Leopold Auer on Violin Geniuses

Edited by Robert Braine

Having produced a greater number of famous concert violinists than any living teacher of the violin, few men are better fitted to speak of the qualities which make for success than Prof. Leopold Auer, the famous Russian violinist, who is now living in this country. In a recent number of the American Magazine, Prof. Auer tells of his gifted pupils, and why and how they became great.

Prof. Auer was the Imperial Court Violinist in Russia under three Czars, and when the Russian revolution swept away the work of a lifetime, he was 73 years of age. Nothing daunted, he resolved to begin all over again, and came to the United States and settled in New York, where he at once began teaching large classes of pupils who flocked to him there from all parts of the world. Notwithstanding his age he even appeared in recitals in New York, Chicago and other cities, playing with the fire of youth and the skill of a master.

The veteran violin teacher was the instructor of Elman, Zimbalist, Kathleen Parlow, Max Rosen, Eddy Brown, Toscha Seidel, Jascha Heifetz and a host of scarcely less famous violin virtuosi.

Discovering Genius

Speaking of the ability of a teacher to “discover” genius, to pick “from the hundreds of young hopes, the ones in whom the clear flame of genius will burn steadily on, and to discard those in whom it will flare up for a brief moment and then go out forever”, Prof. Auer says:

“I do not discover genius. It discovers me. How do I know it when I see it? Tell me how the skilled physician knows, when he feels the pulse and listens to the beating of the heart, that all is well or ill. He senses it. Something he knows through training and experience, but more he feels and cannot explain.”

“A boy comes to me quite unfinished and unpolished; I listen to him; I give him a difficult test, we go on. But who knows? He may be clever, yet have no heart for work. And a worker without genius is better than a genius who will not work.”

“I can tell if the young pupil has ability – that is easy. But who can say that he will be great? The great musician, the great artist of any sort, must have combined in him so many qualities. Art demands so much, both of the body and mind. there are those who have skilled fingers, but who lack the strong brain to carry them on. They go so far, and then they stop. They may play and play and play – forever! but if they lack understanding they will never be great.”

“Health is a great asset. They must have it, those who would tread this road, in order that they may stand the strain of unending work that is to be their part. For work they must. Halevy, who was Gounod’s master, said when Gounod came to thank him:

“There are no good masters; there are only good pupils.”

“And those “good pupils? As I have said, there are no marks by which you may surely know them on sight. The qualities that make for genius have no physical signs. Outwardly they may be fair or dark, tall or short, fat or thin; and they may have been born in any land under the sun. If it has happened that genius, musical genius, has been found more often in Europe than here, it is because there genius never lacks its opportunity; there the great schools are open to all and the poorest has his chance.”

“I said that those boys who are to have the wonder touch tomorrow, might be born under any sky. I will say more than that. They may come from your crowded East Side, as did Rosen; or from a small Russian city, as did Neifetz; or from a little village, as did Elman. The teeming city or the lonely country may give them birth; they may be reared in the crowded slums or in some isolated prairie farmhouse.”

“But one thing they must be – they must be poor! And it is best that they come from a large family.”

“They should have known want; they should have known hunger. Zimbalist, Elman, Heifetz, Rosen, Seidel – they all came of poor people. There is something, I know not what, that is bred in the soul by poverty. It is something mystic. To feel this terrible need is the motive power that drives genius. It develops feeling; it makes both force and tenderness.”

Continuing, the great teacher calls attention to the fact that here in the United States most of the great men in business, literature, in art, and in the professions were once poor boys, and that they gathered strength from the poverty that was their necessity. Speaking of Elman, Heifetz and Zimbalist, he declared that they had also developed nobility of character from their early hardships, and that their first acts when they began to amass wealth were to send for their parents and less gifted brothers and sisters to share their prosperity. Further, Prof. Auer says: “There are exceptions, to be sure. But, after all, I must believe that poverty is the master teacher of genius.”

From Poverty to Wealth

“Today Elman is a rich man. His genius has won him wealth as well as fame. But I remember the night I first saw him. He was ten or eleven years old then and had come with his father, a poor teacher in a Russian village near Kiev, to find me at Elizavetgrad, a town in South Russia where I was on tour. They arrived shortly before I was to begin my recital. I could not hear the boy then, but sent him in to the concert. I had to leave early the next morning, so I told Elman to play for me while I packed for the journey. I was bending over my packing; but when he began, I stopped and turned my head in astonishment.”

“Is it possible! I exclaimed to myself. And when he had finished I sat down and wrote a letter to the director of the Conservatoire at Petrograd.”

“That letter procured for Elman a scholarship. But he was poor, his family in great need, and they could not support him away from home. I was fortunate enough, however, to find some people who would see that the boy could live while he studied, even though his life was far from being one of comfort.”

“At that time, although Jewish pupils of the Conservatoire were allowed to live in the metropolis, their parents were confined to their own district. But it was necessary that Elman’s father be with him – he was only eleven years old! – so I asked the then Minister of the Interior, the famous Von Plewa, who was afterward killed by the revolutionists, for permission for Elman’s father to live in Petrograd. I had great difficulty in arranging the matter, but finally the necessary permission was secured.”

Zimbalist’s Beginning

“Then there was Zimbalist. About eight o’clock, one chill autumn morning, my servant ushered in Zimbalist and his mother. The both appeared nearly frozen with the cold. When I inquired the reason for their early call, the boy began to cry. He told me that he and his mother had been forced to pass the night in the streets because, while he, as a student, had permission to live in the metropolis, his mother had not permission.”

“Coming with him to seek lodgings for him – he was only a child – she had been hounded about by the police, who prevented her from even securing shelter for the night. I wrote a letter to the Prefect of Police, explaining that it was necessary that the mother be with her son for a time, and through courtesy to me she was allowed to stay in Petrograd one week. She found a lodging for her boy, and then went away. You see, it was not only the young genius, but the father and the mother of genius who had hardship to bear.”

“Yet this boy, who suffered such incredible hardships, was one of the few to win the final diploma in the full course at the Conservatoire. Those who won such a diploma were called “Free Artists”, and could live anywhere in the Russian Empire, notwithstanding their Jewish birth; but not so his parents and relatives. Heifetz was another brilliant student, and would have won such a diploma had it not been for the revolution.”

In his article Prof. Auer makes a plea for the prodigy. He says:

“Heifetz has brought up the old, old discussion about prodigies. He is only seventeen, and yet the critics have spoken most highly of him. It is a subject in which I have always been keenly interested. I believe that genius makes itself known early, and that prejudice has been too often shown by the public and the critics against prodigies. Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Rubinstein, d’Albert, Hofmann, Scriabine, Wieniawski, Sarasate – all of these were conspicuous as prodigies. Not that every prodigy becomes a master. Sometimes the brain falters under the strain of the work, the exhausting work that is necessary; for it is only very rarely that the very great brain, not backed by splendid physical force, endures to achieve the triumph of success. Mind, body and soul must not only be fitted for the task, they must also be fit for it.”

“No, I do not at all mean that every brilliant youngster may be expected to fulfill his promise; but I do believe that the prodigy represents a musical phenomenon deserving to be treated with the keenest interest.”

The famous teacher goes on to tell how the lack of some one quality will often lead to failure, as evidenced by the experience of his favorite pupil of all. Speaking of this pupil he says:

“But one I shall always remember; one who in genius was as great as the greatest of those whose names I love to repeat.”

“He was with me at the same time as were Seidel and Heifetz. He had, and has, great genius; and – I may confess it – he was my favorite among all my pupils. But he lacked a body strong enough to do his will. When it came to the test his nerves mastered him, when he should have been master of them. This was especially true when he played in public. And so he failed by the slightest margin. His fellow pupils are making great names for themselves; while he – I do not even know where he is.”

Speaking of the large number of pupils who apply to him, Prof. Auer states that he tries to hear them all, for possibly “the next will be that one whom the world is waiting to hear.” It is hard to tell many that they have no talent, but it is better to tell them the truth, and save them from bitter disappointment later – perhaps ruined lives.

Violin Playing

Of the fact that genius for violin playing appears so much more frequently in the male sex, Prof. Auer says:

“Perhaps girls lack physical force. Perhaps, created for motherhood, they are denied the creative gift in art. But who knows? There are striking exceptions. There is, for instance, Kathleen Parlow, who is know to you here; and recently there have come to me two American girls – I cannot name them; they are not yet formed – of whom I have hope that they will become great. Perhaps in this new life that women are opening up for themselves, genius will flower for them as abundantly as for their brothers.”

Of Kathleen Parlow he states that he was not sure of her genius until he had given her ten lessons, and then informed her mother that she had in her the making of a great artist. After two years study, he “sent her to the stage”, telling her that the “stage would be her best master”. And so the event proved.

Concluding his article, Prof. Auer makes an earnest plea for schools in the United States where children of genius can secure a musical education free.

Of such schools he says:

“I believe greatly and hope greatly for the future of music in America. But at present you waste genius – at least, genius in the realm of art. In Russia or in France there are great national schools free to all. Such schools are a clearing house for genius; the boy who has greatness in him has his chance there. In this country the necessity for going abroad for instruction must hold back many of whom we never hear. Such a school would keep alive and renew flagging inspiration. And it is well to remember that in art there is no halting place. One must advance or retreat.”