Articles by and about James Kreger

The Legacy of Harvey Shapiro (1911–2007)
Master Cellist and Teacher

Violoncello Society Newsletter

by James Kreger

Photo: Stewart Pollens


Hear Shapiro perform Scotch Pastorale on YouTube

I first met Harvey Shapiro in 1970. He was 59 years old. Leonard Rose, the great American cellist and Juilliard faculty member, had invited Harvey to teach his students while Rose took a sabbatical to tour with the Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio. Harvey already had a long, illustrious career as a solo, chamber and orchestral cellist but he had only recently begun teaching. Word spread fast that he was the best cello teacher anywhere. (Mstislav Rostropovich called Harvey Shapiro "the greatest cello teacher in the world!" Harvey taught his daughter at Juilliard and they became friends for life. That is how I met Slava.) The combination of his incredible ear, which would serve him well in old age as his eyesight failed, his absolute mastery of the instrument based on a solid technical foundation from his early studies, and a deep knowledge of human psychology was further amplified by something all the greatest teachers have: the gift of being able to get inside the psyche of the student and find a way to ignite the spark that lights the path to improvement and ultimate mastery.

Kreger with Rostropovich

Kreger with Mstislav Rostropovich and Elaine Klein
at the Russian Tea Room, New York

Photo: Olga Rostropovich

With relatively few students at first Harvey had quickly earned an enviable reputation as a kind of 'cello doctor.' Cellists were astounded how quickly Harvey Shapiro could resolve their problems. Whether it was a student's bow arm, left hand, or any other aspects of technique, he had the uncanny gift to spot a technical problem and fix it in a matter of seconds. This unique and perceptive quality in Harvey's teaching attracted not only cellists but other instrumentalists as well to listen in on his lessons or play for him in his studio at school or at his home. Violinists (and stellar ones at that, including the likes of Midori, Chee Yun and others), violists and bass players, all would be regulars in the Shapiro studio. Students would camp out anywhere he was teaching to watch and listen, knowing they would always learn something. (Once during one of my lessons the entire Quartetto Italiano showed up, and I must say I felt intimidated! But this didn't really matter: in the long run it even helped me, since eventually I learned how better to focus during times when "the vibes" didn't feel right.) Often after a lesson I would go home and immediately take out my cello just to see if my playing still sounded as good as it had by the end of the lesson. When I put my bow on the string, it felt like magic! Of course, not everything would stick but in time more and more of Harvey's cellistic and musical wisdom became part of me.

Harvey Shapiro

Harvey Shapiro was born in New York City on June 22, 1911. His parents, both Russian Jews, were poor. His father was a photographer who had trouble earning enough money to support the family so they moved around a lot, eventually ending up in San Francisco. They were lovers of culture and like many Jewish immigrants of the time they encouraged their son to study music. Harvey started with piano but was not very good so his mother, Lily, switched him to the cello. She wanted to make sure that Harvey would have a job — one that was dignified — and she had heard musicians playing in hotels and theatres and thought that would be good for her son. Harvey demonstrated cellistic talent early and when he was just eight years old, he had an opportunity to go to Leipzig, Germany to study with Julius Klengel, the greatest cello pedagogue of the day. Had he gone he would have been classmates with the likes of Gregor Piatigorsky, Emanuel Feuermann and Alfred Wallenstein (as an adult he had contact with all three and played chamber music with Feuermann). However, Harvey's mother, fearing for her son making such a long journey alone not to mention the financial difficulties involved, moved the family back to New York City — living in cold water flats in the Bronx and Manhattan — where young Harvey could study with the great Dutch cellist Willem Willeke (19lO-19S0) at the Institute of Musical Art, the precursor to Juilliard. He remained with Willeke for ten years and also studied briefly with Alexanian, an assistant to Casals.

Willeke's fame at that time was eclipsed only by Casals (he was known as the "Dutch Casals"). When Willeke was 14 he played for Joseph Joachim who took him to Brahms with whom he played the composer's sonatas and other chamber works. Willeke also played Richard Strauss' cello sonata, which was dedicated to him, with its composer. (The Strauss, recorded by Harvey for Nonesuch Records, became one of the incomparable Shapiro staples.) Shapiro termed Willeke "the single greatest influence in my artistic life." He remembered the flamboyant Willeke, also a member of the famous Kneisel Quartet, as "a wonderful musician, particularly in the art of phrasing." Willeke did not succumb to the excesses of the Romantic era but instead developed a modern cello technique and this alone raised him far above many famous cellists who came after.

Harvey believed if you had a solid technical base you could play well into old age and he was fortunate in having received such training from Willeke. When he was a young man he heard Pablo Casals, already in his 60's, play a recital in New York at The Town Hall. Harvey never forgot that concert; the noble, core sound, the rock solid technique and musical artistry prompted him to remark many times over the years that he considered Casals the greatest cellist of all. (Another artist Harvey deeply admired was the soprano Maggie Teyte, a favorite of Debussy. Teyte was recorded in an interview saying how important a strong technical foundation is and how it preserved her voice into old age. Mischa Elman was Harvey's favorite violinist. He admired Elman's tone.) However technique, as he said many times, was for the music, not an end in itself. And technique, of course, included Harvey's trademark expertise in the production of tone colors, shifting, and sliding — always to the service of the music as the primary goal.

As a young professional Harvey won the Naumberg Award and the Morris Loeb Prize and in 1937, Arturo Toscanini invited him to join the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Harvey, Joseph Gingold and pianist Earl Wild played together as the NBC Trio and his NBC colleagues William Primrose, Gingold and Oscar Shumsky formed the Primrose String Quartet, which was recognized as one of the finest chamber groups of the century. Harvey, Gingold and Primrose lived in the same building and would rehearse when Shumsky traveled to New York from Philadelphia. The Primrose Quartet presented weekly concerts live over NBC radio and recorded commercially for RCA Victor. Plans for the group to record the complete Beethoven Quartets for Columbia were disrupted when World War II broke out and the quartet disbanded in 1942. Performing with the Primrose Quartet afforded Harvey what he said was the most thrilling experience of his career, a concert at the Bohemians — New York's oldest musicians club — when the world's pre-eminent musicians came to pay homage to Rachmaninoff. The program included the Mozart D Minor Quartet, K.421 and the Mendelssohn Op. 44/2 with the famous scherzo. Rachmaninoff stopped them at the end and asked them to repeat the scherzo. (Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata became another Shapiro staple, and he recorded it with Earl Wild for Nonesuch. Over the years I learned a great deal about that inspiring piece from Harvey.)

Harvey Shapiro

When the NBC Symphony's principal cellist Frank Miller entered the army during World War II Toscanini asked Harvey to play principal, which he did for three years to critical acclaim, finally leaving the Symphony in the late 1940s. During the '60s, after Toscanini died, Harvey played principal with the Symphony of the Air, successor to the NBC. From 1947-1963 Harvey was a member of the WQXR Quartet with Harry Glickman, Hugo Fiorato and Jack Braunstein. For about thirty years, from the late 1940s until 1970, Harvey was in great demand as a studio cellist and as principal he had numerous solos and earned an excellent income. During this period many major conductors including Leopold Stokowski, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner, Josef Krips, Max Rudolf, Andre Kostelanetz, Fausto Cleva, Kyril Kondrashin and Sir Thomas Beecham especially requested Harvey to play principal for them. George Szell summoned Harvey to his New York hotel room where the maestro, after hearing him play, instantly offered him principal cello of the Cleveland Orchestra. Harvey turned it down for financial reasons: he needed enough money to support his family.

Harvey played the solo in the trio of Haydn's Symphony No. 95 on Reiner's final recording, made in New York in September 1963, and he recorded the cello solo in the Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto, wilh Arthur Rubinstein and Josef Krips in one take. The recording was made after midnight at the Manhattan Center (part of the old Hammerstein Opera house and still used for recording). When the movement concluded John Pfeiffer, one of RCA's most highly regarded producers, called out a robust "Bravo!" over the PA system. Everyone congregated in the control room to listen, soloist and conductor congratulated Harvey and it was left 'as is' — a transcendent moment in time captured for the ages! That recording, considered by many to he one of the finest performances of Brahms' magnificent melody, is joined by other notable Shapiro solos including "La Mamma Morta" from Umberto Giordano's opera Andrea Chenier (with Dorothy Kirsten and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by Fausto Cleva), "Cavatina" from Weber's Der Freischutz and "Solo un pianto" from Cherubini's Medea (both wilh Eileen Farrell and Max Rudolf, conductor).

Challenges played a big and positive role in Harvey's life. They kept his blood healthy and his juices flowing. Economic and emotional adversity intertwined. Harvey lived through the Great Depression. He was lucky to find a job at Radio City where he earned $140 per week, a fortune at that time. Good thing, too, since he had to support both his mother and sister — Harvey's father, unable to make ends meet, had abandoned his family. Once, while having dinner with Harvey and his wonderful wife Rena (a longtime first violinist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), Rena asked me about my father. When I said there had been no contact with him since my parents were divorced when I was six, Rena told me how Harvey's father had abandoned the family and that Harvey never heard from him again until he received a bill for the funeral! (In this regard, we had much in common and Harvey often would tell me, "We're in the same shoes.")

Dealing successfully with physical, economic and emotional adversity probably contributed to his long and prosperous life. An example: when I arrived at his 108th St. and Riverside Drive apartment for my first lesson in 1970 I noticed he was playing the cello with driving gloves! I asked why; he had arthritis and this seemed to help. Harvey had three different kinds of arthritis for much of his life but he didn't let that deter him. If he couldn't play with a certain finger or fingers, no matter; whatever the problem, he would always find a way out — a different fingering, hand/arm position, whatever. This was great for his students: he never wanted us to be glued to or imprisoned by a fingering or bowing. Life changes and you learn to change with it or you don't survive. Many of his students became more secure in their cello technique, especially in concerts, by learning to change bowings and fingerings depending on the demands of the moment.

Harvey had many other ailments during his life — two different kinds of cancer, two broken hips, failing eyesight to the point of blindness — but he overcame them all. His incredible ear and mind, always as clear as a bell, served him well to the end. I'll never forget how strong and robust he seemed while recording in London even though he was on chemotherapy for colon cancer. Once, while giving master classes and performing in Taiwan, he fell outside a restaurant and broke his hip. One of the sponsors, a board member of a national airline, made sure Harvey was as comfortable as possible, strapped down lying flat over many seats during the long return trip back to a New York hospital emergency room. One of his many dedicated students took the trip with him just to make sure he would be okay.

Harvey would never let such things get him down, 'rising from the ashes' time after time. In March, 1998 — already in his 80's — after breaking his other hip (!) he played a triumphant recital at the Prince Regent Theater in Munich prompting ecstatic reviews that harkened back to "the golden age of Casals and Feuermann." At 86 he played a critically acclaimed recital in Tokyo (a recording of which is available exclusively at the Juilliard Bookstore). The American String Teachers Association awarded him "Teacher of the Year" in 1991 and he also won the Schatzer Award. He continued to teach and travel until 2006 giving master classes in Europe notably Salzburg, Vienna, Engelberg and Florence. I took my mother to visit Harvey several times and she was always struck by "his fierce will to live." This was another huge inspiration to so many who were lucky enough to come in contact with him.

Harvey was not an easy teacher but much more important he was an inspiring teacher. He was not for everyone. If a student could not take criticism in the spirit it was intended that student would not stay with Shapiro very long. Some students want to be praised constantly during the lesson and want to play through pieces with a minimum of criticism from the teacher. This was not Harvey's way. Sometimes when he sensed a student was stubbornly not listening to his suggestions he would say they had better go and study with another teacher. But as long as he felt that the student wanted to listen and improve Harvey would not give up. When he sensed ten feet of concrete crushing a student's cellistic/artistic potential he would commence with 'demolition' — what many people talk about in his teaching. Since most students are stubbornly glued to their usual way of playing Harvey felt the need to break the student down only to build him back up as a much better, stronger, secure cellist/musician. There's an old saying: "The hammer that shatters glass forges steel." This, along with the development of a super sensitive ear, was at the core of Shapiro's major contributions to his students. While Harvey had a reputation for screaming, irascibility and foul language that could make a charging bear change course in midstream — men who thought they'd seen and heard it all would blush — it was always done with love. He did not have a big ego and was embarrassed to talk about himself as is often the case with great men. I learned this over time and it gave me a deeper understanding of who he was. More than once I remember him saying, "Maybe the other teachers are right. Maybe I shouldn't stop so much and let the students play through more." He would give praise only when he felt it was due — and praise from Shapiro really meant something! Of course, it was brief as we all would soon discover, because Harvey had already begun pushing up to the next plateau, constantly raising the bar and the standard, always reaching for a higher and higher level. Harvey genuinely and sincerely wanted all of his students to "fully realize their potential" as he often said. He was prepared to, and usually did, go through hell and high water to make sure that happened.

Harvey's commitment to the betterment of each student's playing was total. Frequently he would phone a student, sometimes days after a lesson, and say something like, "You know, I was thinking and thinking about that passage and playing it different ways. Maybe it would be better if you tried this." He was always thinking about these things. It didn't matter how talented the student was, only how much they wanted to improve their playing and how hard they would work at it. I can still hear him saying, "You don't have to be talented to learn to play the cello well." The challenge of getting an untalented student to play well galvanized him — what dedication! When a teacher's commitment to the student is honest and total the student knows it. It can't be faked. That unadulterated and steadfast commitment to getting his students to improve and realize their potential is the most important reason why so many became devoted to him until his final days.

Harvey was a generous man and always fun to be with on a social basis. He enjoyed whiskey and fine wine and throughout most of his life smoked the best Havana cigars. He said Willeke moulded him and he drank whiskey and smoked cigars because Willeke did. Harvey would regularly take large numbers of students out to fine restaurants and would hire a stretch limo to take them there and back. As a child of the Great Depression he knew what it was like to be poor and not have a good cello. When I played my New York Carnegie debut in 1971 I needed a better instrument for the concert. Even though I had only been studying with Harvey for a year he graciously offered his magnificent Gofriller cello saying, "I know what it's like when you need a good instrument and no one will let you use one." (This was the first time — there were many others including tours in the US and Europe and my London debut in Wigmore Hall. I realized that he treated me special and it touched my heart. My appreciation for this continues today.) He found good instruments for many students not just for cellists. Whether it was a loan or a purchase Harvey always did his best to help and never accepted a commission from the seller. Instead he would have the sale price lowered to benefit the student.

Kreger with Harvey Shapiro

Kreger with Harvey Shapiro after the latter's recital
at Juilliard in January 1991

Teaching may be the noblest profession in the world and great teachers are among the treasures of all civilizations. There is little doubt Harvey Shapiro fits into this elite group but what is a great teacher? A great teacher must be able to tune into each individual student's psyche. He must have an intuitive sense coupled with an excellent ear and he must treat all students differently according to their specific needs. Great teachers are utterly committed to each student's realizing his potential and if that commitment is true, he will earn the student's respect. In Harvey Shapiro's case it was the teacher's love for the student and the student's respect for the teacher that created a remarkable student-teacher bond and kept his nearly 1000 students in regular contact with him over the years. No matter how difficult the student or how incremental the progress he remained committed for the long haul. Harvey's students have successful positions as orchestral players, chamber musicians, soloists and teachers all over the world; we are many but we are closely knit. He always said, "No one is indispensable," and he felt that the sooner people came to terms with this the happier their lives would be. I think many of us believed him — until the day he died. As word spread about Harvey's passing — amazingly quickly, even though he had requested no obituary — no matter where people were they all wanted to come to New York to say a final farewell. He also had requested no funeral and no memorial. He didn't want people sitting around moping, going on about how great he was— and no concert. That was just not Harvey. More in character, sometime in the future we'll all probably be having dinner together, a fun celebration with good food, wine, whiskey … and cigars. That's Harvey! And he will be smiling down on us. In Asia, when someone who has lived a long, full and prosperous life passes away the preferred colors are red or pink. These colors will be in abundance at our celebration. Harvey Shapiro deeply touched all of us who have been fortunate enough to know him and study with him. A big piece of him will remain in every one of us forever.

James Kreger was Harvey Shapiro's student and his teaching assistant at Juilliard for more than 25 years. A shorter version of his tribute appeared in American String Teacher and in The Juilliard Journal.

President's Note: Harvey was a founding member of The Violoncello Society, Inc.

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Cellist James Kreger