Introduction To The Archives | Guzikow - An Introduction


The Michael Joseph Guzikow Archives


Rainlore's World of Music presents and hosts the Michael Joseph Guzikow*Link to Note Archives, consisting of articles and other material supplied by Alex Jacobowitz.

Alex Jacobowitz, a classically trained percussionist, specifically, marimba player, has conducted a vast amount of research into the subject of the 19th century Jewish musician, Michael Joseph Guzikow*Link to Note, in the course of preparation for a book on Guzikow. In the process, Alex Jacobowitz has amassed an equally vast amount of material concerning Guzikow - letters, papers, articles, newspaper reports, and more. At present, hardly any material on Guzikow appears to be available online. It is our aim to remedy this situation by making this material available here. We shall endeavour to make as much available as quickly as we can, but it is a mammoth task that will take a long time to complete.

Letters, papers, articles, newspaper reports and similar material comes in a variety of languages and is being presented according to language, with a seperate index for each language. In addition, there is also a Guzikow bibliography.


*Note: Many different permutations and spellings of Guzikow's name exist, such as Michael Joseph Guzikow, Joseph Michael Guzikow, Michal Josef Guzikow, and more, with various spellings of his surname varying between Guzikow, Guzikov, Gusikow, and Gusikov, and others. In all editorial material, I have endeavoured to adhere to the Polish/Yiddish form, Yechiel-Michl Guzikow, as advised by Alex Jacobowitz. In articles and other external material presented in the Guzikow archives, the various spellings used by the respective authors have been left unaltered. Back to Original Text



Michael Joseph Guzikow - An Introduction


Just who was Michael Joseph Guzikow? Or more correctly, Yechiel-Michl Guzikow, to use the Yiddish form of his name, in which he signed himself.

Guzikow and his stroy fidlYechiel-Michl Guzikow was an early 19th century Chassidic Jewish musician from what is now Belarus but has variously been White Russia or part of Poland in the past. Guzikow can be regarded as the earliest well-documented klezmer (Yidd., musician), but to define him so narrowly alone would neither do justice to the phenomenon that he unquestionably was nor be strictly accurate. In his short life, he took the music world of Western Europe by storm, gaining the recognition of many of the great composers and virtuosi of his time, among them Mendelssohn and Liszt. Even Guzikow's appearance caused a sensation in Western Europe, unaccustomed as that society was to the Eastern European Chassidim and their modes of dress and coiffure, and his traditional "peyes" (side curls) gave rise to a fashion craze among society women in the form of a hair style, named "Coiffure Gusikov".

Born in 1806 (some sources also give the date as 1809 but this appears to be erroneous), Yechiel-Michl Guzikow came from a long line of musicians and learned the flute from his father. Originally playing for weddings and Jewish holiday celebrations as a traditional klezmer, he appears to quickly have broadened his musical horizons, and Guzikow's reputation in Eastern Europe soon grew, his fame reaching such heights as performing for the Russian Czar Nicholas.

At the height of his young career, however, the twenty-five year old Guzikow met with devastating tragedy. He was struck with tuberculosis and was forced to abandon his beloved instrument, the flute, depriving him of his livelihood and his only means of supporting his wife and three children. Eventually, the resourceful Guzikow came to make another instrument his own to be able to continue to make a living from his doubtless great musical abilities. The instrument was little known at the time, and is often referred to as the "shtroy fidl" (Yidd., lit. "straw fiddle"), a simple form of xylophone also known as the "Wood and Straw Instrument". This shtroy fidl or xylophone consisted of a number of wooden slats or sticks of varying sizes laid out loosely on small, thin bundles of straw, played with two sticks or hammers not dissimilar to those used for playing the "tsimbl" (a type of hammered dulcimer, aka variously cimbalom, cymbalom, and so on). It had a compass of about two and a half octaves.

Guzikow probably came to the shtroy fidl through hearing it played by Sankson Jakubowski, another chassidic Jew. Five years Guzikow's senior, Jakubowski was not only an accomplished master of the instrument and able to read music, but also composed, and Guzikow studied with him.

Having mastered the shtroy fidl, Guzikow performed solo on it in concerts in Kiev and Odessa in 1834. Playing a mix of traditional Jewish music, Polish music, Russian songs, Ukrainian and other regional music as well as classical and light classical transcriptions, Guzikow stunned his audiences with his outstanding virtuosity and musicianship, as well as the ability to make such an apparently simple instrument sound so wonderful and sophisticated.

Guzikow received much advice to travel to Western Europe, and many predicted great success for him there. The temptation was irresistable, and Guzikow left his wife and children home to travel with his brothers as accompanists playing violin and cello. After playing the streets of Warsaw and concerts in Lvov and Cracow in Poland, Guzikow came to Prague in 1835. His repertoire by now consisted predominantly of classical and light classical transcriptions, and he appears to have relegated playing of folk or national repertoire to encores, typically taking the form of theme and variations and ending in a pyrotechnical display of virtuosity. In the summer of 1836 he reached Vienna, still very much the musical capital of Europe then, but also a hot-bed of imperial anti-semitism. Unaware that the music-loving elite of Vienna had retreated to their summer homes, Guzikow had arranged a concert. It was the failure it was doomed to be under the circumstances.

However, all was not lost. Moritz Saphir, Vienna's most influential music critic of the time, an excellent writer and lapsed Jew, heard Guzikow perform privately and supported him through his most enthusiastic articles. A series of twelve concerts at the Josefstadt Theater were sold out as a result, and Guzikow's fame spread fast, probably as much a consequence of his brilliant musicianship, virtuosity and improvisational talents, not to mention undoubted showmanship, as of the strange fascination that he presented for Western European society as an Eastern European Jew (and consequently, as entrenched stereotyping had it, poor, dirty and illiterate) and one who performed even Paganini's most difficult violin pieces with such consummate skill and ease on such a "primitive" instrument.

Eventually, Guzikow was invited to play for Prince Metternich, the Austrian diplomat and architect of the peace treaty that ended the Napoleonic Wars. When Guzikow politely had to decline on account of the invitation falling on the sabbath, Metternich accommodated him and Guzikow performed on the Sunday instead.

His fame preceding him, Guzikow went on to Munich, Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, Frankfurt and Hamburg, his concerts often selling out in advance. Felix Mendelssohn, one of the most famous composers of the time, heard Guzikow's concert in Leipzig and met with him privately. He couldn't praise Guzikow's musicianship and virtuosity highly enough, as witnessed in some of his letters, and again heard him in Frankfurt.

Jakubowski, Guzikow's shtroy fidl teacher, had undertaken a concert tour through Germany and France earlier, and many confused the two. All the same, Guzikow continued to earn respect wherever he went, turning disbelief into astonishment and even admiration. Ferdinand Hiller, a Jew who had converted to Christianity, provided Guzikow with a letter of introduction to Meyerbeer, one of the leading opera composers who lived in Paris, following a concert in Frankfurt.

By the time Guzikow reached Paris, Jakubowski had already played there one year earlier, and Meyerbeer apparently needed some persuading to hear Guzikow. Once he did, however, Meyerbeer helped Guzikow rent the Paris Opera in December 1836. Here Liszt heard him and was prompted to write a letter to Chopin's partner George Sand, full of envy and admiration.

Staying in Paris for several months, Guzikow was to continue toward London, his ultimate goal, but on account of hisGuzikow's only known surviving score deteriorating tuberculosis stopped over in Spa in Belgium to recover. Fetis, the most important Belgian critic of the time who left many important biographical details about Guzikow, caught up with him there.

In Brussels, Guzikow was asked to perform for Leopold, King of the Belgians, who presented him with a diamond ring after his performance. However, around this time it seems that Guzikow decided not to press on toward London, and it was felt that the English climate could only be further detrimental to his failing health. In the summer of 1837, Guzikow's party decided to instead head back to Poland and White Russia. At Aachen, his brothers made their way home ahead of Guzikow, who still went on to eventually play a concert there. In the middle of playing, Guzikow collapsed on stage. He died soon after, aged only 31, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Aachen on 23 October, 1837, in an unmarked grave. (The latter on account of no money being left for a tombstone as his family had already traveled home.)

Little is known about Guzikow's music, whether he composed and whether any compositions were actually written down and perhaps survived. Only one composition is attributed to Guzikow, Shir Ha Ma'alot, a choral setting of Psalm 126 in Hebrew, and even this is disputed.


© 2003 Rainlore's World of Music/Rainlore

(Sources used in writing this introduction include the following, all hereby gratefully acknowledged:
Fuks, Marian: Guzikow, a forgotten musical genius (German translation from Polish), Juedisches Historisches Institut, Warschau, 1977.
Jacobowitz, Alex: misc. posts to the Jewish-music mailing list, March 2003.
Horowitz. Joshua: posts to the Jewish-music mailing list, 12th & 13th March 2003.)



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