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Earthquakes and Pioneering Sisters in Japan

Margaret Mehl

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Published: March 16, 2011 at 2:22 PM [UTC]

This is Part 1 in a three-part series. You can also read: Part 2: Kôda Shimai: the Pioneering Sisters (2): Kôda Kô and Part 3: The Pioneering Kôda Sisters.

Because of the recent earthquake in Japan, I considered writing this blog about earthquakes and tsunami in the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taishô (1912-1926) periods.

The nineteenth century saw the rise of the Red Cross and other organisations that sought to help people in need and often organized fundraising events like concerts. Japan was no exception, and by the time of the great Kantô Earthquake of 1923 Japan was not only recognized as a major military and economic player, but also as a nation where Western music flourished. It had even become part of the international tour circuit for violin virtuosos.

Jascha Heifetz first visited Japan in early November 1923, just weeks after the great Kantô Earthquake on 1 September had flattened large parts of Tokyo, including the Imperial Theatre, where he was scheduled to perform. He gave his first performance at the Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and finished just before the earthquake. Some of the people who crowded in to listen to him greeted acquaintances they had not seen since the earthquake. Two days later, Heifetz played outdoors in Hibiya Park; the Hibiya concert hall had been destroyed.

Ticket prices were reduced to an all time low of one yen instead of the usual upwards of 10 yen (a lot of money back then!), and Heifetz donated the proceeds to a relief fund. 3, 600 people braved the wind and the rain to hear him play Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Schubert’s Ave Maria and other favourites. He concluded his recital with the Japanese national anthem and the audience thanked him with a triple ‘banzai’. Meanwhile, back in America, Elman and Zimbalist who had already toured Japan previously organized charity concerts.

But, back to the beginnings of the violin in Japan; beginnings in which women played a dominant role. The first time I saw one of the earliest photos of the orchestra at the Tokyo Academy of Music from around 1900, the women attracted my attention chiefly because, unlike the men, they were in kimonos. By that time men of the middle and upper classes commonly wore Western suits in public. You can see the picture here. It is on the left if you scroll down, below the portrait of Rudolf Dittrich (more on him next time); scroll further down and you will see Miura Tamaki (who gained international fame in the title role of Madame Butterfly) and to her right first Kôda Nobu and then her younger sister Kô with her violin.

Not until later did it strike me that the high proportion of women with violins must have been unusual by contemporary Western standards. As late as 1881, Joseph Joachim, then director of the conservatoire in Berlin, was urged by the deputy director Ernst Rudorff to reconsider the admission of women to orchestra classes and performances, claiming that “the weak and uncertain playing of the young girls not only does no good at all but actually makes the sound indistinct and out of tune.” Although he concedes that this would not apply to Marie Soldat (1863-1955), he proposed that women in general should be excluded even from auditing the orchestra classes in the interest of morality.

In Japan, however, things were different, at least in the early years of Western music. Of course the Japanese were quick to import Western gender stereotypes as well as other things Western. But it took a while for music to be taken sufficiently seriously for it to become a respectable occupation for men. “Otoko no kuse ni,” – “even though you’re a man...,” was the most common reaction in the family, when a boy wanted to take up music professionally. Apart from the new military bands, music as a profession was mainly associated with the theatre and the pleasure quarters. As a result many pioneers of Western music were women.

The violin was pioneered by the Kôda sisters, Kôda Nobu (1870-1946) and Andô Kô (née Kôda, 1878-1963; I’m sticking to the Japanese convention of giving the surname first). Even in Japan they are less well known than their brother, the writer Kôda Rohan (1867-1947). Yet their importance as teachers of Western music in Japan was enormous. It even influenced violin history in the West; it was Kôda Nobu who “discovered” and Andô Kô who then taught a young violinist named Suzuki Shin’ichi. The rest, as they say, is history. The “Suzuki Method” has gained worldwide recognition.

The sisters came from a samurai family who had served the shoguns. They had ended up on the losing side in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. In the following years the samurai lost their income and privileges. The Kôdas and other samurai saw their chance in securing the best education for their children, preferably in the (relatively) cheap new state schools. The Kôda family even sent their daughters to school, and that was by no means the norm. The sisters were also unusual in that they started to play the violin as children, having caught the attention of the foreign teachers invited by the Meiji government.

Until well into the twentieth century, few Japanese started playing the violin before their late teens. Moreover, the sisters were the first Japanese to study the violin abroad, sponsored by their government. The eldest, Kôda Nobu, spent a year at the New England School of Music in Boston. Her violin teacher was a pupil of Joseph Joachim’s, Emil Mahl (1851-1914). She then moved to Vienna to study violin (among other subjects) with Joseph Hellmesberger junior until 1895.

Back in Japan she demonstrated what she had learnt at a concert on 18 April 1896. Not only did she perform the first movement of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto and the first violin part in a Haydn quartet (the first recorded public performance by an all-Japanese string quartet), but she also sang Schubert and Brahms, accompanied a Mozart clarinet solo on the piano and directed a violin group playing her own arrangement of a Bach fugue. In fact, she was expected to compose as well, and was the first Japanese to compose a violin sonata. She completed the two first movements while still in Vienna and studying under Robert Fuchs (1847-1927), who also taught Gustav Mahler and other notable composers. The third movement and the single movement of a second sonata were composed after her return to Japan. Her works have been judged to “show a remarkable maturity and mastery of late romantic German music.

Kôda was able to created good melodic phrases and harmonic structures and she handled modulation with a skill that was only equalled by Yamada Kôsaku.” (Luciana Galliano - Yamada is commonly regarded as the first Japanese composer of note). But her achievements as a composer are largely forgotten, and it is her – male! - pupil Taki Rentarô (1879-1903) who is remembered as the first Japanese composer of Western music, although he wrote only two short instrumental pieces, both for piano (he is, however, the composer of many songs, including “The Moon over the Castle Ruins”, still one of Japan’s most popular songs). The sonatas have only been recorded recently by a small, Tokyo-based company with the very “Japanese” name Mittenwald, which specializes in works by Japanese composers (MTWD 99038). The sheet music is available from Zen-On. (I like to imagine that I gave the American premiere of the second, one-movement sonata with my fellow-ACMP member Lidia Usami at the piano, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton on 31 March 2009, although we did call it an ‘open rehearsal’ to cover our tracks.)

Kôda Nobu taught violin, piano, composition and singing. Her pupils included Miura Tamaki, who later became internationally famous for her performance of the title role in Madame Butterfly. Besides the violin Nobu also played the viola in chamber music performances. Her salary at the Academy rose until she became one of the highest-paid women in Japan.

Nobu’s own pupils at the Tokyo Academy of Music included her sister Kô. Kô not only followed in her sisters footsteps as a professor at the Academy; she even combined her career with a large family. But more next time. (You can also read more details about the Kôda sisters in my article in the Strad: "Land of the Rising Sisters." The Strad 118, no. May (2007): 60-64, and in my forthcoming article in the Women’s History Review)


From Emily Liz
Posted on March 16, 2011 at 4:02 PM

 Wow, what an incredibly fascinating blog. Thanks so much for sharing this information.


From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 16, 2011 at 5:59 PM

 What fascinating history, thank you so much for sharing it! There is so much to take in, with this information. I hope it helps get people interested in pursuing this history and playing this music. I think it might also lead people to some ideas about benefit concerts for Japan -- the idea to do them, but also some ideas about what to play.


From Mendy Smith
Posted on March 17, 2011 at 2:34 AM

In my "by 50" goal of working through the composers from Z-A, I have been learning some about Asian composers, mostly Korean and Chinese so far. 

Thank you for this insight on Japanese composers.  I hope to incorporate the Japanese musical heritage into my "by 50" project. 


From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 17, 2011 at 10:35 PM

 I lived in Japan from 1982-88 and though not an actor I play the violin and speak Japanese so I was contracted by TBS for a small role in a biographical mini-series on the life of Hisako Tsuji one of the early international laureates on the violin. The series was a little cheesy but I found it quite interesting that there would be commercial appeal for a story about a classical violinist. 

I played a Russian violinist (historical but I don't recall the name) who took Tsuji's father as a student.


From John Sarkett
Posted on March 20, 2011 at 2:22 PM

The power of music to heal.  Remarkable post, thank you.

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