The violinist Edith Eisler, who was a beloved teacher and coach for over 50 years, and a frequent contributor to New York Concert Review, died in her Manhattan home on July 18, at the age of 86. Her Upper West Side apartment was a haven for violinists and chamber music players of all ages, beneficiaries of her lifelong immersion in music, and her disciplined yet humane approach to teaching. In addition to her primary vocation, she was a gifted writer and a highly valued reviewer on the staffs of several music publications.
I met Edith for the first time in 1995, after she was recommended to me by a mutual friend who was a colleague of hers at the Turtle Bay School. She agreed to take me on as a violin student on the condition that I also make myself available as a pianist for her chamber music studio. For the next sixteen years, I met with her weekly in my struggle to master the violin, and stayed on after my lesson for countless ad hoc sessions with flutists, cellists and violinists who, like me, were both Edith’s friends and devoted students. My aptitude on the violin progressed at a glacial pace over those many years, due mostly to my spotty practice regime. I did learn to play the violin though, and more importantly, I absorbed, through Edith, a tradition of playing music, a way of hearing and feeling music that has made me a better musician.
Her teaching was rigorous, methodical, and individualized. The standard exercise books and student pieces were supplemented with hundreds of study sheets, written in her own hand, and recycled over decades to adapt to each new technical challenge. She would absolutely forbid her students to fake anything or to move on to a new piece until they had completely mastered the previous one. Likewise, her chamber music coaching could turn into month long odysseys into the heart of a Beethoven sonata or a Schubert fantasy. These composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms – were as close to her as her own family, and their works were sewn into the fabric of her heart and soul.
Music was Edith Eisler’s religion. Indeed, she observed no holidays, religious or otherwise, offering lessons on Christmas Day or Yom Kippur, oblivious to convention. She was extremely thin, with the appetite of a sparrow. In all the years I knew her, the only thing I ever saw her consume was coffee, usually cold. She often admonished me for patronizing Starbucks, when she had “perfectly good” coffee in the refrigerator. When Edith wasn’t teaching or coaching, she was listening to music from her vast CD library, on the radio or television, or more likely, at one of New York’s numerous concert halls. After her long career as a reviewer (she hated the word critic and most practitioners of that profession), she maintained free access to Carnegie Hall and most other venues simply because she was beloved by the people who worked there. Edith’s concert companion for most of her life was her mother Sophie, and after she died at the age of 101, I became one of many friends to whom she would offer tickets, in exchange for help getting a taxi after the show.
Throughout her life, Edith remained nostalgic about her childhood in Vienna, and spoke with regret about having to flee her country in order to find a better existence here. Like many displaced people, she worked very hard to make her new home a safe and nurturing place. I, and many others, mourn Edith’s passing not only because we loved her as a friend and mentor, but because she represented a tradition which is slowly vanishing in this technological age. That tradition rests on the creation of live music in one’s own home, the enjoyment of sharing this with others, and the gift of knowledge passed on through generations of musicians.