Above the piano in the barn behind our home, there hang two photographs that tell a story of music from a different time.
One photograph is about a 100 years old, of a young woman elegantly dressed, confident, her eyes open wide. She is Emily Gresser, my husband’s grandmother, with her violin on her lap, poised to play.
The other image is of Jascha Heifetz, who would be 119 today, soon after his momentous Carnegie Hall debut in 1917. He sits in profile, dressed in formal attire, with curls crowning his aquiline features. The photo is inscribed by Heifetz: “To Emily Gresser, in kind remembrance.”
Emily Gresser had grown up with three brothers in her family home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where her parents had settled after fleeing czarist Russia. The Gresser children were steeped in literature and the arts. Gresser’s father owned a bookshop, and in those early years of the 20th century, music could be heard all over the city, played by dozens of large and small symphony orchestras, chamber music groups, choral societies, quartets, and oratorio societies. In the recital halls and concert venues the Gressers were in frequent attendance.
Drawn to the violin, Emily began taking lessons when she was 6. She studied first with Carl Tollefsen, founder of the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society. As the Gressers’ store also sold music books, they met most of the musicians who lived in or passed through their neighborhood. Through these connections Emily auditioned for various prominent violin teachers and was accepted as a pupil to Sam Franko.
Franko was a distinguished violinist and composer, who himself had studied with Joseph Joachim, the violinist to whom Brahms dedicated his only violin concerto. In New York, Franko was leading a generation of American-born musicians, to counter the notion that only Europe could produce premier musical talent. In 1894, he founded the American Symphony Orchestra, outfitted with only American musicians. Widely popular, they performed the works of old masters and more obscure compositions.
In addition, Franko served as a conductor for the Children’s Orchestra at the Educational Alliance in downtown Manhattan, where Emily soon began to play as a featured soloist. Several prominent figures heard her there, including Maud Powell, the first American female violinist of international rank, and Booker T. Washington. After one performance, Mark Twain told the young performer: “My child, you do not know how much joy this evening gave me, how I enjoyed your playing.”
Emily’s talent gained attention, and she was eventually offered full scholarships to Barnard and Vassar. Faced with the most difficult choice, music or university, she chose music. Franko accepted the challenge to assume full responsibility for Emily’s professional development. In the spring of 1910, the “pupil of Sam Franko,” as one New York City paper noted, made her debut in Mendelssohn Hall, and by that summer, despite Franko’s nascent effort to make America the premier destination for young musicians, Emily and her teacher were off to Europe.
That summer was Emily’s introduction to the remnants of European aristocratic life, and her letters home provide a glimpse into the world of wealth and privilege on the cusp of dissolution. At the palace of the Duke and Duchess of Schwarzburg-Sonderhausen, she performed for more than two hours, after which the Grand-Duchess of Mecklenburg came up to the young violinist to offer a kiss of appreciation.
Now joined by Franko in Berlin to continue her studies, Emily lived in a pension for young women at the Stern Conservatory. She mastered the Tchaikovsky concerto and played Bach for her own solace. Other American musicians made the pilgrimage to Europe, talented musicians who circled around one another, studying together, performing, accompanying and growing up. The lone woman among the group, Emily and the Americans traveled all over Europe, and back and forth to America. She earned commissions, and with Franko as her traveling companion performed in Amsterdam, Leipzig, Hamburg, Cologne, and Munich.
By the summer of 1914, Emily, now 20, wrote, “News of war is everywhere.” Then, no letters from her for almost six weeks. In New York, the Gressers were worried. Emily and Franko were making their way back across Europe to Switzerland where they found lodgings in St. Moritz. The hotels were overwhelmed, with no rooms, no food, everyone camping out on the verandas and terraces.
Finally, the Gressers learned that Emily was safe and she was told to return immediately to Berlin. She left her trunk and all of her belongings behind, and only with her violin, squeezed onto a crowded train headed to Berlin. Franko left Emily, and headed toward Italy. Alone, she spent two weeks traveling, encountering soldiers everywhere, many already maimed and wounded. In Berlin, amid chaos and commotion and uncertainty, James Gerhard, the American ambassador in Germany, arranged for Emily’s passage to Holland. She sailed to Rotterdam, and from there to England, where she found London under siege. After landing in a small, crowded hotel, she secured a seat on an old steamer, and returned to America.
For the next several years, while war raged in Europe, Emily toured the States from coast to coast with the French singer Yvette Guilbert and continued as a solo performer. In New York, Emily began hearing the name of another rising violinist, Jascha Heifetz, who himself had fled a besieged Europe for America. It was in the fall of 1917 when Heifetz, then just 16 years old, took to the stage of Carnegie Hall. The audience went wild, with screaming bravos that shook the walls of the auditorium. The critics reported widely that his playing was like nothing ever heard before.
The show made Heifetz a star, and he became quick friends with Emily Gresser, Sam Franko, and the city’s prominent performers. They practiced together often, and sometimes performed on the same program.
Emily’s career was still going full throttle, on tour with Guilbert and at home in New York, where she played at the 100th Anniversary Celebration of Karl Marx in Carnegie Hall. Emily also performed for American soldiers in hospitals and in their training grounds in upstate New York. In 1918, peace came to Europe and the Great War was declared over. Emily and her family rejoiced. Her brother Albert, who had fought in France, returned home. Music was played even more joyfully.
In 1920, Emily married the writer David Liebovitz, and soon had two children at home. As they grew, she gave up performing professionally, but continued to play for her loved ones and with her friends. In 1936, Emily and David bought a large estate in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Her friend Jascha Heifetz was in nearby Redding. Frequently, on weekends and during the summer, Emily could be found in the Heifetz Music Barn where with other friends they practiced and performed informal concerts. Heifetz moved to California a decade later, while Emily remained on the East Coast until her death in 1981.
When my husband and I were looking for a country home, we gravitated to the area where he spent summers with his grandmother Emily. We happened upon a beautiful property only to learn that it was the former Heifetz home. Today we live there and have lovingly restored the Music Barn. The spirits of Emily and Jascha inhabit the place, smiling down on us as the piano is played, singing and laughing and making music.
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