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Page history last edited by Phyllis Gestrin 10 years, 7 months ago
Hans Kindler Triptych
Maestro Kindler Count Vlad Kindler Wild & Krazy Kindler



Hans Kindler Biography 


            "Music at one and the same time absorbs one's energy, one's

            intelligence, one's emotional feeling, and one's troubles.

            That's a happy state to be in and a good path in life to be on."

                                                                                                Hans Kindler


A bust of Hans Kindler graces the doorway to the music division of the main public library in Washington, D. C. The path of his life led to this city in 1931, where he flourished for nearly two decades. Hans Kindler's legacy to Washington thrives today in the National Symphony Orchestra, which he founded and conducted until 1949. One could simply observe that, like Rostropovich, Kindler "also" played the cello, but much is lost in so glib a characterization of either man. Kindler was a virtuoso who traded an international performing career as a cellist for the conductor's baton. The first part of the article on Kindler will focus on his early studies and success as a cellist.  The later sections of the article will describe his work with the National Symphony and his other contributions to cultural life in Washington.


The Early Years


Hans Kindler was born in 1892 into a musical family in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. His mother, Johanetta, played and taught piano with unusual ability, and his father, Johan, was a virtuoso on the oboe and English horn. Young Hans' early childhood amusements included a passion for the American Indian, with he and his young friends playing the roles of Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Geronimo. The Kindler household was typically filled with more refined pursuits. It was a place of hospitality for musicians, such as Joachim, Busoni, and the cellist Willem Willeke, who later joined one of America's first string quartets, the Kneisel Quartet. Kindler credited the playing of the 16-year-old Willeke, ten years his senior, for his inspiration to play cello.


Hans' father arranged for lessons with a cellist, Oscar Eberle, in the local opera orchestra. In a biography of Kindler, by Sister Mary Butkovich, we learn Hans' reaction to his father's plan: "I jumped for joy, and he swung me up in his arms, while my good mother played 'Widmung' by Schumann in the Liszt version, one of her cheveaux de bataille whenever she felt particularly happy. The entire scene remains to this day vividly in my mind, as a kind of consecration." The child's interest in the cello was not unique in his family, given that two uncles and two cousins also played the instrument. He loved to practice the cello (but not the piano, which he also studied) and he made rapid progress under Eberle, who Kindler described as "quite a ferocious old gent."

The Wunderkind soon appeared in small concerts in Rotterdam. His sister recalled that, after his first major performance at age eleven, Hans begged to be allowed to walk home while the family rode in a carriage with the cello. He ran on ahead and the family was surprised, on returning to their own street, to find him with ten young friends, "squatting in a circle and singing Indian chants." Apparently music never eclipsed Indians as a childhood passion. When Busoni gave him an autographed picture of himself, Hans was in conflict, his sister reported. "We did not realize the problem this posed for Hans until we peeked into his room later and saw him alternating the picture of Busoni with that of an Indian who already held the place of honor on his wall. He could not decide which was more worthy of his attention."


The family rejected an early offer of a concert tour for the boy, preferring that he have a more normal childhood with uninterrupted academic studies. One concession, perhaps not so small for a Dutchman, was that he gave up ice-skating, after an inconsequential mishap left him concerned about the prospect of injury to his hands.


The Career Begins


Kindler entered the Rotterdam conservatory with a zest for his studies and a sense of humor appreciated by his fellows. He graduated in rapid time and took first honors in cello and piano. At 17, he was appointed to a professorship at Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin and became principal cellist with the Berlin-Charlottenburg Opera. The following year, he made his debut as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic. He quickly became known throughout Europe, playing with orchestras and chamber groups. On one occasion he performed and toured with Maurice Ravel.


Kindler worked closely with Arnold Schoenberg and other contemporary composers. In 1912 he played in the first performance of Schoenberg's controversial work, "Pierrot Lunaire." The piece was prepared in 24 rehearsals, with the composer bringing new parts of the score to each session. Busoni dedicated to Kindler his transcription for cello of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. When Casals could not keep a performance date at Carnegie Hall, Kindler was the substitute cellist for the premier performance of Ernst Bloch's "Schelomo." He also gave the first performance of Leo Sowerby's cello sonata, with the composer at the piano.


Stranded in America


In July, 1914, Kindler sailed to visit his mother and sister who were then living in New York. The trip was scheduled to last six weeks. Before he could return to Holland, the First World War intervened, leaving him stranded in this country. Finances were a problem and Kindler lacked a reputation in America, so his playing opportunities were at vaudeville shows, non-union cinemas, and, on one occasion, at a synagogue to perform Kol Nidre.


Word came that the war had left some members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, including a cellist, stranded in Europe. Kindler borrowed money for the trip to Philadelphia, made contact with a Dutchman in the orchestra, and eventually secured an audition with conductor Leopold Stokowski. He was hired and, two years later, became principal cellist. Audiences and critics adored the handsome Dutchman, who was often featured as a soloist with the orchestra. Kindler captured the hearts of Philadelphians. One observer said that Stokowski and Kindler together dominated the musical life of that city.


Kindler supplemented his orchestra income ($35 weekly for a 28-week season) with chamber music appearances and teaching, although he never felt suited to the latter. He also dabbled in gramophone recordings, then an infant industry, making about a dozen records of short cello pieces for the Victor Company. His disinclination for teaching is illustrated by a story he would often tell about his first pupil. After six months of lessons, the young woman still could not successfully remove her cello from its case. Finally, Kindler suggested to her parents that she might show more progress in some other pursuit.


Kindler resigned from the orchestra and returned to Europe in 1920 to renew his reputation there. He embarked on a solo career, spending the next ten years in recitals, appearances with the world's great orchestras, and joint concerts with such musical luminaries as Rachmaninoff, Caruso, and Wanda Landowska. The pace of his performing career peaked with a world tour in 1929 when he played 110 concerts in one season, including appearances not only in Europe but also places as far-flung as Java and California.


Transition to Conducting


Kindler had long been interested in conducting, and when opportunities arose, he took them. On one occasion he filled in, without rehearsal, for the conductor of a chamber orchestra in Rome. Kindler came under the patronage of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who supported his appearances in the European capitals and at her festival in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In 1927, Kindler was invited to Washington to conduct the premiere of Stravinsky's ballet, "Apollo Musagete" at what is now the Coolidge Auditorium, at the Library of Congress.


Why did Kindler's interests shift from cello playing to conducting? In an interview in 1943 with the Knickerbocker Weekly, he explained his distaste for the repetitive obligations of the successful virtuoso: "To think that really great artists like Paderewski and others, at 65, would have to practice, for purely material reasons, the same pieces which they played, probably better, when they were 18 years old, seems to me disgraceful, and, to tell the truth, anti-artistic." In another interview he mentioned other motivations. He felt he was beginning to break through the limitations of the cello and make demands on the instrument that only an orchestra could satisfy. He added that he had long believed that his slender and tapering fingers and his hands, which were not very large, were unsuited to the cello.


Violinist Frank Gittleson had known Kindler in Germany as a teenager and later became concertmaster of the National Symphony. Gittleson recalled one day when the two were out walking in Berlin. Kindler announced his boredom with the limited cello repertoire and declared his intention to be a conductor when he reached his 30's. Gittleson asked, "Why, Hans, wouldn't you much rather make great music than move a stick and hope others do?" Kindler's reply paraphrased Mark Twain: "When a judge makes a mistake, it becomes the law of the land; when a doctor makes a mistake, the mistake is buried; when a lawyer makes a mistake, it goes to jail; but when a conductor makes a mistake it's the fault of the first violins."


Kindler's transition to conducting was completed in 1931, when he settled here as the founder and leader of the National Symphony. 


The National Symphony Orchestra Is Born


Hans Kindler made his transition from internationally-renowned cellist to founder and conductor of the orchestra in the nation's capital in 1930-31. Washington had suffered from a reputation as "the hinterland, the whistle-stop on the musical railroad whose terminals were Boston, Philadelphia, and New York." In January, 1930, a group of Washington musicians, battling such notions about the lack of local talent, put together an orchestra to give three experimental concerts. Hans Kindler, who had performed and conducted previously in the city, was invited to lead two of the concerts. With his personality as the guiding force, the experiment was an artistic success, but there was as yet no sustained drive for a permanent orchestra, and it appeared that Kindler would return to his cellistic career.


Only a year later, and as if to defy the country's economic depression, Kindler came back to Washington with detailed plans for the founding of a symphony orchestra. He took up temporary residence in the Mayflower hotel. Within a few months, his plan to raise $47,500 was surpassed: there were gifts from 97 people totalling $57,500. He proposed a season of 24 concerts, divided into three series of eight concerts each. One series would be held on weekday afternoons, as was the custom. The second series would be for children, and the third, requiring a small admission charge, would be held on Sunday afternoons.


The Inaugural Season


Kindler brought enormous energy and enthusiasm to his project. Auditions were held in September at Droop's Music Store. One early setback was the withdrawal of seven key players just seventeen days before the first concert, because of scheduling conflicts with their work at the Fox Theatre. Replacements were found just in time for the opening concert at Constitution Hall in November. The press described the event enthusiastically:


A muscular young Dutchman, built more like an athlete than a musician, except for a thick thatch of wavy brown hair,  took a potpourri of musical masculinity, breathed on it the  breath of genius, moulded it firmly but sympathetically  and, presto! -- a full-fledged, finely rounded symphony orchestra!


Press account of the first concert by the National Symphony, November 2, 1931.


Mrs. Herbert Hoover attended the opening concert, and Kindler's quip to the symphony manager appeared on front pages across the country. "Go to the President and ask him why he can find time to attend the first [baseball] game of the season and not the first concert of the nation's capital's symphony orchestra. Tell him I'll wait for him, and if he likes he may throw out the first violin." Kindler was invited to lunch at the White House the following day.


Success and Recognition


After the first season, the orchestra had excess funds which were returned to the original donors who, in turn, recontributed them to the orchestra. Ambitions and audience support grew in the early years, and in 1936 Kindler launched another innovation -- summer concerts out of doors on the banks of the Potomac. These concerts behind the Lincoln Memorial became known as the Watergate series. They came to national attention in 1939 when, according to Kindler's biographer Sister Mary Butkovich, "practically every news medium in the country proclaimed" that President Roosevelt attended the opening concert. Mr. Roosevelt, who rarely visited public gatherings, arrived during the first part of the program and listened from his car, where he was captured with Kindler in a photograph widely reproduced around the country. "In response to the President's request to hear some Wagner, the orchestra played the Prelude to the third act of Lohengrin," according to popular accounts, though FDR was not known to be a fan of opera. Watergate soon became one of the country's premiere venues for summer performances.


Kindler became a major presence in the city. He lived at the Arts Club, where he was a member, and later moved to 2124 Bancroft Place, off Connecticut Avenue. His offices were in the Woodward Building on 15th Street. He was a member of the Cosmos Club and an honorary member of the Friday Morning Music Club, which presented him a silver cup, brimming with flowers, after the orchestra's successful first season. In 1932, George Washington University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Music degree. A concert by the fledgling orchestra replaced the usual commencement address.


Kindler maintained good relations with the White House. In 1933, he conducted the first symphony orchestra concert ever presented in conjunction with a presidential inauguration. The program included In the Prairie, composed by Secretary of the Treasury-designate William H. Woodin. In 1934, the orchestra gave the first symphony concert ever held in the White House. On that occasion, as well as others, Kindler urged the president to provide federal funding for the arts. Mrs. Roosevelt was often in the audience at regular symphony concerts.

In 1946, Harry Truman became the first president to attend a symphony concert in Constitution Hall. The program included Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Kindler wrote to the Musical Courier that "It was remarkable that the president of our country brought along an orchestral score of this symphony, and followed the work from beginning to end with absorbed interest."


Leading an Orchestra


Kindler was outspoken on many issues, including the contributions of women musicians. While the NSO may originally have been a "potpourri of musical masculinity," by 1945 it could boast more than a dozen women players. The next year, Kindler took public aim at a statement by Sir Thomas Beecham opposing the inclusion of women in orchestras. The New York Times published his letter on October 20:


The recent statement by Sir Thomas Beecham that "women in symphony orchestras constitute a disturbing element" may be true among highly temperamental Englishmen, though I am inclined to believe that the severe [pronouncement] by Sir Thomas in reality was but one more of his verbal rockets, for which by now he is famous.


Certainly on this continent we have not had his unfortunate experience. Quite the contrary. The women in the orchestras I have had the pleasure of conducting, not only in my own National Symphony Orchestra, but recently in Mexico City, Guatemala, Panama, Chile, Peru, and Canada as well, proved themselves to be not only fully equal to the men, but to be sometimes more imaginative and always especially cooperative.


Hence, I think that Sir Thomas' jibe, "If the ladies are ill-favored, the men do not want to play next to them, and if they are well-favored, they can't" though funny is also slightly unfair, and, as far as American orchestras are concerned, quite untrue. If anything, their ability and enthusiasm constitute an added stimulant for the male performers to do as well. And as they were a veritable godsend to most conductors during the war years and I think to Sir Thomas as well, it doesn't seem quite 'cricket' (to use his vernacular) to drop them now, even for the sake of a joke. The National Symphony has re-engaged its fifteen women players and is happy to count them among the hundred musicians who will constitute the orchestra personnel this season.


Kindler was considered a master of program-making. Soloists were ever popular, and he scheduled 180 of them over the sixteen years of his tenure. Of these, 72 were vocalists and 61 were pianists. Only three cellists appeared: Raya Garbousova, Robert Maas, and the orchestra's principal cellist, Howard Mitchell. Kindler claimed in 1943 that his orchestra had played more new works by American composers than any other, excepting the "laboratory" orchestra at the Eastman School of Music. World premieres included Piston's 2nd symphony, Martinu's Thunderbolt, and Riegger's Passacaglia and Fugue. Washington premieres included the Glazunov violin concerto, played by Efrem Zimbalist; the Bartok violin concerto, played by Yehudi Menuhin; and Prokofieff's Lieutenant Kije Suite.


Although he generally conducted without a score, Kindler took umbrage at the suggestion that he "memorized" music. He explained that he was slow in studying new works, and that once this long process was competed the music became his to conduct "from the heart," rather than from memory.


He continued to perform as a cellist during his first few years as a conductor. In 1932, he performed the Tschaikovsky Rococo Variations with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In January, 1933, he played a transcription of the Franck violin sonata with pianist Myra Hess at the Mayflower Hotel, in one of "Mrs. Townsend's Morning Musicales." The audience on that occasion included Walter Gieseking and Bruno Walter. Three years later, he joined Hess and members of the Musical Art Quartet in the 3rd Brahms piano trio and the 2nd Brahms sextet. Eventually, however, Kindler ceased playing the cello in public performances.


Criticism and Resignation


At his 1,000th concert, on February 9, 1944, Kindler was awarded the Order of Orange Nassau, bestowed by Queen Wilhelmina, which is the highest honor the Dutch give to non-citizens. To balance the many awards that came for his leadership of the NSO, Kindler also had his detractors, notably among the local music critics. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter told Kindler in 1948, "You can't be any good if you are not attacked some time, and the better you are, the worse the attack."


To highlight what he felt was undeserved criticism, especially of his composing and arranging, Kindler conceived a prank. For the concert on October 15, 1947, the orchestra played Pacific Nocturne, by Philip Henry, who was described in the program as a young naval lieutenant who had composed the work "while on duty in the Pacific during the recent war." The audience reaction was good, and the music critics wrote favorably about the new work. A year passed, and then Kindler revealed a secret he had shared with a few close associates -- including Lee Fairley, a long-time area resident, who was then the NSO's program annotator. Pacific Nocturne was Kindler's own composition. The 'navy lieutenant' had been given Kindler's two middle names, Philippus Hendrick.

Mounting press dissatisfaction contributed to Kindler's resignation as conductor, announced in November, 1947, and effective the following year. Kindler was ill, and stomach cancer claimed his life in August, 1949. Surviving family members were his second wife, Persis, his three children, and two grandchildren. For his memorial service, Kindler made this request:


I would very much like to have the Musical Art Quartet play the slow movement of the Haydn Quartet in C major (known as the "gypsy") -- and also any of the better chorales of Bach...and a movement from one of the better Mozart quartets -- not by any means a slow and sad one, but, for instance, a good, fast one. In the same spirit, I recommend to my friends and near ones to eat and drink, and be merry, right after the funeral, so as to remember me in that spirit rather than to grieve over one whose life has been gratifyingly full.


Thus ended with a flourish the life of the muscular Dutchman, cellist and conductor, who made enduring contributions to musical life in the Washington area.


***Ann H. Franke authored two newsletter articles on Hans Kindler in 1992. She consolidated them into this essay in 2010.***







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