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About Michal-Josef Guzikov

Alex Jacobowitz posts to the Jewish-Music mailing list:

While in grad school twenty years ago, I bumped across an historical figure. I was doing research on my instrument, and happened to find a man named Michal-Josef Guzikow (1806-1837).

[This is the same Guzikov about whom Henry Sapoznik writes in his book about klezmer, in Henry's case, based primarily on the work of Josh Horowitz - see also Horowitz, Joshua "Gusikov in Wien," Jüdische Traditionelle in Oesterreich, Vienna Oesterreichische Volksliedwerk Vienna, 2001.]

Jacobowitz continues: "I'm currently involved in writing a book about his most unusual life, and soon there will be an archive set up on the internet (www.rainlore.demon.co.uk/Guzikow/GuzikowArchs.html), Im Yirats Hashem. But I wanted to find out if anyone here has any interest in this subject. I've met Guzikow's descendants, gone to the gravesite, and collected the most extensive archive known on this Chassidic Jew, this klezmer. I would love to know if there are any questions."

Contact: Alex Jacobowitz, alexbjacobowitz@yahoo.com

This was posted by Jacobowitz to the list, about Guzikov:

Born in what was white Russia (Belarus) or variously Poland, Josef was a klezmer. A real, payes-wearing, Shabbos-keeping klezmer musician, who played weddings and Jewish holidays on his "wife", the flute, as his father did. He was even famous, playing for the Russian Czar Nicholas in Moscow with his family.

But then, tragedy. At the height of his powers, aged 25, he developed tuberculosis, had to give up his beloved flute, and became despondent. It was more than just losing the ability to make beautiful music - it meant loss of income for him and his three children, no more need to travel, no self-expression, no more playing for royalty and all that implied.

Josef had an idea. Though he couldn't breathe easily anymore, he took his substantial musical abilities - fantastic improvisation, probably perfect pitch and tremendous creativity - to an instrument which at that time wasn't known - the xylophone.

Josef had heard another chassidic Jew, Sankson Jakubowski, playing the poor instrument - at that time known as the Wood-and-Straw instrument because it was merely two and one-half octaves of wooden slats laying on rolls of straw, very primitive - and decided to study with him. Jakubowski was five years older, knew not only how to read music, but also composed. Jozef learned with an uncanny passion, and within three years mastered the instrument.

In 1834, only 28 years old, he played it solo at a concert in Kiev, and in Odessa. His audiences were absolutely astounded at the virtuosity he commanded. Fast, perfect, musical - and he played not only traditional Jewish music, but Polish music, Russian songs, classical pieces for violin. Many predicted a great success for him in Western Europe. But could the Yiddish-speaking Josef know what to do, how to achieve success in European concert halls? After all, Europe's finest pianists, violinists, singers would all be competing with him with names like Paganini, Liszt, Hummel, Malibran, Schumann, Mendelssohn.

How could this poor Jew from Poland, with his long black coat and beard, have a chance?

He decided to risk it. Leaving his wife and children home (Shklov, White Russia), he went on tour with three other family members, who accompanied him playing violin and cello.

After his concerts in Russia had been so successful, he wagered to travel West, thinking that if he failed, he could return to White Russia easily, though his goal was London - everybody had told him what great audiences, beautiful concert halls and sacks of money were awaiting him there.

First, Poland. He played on the street in Warsaw, then concerts in Lvov, Crakow, and in 1835 came to Prague. He could arrange a few concerts, but mostly as a variety performer, sharing the stage with two children who played violin duets and other musical oddities.

The German papers politely supported him, but Josef knew much more awaited him, and in the summer of 1836 he arrived in Vienna, the City of Music, where Mozart had composed, where Beethoven and Schubert were buried, the city of Strauss waltzes - and of imperial anti-Semitism.

Josef immediately arranged a concert - but almost no one attended - he hadn't known that the musical cognoscenti of Vienna all left the city for their summer homes. He was dejected.

It was at this low point that Vienna's most influential music critic, Moritz Saphir, heard Josef privately. Convinced of Josef's genius immediately, Saphir, a brilliant writer and lapsed Jew, supported Josef in his articles. "See this man", wrote Saphir, who compared Josef's manner and mien to those of a prophet. The Vienna public obliged, and Josef's twelve concerts at the Josefstadt Theater were sold out. Word travelled about this Eastern Jew - code word for illiterate, poor, dirty - who ascended the stage and made light work of Paganini's most difficult violin music - on pieces of wood! He eventually was invited to play for Prince Metternich, the Austrian diplomat who had designed the peace treaty and the balance of European powers at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Metternich invited him to play - but on the holy Sabbath! Josef considered the offer but refused, sending a note back to His Excellency that unfortunately, Josef was already engaged on that day - with an even greater King! Metternich understood, and offered Josef to play for him on Sunday instead. Josef accepted.

Half of Europe was in a furor over him, and fortunately for Josef, every city he played in knew of him, selling out his concerts often in advance. He continued to Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg. In Leipzig, Felix Mendelssohn, the most famous living composer of the time, wrote extraordinary things about Josef's ability, and came to visit him privately after the concert, and returned again to hear him in Frankfurt.

The same result everywhere - original disbelief turned into astonishment, respect and love. After the Frankfurt concert, another Jew, Ferdinand Hiller, who had converted to Christianity, wrote a letter of introduction for Josef - to the foremost opera composer of the time, Meyerbeer, who resided in Paris.

Jakubowski, Josef's teacher, had done a concert tour earlier throughout Germany and France, and many people confused the two. Some thought that Jakubowski was imitating Josef Guzikow, but it was the other way round - Josef was the better musician, though he had started very late. So a competition developed between the two men, each taking claim for having invented the instrument, which in fact they both had merely made innovations - a claim that was lost on the rush to hear these "new" instruments.

Jakubowski had played in Paris about one year earlier, and Meyerbeer had to be coaxed into hearing Josef, as he had heard Jakubowski previously. Meyerbeer, after hearing Guzikow, decided to help him, and helped him rent the Paris Opera house in December, 1836. Liszt heard Josef there, and wrote a letter, dripping with envy, to George Sand, Chopin's partner.

Josef stayed in Paris for several months, where he was a guest of many ex-patriot Poles who had escaped the insurrection and suppression of 1830-31, and every he was toasted as a true artist, a genious, representing Jews and Poles and culture despite his being anchored to a religion many thought had been frozen in the Middle Ages.

Josef then continued toward England, and since his tuberculosis was giving him trouble, he stopped at the spas in Spaa, Belgium to recover some of the energy he had lost. While there, he was interviewed by Fetis, the most important Belgian critic, who provided us with many important biographical details. While in Brussels, Josef played for the Leopold, King of Belgium, who granted him a diamond ring at the end of his performance.

Josef and his family members decided to discontinue their journey, since his health would only be made worse by England's climate, and they all decided to return back to White Russia in summer of 1837.

Feeling stronger, a concert was arranged in Aachen (Aix-la-Chappelle), and in the middle of playing, Josef collapsed on stage, his instrument in his hands. He died shortly thereafter, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Aachen on October 23, 1837.

Since his relatives had already traveled home, no money was left for his tombstone, and this poor musician, a Jew who had come from the shtetls of Poland, who come to play for the crowned heads of Western Europe, was buried in an unmarked grave at the age of 31.

Jakubowski lived much longer, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery of Strassbourg in 1873. He had a large and beautiful gravestone. On it was engraved "Creator of the xylophone".

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