Severin Eisenberger (1879 - 1945)


Hear Severin Eisenberger play  Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto: Larghetto  from Arbiter CD 158.

Among those prominent pianists who attained their artistic maturity under Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915) one finds the name of Severin Eisenberger, a distant figure who once was among the commanding keyboard masters to perform throughout Central Europe and the United States. How he played has until now remained a matter of speculation, as Eisenberger supposedly never recorded. He embodies the lost musicial culture of Central Europe, of Krakow, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Czernowitz, Brno, Zagreb and Berlin which vanished after the Second World War. Other main performers who comprised this aesthetic were Bronislaw Huberman, the Bohemian Quartet, Vaclav Talich and Ignaz Friedman. Friedman esteemed Eisenberger and recommended him whenever possible, once proposing Eisenberger as a substitute for a Scandinavian tour Friedman was unable to fulfill: Eisenberger soon became a favorite in the Nordic cities.

Eisenberger and Friedman had much in common as both were born in the Krakow suburb of Podgorze across the Vistula River, once a Jewish quarter, now a sleepy district with quaint Hapsburg-style homes in disrepair, dwarfed by a modern Church. Many gypsies dwell there today: the sole trace of its former Jewish community are occasional faded rectangular spots on the doorposts of homes and small apartment buildings where tiny enshrined prayer scrolls once hung. Eisenberger’s father had been concertmaster of the Krakow Symphony, in which Kasimir Hofmann (father of the pianist Josef) was its conductor and included the father of Ignaz Friedman in its ranks.When Eisenberger’s talent became evident, he was taken across the river into Krakow, past Kazimierz (the Jewish quarter, the one part of the city not restored after the Second World War) along a road winding by the Wawel Castle uphill into the old town where Flora Grzywinska had her studio. Grzywinska was a unique teacher, credited by Friedman as having built up his technique. Little is known of her background except that she took her life in 1910.

Grzywinska approached piano teaching as part of a complete musical formation, having her pupils learn opera, chamber music and symphonic repertoire through score reading and ensemble playing. Her students appeared in public concerts which were reviewed in the local papers. To receive a good critique from Polish music critics was an honor as many papers in Krakow, Lwow and Warsaw were staffed by composers such as Szopski and Niewiadomsci, whose writings demonstrate that before the Second World War, Poland’s music criticism was indeed brilliant, functioning at a high aesthetic barely surpassed even to this day. Eisenberger received acclaim and recognition when his forty-year career began with a performance at age eight of Beethoven’s Second Concerto.

The events of his life come down to us in the too few interviews elicited by the American press, as his generation preferred discussing music or ideas rather than draw attention to one’s self. Eisenberger left for Berlin to study with Heinrich Ehrlich, who with Leschetizky had been a favored pupil of Czerny. Although Czerny is now remembered primarily for his studies, he possessed information which came to him directly from Beethoven. Eisenberger recalled:

“As to my playing of Beethoven, I have reason to believe that I play the master’s works well- and correctly. I should do so, as I shall explain to you. I have an intense feeling in regard to them and the manner of my interpretation, because many things concerning them were handed down to me in an authoritative manner. Ehrlich was a favorite pupil of Czerny. . . There are instances in which I know that even the printed texts should be slightly altered. Why? Because Ehrlich told me Czerny told him and Beethoven told Czerny. This is also true of pedaling and of other details in interpretation.”

A Berlin debut came in his twelfth year with Beethoven’s C minor Concerto: “After that” he recalled, “I began my general education and I did not play the ‘Emperor’ until I had left the university and resumed the study of music.” In Gymnasium, he added composition and conducting to his academic studies and fancied himself becoming a conductor, until he heard Ossip Gabrilowitsch perform and returned decisively to the piano.

Once his teacher Ehrlich approached him in haste: “Come quickly, come with me, for we are to hear the great Johannes Brahms.” The elder composer was playing in a chamber music recital. Eisenberger recalled: “The impression of Brahms never left me. I was at an impressionable age anyhow and Brahms was the idol of the hour among the younger musicians. I did not pretend to understand him, at least, not all of him, but I was a deep student of his compositions. The more I worked at them, the more I understood. He was my hero, and to hear and see him was an encouragement that sent me to greater enthusiasm. Many years later, when I was at the home of Miller-Aichholz in Vienna, I heard him play again. I shook his hand tremblingly, because he seemed to me a musical god. I played both the B-flat and D minor piano concertos in more cities of Europe than I can remember.” (He counted at least eighteen performances before having playing them in America.)

Eisenberger also heard Beethoven interpeted by Hans von B¸low, Anton Rubinstein and Eugen D’Albert. He became known as a Beethoven specialist, and when performing Chopin, was then hailed as a Chopin specialist, labels which annoyed him. While in Berlin, Eisenberger appeared as soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the composer himself conducting [a broadcast performance from the United States was published in “Grieg and his Circle, Pearl CD 9933]. Eisenberger toured Germany and arrived in Vienna. Little is known of the time spent with Leschetizky, of whom Eisenberger spoke with reverence. Yet to Vivian Harvey Slater he confided that his apprenticeship ended when he and Leschetizky disagreed over hand position. At Leschetizky’s home he finally met Gabrilowitsch, who became a lifelong friend. In Vienna he played for Anton Rubinstein, who praised his left hand technique, and encountered von B¸low and Joesph Joachim on several occasions. He again took up the virtuoso’s path to perform in Italy and as far as Finland.

Eisenberger once decided to stop performing and compose. He wrote a symphony, piano sonata and Lieder, then returned to concertizing: “I realized then, and I realize more fully today that I am not a creative but an interpretive artist, at least so far as composition goes.”

A scrapbook of Eisenberger’s reviews contains the programs of other artists he had saved, reminders of great performances he attended. To hear masters playing the keyboard literature becomes an influential and inspiring component of any pianist’s art. Eisenberger was present at the three evenings given in Berlin by Busoni in 1902: his 2nd concert was all Chopin, comprising the 2nd Sonata, all 24 Etudes and the A flat Polonaise. He heard the Bohemian Quartet in 1908 play Rachmaninoff’s Trio Elegiaque with the composer himself at the piano. In 1903 Sarasate’s solo recital included the Mendelssohn Concerto with piano accompaniment and Bach’s Chaconne. Reisenauer gave three programs in 1905 playing several Bach Preludes & Fugues, Schumann’s Kreisleriana, much of Liszt’s Annees du Pelerinage, Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Papillons, Abegg Variations and late Beethoven. There was an evening with Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler playing the Emperor and Grieg’s Concerto, Busoni in Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, three performances with Artur Schnabel, and the Rose Quartet. Even more striking are reminders of Risler playing a Beethoven program (op. 26, 53, 106 and 111 !) D’Albert playing the Archduke Trio with the Bohemians, two Chopin evenings with Friedman and three extensive Liszt recitals by Busoni in 1904 and 1905. Such was the music making in Eisenberger’s world.

Other influences to Eisenberger’s art came from friendships cultivated in Vienna. Jakob Wasserman the writer said that whenever he felt a need for inspiration he would head over to Eisenberger’s and ask him to play. Arthur Schnitzler sent his daughter to Eisenberger for lessons, as he occasionally took on students. Lili Kraus worked a great deal with him but in interviews preferred to cite the more eminent Artur Schnabel as having been her principal teacher.

Eisenberger moved to the United States in 1928 to teach in Cleveland, preceded by a letter of Friedman and Gabrilowitsch’s alerting the local musical figures to his “marvelous art as a pianist.” At his New York debut in 1930, the Tribune critic described Eisenberger as “a great pianist in the line of Reisenauer and D’Albert”, both important pupils of Liszt. Aside from Beethoven and Chopin, Eisenberger had a vast repertoire and gave lengthy and generous programs. He became an influential teacher during his years in Cleveland and Cincinnati. One prominent pupil is Vivian Harvey Slater, who made many recordings of Czerny’s music, a part of her pianistic lineage. When Eisenberger broadcast many concerti and solos during the late 1930’s, Slater sat at his side turning pages. The hall was empty save for the conductor’s dog. Another pupil described him as a polite, musically enlightened Old-World gentleman having a shock of gray hair tucked under his Fedora. His final public performance came in 1941 with the Cleveland Orchestra led by Artur Rodzinski in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto.

After his passing in 1945, his widow received a mysterious box by the custodian of their Manhattan apartment house: the pianist once intended to throw it away. He told the custodian that it contained records made of his radio recitals and that he was displeased with the mistakes. The custodian realized his mistake and kept the box, returning it to his widow after the pianist’s death. For a major pianist who never recorded, the box contained more than a mere idea of his art. The following material remains, in addition to Grieg’s concerto and this disc:

  • BEETHOVEN: Concertos #2, #3, #4, #5, Choral Fantasy (opening piano solo truncated as the engineer thought the piece began with the tutti!)
  • BRAHMS: Concerto #1
  • MOZART: Concertos #20 (K.466) and #24 (K.491) with parts missing
  • SAINT-SAENS: Variations on a theme of Beethoven for 2 Pianos (incomplete)
  • SCHUMANN: Concerto
  • TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Trio

There are few surviving pupils of Eisenberger to be found and fewer who can recall his teaching and character. Sylvia Heschel Strauss of New York studied with him in the early 1940’s. The following interview helps reconstruct his character:

I have a letter from Severin Eisenberger, dated January 16, 1945. He mentions having heard some pianists who played recently at Town Hall: “They all play very fast and loud. The result is that maybe the next day somebody plays still faster and louder. If this is all what music represents, then I give up. The critics seem to wait for someone who is able to make nice music and is also a good technician.” He once heard a concert by a well-known pupil of Schnabel: “It was stunning . . . it was so bad.” That was his way of remarking. Eisenberger was with Leschetizky during Schnabel’s time there. He dwelled on the music- the technique came with it. He had the same approach as Karl Ulrich Schnabel. From the music itself, the technique came, the way to do it becomes apparent. Just to be in his presence was to play better. Something exuded from him that was so inspiring, so musical, the way he talked, his face, just everything. His students had a big approach to music: the sound was grand. He was against competitions, he wasn’t sure that they were straight- forward, that too much happened behind the scenes. “It’s easy to get to the top but harder to stay there.” He would play from the works: just to hear him in a few bars was wonderful. I once studied Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata [Op. 31#2]: I took the last movement to Steuermann. He wanted it as a rhythmic gesture. With Eisenberger it was more musical. I worked with many prominent teachers but none were as musical as Eisenberger. One time he said “It’s worth all the work that goes into it for the few moments of inspiration that come to you on the stage.”

© Allan Evans, 1996