In his newly published book, Have Violin, Will Travel: The Louis Persinger Story, Raymond Bruzan documents the life of an important twentieth century violinist and pedagogue.
Born in the small town of Rochester, Illinois in 1887 and raised in Colorado, Louis Persinger rose to prominence as a gifted violinist and pianist. In 1900, he enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory where the conductor Arthur Nikisch declared that he was “one of the most talented students” in the history of the prestigious school. Studies with Eugène Ysaÿe and Jacques Thibaud infused Persinger’s playing with Franco-Belgian elegance. In addition to solo performances, Persinger served as concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Opera Orchestra in Brussels, and the San Francisco Symphony.
After returning to the United States, Persinger’s reputation grew as a teacher. In 1930, he was appointed to the faculty of the Juilliard School where he remained for thirty-six years. Famously, he nurtured prodigies including Yehudi Menuhin, Ruggiero Ricci, and (briefly) Isaac Stern. Other prominent students included Guila Bustabo, Camilla Wicks, Almita Vamos, Louise Behrend, and Zvi Zeitlin. Following Persinger’s death in 1966, Yehudi Menuhin said,
In his good and dedicated way, Persinger has done perhaps more than anyone else to establish a genuine American school of violin playing.
Persinger’s teaching style was predicated on gentleness, warmth, and encouragement. He once said, “I have never scolded a pupil.” He was not a technical drill sergeant. Instead, he allowed the natural gifts of prodigies such as Menuhin and Ricci to blossom. The sensational publicity that the young Menuhin generated in the 1930s inspired ferocious stage parents who wanted their own talented children to follow the same path. (Ruggiero Ricci described his father as “some kind of musical maniac”). Persinger seems to have been blessed with the personality and judgement to navigate these dark waters.
Persinger once said, “I teach through the sound of the instrument.” Menuhin recalled vividly his first lesson with Persinger around the age of 7. He was captivated by the teacher’s performance of Bach’s Solo Sonata in G minor, played with an “inimitable sweet tone.” “He demonstrated and I imitated,” said Menuhin. “What he gave me…was insight into music.” Persinger often accompanied students on the piano in lessons and during performances.
In this teaching tutorial on the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, he stresses musical intelligence and good taste. Sweeping aside many of the vocal glissandos that were popular in an earlier era, he stresses clean phrasing and the importance of knowing the score:
Students of Louis Persinger
On this recording, made in March of 1928 in Oakland, California, we hear the 12-year-old Yehudi Menuhin performing Ferdinand Ries’ frolicking La Capricciosa. Persinger is accompanying on the piano:
Here is Ruggiero Ricci’s performance of La Campanella from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor with Persinger accompanying:
Featured Image: Louis Persinger with the young Yehudi Menuhin