He is the uncrowned king of the cello, and unfortunately this is not known by many other people than cellists. The fact that he the artistic life of paladino boss Martin Rummel very much revolves around "Mr P" means that his name is also very present in the paladino activities. In 2013 and together with Alexander Hülshoff, we began a complete edition that aims to publish and record all extant works by David Popper.
Looking at the facts, today's knowledge about Popper's biography is small. Looking up his date of birth, one gets three different days, yet the death certificate issued in Baden bei Wien in 1913 gives 18 June 1843 – maybe this is reason enough to defend this date as the most likely for him to have been born in Prague. His father was the cantor of the Jewish community, and both Popper boys had music lessons from an early age. David Popper went on to study the cello with Julius Goltermann and was appointed principal cellist at the court orchestra in Löwenberg right after his studies, thus making it into one of the best orchestras of his time. Hans von Bülow, omnipresent in the 19th century, recommended him to the Imperial Opera in Vienna, which meant that he was principal cellist of both orchestras that are now the Vienna Philharmonic and the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera at the tender age of 25. It was Popper who played the first notes that were heard publicly when the opera house on the Ring opened with the famous cello solo of "Wilhelm Tell", and it was also him who convinced the orchestra to premiere Bruckner's Third Symphony, which a majority of the members had originally declared to be unplayable.
Brahms, Bruckner, Grieg, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Volkmann, Wagner – Popper knew them all, and they knew and respected him in return. Soon after his arrival in Vienna, he had so many concerts as a soloist that he had to quit his orchestra job. He married the Liszt student Sophie Menter, and the two became a true glamour couple of their time: the yellow press of their time wrote about "the world famous David Popper and his georgeous wife". With her, he traveled throughout Europe, Russia and even America, which justifies the term "world famous" if one looks at the definition of modern civilization of the 19th century.
In the year of his death (1886), Franz Liszt appointed him as a professor at his newly founded academy in Budapest. Following his orchestra and solo career, this marked the beginning of a teaching career that is unparalleled until today. Countless eminent cellist of the beginning 20th century were his students, and his "grandchildren" spread his cellistic legacy around the world. His 65 etudes are considered to be the "New Testament of Cello Playing" and still take a solitary position in their pedagogic value and popularity.
As if this was not enough, in Budapest and together with Jenö Hubay, he founded the Hubay-Popper-Quartet, which was to become one of the finest chamber ensembles of its time. Brahms was their regular guest pianist, and Popper can therefore be called the last "musical universal genius", with world class careers as an orchestra musician, soloist, teacher and chamber musician. Yet still he is not a "household name" today, maybe because (other than Liszt's) his main priority in life was music, not self marketing. We have a touching biography of his student Stephen De'ak, which is unfortunately close to worthless from a researcher's point of view, yet it gives countless hints where to start looking for information that could be verified. A substantial piece of research about Popper's life and work is still waiting to be done – maybe a paladino project of the future.
David Popper, the sophisticated, elegant and witty bon vivant, died on 7 August 1913 in Baden bei Wien, in a house on the Kaiser-Franz-Ring that was not to survive the 20th century's wars. Seemingly without reason, he was buried in Dresden, and besides countless anecdotes, he left 76 numbered works, most of which have not yet received the attention they deserve. We are working on it ...