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The Pioneering Kôda Sisters 幸田姉妹 3

May 18, 2011 at 10:33 AM

The Pioneering Kôda Sisters (3)

This is Part 3 in a series about the Kôda sisters of Japan. You can also read: Part 1: Earthquakes and Pioneering Sisters in Japan, and  Part 2: Kôda Shimai: the Pioneering Sisters (2). 


The years around 1900 marked the height of Kôda Nobu’s career at the Tokyo Academy of Music. But in Japan as elsewhere, being in the public eye also makes a person an easy target for criticism. Nobu began to be attacked in the press. Her character was called into question and it was even insinuated that she was having an affair with August Junker, the German-born music professor who was doing so much to build up the academy’s orchestra – ably supported in the string section by Nobu and her sister. The insinuations were almost certainly false, but in September 1909 the bad press became too much and Nobu left. Whether she resigned of her own free will or was pushed, is not entirely clear. Then as now universities like to get rid of staff who have attracted adverse publicity by “agreeing” with them that they should leave “voluntarily” (at my own university this has recently been the case with Milena Penkowa who has been accused of dodgy dealings both with research results and research monies – although in her case the allegations appear to be largely true).

Almost immediately afterwards Nobu left for Europe. From November 1909 to June 1910, interrupted by a trip to Vienna, Nobu stayed in Berlin. She took lessons in voice and piano, sang in the Philharmonic choir and observed the violin classes of Joachim’s successor Karl Markees (1865-1926). She also spent time in Paris, attending concerts and observing music classes at various institutions, before returning to Japan via London and Southampton in July. Nobu kept a travel diary; written partly in German, it shows that she was an able linguist as well as a gifted musician.

Back in Japan, Kôda Nobu opened a piano studio, where she taught mainly girls of the upper classes. In those days pianos were still prohibitively expensive and well beyond the means of ordinary families – unlike the violin, which, thanks to Suzuki Masakichi’s factory in Nagoya, was relatively cheap. So why didn’t Nobu teach the violin? We can only speculate. Put perhaps she simply felt more confident on the piano and thought she’d leave the violin to her sister. On the other hand, she may have internalized Western gender stereotypes; the violin in the hands of women, although no longer unusual by the early twentieth century, was still regarded with suspicion. It is interesting to speculate whether Nobu heard Marie Soldat (1863-1955) while she was in Vienna and if yes, whether she was impressed, but we don’t know. Anyway, Soldat was considered exceptional by contemporaries. Concentrating on the piano gave Nobu the safety of conforming to social expectations about women, and maybe she needed that after the horrors of 1909.

Thirty years later, Nobu’s sister Kô too received shoddy treatment from the Tokyo Academy of Music. She had escaped the bad press in 1909, perhaps because she had started a family and was keeping a relatively low profile. In 1943, at the beginning of the new term, she arrived to teach as usual. But she did not find her name on the new schedules. She had been fired, but no one had bothered to tell her. This was the reward for forty years of loyal service. Like her sister, Kô continued to teach privately until her death.

The sisters did eventually receive official honours. In 1937, Kôda Nobu became the first representative of Western music and first woman to become a member of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. Andô Kô received the same honour in 1943; in 1958 she was the first woman to be nominated a person of cultural merit. Today, however, the sisters are largely forgotten. This may partly be because they deliberately kept a low profile for fear of scandal. They did not perform publicly for fees. Nor have they left recordings of their playing. Andô Kô did play on the radio; until 1944 the NHK’s annual broadcast of her “Performance to Start the New Year” was a national institution. But in the 1920s and 1930s Japanese audiences had the opportunity to hear the some of the world’s greatest violinists, as Kreisler, Heifetz, Zimbalist and others added Japan to their tour circuit. They began to compare Kô unfavourably – and unfairly we could argue – to these foreign luminaries.

What other effects did the fact that they were women have on the two sisters’ careers and the choices they made? One effect may well be that they were instrumental in creating the very serious image classical music has among many Japanese to this day. As women, Nobu and Kô, must have felt the need to firmly avoid any association of their art with that practised by the geisha in the entertainment quarters. Maybe this caused them, and particularly Nobu, to cultivate a formidably strict and serious persona. A collection of caricatures of public figures published in 1912 included one entitled ‘Kôda Kô dissuading [beautiful women from studying music]’; since Kô had by then married and was called Andô, the caricaturist may have confused the two sisters, as did other reporters at the time. According to the accompanying text, when beautiful young women who wanted to study music professionally visited Kôda, she would tell them, ‘people like you are subject to many temptations, and it is hard to succeed, so you would do better to give up the idea.’

In the twentieth century, as the musical professions developed in Japan, the dominant role of women diminished; the new orchestras were dominated by men, as was, increasingly, the faculty of the Tokyo Academy of Music.

(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. A longer article will be published in the Women’s History Review early in 2012).

Coming soon: The “Three Violin Maidens”, Japan’s first home-grown prodigies.

From Emily Liz
Posted on May 18, 2011 at 4:05 PM

Margaret, I love to hear about this subject more than words can say. I'm linking your article(s) from my music blog, which has an emphasis on female violinists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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