Born in Bucharest, the son of a German bandmaster, he learned to play the flute, clarinet and trumpet as well as the violin. After graduating from the Bucharest Conservatory in 1879 he went to Vienna, where he continued his studies with Jakob Grün and Joseph Hellmesberger until 1882; he made his solo début in Vienna at the end of that year. The next season he became concertmaster at the Hoftheater, and in 1884 went to Berlin to fill the same position in the Bilsesche Kapelle. In October 1885, though barely 20 years old, he was engaged by conductor Wilhelm Gericke as concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. For the next 20 years he was concertmaster and assistant conductor, appearing as soloist in many violin concertos and giving the first American performances of the concertos by Brahms and Carl Goldmark, as well as the première of the First Violin Concerto of Gustav Strube. As assistant conductor, he led the BSO in its performances at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Shortly after his arrival in Boston, he formed and led the Kneisel Quartet with other BSO string players. He was elected honorary member of the Alpha Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity in 1917.
Kneisel was for many years associated with the Worcester Festival in Massachusetts, first as concertmaster and assistant conductor (1885–96) and then as conductor (1897–1909). In 1905, he moved to New York to become the first head of the violin department of the newly established Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School of Music), where he remained until his death. He also founded Kneisel Hall, a summer school of violin and chamber playing, at his home in Blue Hill, Maine. He was a demanding teacher, requiring much in both technical ability and expressive insight. At the time of his death, his renown as a teacher was such that he was ranked with Leopold Auer. In homage, Romanian composer George Enescu dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 3 in the folk character of Romania to Kneisel’s memory.
Kneisel played a leading role in American music as both soloist and chamber player, for both the range and variety of his programs and his dedication to the highest performance standards. Many Boston composers wrote works for him personally or for his quartet, and these formed a substantial part of his repertory. He composed a Grand Concert Etude for violin, and also published a number of technical studies. There are collections of Kneisel memorabilia at Blue Hill and at the Chapin Library of Williams College, Williamstown.
His daughter Marianne (b Boston, 10 March 1897; d New York, 4 March 1972) was an American violinist. In 1938, she married retired banker and business executive Felix E. Kahn (b Mannheim, Germany, 25 January 1873; d Blue Hill, Maine, 25 July 1950), who had been a director of the Paramount Pictures Corporation and was a noted collector of violins, as well as a brother of banker and philanthropist Otto H. Kahn and composer Robert Kahn.
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- M.A.De W. Howe: The Boston Symphony Orchestra: an Historical Sketch (Boston, 1914, enlarged 2/1931/R with J.N. Burk as The Boston Symphony Orchestra 1881–1931)
- M.D.H. Norton: "Franz Kneisel," The Violinist, xxxviii (1926), 154
- R. Aldrich: "Franz Kneisel," Musical Discourse (New York, 1928), 226
- B. Schwarz: Great Masters of the Violin (New York, 1983)
- Felix Kahn Obit, New York Times, 27 July 1950: 24.