March 12, 2013 at 1:24 PMSuwa Nejiko, the first of prewar Japan’s “Three Violin Maidens,” died in March 2012. I didn’t hear about it until David Schoenbaum, author of the recently published “The Violin: A Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument,” sent me a link to a major article in the New York Times on 21 September 2012 entitled, A Violin Once Owned by Goebbels Keeps Its Secrets, by Carla Shapreu, luthier, lawyer and author of a book on violin fraud.
Suwa led a quiet life in her final years and would not be interviewed. I was given the impression she was a little confused, but maybe that was just a rumour that enabled her to live and die in peace. Not until 25 September did the Asahi shinbun and other Japanese newspapers publish a brief obiturary. Presumably this was in reaction to Shapreu’s article. With characteristic discretion, the Strad (if it was one) from Goebbels is mentioned but not discussed in the belated obituary.
Given the extent to which Strads are fetishized, it is hardly surprising that the wooden box Suwa received from Goebbels (which might or might not be a Strad and might or might not have been stolen) featured rather more prominently in the NYT article than the artist and human being who played it so well. Suwa Nejiko was an outstanding violinist at a time when Japanese violinists had not yet won international fame. Even after her retirement from the concert stage she continued to develop her art and in her early 60s, when other people think of retiring, she recorded Bach’s unaccompanied sonatas and partitas.
It is this last achievement, rather than infamous fiddle that is highlighted by the music journalist Hagiya Yukiko in her biography of Suwa Nejiko, published this month. Hagiya, who has previously published a biography of the Kôda sisters, calls her sixth and final chapter, “Bach, the Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas.” Meanwhile, the last section of the book is entitled, “Suwa Nejiko’s Stradivarius – in place of a Postscript.”
In my own book I do not promise to reveal all about the mysterious Strad -- all I have been able to find out I have already written about in my previous blog. So I might as well tell you here and now what Hagiya has to say about the “Stradivarius” she does not wish to discuss. In December last year, while she was correcting the proofs of her book, she asked Suwa Nejiko’s younger sister Akiko, a violinist in her own right and professor emerita of Kunitachi College of Music, about the violin and was told, it’s a fake. The family apparently only found out quite recently and Nejiko died believing it was a Strad. Hagiya declines to say what result her search for corroboration did or did not produce and her conclusion is, who cares. What matters, says Hagiya, is that the violin will always be “Suwa Nejiko’s Stradivarius.”
Oh well, Hagiya Yukiko is a pianist. For a violinist it is nevertheless difficult to ignore over 400 years of history. Perhaps it takes a violinist to understand and explain the allure of the name “Stradivarius,” and here Schoenbaum’s recent magnum opus would be an obvious place to look. Under the headings “Making It”, “Selling It”, “Learning It” and “Imagining It,” this entertaining and absorbing read details the history of the violin from its sparsely documented beginnings, generally believed to be in Italy (of course it’s notoriously difficult to say for sure where and when something had its beginning). Schoenbaum shows how from very early on in this history, Italian violins became the gold standard, prized by collectors who were willing to pay huge sums for old Italian violins. They were not usually professional violinists. This part of the story is known, but it takes detailed social history like this one to demonstrate just how far the demand for Strads “has followed money, and the changing profile of society’s A-lists.” (p. 133) Moreover, the story is not complete without all the others, the instruments played by the majority of fiddlers, made not in Cremona, but in places like Mirecourt and Markneukirchen, and this part of the story has received rather less attention in the past. Obviously, Schoenbaum’s book includes all the big names in violin making and playing, but unlike other books I’ve seen, it also includes a wealth of information about lesser known actors in the history of the violin, for example in his chapter “Players in General.” We have long had books treating the social history of the piano. However, until Schoenbaum’s book the social history of the violin, which reaches further back in time and wider afield geographically, was sadly neglected. I longed for just such a book when I started out on my own book about violin playing in Japan.
What the book does not offer – presumably because it’s not meant to be that kind of book – is a detailed analysis of Strad-fetishism. Maybe this actually IS a subject for a pianist (or wind player), who might be able to take a more dispassionate look at this curious phenomenon. Despite what violinists who play a Strad say, I personally find it hard to imagine that even the best Strad really is that much better than any other good quality violin. Blind tests may be flawed, but they do suggest that the claim is open to question. But then another question might be: Do violinists play better when they know or believe that they are playing a Strad? – This would be comparable to the placebo effect in medicine, which can cause people to truly recover from an illness.
Back to Suwa’s Strad: I believe Hagiya is right in saying, it’s Suwa’s art that counts. That, however, still leaves us to ponder the question of how much her art in later years was supported by her belief that she was practising it on a genuine Strad or what influence the circumstances under which she came by it and the rumours about how Goebbels came by it might have had on the choices she made later in life. These are some of the questions I have been thinking about while working on my own manuscript.
“Tensai baiorin shôjo shikô 92 sai." Asahi shinbun, Morning edition, 25 September 2012, 38. (24 September in the digital edition:)
Schoenbaum, David. The Violin: A Social History of the World's Most Versatile Instrument. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.
Hagiya, Yukiko. Suwa Nejiko: Bibo no vaiorinisuto, sono gekiteki shôgai, 1920-2012. Tokyo: Alphabeta, 2013.
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