The career of Leopold Auer (1845-1930) spanned two centuries. Not only did this gifted musician create memorable performances of his own, he also taught some of the world's most renowned violinists, including Jascha Heifetz.
Auer's life in Russia extended from the rule of the czars until the early days of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The last 13 years of his life were spent in the United States, where he continued performing and teaching. The man whose acquaintances included most of the celebrated musicians of 19th century Europe, from Johann Strauss to Clara and Robert Schumann and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, ended his life believing that the future of music would be in America.
A Talented Prodigy
Leopold Auer was born in the small Hungarian town of Veszprem on June 7, 1845. His father's skill as a house painter, both of exterior work and interior (when the craft of painting walls was an artist's realm), took him into the most elite social circles of his day. Auer's father was popular among aristocrats and the rich citizens of the town, as well as among the wealthy clergy in the surrounding countryside. In the course of conversations with his aristocratic patrons, he would mention that he had a son with a gift for music. Auer attended school in Veszprem until the age of eight, when he was sent to the Budapest Conservatory to study the violin. From there he went to the conservatory in Vienna, studying with Professor Joseph Helmesberger, a renowned quartet player. Auer also began harmony and orchestra ensemble classes.
In 1858, when he was 13 years old, Auer began his performance career. Without the money available to continue his studies, he began travelling as a child prodigy in order to earn money for his family's support in Hungary. Auer describes those days in his memoir when he notes that, "We had neither money nor any fixed plan, and knew nothing at all about conducting an enterprise such as the one we had in mind… . We found a pianist as needy as ourselves to share our scanty meals, and with this acquisition were ready to play the part of ambulant artists in search of a fortune in Hungary…" Their first stop was the city of Gran, only a few hours from Vienna. With a famous cathedral where the cardinal-primate of Hungary resided, Gran seemed a good choice for someone with limited funds for travel. In order to make contacts among the local elite, they enlisted the assistance of the town pharmacist. Because no music store or orchestra hall existed, he was the likeliest choice to introduce and promote Auer and his music. Publicity came from those in whose drawing rooms he had entertained. The trio traveled by horseback, kept away from the larger cities along the railroad, moving throughout Hungary this way for two years. Auer had only his papers from the Vienna Conservatory and spoke of Paris as his destination in order to win over anyone who might be skeptical of his gift or intent. Their journey took them to Germany and Holland
Auer and his father arrived in Paris in 1861. They dropped their cards of introduction at the home of Jean-Delphin Alard, the most renowned professor of violin at the Paris Conservatory. It was a common practice in educated and polite society of that era for visitors to leave cards, not unlike modern-day business cards, when stopping by to see a friend or stranger. Auer's plans to stay in Paris were interrupted a few months later when friends who were in touch with violin master, Joseph Joachim, encouraged him to come to Hanover, Germany. Auer spent time there among the greatest musicians of his day including, Richard and Johann Strauss, and Johannes Brahms.
A Russian Appointment
1868 was an important year in the life of the young musician. Nicolai Zaremba, director of the St. Petersburg (Russia) Conservatory of Music, interviewed Auer and offered him a three-year contract as a professor at the Conservatory and a place as soloist in the court of the Grand Duchess Helena. Auer accepted both positions, recalling that the court of the Grand Duchess was where Rubinstein himself had begun his career.
Auer remained in Russia, eventually becoming a subject of the Czar, an equivalent to establishing citizenship. He established an illustrious career as a professor at the Conservatory. He sat on the Imperial Russian Musical Society board that awarded Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky a prize of 500 rubles for his opera, Kunets Vakula, in 1876. That same year, during his first visit to Warsaw, he met the remarkable pianist, Jean Paderewski. Auer also established the first string quartet in Russia.
Auer's students and musician acquaintances he made in St. Petersburg came to read like a list of the world's finest musicians. In 1902, Efrem Zimbalist and Mischa Elman entered the Conservatory. Later in that decade, Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein became beneficiaries of his teaching expertise. During those years in Russia he was able to meet one of his longtime idols, the composer Franz Liszt. Auer was witness to history when the distribution of a gift to peasants at the royal coronation of Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra incited a riot. Hundreds of peasants were trampled to death.
Life in America
The Russian Revolution of 1917 changed the face of Russia forever and forced Auer's depature the following year. He left for New York on February 7, 1918, arriving ten days later. Auer was 73 years old. He carried with him two trunks and his Stradivarius violin. His many former pupils greeted him with open arms and a warm reception, including Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist, Jascha Heifetz, and Max Rosen. Performances in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia were enormously acclaimed. Auer went on to teach at the Institute of Musical Art in New York City and at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
In 1926, Auer became a U.S. citizen, once again finding a niche to satisfy his talent and passion for his art. When he put his memories into a book, My Long Life in Music, in 1924, Auer said, "All that remains is my recollections, those memories deeply graven in my mind, an invisible cupboard lined with innumerable drawers, from which I have taken out and set down in the following pages whatever seemed worthy of recording for those interested in the musical life of Russia since the middle of the nineteenth century." Auer died on July 15, 1930 in New York City at the age of 85.
Further Reading on Leopold Auer
Auer, Leopold. My Long Life in Music, Duckworth & Co., 1924.
Auer, Leopold. Violin Playing as I Teach It, Lippincott, 1960.
American Record Guide, March-April 1992.
The New York Times, August 12, 1990.
Auer, Leopold. Available at: http://www.funkandwagnalls.com.
Auer, Leopold. Available at: http://www.cbs.infoplease.com.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, 5th edition, 1993. Available at: http://web6.infotrac.galegroup.com.