at the hall of Mary Immaculate School (where the founder of the St. Cecilia Music School, Fr. Martinho Fernandes also taught) sometime perhaps in the mid- to late 1970s, when Dr. Emidio played this very piece, with his daughter Nelita at the piano and son Sergito, cello playing the bass line. The way I remember it, we the children were already on stage when the Afonso family came up to perform. I felt so proud as I whispered to my colleagues “They’re my relatives!”
Schön Rosmarin was a particular favourite of Dr. Emidio; I have vivid memories of him humming or whistling it as he worked in his laboratory, or walked from one house to another in his Campal compound, a place that is so full of good memories from my childhood.
Schön Rosmarin is one of three pieces (the other two being Liebesfreud or Love’s Joy; and Liebesleid or Love’s Sorrow) for violin and piano published under the title Alt-Wiener Tanzweisen (Old Viennese Melodies) in 1905, written by Fritz Kreisler but that he ‘playfully’ credited to nineteenth-century Austrian dance composer Josef Lanner (1801-1843). This ‘playfulness’ might be difficult for us to understand today, but Kreisler did it with many of his own compositions, passing them off as works by composers before his time, and only owning up to them later in life. He brushed off protests by critics at what they considered fraud, saying they had already considered them of value: “The name changes, the value remains”, he said.
For those interested, there is a rare interview with Kreisler on WQXR radio on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1955, available online on YouTube, where he explains why he ascribed his compositions to others: “[I can explain it] very easily: When I was a young man, I tried to make a position for myself as a violinist, and not as a composer. At that time, the violinists’ repertoire was very scanty, very thin. So consequently, I had to furnish, I had to increase the repertoire. And I couldn’t do it other than doing it myself….And the difficulty arose in putting my own name on my programme, because, being young and unknown and trying to make a position for myself as a violinist , that would have looked too bad. Nobody would have engaged me to hear my own works”. Quite a disingenuous argument. Furthermore, Kreisler admitted he feared critics would judge not only his playing but his compositional skills, and bias in one could affect the other.
I took the run-up to the Emidio Afonso celebration as an opportunity to delve deeper into the intricacies of Schön Rosmarin. A cascade of searches and related links took me to a very insightful video masterclass by violin pedagogue Roy Sonne from his “School of Violin Artistry” series. It is very instructive, and I now use many ideas and tips from it.
Who was Schön Rosmarin, or fair Rosemary? An old flame? An unrequited love? I’ve scoured through books and pored over websites, but there is no clear answer. Perhaps she was just the epitome of Alt Wien (Old Vienna), an era and way of life that would be blown away forever by the First World War, the centenary of which is also being commemorated in these years (2014-2018).
There are so many fantastic recordings of Schön Rosmarin out there, but none in my opinion match that of the violinist-composer himself, for sheer old-world charm and joie de vivre. Listen to his 1936 recording with pianist Franz Rupp. Fair Rosmarin comes to life in the three musical paragraphs (A-B-A, or bread-jam-bread in Suzuki parlance) of the work: a coquettish, flirtatious young woman, whose flutter of her eyelashes (the spiccato quavers) can conquer hearts in less than a heartbeat. Kreisler is a master of rubato, stretching and contracting time at will like an invisible rubber band.
Fritz Kreisler is also on my mind due to the fact that he served in the Austrian army during WWI. I learnt this through the writing of my friend Ariane Todes, musician, journalist and former editor of the prestigious stringed instrument magazine, The Strad. Kreisler’s book “Four Weeks in the Trenches: The War Story of a Violinist” was written while he was on tour, in hotels and railway stations, after being somewhat reluctantly persuaded to do so. It is an insightful first-hand account of WWI in particular (and a rare description of the fighting from the ‘other’ side) and of the futility and pointlessness of warfare in general.
(You can read the whole book online here).
Kreisler’s “musical ear” was actually of value in just one instance: He noted that “every shell describes in its course a parabolic line, with the first half of the curve ascending and the second one descending. Apparently in the first half of its curve, that is, its course while ascending, the shell produced a dull whine accompanied by a falling cadence, which changes to a rising shrill as soon as the acme has been reached and the curve points downward again. The acme for both kinds of shells naturally was exactly the half distance between the Russian and Austrian artillery……When I told [an artillery officer] that I could actually determine by the sound the exact place where a shell coming from the opposing batteries was reaching its acme, he thought that this would be of great value in a case where the position of the opposing battery was hidden and thus could be located.” And the enemy battery’s location was exactly as he had surmised.
What I found more telling was his observation of the humanness of the soldiers on both sides of the fighting: “It was there and then that I made a curious observation. After the second day we had almost grown to know each other. The Russians would laughingly call over to us, and the Austrians would answer. The salient feature of these three days’ fighting was the extraordinary lack of hatred. In fact, it is astonishing how little actual hatred exists between fighting men. One fights fiercely and passionately, mass against mass, but as soon as the mass crystallises itself into human individuals whose features one actually can recognise, hatred almost ceases. Of course, fighting continues, but somehow it loses its fierceness and takes more the form of a sport, each side being eager to get the best of the other. One still shoots at his opponent, but almost regrets when he sees him drop.”
(An edited version of this article was published on 24 July 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)