Lili Petschnikoff (1874-1957) was born Lili Schober in Chicago. She was the youngest daughter of German parents who moved to Berlin with her when she began studying at the Hochschule with Joachim. In her memoir, she admitted that “accepting this career was not of my own choosing; it was my dear mother who had placed a violin in my hand and a teacher at my side.”1Lili Petschnikoff, The World at our Feet (New York: Vantage Press, 1968), 39. She had been studying with Joachim for three years when he happened to hear her jokingly imitate the coloratura Marcella Sembrich. He urged her to switch to voice, so she and her parents moved to Paris, where she studied with Mathilde Marchesi. This gamble was not successful, however, and she returned to the violin. She was traveling back to Berlin from Paris when she met the 22-year-old Russian virtuoso violinist Alexander Petschnikoff on the train. After only two more meetings in Berlin, he proposed; they were married that year, 1896.

Alexander Petschnikoff (1873-1949) made a spectacular debut in Berlin in 1895 and went on to enjoy success for twenty years as a concert soloist. However, he does not even have a Wikipedia entry in English or German, although Lili does. He was born in Orel, Russia, attended Moscow Conservatory, and despite his very humble origins, became a favorite of the Princess Ourosoff, who gave him two Stradivarius violins, including the one now known as the “Laub-Petschnikoff.” According to Lili’s memoir, Alexander was dear to the Princess because he had fallen in love with her daughter, who died young.

Petschnikoff was an instant sensation. One reviewer was even ready to pronounce that these concerts, “though only three or four in number, have already earned him a place among the greatest of living violinists. While rivaling Burmester in the execution of all possible difficulties, he also displays a command of emotional expression, a breadth of style, and an artistic dignity which mark him out as above all fitted to be the successor of Joachim. No new violinist of modern times has made so powerful an impression.2“Musical Notes,” The Monthly Musical Record (December 1895): 282. When he made his first tour of the US in 1899, the response was similarly awed, as, for instance, in the Musical Courier: In a word Petschnikoff has repeated in America the brilliant record he has made in nearly every musical centre in Europe, and has established himself as a technician whose capacity apparently knows no limitations, as a scholarly artist of the very highest rank, as a musician whose temperament has breadth, depth, warmth and sincerity, yet whose judgment and delicacy hold his emotions ever well within the bounds of refinement and graceful utterance.”3Musical Courier 40 no. 2 (1900): 19.

In 1900 the couple appeared together on a concert in Berlin for the first time, playing the Bach Concerto for Two Violins. Lili freely acknowledged in her memoir that she did not have the confidence to appear in public as a soloist and furthermore had not practiced since her marriage. However, audiences enjoyed the novelty of an attractive married couple and the critics also approved. They played together in Berlin every year for the next four years and they played several concerts together when Alexander made his second tour of the US in 1906-07.4“The Petschnikoff’s Play: A Joint Violin Recital in Which Both Appear to Excellent Advantage,” New York Times, 17 January 1907, p. 7. In 1906 they performed the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante at the Salzburg Festival in 1906, with Richard Strauss conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, and were part of the subsequent Salzburg Festivals before World War I. Besides the Bach and Mozart works, their repertoire included a Spohr Double Concerto in D minor, Op. 88, and two pieces written specially for them: Christian Sinding’s Second Serenade for Two Violins and Piano, and Hermann Zilcher’s Concerto for Two Violins, which they premiered in 1902. 

When Alexander was invited to teach at the Conservatory in Munich, he, Lili, and their three children left Berlin in 1912. Bruno Walter was living in Munich at the time. In his memoir Theme and Variations, he recalled: a house similar to ours, lived the violinist Alexander Petschnikoff, then one of the most brilliant European concert soloists, with his beautiful German-American wife and their three children. Lili was also a violinist, and we heard the couple give an excellent rendition of Bach’s Double Concerto on a number of occasions. …Lili and the children left Munich and Germany before America entered the war. After many adventures and dangers, which put her rare energy and her irresistible power over people to a hard test, she reached her home country, where we met her frequently later.5Bruno Walter, Theme and Variations. An Autobiography, trans. James A. Galston (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), 210.

These later meetings occurred when Walter visited the US for the first time in the early 1920s and conducted at the Hollywood Bowl.

Opposite the Bowl’s main entrance stood the house of our old friend Lili Petschnikoff. There she lived with two of her children…and two ancient women: her mother and the latter’s sister. She had met us upon our arrival in Los Angeles with an outburst of exultation of which only she was capable and had given us the benefit of her familiarity with the surroundings. …She loved and cared for her children, was devoted to her friends, and, with her exuberant vitality, lived a life of unselfishness and human sympathy.6Bruno Walter, Theme and Variations, 281.

Lili’s memoir, The World at our Feet, was published posthumously by her son in 1968. The strong personality described by Bruno Walter comes through delightfully. She probably wouldn’t have chosen that title, since she doesn’t focus on the glamor and luxury that came with mixing with European royalty. She downplays her own career and scarcely mentions any of her musical activities after her move to California. Instead she tells stories of her impulsive, direct ways with relish, lingering on her exploits as a tomboy growing up in Chicago.  She has an unusual way with the English language that doesn’t seem attributable to her spending a good part of her life in Germany. For instance: “It is said that before drowning life once more passes your heart’s vision.”7The World at our Feet, p. 139. Or: “An outstanding woman, she walked forever contentedly in her own shadow.”8The World at our Feet, p. 194.

Lili was an important presence among the emigré community in the Los Angeles area during World War II. She died at age 83 in 1957. According to her obituary in the Los Angeles Times, “she was an acquaintance of the late Albert Einstein, who used to come to her house to play the violin with her while he was a professor at Caltech. In later years her association with the musical world was confined to her long friendship with Dr. Bruno Walter and Lotte Lehmann.”9Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1957, p. 42.

Lili Petschnikoff in Berliner Leben (1909)
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