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In Memoriam: Matsumoto Zenzô (16 September 1911 – 28 September 2010)

January 28, 2011 at 10:50 AM

He would have been a hundred years old this year; Matsumoto Zenzô passed away just two weeks after his 99th birthday. His life, especially his early life, reflected the development of performing Western music professionally in Japan. Not only did he play in one of Japan’s first professional orchestras almost from its inception; he also formed a string quartet which was one of the first to go full time and premiered Beethoven’s late string quartets in Japan. After WW2 he played as a concertmaster in several orchestras and taught at music colleges; he acted as the president of the Japan String Teachers’ Association for many years. He remained active in the association until the end of his life; the 2010 JASTA string festival saw him playing as the eldest participant in a 176ong orchestra.

(scroll down to JASTA STRING FESTIVAL 2010 and you will see a picture of Matsumoto Zenzô playing in the Orchestra)


Fortunately I had the chance to meet Matsumoto Zenzô in Tokyo last January (2010). I had, of course, read his book* as soon as I got my hands on it during my initial research for my own book about the violin in Japan (which I intend to finish later this year). A colleague had surprised me with the information that not only was he still alive, but also able and willing to talk to people. A week later, I made my way to the agreed meeting place; the words “Kaffee Eins” in Gothic lettering decorated the entrance and the dark wooden panelling inside reinforced the impression that the place was trying to evoke “traditional” Germany – a fitting location to meet a classical musician, seeing that many Japanese like to stress their faithful continuation of German cultural traditions.

Professor Matsumoto and his wife were already sitting at a large table in the corner, looking quite at home. Apparently they regularly met callers there. Although Professor Matsumoto looked frail, it was difficult to imagine that he was nearly a hundred years old. “He is completely clear-headed; just don’t bombard him with too many questions at once and give him time to answer,” my colleague had warned, and I did my best to follow his advice. Did I try too hard? His wife seemed to think I might not be getting what I’d hoped out of the interview, and did some of the bombarding for me. Obligingly, Professor Matsumoto told me his story.

Born in Tokyo, Matsumoto became interested in the violin when he saw one in the hands of his elder brother. Until the age of 19 he largely taught himself. Like Suzuki Shin’ichi (1898-1998), who also taught himself initially, Matsumoto benefited greatly from gramophone recordings, making every effort to model his playing on that of the best in the world. Later, Matsumoto studied with Suzuki Shin’ichi as well as with Alexander Mogilevsky (1885-1953), one of several Russian musicians who ended up in Japan after the revolution of 1917. In September 1931 he joined the New Symphony Orchestra, the predecessor of the NHK Orchestra founded in 1926.


In 1934 Matsumoto had the chance to study in Europe. He spent two weeks in Berlin where he heard the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Karl Klingler Quartet, before he moved to Vienna to study with Ernst Moravec (1894-1980), a student of Ottokar Sevcik, who taught at the Vienna Academy from 1930 to 1966. Moravec was not only an excellent teacher, but played the viola in the string quartets of Arnold Rosé and Wolfgang Schneiderhan, as well being a solo violist with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Matsumoto made the most of his 1 ½ years there, hearing as many concerts as he could. Impressed by the Busch Quartet and by his teacher’s dedication to chamber music, Matsumoto developed a love for chamber music himself.


After his return to Tokyo he rejoined the New Symphony Orchestra and tried find congenial fellow-players to form a string quartet. In 1941 the Philharmonia Quartet gave its first concert with Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, Haydn’s Lark and Beethoven’s opus 59.3. At their second concert on 19 October 1942 the quartet, now renamed the Matsumoto Quartet, performed Beethoven’s Op. 135 and 132; until then people didn’t believe the late Beethoven quartets could be performed in Japan. In 1943 the members of the quartet left the orchestra, and the Matsumoto Quartet became the first Japanese quartet to attempt going full-time. It began making recordings with Victor, and had recorded Haydn’s Bird, when an air raid destroyed the Victor plant in Yokohama. Soon the quartet faced another problem; two members were drafted and had to go to war. The quartet continued with new players, performing not only in Tokyo, but also touring Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe as late as February 1945.


Once the war ended Matsumoto pursued a busy career as a teacher and performer. He was concertmaster of the Tokyo Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, the Gumma Symphony Orchestra and the ABC Symphony Orchestra. Between 1963 and 1968 he gave twice-yearly recitals. He also continued to play quartet in changing groups. From 1954 to 1974 he sat on the jury of the NHK Mainichi Music Competition (now the Japan Music Competition). He taught at Matsusaka City Women’s Junior College and at the Tokyo College of Music. In 1987/88 he spent a year teaching at the Carlos Gomez Conservatory in Belém in northern Brazil, sponsored by the Japan Foundation. In September 1987 he acted as a judge at the Third Fritz Kreisler Competition. From 1979 into the 1990s he was the president of the Japanese String Teachers Association; he was made a honorary president when he retired. Although Matsumoto’s name is not too well known abroad, he did receive a citation for leadership and merit by ASTA in 1982.


The Matsumotos had brought with them to the interview a selection of concert programmes spanning his long career. As late as 2003 he performed publicly in a series entitled ‘Great Masters’ in Tokyo, where he played in piano trios by Bach and Haydn. Violinists still performing publicly in their eighties I had heard of – but in their nineties? That is true dedication!


The time passed all too quickly. And I could not help feeling that Professor Matsumoto had told his story to interviewers many times; the previous year, 2009, marked the hundredth anniversary of Kishi Kôichi’s birth (Kishi Kôichi, a contemporary of Matsumoto who died already in 1937, was a violinist, composer and conductor; more about him some other time), and Matsumoto Zenzô attracted considerable attention as one of the few living witnesses, and possibly the only violinist alive who had played under Kishi’s baton. There were so many things I would have liked to ask; not so much dates and facts; these I could re-read in his book, at least for the pre-war period. No, something more like, “what was it really like to perform Western music in Japan in the 1930s?” Or maybe some exciting gossip about the people whose names I only know from books and documents. That kind of exchange, however, can hardly be expected from a first interview.


I said goodbye to the Matsumotos at the traffic lights near the cafe, painfully aware that I might never see Matsumoto Zenzô again. Now I can only pray that he may rest in peace. But I can’t help hoping that wherever he has gone he is still playing his violin.


*Matsumoto, Zenzô. Teikin yûjô: Nihon no vaiorin ongaku shi [The animateness of the violin: a musical history of the violin in Japan] (Tokyo: Ressun no tomo sha, 1995).


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