Franjo Krežma

There are not many Croatian musicians enveloped in an aura of success in the country and abroad, connected with romantic and tragic fate of the Mozartian type, such as Franjo Krežma.

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Franjo Krežma (1862 – 1881), violin virtuoso and composer
There are not many Croatian musicians enveloped in an aura of success in the country and abroad, connected with romantic and tragic fate of the Mozartian type, such as Franjo Krežma. The fact that he died at the age of 19, after leaving his mark in numerous rave reviews and in a significant number of compositions, is incomparable with the fates of most Croatian performers, even the most successful ones. Musicologist Franjo Ksaver Kuhač presented his work to the public two years after Krežma’s death through six editions of the Hrvatska vila bi-weekly (II/6-11, 1883). He offered an in-depth review of Krežma’s guest performances, mostly the ones held in the country in the late 1870’s before his departure to Berlin to join Bilse’s orchestra. Kuhač quoted newspaper reviews and various memorial songs for him and his sister Anka, who accompanied his performances on the piano. Vladimir Fajdetić published an in-depth biography in 1982, based on Kuhač’s records, on various other reviews and the analysis of Krežma’s legacy, which is mostly kept in the Croatian Music Institute in Zagreb.

Biographical determinants and reception
Franjo Krežma, born in Osijek, exhibited great musical talent at an early age. That was why his father permanently moved the entire family to Zagreb. Violinist Đuro Eisenhuth from the Croatian Music Institute School helped the six-year-old boy to acquire a good instrument and, in only two years, prepared him for his first public appearances, in which the eight-year-old virtuoso delighted the audiences. In his first concert in Sisak, he was accompanied by his sister Anka. The Zatočnik newspaper published a rave review of their performance of the demanding compositions: Artôt’s Variations on a Theme from Donizetti’s opera Lucrezia Borgia and Eisenhuth’s Fantasy. The critic emphasized the boy’s confident performance, which was awarded with a long, standing ovation. The boy’s music-making was characterized also later by brilliant articulation, precise intonation and ease of technique, and therefore his repertoire regularly included virtuoso compositions that delighted the audiences. Luckily, one of his performances in Zagreb was heard by Alexander Leopold Zellner, who was the secretary general of the Vienna Conservatory and the Zagreb Cathedral organist Zaharija Zellner’s son. The experienced teacher and organizer immediately recognized the boy’s virtuoso talent and helped him to continue his training in Vienna. The first obstacle – which was the fact that Franjo was under the required ten years of age – was tackled quickly, since the teachers in Vienna all showed great interest after hearing his audition performance. His elder sister Anka (married Barbot; Osijek, 1859 – Zagreb, 1914) was also successfully trained in piano. Thus both children, accompanied by their grandmother and financially supported by their father, continued their training in Vienna in 1871.
Carl Heissler, Franjo’s professor and violist of the Hellmesberger Quartet, was ecstatic about the ten-year-old’s technical skills and extraordinary memory, which the talented student regularly proved in public performances and with awards he earned at the end of each semester. His playing gift was coupled with an ease of reading new and unknown pieces of music as well as an extraordinary memory. Apart from the violin, Franjo was also schooled in languages: he was fluent in German, which he regularly used in correspondence with his family and professors, but he also had a good command of Italian, some French, as well as basic knowledge of the English language. He was particularly engaged in studying music theory and, later on, counterpoint.
Franjo started composing only three years after settling in Vienna: his “official” Opus 1, String Quartet in F Major, was dedicated to his “dear father”, and his piano compositions to his sisters Anka and Ljubica. During summer vacations, which both young musicians spent at their parents’ home, they had a chance to relax and for a while forget the strict order of the Viennese school, but still found time in between playing, learning the Croatian language and spending time with their friends to hold a concert or two to show their progress to the audiences. The program included standard, but virtuoso literature for violin: Mendelssohn’s transcendental Violin Concerto in E Minor as well as Vieuxtemps’s and Paganini’s brilliant compositions based on popular opera themes (e.g. Variations on the G String and the like). In the summer of 1873, they performed in Vienna during the fifth World Expo, which was held under the slogan “Culture and Education”. The famous Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick spared no words of praise for the young virtuoso and warmly recommended him to everyone. Next summer, the siblings appeared in Zagreb again during Zajc’s quodlibets (instrumental concerts) in the National Theatre. On that occasion, the talented twelve-year-old conducted the performance of his own composition – Overture in C Major for large orchestra – and played solo violin.


In 1875, Franjo and Anka Krežma graduated from the Conservatory with the highest honors. Krežma’s biographer Vladimir Fajdetić concluded the Vienna chapter with the following words: “The graduation certificate, the Institute’s medal and the final concert qualify Franjo Krežma for independent artistic work. Always accompanied by his sister Anka (who also performed as a soloist), Krežma soon embarked on his artistic journey, which started with noticeable success, with joy and elation.” Upon leaving Vienna, both his teachers and colleagues foresaw a great future for the thirteen-year-old.
Brother and sister performed together in their country ever since their first public appearance: they gave almost 200 concerts for delighted audiences in Osijek, Zagreb, Sisak, Đakovo, Karlovac, Varaždin, Koprivnica, Gradiška, Požega, Slavonski Brod, Vinkovci, Vukovar, Rijeka, Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik, Kotor, Šibenik, Skradin, Senj, Bakar, etc. They also visited European cities: during the 1875/1876 season, they appeared in concerts in Trieste, Vienna, Graz, Venice, Padua, Treviso, Florence, and finally in Rome. A reporter from Trieste was thrilled: “The Minerva Hall hosted the young violinist Krežma, a true child prodigy with Paganini’s soul.” In Venice, he also enchanted the strict critic Lauro Rossi to such an extent that, after the concert, he lifted the artist up several times and kissed him in front of the enthralled audiences. Thanks to Strossmayer, in Rome Krežma was presented to the virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt, who came to listen to his performance in the evening. Kuhač reported full reviews of the event from Italian newspapers: “The concert was attended by Rome’s highest society and, of course, our bishop [i.e. Strossmayer], and everyone had only praises for his artistic success and his performance, admitting that Rome had not seen such an elegant and tasteful concert for quite a while.” This was followed by a list of distinguished people, princes and princesses, counts, ambassadors, and officers. He continued by describing Liszt’s admiration that put Krežma and his performance before Vieuxtemps. Anka also played several solo numbers, thus confirming “her prowess, good training and tasteful sense of music”, according to the critics.
The bad air in Rome had adverse effects on Franjo, so the family headed back home when he completed his recovery in a country house on the hills near the city after suffering from malaria. He was serenaded in Venice on the Canal Grande, and he also filled the halls of Trieste and Rijeka. His intensive touring continued: Milan, Genoa, Nice, Monaco, Marseille, Tarascon, Avignon, Lyon, arriving in Paris on March 6, 1877. There he met another child prodigy – the nine-and-a-half-year-old Brazilian Dengrémont, as well as other famous violinists who were glad to join the audience and applaud Franjo.
The tour was followed by concerts within the Monarchy: in Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Bohemia, and then in German cities. His great Croatian tour of 1879 extended towards Novi Sad and Mitrovica, after which he headed down to Dalmatia: to Split, Dubrovnik and Kotor, Šibenik, Zadar, and then Skradin, a small but genteel town with nationally aware audiences adorned with traditional red caps and thrilled with the “Slavic artist,” especially when he started playing the Bosnian Fiddler. In Skradin he also received a letter from his father containing an invitation by the Prussian conductor Benjamin Bilse to join his orchestra as concertmaster with 7000 marks annually as payment. Krežma took his time responding. He continued with the tour accompanied on the piano by Anka and achieving equal success. Still, in the summer of 1879, he accepted the tempting offer and headed for Berlin. Bilse’s orchestra was already famous at the time. They performed regularly in the Berlin Konzerthaus since 1867 and visited cities from St. Petersburg to Paris. In 1873, the orchestra was even conducted by Richard Wagner himself. At that time, the ensemble consisted of about 70 virtuoso players, and their repertoire mostly of salon music.
According to his own notes, Franjo Krežma appeared as a soloist in Bilse’s orchestra in some 180 concerts in the first year alone. The critics often compared his skill to that of Paganini and praised the enviable ease with which he used the bow, his crystal-clear tone, as well as his expressivity and musicality, although the reviews were often filled with significant biographical inaccuracies. The Belgian violinist Eugèn Ysaÿe played in the orchestra at the same time, and their concerts were attended by many famous musicians.
The concert in June 1881 in Frankfurt, however, proved fatal for Krežma, since he contracted an inner ear infection from exposure to draught. Partly due to wrong initial diagnosis, but also because of incorrect treatment and late intervention, his condition worsened significantly, and Franjo Krežma died less than ten days after the concert.
Bilse’s orchestra did not live much beyond that: a year later, the orchestra was abandoned by 54 members who were unhappy with Bilse’s dictatorship and established their own ensemble that was later to develop into the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Krežma’s work as a composer
Krežma used the breaks between tours and performances to compose music. These compositions were mostly fantasies on opera themes that not only quoted and paraphrased popular melodies, but also let the virtuoso melody flow freely. His second favorite source of inspiration was folk music, and Kuhač was happy to supply such material to him. During his travels to Italy, for example, he composed the Bosnian Fiddler for violin and piano, which later became one of Krežma’s favorite compositions. He did not neglect his favorite salon songs, either, most often set to German lyrics. Since he was born in Osijek, German was his mother tongue (he used the language in his correspondence with his father). Although he eventually learned Croatian, too, the understanding of the German language melody came natural to him.
Krežma often complemented his repertoire for the violin, which was dominated by Paganini’s virtuoso compositions and Paganini-like bravuras in the works of famous violinists and composers Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Raff, Spohr, Bruch and others, with compositions by Beethoven and Mozart, but also included Croatian composers, such as Ivan Zajc, his teacher Eisenhuth, and his own works in the program. He was primarily a virtuoso violinist, but like many of his older and longer-living famous contemporaries, he also left a mark as a prolific composer. His earliest preserved attempts at composition – Studien für Violine – are dated even before his departure to Vienna, but the additional education in composition that he received expanded his interest to more complex music genres. Around fifty songs (some of them set to sacred Latin lyrics) for voice accompanied by piano, some by chamber ensemble, choir and/or orchestra, were composed mostly to German verses, but occasionally also to Croatian or Italian. In the field of orchestral music, his symphony and three overtures have been preserved, while his chamber music oeuvre consists of compositions for piano and string quartets. Still, most of his instrumental works were composed for violin accompanied by piano, orchestra or chamber ensemble, including the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra composed in 1878. He found inspiration in popular arias from contemporary songs or operas (variations on the theme of the song called Miruj, miruj, srce moje, fantasies on operas Les Huguenots by G. Meyerbeer, Nikola Šubić Zrinjski by I. Zajc, Siegfried’s love song from Die Walküre by R. Wagner, a romance on the theme of Duprat’s opera Petrarque, etc.), memories of his guest performances (Souvenir à Steinbrück, Spomen-list, Serbian Songs – A Memory of Novi Sad etc.) or composed works with typical romantic titles (Moje sanje / My Dreams, Rêverie) and usual form-related titles (Scherzino, Capriccio, Bolero). All of his compositions contain the characteristic romantic bravuras. Franjo Ksaver Kuhač sent him various folk songs from his collection Južno-slovjenske narodne pjesme (South Slavic Folk Songs), which served as Krežma’s inspiration or foundation for compositions containing folk elements, such as Allegretto in Croatian Style (1880), and particularly the popular Bosnian Fiddler for violin and piano (1876). Kuhač put together Krežma’s first biography and the list of works, especially praising his sense of composing texture, lyrical style and his sense of melancholy folk melodies.
The four-movement Symphony in A Minor, along with the rest of the material, was transferred to the Croatian Music Institute from Anka Barbot-Krežma’s legacy, which is marked on the manuscript cover page together with the note: “Score for orchestra” and date: “Zagreb, 1878”. The symphony, however, was composed in 1877, and the entries that the virtuoso noted in the autograph score (usually at the end of each movement) do not agree with Kuhač’s (or Fajdetić’s) claim that the symphony was completed in Zagreb on July 14, 1877. The date probably refers to the time when the composer started composing the first movement. It seems that he started composing the Symphony in A Minor (“mit prachtvollem Scherzo”) in mid-July 1877, before leaving for his Slovenian tour on July 20, 1877. At the end of the first movement (Allegro Moderato, 50 pages), there is a note that states: “François Krežma | Agram 29 Septembre 1877 | 10 heures du soir,” meaning the movement was completed in Zagreb on September 29, right before he left for another tour to Bohemia (the first concert in Koprivnica took place on October 22, 1877). He began working on the second movement – Scherzo (pp. 51-68, and then the Trio) the day he arrived to Kiseg (note: “Güns, 27/10 1877”), where he performed with his sister on the following day. He continued the work in Mikulov (note: “Nikolsburg 31/10 1877”), where he performed on November 3 and 7, 1877. The instrumentation was done only two months later (note: “Instrumentirt Paris 7 Januar 1878”). The only information contained in the third movement – Andante – (pp. 1-27) is about its instrumentation in Zagreb on January 31, 1879. However, there is no information on the date it was composed. The final movement – Finale – Presto (pp. 28-88 and a five-page insert) – was composed in Trieste on February 6, 1878 and scored in Zagreb on February 15, 1879). Early in 1878, Krežma was completing his Bohemian tour and made a short trip to Italy. He held recitals there, including one in Trieste on February 7, 1878 on his way back to Croatia. This was followed by a series of concerts in his homeland. In the meantime, he published 12 songs for soprano and piano (Op. 3) in Vienna and composed various pieces for violin, orchestral and chamber compositions, and numerous songs. In the autumn of 1878, Anka fell ill, so they cancelled their tours until spring 1879. Franjo obviously used this time to complete the instrumentation of his Symphony, while occasionally performing with chamber ensembles or an orchestra. Before the third movement, Krežma lists all the instruments that should participate in the performance of the composition. The list can be used as instructions for performers today (2 fl, 2 ob, 2 cl, 2 bsn, 2 tpt, 4 hn, 3 tb, timp, 5 vln 1, 5 vln 2, 4 vla, 3 vc, 3 db).
It seems, therefore, that the dates of other Krežma’s works should also be checked, since Kuhač did not have his hands on many of them when he was putting together the list of his compositions.
With the Symphony, Krežma joined the small circle of composers for orchestra in the Kingdom of Croatia, particularly in Zagreb, which was limited to orchestral works by Wisner-Morgenstern and Lisinski on the one hand and Ivan Zajc on the other. It was in 1876, not long before Krežma, that Zajc completed his four-movement symphonic piece (Sinfonisches Tongemälde), and they both tried their hand at shorter orchestral compositions before that. It was precisely Zajc – soon after taking over the Croatian National Theatre’s opera department – who made possible more-or-less regular presentations of orchestral works with his quodlibets. Before his arrival in Zagreb, there was no permanent orchestral ensemble nor an appropriate output by local composers.
Krežma was obviously increasingly occupied with composing. We can only suppose that he imagined completely dedicating himself to composing at an older age, after establishing an adequate financial base for solo performances. The dream, unfortunately, never came true due to his premature death. Out of about one hundred compositions in total, around twenty of them were published in his lifetime and immediately after his death, in Zagreb, Ljubljana, Vienna, Osijek and Sušak. Most of his legacy is archived in the Croatian Music Institute in Zagreb and still awaits to be brought to the stage.

Vjera Katalinić (c) Croatian Music Information Centre

Citation: Katalinić, Vjera, „Franjo Krežma (1862 – 1881), violin virtuoso and composer“. Introduction to the sheet music: Franjo Krežma. Symphony in A Minor, Croatian Music Information Centre, Zagreb 2019, pp. IX-XII.