M J Gusikow

If you know percussion history -- or if you have read my What is a xylophone Part One -- you will know that the earliest celebrity tuned-percussion performer was Michael Joseph Gusikow, a klezmer from eastern Europe (born in Shklov, now in Belarus).

Discounting the fact that he died of tuberculosis at the age of 31 (over a thousand miles from home, and possibly having just suffered the theft of his celebrated instrument) Gusikow seems to have had an outlandishly fortunate career.

The TB supposedly forced him to give up playing the flute, so he turned to the strohfiedel. An odd choice? -- perhaps not; Gusikow was familiar with the tsimbl, a small cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) widely used in klezmer, Ukrainian and Roma music making -- indeed his father played both the flute and the tsimbl -- and it would have been relatively easy for him to adapt the longstanding musical practice of tsimbl playing to the new instrument. Possibly he had a precursor (or mentor, or colleague, or rival) in one Samson Jakubowski, or maybe he worked it out for himself. Or -- just possible -- there was a whole school of players who had mastered both the tsimbl and its wooden cousin the gelachter, the holz- und stroh instrument, the strohfiedel . . . and played whatever was to hand.

Gusikow however was alone in ascending (or descending?) from the shtetl to the salon. He was presumably an exceptionally gifted player, but he surely had other talents beside, um, talent.

For one, he had a knack for being assisted by distinguished and influential folk. His first concert tour in 1834 took him (accompanied by some of his brothers on fiddles and bass) to Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa, where he was heard by and gained the respect of -- world number two violinist Karol Lipinski; poet, academician and future head of state Alphonse de Lamartine; and academician and historian Joseph Francois Michaud. Lipinski and Lamartine are said to have encouraged him to tour western europe, and from 1835 to his death in October 1837 he played Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Frankfurt, Brussels, Paris . . . .

In Vienna he drew the attention of the journalist Moritz Saphir. If Gusikow was an example -- a pioneering example -- of the itinerant jewish musikant, Saphir had followed another emblematic path, the yeshiva boy who cannot resist the lure of ... well, in the case of Saphir the irresistible forbidden was gentile learning, Latin and Greek and modern literature, and he plunged into a career of satire, theatre reviewing, poetry, setting up journals, having them suppressed by the authorities, popping up in Munich, Berlin, Paris, a gadfly who wrote, argued, provoked and wrote some more, who seems to have written ceaselessly because he couldn't help it.

Gusikow's first gig in Vienna set the pen of Saphir dancing. By Saphir's own account -- possibly overstating his own importance -- he was crucial in securing the ear of the Viennese public, by publishing articles such as: --

"Variations in Wood and Straw

on the straw- and wood-instrument of Joseph Gusikow

. . . . Give me your hand, most learned Gentlemen, Connoisseurs and Patrons. Give me your beautiful hand, Madam, gracious protector of the arts, come with me, you beautiful spirits, beautiful souls, beautiful hearts all, take your binoculars and opera glasses, don't be afraid, we shall attend the concert of the poor Jew from Poland, who has never learned that you need a write-up in the local paper to introduce yourself in the best houses, who has never learned to print the tickets for his performances with a finely cut gilt border, never learned to wear silk stockings when calling at the home of a benefactor, and never learned how to raise the interest of the female sex.

.... Joseph Gusikov, the Polish Jew, plays the Wood and Straw instrument. Modesty itself could not be more unassuming than this man, his instrument, and the name of both ...

..... there he steps forward, dressed in the national garb of Polish Jewry, wearing the black cassock, the black hair divided into two sidelocks, a black Jewish hat covers his head. His low gaze makes for a moving elegy, and he has set this elegy into music, transposed it into notes, brought it into wondrous sounds. On wood and straw, from wood and straw he teases sounds, sounds of the innermost melancholy, sounds of great pathos .... From wood and straw he extracts the most exquisite vibrations, the most sensitive oscillations, the softness of elegy."

Projected into the public eye by the efforts of Saphir, or himself, or both, he became the closest available thing in 19th century Vienna to an internet sensation; his portrait was published by Josef Kriehuber, who was responsible for popular images of every notable personality from the Emperor on down. The Wikipedia entry on Kriehuber, with uncharacteristic wit, claims "His success probably [stemmed] from the fact that he is a master of portraying men as more distinguished, and women as prettier, than they are in reality." The Gusikow portrait is based on a lost painting by one Eustache Choinski, so maybe he provided the extra distinction. I prefer to believe that Joseph Gusikow was just as beautiful as Choinski/Kriehuber's pencil makes him. Here he is.


Yiddishkeit and impossibly debonair.

February 1836, and Gusikow has played Leipzig, where Felix Mendelssohn heard him. Mendelssohn wrote to his mother:--

"I am curious to know whether Gusikow pleased you as much as he did me [Gusikow had moved on to Berlin]. He is quite a phenomenon, a famous fellow, inferior to no virtuoso in the world, both in execution and facility; he therefore delights me more with his instrument of wood and straw than many with their pianofortes, just because it is such a thankless kind of instrument."

Felix carries on with a little story that reveals that Gusikow had something of an entourage.

"A capital scene took place at his concert here. I went out to join him in the room where he was, in order to speak to him and compliment him. Schleinitz and David [Schleinitz was a tenor, an ex-lawyer, and was to be Mendelssohn's successor as director of the Leipzig Conservatoire; Ferdinand David was concertmaster at the Gewandhaus and the soloist in the premiere of Mendelssohn's violin concerto] wished to come with me; a whole group of Polish Jews followed in our wake, anxious to hear our eulogiums, but when we came to the side room they pressed forward so quickly that David and Schleinitz were left in the rear, and the door shut right in their faces; then the Jews all stood quite still, waiting to hear the compliments Gusikow was about to receive. At first I could not speak for laughing, seeing the small room crammed with these bearded fellows, and my two friends shut out." 

Hmm. Is there a little disdain for the "bearded fellows" here? Or just amusement? Hard to tell.

We don't know what mum thought of Gusikow, but sister Fanny heard him and wrote to family friend Klingemann:--

"A Polish Jew, said to be quite a virtuoso on an instrument consisting of bundles of straw and wooden sticks, is exciting much interest here now. I should not have believed it unless Felix had written about him, but I have seen him and can assure you he is a very handsome man."

But Fanny is no pushover. She thinks the "virtuoso" is not as simple as he seems.

"He is a regular Jew in his dress and his habits, which makes his fortune at court."

Hmm. Maybe a touch of disdain there.

"I could give you a very appropriate Jewish phrase for this, only you would not understand it."

What was she thinking of? Anyway, she gives him his due:--

"I have now heard the phenomenon, and without being ecstatic, like most people, must own that the skill of the man beats everything that I could have imagined, for with his wooden sticks resting on straw, his hammers also being of wood, he produces all that is possible with the most perfect instrument. It is a complete riddle to me how the thin sound the thing gives, like Papageno's flute [is this a mistranslation, or Fanny's mistake? -- because Papageno of course had no flute, but rather a quaint musical box] can be produced with such materials. One of his clever tricks is putting together his instrument before the eyes of the audience..."

Yes, if the audience were all as ignorant as Fanny of the actual acoustic nature of "wooden sticks", that would be a clever trick, or rather a venerable one, as the magician traditionally demonstrates that the top hat is empty before producing from it a rabbit. Ladies and gentlemen, nothing but wood and straw, I am not concealing a piano in my sleeves .... Fanny concludes:

"Altogether he seems to be a sly fox of the highest order. I direct your attention to this Gusikow, if he comes to London. We all agree that father would have been much interested if he could have heard him."

So Moritz Saphir presents Gusikow as an innocent, clueless about promoting himself; but for Fanny he is a sharp operator with cunning PR. Perhaps he cottoned on quick. Or perhaps there simply was no artifice; the "regular Jew" saw no reason to stop being himself just because he was in the public eye.

I have the impression that Saphir knows very little about music, though he can go on about it any length you like; perhaps he is the first rock critic. The Mendelssohns of course know their own business inside out, but unfortunately they say nothing about what music Gusikow actually played, and little about his actual playing beyond the stunning impact of his skill. However, we can learn more from an anonymous writer in the Allgemeine Musicalische Zeitung who ended a round-up of musical events in September 1835 (in Vienna) with:--

Finally we have to mention the concert of a hitherto unknown Mr Joseph Gusikow, who could be heard by invitation, even repeatedly, on the so-called “Straw fiddle”, or as it is called in Austria, the “Wooden laughter”. For the benefit of the uninitiated it is hereby stated, that this almost forgotten instrument consists of nothing but 26 wooden bars, laid out upon five bundles of straw; the bars, struck with a pair of wooden hammers, give different tones according to whether they are long or short.

Upon this rustic dulcimer – which is by no means delicate, nor pretty, nor endowed with much sonority – which he had spread out upon a little table before him, Gusikow, accompanied by two violins and a cello, played an aria of Rossini’s, an Allegro by Hoffmeister, some variations and a potpourri, with a level of technical skill that had to be heard in person to be believed, the kind of skill only continuous years of practice can achieve. Passages in the fastest possible tempo, every nuance between forte and piano, crescendos and diminuendos, precise trills, everything was executed with purity and taste, even elegance ­– playing which necessarily evoked not just surprise, but admiration, even astonishment.

The novelty of the thing, and the truly quite extraordinary technique, brought forth tumultuous applause, and the artist (a native of Russia, who, along with his companions, performed in a traditional national costume) was able to programme a second concert directly.

In January 1837 Gusikow was in Paris, where La Revue et Gazette Musicale printed a very similar assessment:

M Guzikow presented his musical evening last Tuesday, in M Pleyel’s salons. It was very well attended. Monsieurs Kalkbrenner and Lee, Mlle Nau, Monsieurs Derivis and Wartel were charged with completing the programme; and they performed, as always, like the skilled artists they are. The sweet voice of Mlle Nua, and the style with which M Kalkbrenner executed a Pensee de Bellini, a virtuoso fantasy for piano, excited lively applause .... As for the beneficiary himself, he has justified his reputation, which is saying a lot. The virtuosity he demonstrates upon his instrument is truly prodigious; and we regret that his skills are not expended upon a less thankless object. We regret it all the more because M Gusikow’s musical sensibility seems to be very good; his playing is always supremely elegant; his melodic lines phrased with taste and purity, and one can scarcely imagine how he obtains such distinct and powerful control of dynamics, such nuances of forte and piano, from nothing but little sticks of wood, feeble in tone and sometimes with little discernible pitch. It is a most piquant musical curiosity.

So in Paris Gusikow not only wowed the public in his now customary fashion, but seems to have won ready acceptance from the established musical world. Not everybody would be able to put on a benefit at Pleyel's (and pack the place). And though I don't know who Lee, Nau, Derivis and Wartel were, Kalkbrenner was at the very top of the musical tree, a composer and pianist with an enormous reputation (with which he completely concurred), the man who offered to accept Chopin as a pupil; (if Chopin studied with him for three years, Kalkbrenner thought he could make a great artist of him).

The writer for the Revue gives the impression that he came quite prepared to puncture Gusikow's balloon, but was totally disarmed by the obvious sincerity of his playing. Someone who thought otherwise was Franz Liszt:

Immediately upon my arrival [back in Paris] I stumbled across a marvel, a glory of wood and straw, across Mr. Gusikow, the musical juggler who plays an infinite number of notes in an infinitely short time and draws the greatest possible sonority from the two least sonorous bodies. It is a prodigious example of ‘the difficulty overcome’ which all Paris is applauding right now. But what a pity it is that Gusikow, the Paganini of the Boulevards, did not apply his gift, one might even say his genius, to inventing an agricultural instrument or to introducing some new form of husbandry to his country. In which case, he might have enriched an entire nation, whereas his talent, being misguided, has produced nothing but musical inanities to which the charlatans who write feature articles for the newspapers will ascribe incalculable value.

One might think it a bit rich of Liszt, of all people, to wrinkle his nose at playing "an infinite number of notes in a infinitely short time" but in fact we are here entering something of a hall of mirrors ... for that last smack at the charlatans who write feature articles for the newspapers may be aimed precisely at the man who -- quite probably -- wrote the notice of Gusikow's concert above -- F-J Fétis, the founder of the Revue, the same F-J Fétis who had written (in 1828) the following cool appreciation of one F Liszt (then 16 years old):

How sad that natural gifts as rare as those possessed by M Liszt are only used to convert music into a shell-game and a conjuring show! That is not at all the destiny of this enchanting art. It should touch us, move us, not astonish us. The emotions are inexhaustible, but astonishment soon wears off. M. Liszt, you are very young; you are an excellent sight-reader and already a very skilled musician; you possess wonderful fingers; unfortunately, however, you were born at a time when pianists have made music into silliness and you have been carried away by the torrent ….

Francois-Joseph Fétis was an enormously energetic figure; critic, journalist, composer, professor of counterpoint, theorist, historian, musicologist, something of a colossal highbrow and just possibly a bit of a crank. He founded the Revue Musicale and wrote and published it virtually single-handed from 1827 to 1835, when he sold out to his colleague Schlesinger; but remained a major contributor thereafter. In 1833 he took up the post of Kappelmeister and Director of the Conservatoire for Leopold I in Brussels (returning to his homeland), but he surely remained a major figure in the musical life of Paris.


Apart from scads of musical journalism and reviewing, Fétis produced extensive treatises on counterpoint and fugue, on the theory and history of harmony, on Stradivarius and the development of the violin, a general history of music, and his single greatest monument, the Biographie Universelle des Musiciens, the product of decades of research and writing; and I am telling you all this not because Fétis himself is so fascinating (though he is) but because the little two-column entry in the Biographie Universelle is not only our main source for Gusikow's life and career, but is almost part of the story itself. Because Fétis, who scolded Liszt for affectation and grandstanding, and who wrote that Berlioz "lacks the most basic capacity" in the art of music, and who "corrected" the harmony in his edition of  Beethoven's symphonies, was utterly captivated by Gusikow and wrote him an eloquent tribute that breathes nothing but respect and affection:

GUSIKOW (Michel Joseph), artiste d'un talent prodigue .... Fétis commences .... an artist of prodigious talent, was born to Jewish parents, on 2 September 1806, at Sklov, a small town in White Russia.... His father, a humble folk musician, played the flute and the cimbalom, an instrument of metal strings struck with light wooden beaters, which is in use among the jews of Poland and Russia. Joseph’s education consisted of little more than learning from his father how to play these same instruments to accompany village weddings and dances; but nature had formed him to be a great artist, and from his childhood he was faithful to the rare and beautiful feelings that animated his humble vocation. Knowing not a note of written music, he played nothing but popular Jewish, Polish and Russian melodies; but the grace of his playing bestowed upon these simple tunes a new and unsuspected character. At seventeen he was married, and lived quietly alongside his brothers, having no occupation beyond that of village musician, only disturbing the uniform pattern of his life by short trips to Moscow. His physical constitution was weak; a serious respiratory illness beginning in 1831 would not allow him to continue with the flute, and from that moment he and his family fell into deep misery. However Gusikow had occasionally played a rather crude instrument, originating from China and India, and widespread among the Tartars, Cossacks, Russians, Lithuanians and even in Poland; this instrument, made up of bars of resonant wood, such as pine, is known by the Jewish denizens of those countries as Jerova I Salomo. It is usually built to the major scale of the Chinese, with the fourth degree raised a semitone. Gusikow, forced by necessity, set himself to perfecting this instrument and using it to ensure his livelihood. He increased the number of tone bars to two and a half octaves, fully chromatic, arrayed not in a simple ladder of semitones, but in an arrangement specially adapted to facilitate execution. Looking also to improve the tone of the instrument, he thought of positioning the bars upon lightweight sewn straw rolls, and succeeded in isolating the vibrations and making them more powerful. It took nearly three years of continuous work for the artist to gain the marvellous facility that we have witnessed at Vienna, at Paris, wherever he has been heard, and to perfect his natural gift for drawing expressive and passionate utterances from his singular instrument .....

This account is quite detailed and circumstantial, and no wonder -- it came from the most authoritative source. As Fétis (rather snippily) remarks at the end of the article:

A biographical notice on Gusikow inserted into the supplement of Michaud’s Universal Biography differs, in regard to many facts, from mine; however the information I am following was provided to me by Gusikow himself, during his long sojourn in Brussels.

On the whole the account is in conformity with what we have learnt from the press reports and the testimony of the Mendelssohns. Obviously the statement that he played "nothing but popular Jewish Polish and Russian melodies" is misleading, unless it is taken to refer only to his repertoire before he undertook his tour; apart from the review in the Allgemeine Musicalische Zeitung which specifies pieces by Rossini and Hoffmeister, the Polish press (cited in Grove) claims he always gained huge applause for his performance of Paganini's La Campanella. Hmm, wonder if Liszt heard that one.

The one new claim is that Gusikow himself was responsible for the specific design and construction of his instrument. As far as I know there is no other evidence for this. It is also the kind of myth that one might expect to adhere to a story like Gusikow's. But it might be true.

Let's reflect for a moment on the technical issue of the straw-filled sewn rolls. We are told this was an innovation of Gusikow's, to improve the tone; as Fétis puts it, he succeeded in isolating the vibrations and making them more powerful. Translating into modern acoustics, if the bars are laid upon the straw rolls so that each bar is supported at its point of least vibration (i.e. the nodes of the fundamental mode of vibration), then there will potentially be more volume and sustain. The published pictures of the instrument are consistent with this intention.

What was the previous system, which presumably was prone to muffling the potential vibration? Nobody seems to have discussed this, but possibly it was done with twine, tying the entire instrument together with string passed around each bar (ideally at the nodal points, as players would have discovered), like the customary way of constructing African balafons. Or maybe the modern system of drilling holes through the bars and passing cord through had already been discovered. The internet provides pictures of some fairly rustic-looking instruments which look quite primitive but are probably not actually that old, for example:


This instrument (picture from here) combines the straw rolls dating back to Gusikow's time (or before) with the pass-through cord system possibly copied from a more modern instrument.

In the contemporary engravings of Gusikow's instrument there is no indication of cord or twine at all. In fact the implication of the pictures (and of Fanny Mendelssohn's account) is that he simply placed the straw rolls on the table and laid the separate bars upon them in the desired configuration. If you have ever played something like a cheap Gear4Music xylo, where, even though the tonebars are nominally held on pegs, they will, when struck with force, leap promptly off the frame onto the floor -- then you will have even more respect for Gusikow's technique.

And as palaeontologists become more cool if they can provide video of cgi dinosaurs instead of lame photographs of fossilised vertebrae, at this point I would love to insert a reconstruction of M J Gusikow dashing away on his holtz und stroh. The nearest I can find, however, is this.... (the mallets are right, the instrument is close enough, and the music IS by Paganini:)

Bravo Bena Havlů!

Fétis summarises the sad end of Gusikow's story with the detachment of the encyclopedist:

Unfortunately his declining health often confined him to bed for months, in a state so weak that it was widely believed his end was imminent; along with his pale aspect and the habitual melancholy imprinted on his features it all added to the interest inspired by his prodigious talent. A long and painful illness detained him in Brussels for more than four months. Barely convalescent, he tried to head back to his homeland; but he had arrived at the terminus of his career, and he died at Aix-la-Chapelle on the 21 October 1837.

An unhappy detail is provided by two further paragraphs on Gusikow that appeared in the Revue Musicale during 1837.  It is likely Fétis wrote them, or at the very least provided the facts. On June 23rd:

We have news of the interesting Gusikow, who played music of such astonishing difficulty upon an instrument of his own invention, which he called “Holz und Stroh”, as it is made of nothing but wood and straw. This inventive artist has just experienced a cruel loss, of that very instrument, which has been stolen from him in Brussels. It is alleged that the person guilty of this theft is a german teacher, named Rosenstein, who fancied introducing the harmonious billets to America to make a fortune from concertizing there. The sympathy of all friends of music can not fail to reach out to the unfortunate Gusikow.

And I cannot withhold sympathy from the also unfortunate Rosenstein. Gusikow may only be a footnote to music history, but Rosenstein is nothing but a footnote to a footnote, and all that is recorded of him is his infamous conduct. Well, lets hope things turned out ok in the USA.

On October 29th the Revue gave Gusikow his last notice:

Gutzikow, the inventor of that curious instrument called Holtz und Stroh (wood and straw), and from which he obtained such extraordinary effects, has just succumbed to a disease of the lungs, its ravages perhaps increased by the distress of having lost his instrument. Readers may recall that it was stolen from him last spring, in a despicable abuse of trust. The unhappy artist died at Aix-la-Chapelle, aged just thirty-two years.

To which Fétis -- if it was him -- added one final and touching salute to his friend:

He departs this life regretted by all who could appreciate his artistry, his musical genius, and the goodness of his heart and of his character.


If you have managed to read this far, you are probably the sort of person who likes references, footnotes and lists of further reading. So --

The translation from Moritz Saphir was made by Michael Cahn of Plurabelle Books. Thank you Michael. The other translations are by me, and are in places quite free -- when a literal rendering came out in English as impossibly unidiomatic , I allowed myself to imagine what a 19th century English-speaking writer might have put had he or she been writing the piece in question.

The marimbist Alex Jacobowitz has a page of Saphir's articles about Gusikow (in German) on his site. According to this site, at one time Mr Jacobowitz was collecting information on Gusikow with a view to writing a book, but it does not seem to have materialised.

The scholar Janet Wasserman has a couple of pages on Gusikow's biography and iconography. Some outdated links unfortunately.

Scans of the original issues of La Revue et Gazette Musicale and the Allgemeine Musicalische Zeitung can be found on the web; also the greater part of Moritz Saphir's collected works.

Discovered while I was writing this post -- the excellent book Jewry in Music by David Conway. Small cameo role for M J Gusikow.