BY H. E. Krehbiel
|Jan Kubelik by Cecilia Beaux|
For a year the English-speaking world has rung with the name and fame of Jan Kubelik, a marvelous violin-player, who is keeping bright the lustrous traditions of his native Bohemia and provoking dreams of metempsychosis and the reincarnation of Paganini and other wizards of the bow. He is a mere youth, yet younger in all outward evidences of worldly and emotional experiences than his years betray. A lad of humble origin, like his great countryman Dvorak, but one whose physical characteristics tell of election, selection, ordination, and predestination by nature for the large role which he has begun to play in the history of musical virtuosoship in the twentieth century: a face singularly gentle and sensitive, but always collected and reposeful; a body lithe, supple, shapely as a fabled wood-nymph's; sinewy arms such as a violinist needs must have, for there is much concentrated athleticism in his work; fingers which do not outwardly betray their nervous muscularity, fleet in movement, automatically accurate in action, long and tapering, so that they may dance over the finger-board fleetly, daintily, securely, dividing off the vibrating segments of the strings unerringly, fluttering in the trills with the tremulous rapidity of a locust's song. His bearing on the stage, obviously unstudied, proclaims individuality in every phase. He walks and stands with the upper part of his body pitched forward. He violates one of the fundamental rules of violin technics by disposing the weight of his body between both feet instead of resting it solidly on the left side where the tone is formed, thus leaving the right, whose mission is tone-production, free and flexible. With his right foot advanced, he rocks back and forth under the stimulus of his music instead of swaying sidewise, as is the distressing habit of so many violinists; but the movement is slight and not disturbing to enjoyment.
Kubelik was born son to a poor market-gardener in a village near Prague on July 5, 1880. Music is almost an essential element in the life of the Czech, and it is not strange that the poor gardener was an amateur violinist and set his son to studying the instrument when he was five years old. The keen eyes of parental affection had foreseen the bent of the child's genius, but they closed in death just as the lad of eighteen put his foot upon the threshold of his career. The father died in poverty, but in the conviction that wealth and fame awaited his son. The boy studied six years at the conservatory in Prague, and stepped out of its doors a master of the technical part of violin-playing in 1898. Budapest, Vienna, and other cities in Austria, Italy, Hungary, and Rumania were the scenes of his first triumphs, but fame and riches greeted him with fabulous generosity when he appeared in London in June, 1900. There he became an object of adoration, and such he remains today.
As an artist Kubelik embodies the spirit of the age into which he was born. Musically this is not a creative age. It is the age of science, of politics, of commerce. It is shod with iron. The flowers of art do not and cannot spring up in its path. Indescribably brilliant, but hard and cruel, are the sparks which it strikes out in its thunderous progress. It is in all things the period of tremendous technical achievement; and such a period, since the world began and in all the arts, has been contemporary with a period of decay in production. The age of the virtuoso is not that of the creative artist. In music, performance is not exposition merely; it is also creation. The productive act does not stop with the composer as it does with the painter, sculptor, and architect; it is carried over to the interpreter, whose work must be in a lofty sense re-creative if he wishes to lay claim to the proud title of artist. In this aspect of the case Kubelik is disappointing, as most youthful virtuosi are.
He has not yet learned to think maturely, nor been made to feel profoundly. But his is a prodigious capacity for expression. There is nothing that the violin has been asked to say that he cannot bring to utterance in a manner that compels amazed attention. His genius is, as yet, unclarified and unconscious of the whole loftiness of its mission; but it is amazing. It comprehends and masters all technical means. It evokes a tone essentially beautiful and wondrously large. It speaks with a voice like that of the daemon of Socrates, but also like that of the demon that Paganini used to delight in conjuring up. The ease with which he conquers the most appalling difficulties is bewildering, and imbues his music with a fine sense of repose, which, however, departs more and more as the music approaches the simple, soulful song-style. When broad, cantabile moments are reached the immature Oriental sentimentalist comes to the fore. He is young and living in the excitement of a phenomenal success. His violinistic legerdemain has turned the heads of thousands, and he takes somewhat too great delight in the mere vanquishing of difficulties; but the attributes of greatness are always evident in his playing even when the music is paltry. He is imperturbable in his maintenance of tempi and his command of rhythms. His double-stopping is impeccable. No player of recent years has approached his mastery of harmonics. The accord between his bow-arm and left hand is automatically perfect, and his tone a miracle in its fullness and sonority, also in its purity and sensuous loveliness when unforced. In short, he is a wonderful youth, a reincarnation of Paganini rather than any master of the last half-century; and if he shall turn out to be the greatest violinist of the next half-century his severest critics to-day will not be surprised.
From the Century Magazine, 1902.