Museum open online 24/7. 365 (or 366) days/year

Rudolf Matz: The Greatest Cello Theorist in the World

Rudolf Matz

Rudolf Vladimir Matz (1901–1988) may not be a household name today, but during his lifetime the Croatian cellist-composer garnered high praise from leading cellists including Leonard Rose who lauded Matz as “perhaps the greatest cello theorist in the world” (Rudolf Matz: Cellist, Teacher, Composer, p. 151). Of German and Croatian heritage, Matz spoke German as well as Croatian, and later learned English. In the course of his wide travels, he came to make use of all these languages in correspondence with leading musicians across the world.

Among the English correspondence included in the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro is an invitation from David Wells for Matz to teach alongside the famed Shinichi Suzuki at an American String Teacher event.

Rudolf Matz

Letter held in the Rudolf Matz Collection, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, University Libraries, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Rudolf Matz

Letter held in the Rudolf Matz Collection, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, University Libraries, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Matz the Composer and Husband

Today, Matz is remembered primarily for his role as a composer of pedagogical works for the cello. These pedagogical methods were widely distributed during his lifetime with various editions including translations of text in German, Croatian, English, French, and Russian. Many leading contemporary cellists praised his work, including Dirian Alexanian, Lev Aronson, Paul Bazelaire, Enrico Mainardi, Gregor Piatagorsky, and Janos Starker (Enix, pp. 151–152). However, many of his early compositions were pedagogical piano works for the students of his wife, Margita Matz. Margita’s Jewish heritage endangered her life throughout the devastating German occupation of Croatia during World War II, and Matz risked his own safety for her sake on multiple occasions. Matz’s biographer, Margery Enix, details the peril that the Matz family faced during the war:

Throughout the occupation German SS troops periodically made house to house searches in Zagreb to round up Jews and other “undesirables” for deportation to concentration camps. On more than one occasion SS agents knocked at the front door of the Matzes’ second floor apartment only to be answered by Matz himself or by a family confidant who would stall them while Margita, her mother and other Jewish friends who were staying with them quietly slipped out the back of the apartment, down into the courtyard area, and from there into deeper hiding….

When life in the city became too dangerous, they moved to the Matzes’ tiny summer cottage…. There they were safer than in the city because the SS was not omnipresent, occupying forces were spread more thinly, and hiding places in the nearby wooded and mountainous countryside were more more numerous and more quickly accessible (Enix, p. 72).

From Student and Performer to Composer

Matz did not begin his musical journey intending to become a great cello theorist. His dream was to become a performing cellist. Ironically, Matz did not major in cello at the Zagreb Academy of Music where he attended college, but rather in composition. By the time he entered college, he felt pursuing a performance career was untenable. His efforts at a performance career were hindered by two particular factors.

First, Matz was a late beginner, not starting cello until his teenage years, and even then with only sporadic lessons. Though he was a quick learner, Matz realized that a career as a performer was not feasible for him.

Second, the cello professor at the Zagreb Academy of Music, Professor Umberto Fabrio, was subpar in Matz’s eyes, turning out lackluster students. Matz felt his progress on the instrument was limited by what Prof. Fabrio could teach him.

In contrast, the violin students of Professor Václav Huml impressed Matz greatly with their free technique and musicality. The obvious solution to Matz was to study cello with a violinist! This switch in studios was the beginning of Matz’s introduction to the revolutionary ideas regarding string playing technique coming from Europe. Professor Huml had studied with renowned violin pedagogue Otakar Ševčík in Prague and passed along Ševčík’s ideas to his Croatian students, including Matz on the cello. Notably, Ševčík also had a direct impact on American cellists, having been the first teacher of cello prodigy Elsa Hilger, a longtime cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

As revolutionary as Ševčík was in the violin world, his contemporary, Pablo Casals, was equally revolutionary in the cello world. Casals’ influence would come to Croatia through Italian cellist Antonio Janigro, who replaced Matz’s former cello teacher at the Zagreb Academy after Matz graduated. Janigro studied with Dirian Alexanian, Casals’s assistant, and introduced Matz to Casals’ new ideas about which he had firsthand knowledge.

Matz wrote one of his major pedagogical works, The First Years of Violoncello, in collaboration with Václav Huml and Antonio Janigro. This set of method books covers cello instruction from the first lesson through an introduction to thumb position and introduces musical styles ranging from Baroque to dodecaphonic through three types of original compositions: technical exercises, etudes, and interpreting material.

Matz’s organized method of string playing (no pun intended) contrasted with Huml’s teaching style. Huml would often verbally assign exercises tailored to individual students, rarely writing out the exercises or explaining their underlying purpose to students. Only after Matz’s incessant pleading did Huml break down the principles behind his assignments and the reasoning behind assigning them. Though their differing styles of teaching and learning led to some tension during Matz’s student years, Huml was ultimately supportive of Matz’s pedagogical work and was credited as a collaborator in writing The First Years.

An Unpublished Cello Concerto

My dissertation focused on Matz’s pedagogical Concerto in Modo Antico for cello and string orchestra that has never been published. The piece is based on Sonata in Modo Antico or “Sonata in the Old Style” for cello and piano, which is located in one of the interpreting material sections of The First Years of Violoncello. Three expanded movements of this piece were orchestrated for solo cello and string orchestra and entitled Concerto in Modo Antico. Part of the purpose of the interpreting material was to implement the techniques learned in the etudes and technical studies into musical settings imitating various periods of music. Another interpreting piece in the same collection is a Baroque-style Sonata da Camera, for example.

For my dissertation, I created a performance edition of this intermediate-level cello concerto and played it multiple times. A published version is not yet publicly available, but a modern edition of Sonata in Modo Antico is published by Dominis Music for those wanting to teach or study the piece. Founded by Slobodan “Bodo” Gospodnetic, one of Matz’s students and close friends, Dominis Music publishes the works of Rudolf Matz almost exclusively.

The melody of the slow movement is very vocal in nature, which led me to question whether it was, in fact, a folk song. Matz used Croatian folk songs in other concert works, including the folk song “Vehni, vehni fijolica” in his Elegy and Humoresque, so it would not be unusual to see a folk melody in his compositions. However, Matz specifically noted that The First Years was comprised of completely original compositions.

The orchestrated concerto was not included in Matz’s catalogue of works, likely because it was never published, and its performance history is uncertain. Its date of 1976 places it during Matz’s retirement years (that began in 1972), specifically during the year of his 75th birthday celebration. It is possible the work was intended to be performed at a celebration for such a milestone.

Written at an early intermediate level, it is designed as interpreting material for the surrounding technical exercises and etudes. Advertisements and descriptions of the method describe this section as introducing students to shifting between first and fourth positions, left-hand extensions, sixteenth notes, and harmonics.

The Fate of The First Years

With The First Years being such an internationally significant pedagogical work, one must ask the question why it is no longer in print and remains comparatively unknown. The demise of The First Years can be traced to at least two factors. First, the shortage of paper in Communist-controlled Croatia curtailed production. In the wake of World War II, the government reserved paper for official business and rationed paper for commercial enterprises, music printing included. Second, the publication was prohibitively expensive for consumers; each of the 32 volumes was sold separately. Though the method was later pared down by Matz with the help of Lev Aronson, it is no longer in print. Multiple portions of the work are available through Dominis Music under the titles of the individual sections, such as “25 Etudes,” though they do not sell the entire method under the title The First Years of Violoncello. I believe this arrangement of piecemeal publishing would be acceptable to Matz, who described The First Years not as an indivisible method but as a “pharmacy” from which a student’s teacher could select the right medicine.

The Complete Cellist

Matz’s pedagogical legacy extended to another method: The Complete Cellist, written with Lev Aronson. Sadly, this venture was not a financial success for Matz. A 1979 letter from Matz to Lev Aronson bemoaned the fact that Matz had received “keinen einzigen Cent” [not a single cent] in royalties from the American publisher in four years. Comparing The First Years of Violoncello and The Complete Cellist would give insight into the development of Matz’s thoughts on technique through the years.

Rudolf Matz

Letter from Rudolf Matz to Lev Aronson held in the Rudolf Matz Collection, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, University Libraries, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Matz the Croatian

Matz’s influence on the musical scene of his native Croatia can still be seen today. Though Matz traveled widely to perform and teach, he always held an affinity for his homeland; many of his concert compositions are based on Croatian folk melodies. A strong tradition of Croatian cellists exists today.

Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser of 2Cellos are both Croatian; both studied in Croatia. Notably, a Mr. Arthur Hauser is referenced multiple times in Matz’s correspondence, but I am unsure if there is any relation to Stjepan Hauser. Additionally, the Antonio Janigro International Cello Competition is held in Croatia. The Zagrebački Solisti, a chamber orchestra which Matz founded, still performs today as another lasting legacy of the influence of Rudolf Matz on the country and the culture.

Matz the Athlete

One other point bears mentioning in reference to Matz’s pedagogy. Matz was a talented athlete, in addition to being a gifted cellist. Though he held the Yugoslav record for the 200-meter dash from 1920-1932, Matz was forced to withdraw from training for the 1924 Olympic Games due to an injury. As a result of these experiences, Matz considered his cello playing to be an extension of his athletic interests and sought healthy, injury-free cello technique for himself and his students throughout his life. He was a pioneer in music therapy and was a founder of the Music Therapy Association of Croatia. Late in life, when asked to decide on his favorite photo of himself, Matz chose the only image depicting his involvement in athletics.

Rudolf Matz

Rudolf Matz racing. Photo held in the Rudolf Matz Collection, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, University Libraries, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Explore Further

Matz left an indelible mark on cello technique and cello pedagogy. To learn more about Matz, read his biography, Rudolf Matz: Cellist, Teacher, Composer, by Margery Enix, schedule a visit to the Rudolf Matz Musical Score and Personal Papers Collection at UNC Greensboro—get a small taste of the holdings through this digital annotated photo collection—visit the Matz apartment museum in Zagreb, and add his compositions to your performing and teaching repertoire.

Enjoying The Cello Museum?

Don’t miss any of our cello news. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Please note that some links in this article are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, the author of this article, Dr. Jonathan Simmons, earns a small percentage from qualifying purchases.