I recently came across a privately printed volume of memoirs by Edward N. Bilbie, entitled Experiences of a Violinist at Home and Abroad. It includes descriptions of some of the violin virtuosos of the day and life in Berlin in the 1880s and ’90s. The author was born in 1865, studied violin for seven years at the School of Music at Ann Arbor, and continued his training in Berlin for three years. He started by going to the Stern Conservatory, where he was accepted as a pupil of Emile Sauret in 1888. He had two lessons a week with Sauret for almost three years, and then took lessons with Emanuel Wirth, the violinist of the Joachim Quartet. The little that I have read about Wirth as a player and teacher consists of mostly negative comments by George Lehman and Carl Flesch. Bilbie, however, had a positive experience.
Emanuel Wirth as a teacher
As Sauret accepted a position in London near the end of my third year, I went to Emanuel Wirth, a Bohemian, and finished out the year with him. I found him to be far the best teacher I had ever had, a clean cut player with fine bow technique, who employed all the nuances but played without what is called feeling. I imagine he had no sense of humor and but little imagination. He treated me well probably because I was big, he being about six feet two and weighing two hundred and fifty pounds. His little pupils led dogs’ lives unless he took a special liking to them in which case he only elbowed them around in a friendly way. He used his elbow as a turkey uses its wings, and literally pushed small people all around the room with a flapping motion, gazing fiercely in and close to their faces and saying, “If you would play the Violin (flap, flap) you must be industrious (flappety, flap), use sense and reason (flap, flap, flap), etc.” He regarded feeling as a disease and is reported to have said to a pupil, “Sie spielen mit viel zu viel gefuhl.” Of all the things he taught there was but one way, his way. This was an element of excellence in his teaching for he made the pupil do each certain thing in a certain way and it was always a good way, rational, logical, and balanced. Pizzicatos, harmonics, ponticello, and all other meretricious effects he abhorred. They might have been sinful or as Leigh Hunt says, “wicked, sad, and weak.” He taught Spohr until some pupils hated the very name. One pupil always spelled it Spoor and added sotto voce “track of a beast.”Edward Normanton Bilbie, Experiences of a Violinist at Home and Abroad (Pittsburgh: Manchester Printing Co., 1921), 8-9.
You could always tell a Wirth pupil by his appearance. He looked rejected, dejected, neglected, but give them time and they got to be good players. I do believe he could never understand why the Lord let the French compose music. I am not speaking of Wirth with ill feeling or bitterness—he was my best teacher and I liked him and respected him. I liked him as well as one could like a person who had so few of the ordinary attributes of a human being. He was a superman I imagine. Wilhelmj said of him, “He is the greatest living teacher of the violin.” If I am a good teacher, it is more due to Wirth than all the others put together. He was a pupil of Bennewitz, who also taught Sevcik. I have one story to tell of Wirth. A young English pupil came one day and laid a huge stick on the piano. Wirth said, “What is that for?” “For you, if you maul me around as you did last week,” said the pupil. Wirth roared with laughter and treated the boy finely ever after.