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Exploring New Shores: The First Touring Violin Virtuosos in Japan

November 3, 2011 at 10:48 AM

Japan had only been forced to open its doors to the world about a decade ago, when the first touring violin virtuoso hit its shores in 1863. He was Agostino ROBBIO (1840-?), had previously performed in England, America and East Asia and claimed to have studied with Paganini. His audience consisted mainly of the foreigners who had begun to settle in Yokohama.

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868 more foreigners moved to Japan, and more artists stopped over on their tour to entertain them, including a few female violinists. The list below is probably incomplete. In my book about the violin in Japan (tentatively entitled Not by Love Alone: How the Violin Became Japanese and the Japanese Became Violinists), I will say more about most of them. In some cases, however, I have found very little information, although a Google search has sometimes revealed surprising results. I have CAPITALIZED some of the names, in the hope that members of this list might have information about them beyond what Google (and the World Biographical System database) can reveal:

1875 JENNY CLAUS - American? The Japan Gazette describes her as “the celebrated violinist” giving a performance “prior to her departure for San Francisco”; she had previously toured Australia. Emily Liz, maybe she’s on your list?

1886 Eduard Remenyi, the first foreign violinist to perform for the emperor of Japan. Styling himself a gypsy fiddler, and accusing Brahms of nicking the Hungarian Dances from him, he was one of the most colorful violin virtuosos in a time. He dropped dead while performing in San Francisco in 1898.

1896 Ovide Musin

1901 MAX SCHLÜTER, a Dane, who had studied with Joachim. His fame today appears to rest mainly on having taught Wandy Tworek (1913-1990) and Jakob Gade (1879-1963) of Tango Jalousie fame. Since he’s “local” for me, I hope to dig out some more information eventually.

1907 ANNA SCHÄFER (b. Frankfurt). Not a good name to be searching for, least of all on the internet!

1909 LEOPOLD PREMYSLAV (he came again in1924). Again not a good name to be searching for, this time because of the variant spellings. Hailing from Warsaw, he studied in Berlin – the yearbooks in the University of the Arts’ archives record a Leopold Przemyslev from 1899 to 1902. There is (or was? – they didn’t answer my letter) a LEOPOLD PREMYSLAV SCHOLARSHIP FUND in Johannesburg, so presumably he eventually ended up in South Africa If anyone knows more or has even benefited from the fund, I’d love to hear from you!

1913 DORA VON MÖLLENDORFF(presumably – Japanese phonetic script can be maddening!). She later married the artist Wilhelm Straube and died in 1971.

1912 Mishel Piastro (1891-1970), the last of the violinist I know of who toured to Japan before WW1 and the first of many Russian violinists and students of Auer who found their way to Japan in the years between the two world wars.

Unlike those who toured Japan in the previous era, many of them, such as Elman, Zimbalist and Heifetz are still household names today. That they found their way to Japan in the 1920s and 1930s shows how globalized the world, including Japan, was even then. But more about that in a later blog.

From bill platt
Posted on November 4, 2011 at 4:29 AM
Yes, indeed, as I read that line I immediately thought of Admiral Perry and his Notable Fleet of American Warships. And his letter of entreaty from Millard Fillmore. And his three wolves approach to statesmanship and diplomacy. "Let me present a letter of friendship to your emperor, or I'll blow your F%394&* city up!"

If I remember correctly, the French used a similar tactic, albeit with ultimately much less friendly intentions, to the Vietnamese in 1858 and finally successfully in 1868...

From Margaret Mehl
Posted on November 7, 2011 at 6:22 PM
Yes, "Perry" is spot on. Sorry - this blog is where I take a break from "Introduction to the History and Culture of Japan" and indulge shamelessly to my passion for the violin. I cannot normally do this in my day job, although today, I did include in my presentation about the family in Japan, "the Japanese family as seen through the eys of the violinist Senju Mariko and her mother Senju Fumiko" (both have published several books, one of them jointly). - There must be plenty of websites with information about Perry's arrival in 1853, his return in 1854, the "unequal treaties" Japan was forced to conclude first with the US and then with other nations (the one with Prussia in 1861 is the reason for celebrating 150 years of friendship between Germany and Japan this year), the internal crisis, the fall of the shogunate and the Meiji Restoration of 1868. After all, togehter with the medieval period (12th to 16th century) the last years of the shogunate are the favourite period for samurai films. Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan offers an excellent historical survey (2nd ed OUP 2009).
By the way, Perry, besides threatening the Japanese, also tried to impress them with music by his military bands. Moreover, in 1854 he gave a banquet on the steamship Powhatan followed by an "Ethiopian Concert," a type of minstrel show popular at the time. According to the programme there was a violin solo by a Charles McLewee. Maybe I should have included him in my list above, but he was hardly in the "virtuoso" class. Most probably he played folk music. The Japanese officials are said to have enjoyed the show.

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