The Physical and Interpretive
Technique of Emanuel Feuermann
Brinton Smith

Chapter 1


Emanuel Feuermann (1902-1942) was almost universally recognized during his brief lifetime as a peerless master of the instrument. Artur Rubinstein said "Feuermann became for me the greatest cellist of all time"[1], Jascha Heifetz accepted him as the first cellist worthy of serious collaboration, and would not play with another for nine years after his death. He was the cellist of choice for conductors including Toscanini, who described him as "the greatest" and said that "there is no one after him"[2] and Szell, who said that he played with "...noblesse and distinction, and with the complete equipment in the service of an artistic purpose."[3] His premature death during routine surgery in 1942 at the age of 39 brought his career to an end before he had a chance to establish the type of widespread fame that Heifetz and Casals secured, but even today -more than half a century after his death- there is a clear consensus, among cellists who were privileged to hear Emanuel Feuermann play and among those familiar with his recordings, that Feuermann was a cellist without equal. His graceful, elegant playing shows both a warm, Kreislerian musicality and a fluid and facile command of the instrument that most cellists agree has never been approached since.

Despite his revolutionary style of playing, Feuermann had a surprisingly limited impact on the generations of cellists that followed. Before coming to America in 1937, Feuermann’s active performing career prevented him from teaching widely. After relocating to America, where he was less well known and concerts were more scarce, he became more active as a teacher, eventually becoming associated with the Curtis Institute. Although he taught many students for short periods of time, his notoriously difficult and demanding lessons and his premature death prevented him from developing a group of students well versed in his craft, as Casals and Piatigorsky did, that could relay his musical and technical ideas to future generations. While there are many cellists today who have studied with Feuermann, at least briefly, there are few who count him as the main source of their cellistic knowledge and perhaps none who represent his technical and stylistic abilities in performance.

Is it possible that Feuermann’s abilities on the instrument were unique to him - a ‘god given talent’ that could not be imitated merely by studying at the feet of the master? Surely there is some aspect of this in Feuermann’s playing. No one would expect to be able to replicate his abilities merely by understanding the underlying principles. But Feuermann himself believed that cello playing of his day was victimized by poorly thought out technical habits and illogical approaches to achieving musical effects. He planned to lay out his technical philosophy in a book begun shortly before his death. Unfortunately, only a few pages were completed (Reprinted in appendix I). If Feuermann, who was keenly aware of his talent and also of what could be taught and absorbed by his students, believed that his technical ideas were indeed revolutionary and duplicable, there seems no reason to doubt him. It is curious that so many modern cellists pay lip service to Feuermann as the greatest cellist of all time and yet make little attempt to understand the fundamentals underlying his playing.

The neglect of Feuermann's legacy may be due in part to the lack of available information. Feuermann’s relative obscurity among non-cellists, stemming from his early death, has led to an unfortunate lack of published material regarding his life and teachings. To date, only one biography has been written, by Seymour Itzkoff (Emanuel Feuermann, Virtuoso 2nd ed. Schweinfurt, Germany: Reimund-Maier-Verlag, 1995), which is somewhat inadequate, and a second, by Annette Morreau, is currently in progress. The only other major published source of information about Feuermann is a memorial issue of The Strad (April 1988, Vol. #99) containing articles, interviews, a discography and related items. The discussion of technique in all these sources (aside from Feuermann’s own few pages) is at best anecdotal and is largely ignored. The question which motivated the creation of this document was, in the absence of Feuermann's planned treatise on technique, how to gain insight into his methods?

Several different approaches were pursued.

The second chapter contains a detailed analysis of Feuermann's two commercially available recordings of the Dvorak concerto. They are contrasted with Dvorak recordings of Casals, Piatigorsky, Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma, not an attempt to make any judgment as to which are 'better' or 'worse', but in order to better understand the specific differences that define Feuermann's playing. The choice of these four cellists for comparison might be debatable, but it was not possible to include every important cellist of the century, and these four represent a very broad spectrum of musical and technical approaches and are the best known and, arguably, the most influential cellists of this century.

The third chapter examines one of Feuermann's three published performing editions in detail-the Schumann concerto and -again for the sake of illuminating what was unique to Feuermann- contrasts it to three other well known performing editions of the same concerto made by Joachim Stutschewsky, Leonard Rose and Heinrich Schiff. The details of Feuermann's choices of fingerings and bowings are observed and contrasted with those of the other three performers.

The fourth chapter is an analysis of the physical aspects of Feuermann's technique as observed in the one known existing film of him performing. Again, to establish clearly what is different or unusual with his technique, observations are compared to those taken from filmed or videotaped performances of Casals, Piatigorsky, Rostropovich and Ma. General physical attributes such as body position, and cello height and placement are discussed in addition to detailed analysis of the mechanisms of the bow hand and arm and those of the left hand, fingers and arm.

Interviews with five surviving Feuermann students and his sister Sophie, who served as his accompanist for many years, make up the final section of the document. The interviews focus on technical and musical issues, but some seemingly extraneous detail is also included, as the insight it provides into Feuermann's character and life seems important and meaningful, even if not directly related to the topic.

The first appendix is Feuermann's own writing on cello playing and teaching, which is vitally important to the focus of this paper and should almost be read prior to the body of the work. Its placement as an appendix only represents the fact that it is not original to this document. The essay is reprinted from Seymour Itkoff's biography. The second appendix contains the cello parts to Feuermann's three performing editions: The Boccherini A Major Sonata, the Schumann Concerto and the Mozart concerto, originally K.314, transcribed for Feuermann by George Szell. These cello parts are reprinted with the gracious permission of G. Schirmer and Carl Fischer, Inc.

The goal of this research was to discover as many details of Feuermann's musical and physical techniques as possible and provide for all interested cellists a better understanding of how it was that he played. I grew up listening to Feuermann's recordings-there are recordings in which I have memorized every minute detail, recordings which I have heard literally hundreds of times. And yet as familiar as I was with Feuermann's playing as a listener, I discovered throughout the course of my analysis how little of Feuermann's style and methods I had been able to understand or absorb merely by appreciating his recordings. The understanding I gained developing this document has changed my understanding of Feuermann's playing and the way I play the cello forever, and it is my sincere hope that it can do the same for other interested cellists. Not that we should attempt merely to imitate Feuermann, but that we may understand the underlying principles of his technique and musicianship, in order to develop the art of cello playing to the potential that Feuermann showed it could have.

For those unfamiliar with Feuermann's life, we begin with a brief biography:

Emanuel Feuermann was born on November 22, 1902 in the town of Kolomea, in what is now the Ukraine, but at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Born into a musical family, his father, Maier Feuermann performed and taught locally on both the violin and cello. Emanuel, or 'Munio' as he was called [4], was the third of five Feuermann children. His older brother, Sigmund achieved much notoriety as a violin prodigy, overshadowing Munio in the early part of his life. In order to further Sigmund's progress and career, the family moved to Vienna in 1908, where Sigmund eventually studied with Sevcik, and Maier played in the Tonkünstler Orchestra. Munio's earliest cello studies were sporadic, with his father as teacher. He did not begin to study regularly until he was seven years old. He later began studying privately with Anton Walter and made quick progress. He performed his first recital in late 1913 in Leopoldstadt, made his first orchestra appearance shortly afterwards with the Tonkünstler Orchestra, playing the Haydn D Major Concerto. Although sources are unclear, there are some accounts that he made his official debut with the Vienna Philharmonic in February 1914, with Felix Weingartner conducting, again playing the Haydn concerto. The Philharmonic concert was reputed to have been a critical success and the young Feuermann toured with Sigmund during the next three years, performing the Brahms Double Concerto.

In 1917, at the age of 15, Munio was sent to Leipzig to study with Julius Klengel, where he remained for the next two years. When Friedrich Grützmacher died suddenly, leaving the cello professorship at the Gürzenich Conservatory in Cologne vacant, Klengel was asked to suggest a possible successor, and he nominated the young Feuermann, who began his professorship there in the fall of 1919, still only sixteen years old. In addition to his teaching duties, he served as cellist for the Gürzenich quartet and first cellist of the Gürzenich orchestra. During the following years, Feuermann began to perform throughout Europe with increasing frequency, and made his first commercial recordings (the second and third movements of the Haydn D Major Concerto) in December, 1921. In 1923, Feuermann resigned his post in Cologne in order to devote his full attention to his active concert career. During this period he collaborated with Bruno Walter and George Szell, as pianists, and Artur Schnabel and Carl Flesch, among others. In the Fall of 1929, Feuermann was appointed to the cello professorship at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, the premier teaching position in Germany, and he maintained this post while continuing an active concert and recording career. He also formed a string trio with Paul Hindemith and Joseph Wolfsthal, who was replaced after his tragic death by Szymon Goldberg. Hitler's rise to power led to Feuermann being relieved of his post at the Hochschule in 1933.

Fleeing Nazi persecution, Feuermann stayed briefly in Paris and then in London. He moved to Zürich in 1937 and finally to America, where he arrived in October of 1938. During these years, Feuermann continued to record and perform and made several world tours, increasing his reputation. He made his American debut with the New York Philharmonic on January 2nd, 1935 and followed this with a Town Hall recital twelve days later, achieving a great critical success. His collaborations by now included almost all of the major orchestras, and he finally achieved much sought after success in England with his performance of Strauss Don Quixote with the BBC Symphony and Toscanini, who had insisted on Feuermann as soloist, in May of 1938.

Feuermann continued to perform after moving to America, but most of Europe was soon unavailable for concertizing because of the war. He collaborated in chamber music performances and recordings with Heifetz, Primrose and Rubinstein. Feuermann lived in New York, settling eventually in Rye, and taught both privately and at the Curtis Institute. On May 25th, 1942, at the age of thirty nine, he died following routine surgery, probably from complications resulting from an allergic reaction to morphine.

Many feel that towards the end of his life, Feuermann's playing had reached a level higher than even he had previously attained. We can only wonder what might have followed, had his life not been cut so tragically short. Feuermann left behind a legacy of over 70 recorded works that provide compelling evidence that his level of musical and technical mastery is unequaled, before or since.


1 “As they Knew Him,” The Strad, 99 (April 1988): 314
2 Seymour Itzkoff, Emanuel Feuermann, Virtuoso, 2nd ed., p. 213 (Schweinfurt Germany: Reimund-Maier-Verlag, 1995)
3 3 “As they Knew Him,” The Strad, 99 (April 1988): 314
4 For a discussion of the origin of the names “Munio” and “Emanuel” see the Sophie Feuermann interview on p. 143.