The violin virtuoso Jan Kubelik was, in his heyday, an immensely famous and wealthy performer. He became popular at a time when the art of violin playing was experiencing a revolution, spurred on by his older contemporary and fellow star Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 - 1931). However, while Ysaÿe had made it a point to inject his playing with an interpretive depth and complexity of insight, Kubelik prized mastery of technique over depth of expression, performing Paganini-style finger twisters with incredible ease. While this approach was guaranteed to dazzle audiences, it was not designed to make a lasting impression on the artform. Kubelik, therefore, never achieved the lasting recognition that Ysaÿe enjoys to this day. Yet it would be most unfair to dismiss Kubelik's accomplishments, for he represents the culmination of a style of violin performance that died out before the advent of sound recordings, a style that was wholly germane to the nineteenth century. It is immensely fortunate, then, to have the surviving recordings of Kubelik, which provide a fascinating glimpse into an era that saw the towering figures of Niccolò Paganini (1782 - 1840), Henri Vieuxtemps (1820 - 1881), and Henryk Wieniawski (1835 - 1880), all of whom died before they had the opportunity to preserve their playing for posterity.
The life of Jan Kubelik, born in Michle, near Prague, is as much a product of the nineteenth century as his playing style. He was brought up in easy circumstances, being enrolled at a young age in the Prague Conservatory, where he studied under Ottokar Sevcik, whose notoriously severe regimen of practice contributed, more than any other factor, to Kubelik's excessive devotion to finger dexterity over depth of expression. Kubelik was quite precocious, making his first public apperance at the age of eight, when he performed a concerto by Vieuxtemps. He began touring at age 18, achieving international acclaim in a very short time, even receiving the Order of St. Gregory from Pope Leo XIII after a performance in Rome.
Kubelik came to the United States in 1902, where he was acclaimed as the "Heir to Paganini," stirring up a frenzy among audiences wherever he played. At age 21, he was already immensely wealthy, even by modern standards; slim and attractive, he was the object of admiration of many young ladies, who deluged him with offers of marriage. The following year, he married the Countess Czaky Szell of Hungary. In 1915, he retired from the concert stage, in order to devote his energy to composing. He wrote a large number of pieces, none of which met with any great success. The retirement was short-lived, however, and Kubelik reappeared in 1921, contining to concertize sporadically until his death in 1940.
Already by the early decades of the twentieth century, Kubelik was receiving intense competition from a younger generation of players whose style and technique would contribute so much to the development of violin art. It is not amiss to say that his playing had become anachronistic. Yet it would not do well to ignore the achievement of Kubelik, whose charming, "provincial" style of playing contains, in its best moments, an air of detached elegance that has now vanished from the concert platform.