The "Three Violin Maidens", Part 1: Suwa Nejiko
Ever since Suzuki Shin’ichi’s fiddling tiny tots took the world by storm, many people believe that every Japanese violinist they hear started when they were still in their nappies. But until the 1920s most Japanese, including Suzuki himself, did not start the violin before their teens. Two developments brought about a change.
One was the New Education Movement. This was an international movement which began in North America and Europe in the late nineteenth century and is associated with names like John Dewey, Helen Parkhurst, Maria Montessori and others. One thing the different reformers had in common was the emphasis they placed on education in the arts. In Japan one of the most famous reformers was Obara Kuniyoshi (1887-1977), the Founder of Tamagawa Gakuen
The other was the arrival of the Russian violinist Ono Anna (Anna Dimitrevna Bubnova, 1890-1979) who had studied with Auer in St Petersburg and married the scientist Ono Shun’ichi (an uncle of John Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono). She was one of many Russian violinists who found their way to Japan in the wake of the Revolution of 1917. When she arrived in 1918 she was surprised that people started the violin so late and immediately started to teach young children. By the time she left Japan in 1960 she had taught hundreds, several of whom became well-known violinists. She is still warmly remembered and has a website dedicated to her (in Japanese).
Other teachers soon followed her example, Suzuki Shin’ichi among them. Soon the Japanese could applaud their first home-grown child prodigies, starting with "The Three Violin Maidens", as they came to be known: Suwa Nejiko (b.1920), Iwamoto Mari (1926-79) and Tsuji Hisako (b. 1926). Two of them were Ono Anna’s pupils.
Suwa Nejiko, born in 1920, first made headlines in January 1931, when the Asahi newspaper reported: "A Violin Girl Prodigy Appears: The Little Girl from Mejiro Who Astonished Zimbalist." Little Nejiko had her first lessons at age three with Nakajima Tazuruko (1904-?), one of Ono Anna’s first pupils, before being taught by Ono herself. She introduced Nejiko to Zimbalist during his second Asian tour in 1930 and she impressed him by her performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Zimbalist recommended study abroad and offered his help, but for the time being she remained in Japan. She did change teachers though, and studied with another Russian, Alexander Mogilevsky (1885-1953). She gave her debut recital with Mogilevsky’s wife Nadezhda Nikolaevna Duchess von Leuchtenberg de Beauharnais at the piano. It so happened, that the French violinist Renée Chemet was in Tokyo on tour; she heard the recital and was as impressed as Zimbalist.
But while Nejiko went from strength to strength on the violin, her family life was troubled. Moreover, her parents’ marital problems spilled over into her studies, when Mogilevsky – obviously a strong believer in a stable home environment for budding virtuosos – refused to teach her unless her parents made it up. At this point Suzuki Shin’ichi, Mogilevsky’s student and colleague at the Imperial Academy, took over, both as her violin teacher and supporter for her mother, whom he helped set up home independently with Nejiko. After over a year Mogilevsky agreed to teach her again, but less than two years later, in January 1936, she left Japan. You can see a picture of her leaving and being seen of by the conductor Konoe (or Konoye) Hidemaro here. Type in the photo number (Photos de la violoniste japonaise Nejiko Suwa, 1936-1942. - 2 photos - Photo n° 166015 - I tried to insert a direct ling to the photo, but I couldn’t get it to work). The Belgian consul, who had heard her debut recital, had arranged for her to study in Brussels with Émile Chaumont (1878-1942), a professor at the conservatoire. Suwa Nejiko remained with him until January 1938, when she moved to Paris to study with Boris Kamensky (1870-1949). On 15 May 1939, she gave her European debut in the Salle de Chopin in Paris. Less than four months later, Germany attacked Poland, and WW2 began in Europe (Japan was already at war in China, having invaded China in 1937).
Most Japanese left Paris, but Suwa insisted on staying and continued with her studies, even when the Germans occupied Paris in 1940. Indeed, it was the war that launched Suwa’s career. Japan and Germany concluded the Anit-Comintern Pact in 1936 and, with Italy, the Tripartite Pact in 1940, so the two countries were allies, and the Japanese representatives in Paris and Berlin found it useful to promote the alliance through what we now call "cultural diplomacy" and "soft power." With their support Suwa gave concerts first in France and then in Germany, where the "violinist from the land of the cherry blossoms" received high praise. She played for German troops under the auspices of the Red Cross many times, and it was this that earned her the highest imaginable honour at the time, and at the same time one that must have weighed heavily on her in later years.
On 24 February 1943 the Japanese Asahi newspaper, citing a telegram from Berlin could report that on 22 February the German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had received the Japanese violinist and personally presented her with a Stradivarius for her services in playing for German troops (Same link as above, photo no. 205761 under "Goebbels Joseph, Reichsminister, présence à des manifestations culturelles, 1940-1943"). The instrument, reported the Asahi, was made in 1722 and thus belonged to the same period as that of Elman. German newspapers reported the event too, of course; Goebbles was hardly the man to make generous gifts in secret. The news was even worthy of mention in a news digest for the German troops, which also added that on that a concert in Vienna (presumably in early 1944), "Reichsminister Dr Goebbels, who was unable to attend the concert, had made arrangements for the Japanese artist’s room to be decorated with spring flowers in her favourite colours."
It will come as no surprise that once the war ended the Stradivarius was rumoured be one of the many instruments stolen from their Jewish owners by the Nazis. To date, however, no evidence is forthcoming either way. I have tried myself to dig some out in the national archives in Berlin. I had an interesting time there, but without finding anything conclusive. There are documents showing that the Nazis stole musical instruments and there are documents showing that they bought instruments quite legally from well-known dealers (more in my forthcoming book).
Meanwhile, Suwa, with her new Stradivarius (if it really was one), played the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic under Hans Knappertsbusch on 19 October 1943, to acclaim (Photo n° 207824).
During the following months Suwa travelled between cities that were being bombed with increasing ferocity and gave concerts organized by German-Japanese Society, as well as playing for troops. Only when the occupation of Paris by the Allied troops was imminent in August 1944, did she consent to leaving her base with the Kamenskys and being evacuated with the remaining Japanese. She stayed at the Japanese embassy in Berlin, until Ambassador Ôshima and his entourage sought refuge in Badgastein near Salzburg early in 1945. There, in May, they witnessed the end of the war in Europe. But Japan did not capitulate until August, and meanwhile the Americans shipped them all to New York. The group did not return to Japan until December 1945.
Suwa resumed performing in autumn 1946. In the following years she gave concerts all over Japan, to audiences starved for pleasure after the hardships of war and capitulation. Then, in the early 1960s, silence began to surround the former prodigy and star. Some believe she was upset by the rumours surrounding her Stradivarius, but perhaps it was what we today call "burnout". In 1968 she married Ôga Shôshirô; the two had fallen in love in Germany, where Ôga was working for the embassy, but Ôga was married at the time.
Suwa’s connection with Germany was renewed when she followed her husband Ôga to Cologne, where he became the founding director of the Japanese Cultural Institute in 1969. The music at the opening ceremony on 2 September was provided not by Suwa Nejiko but by a young Japanese pianist, whose father, Ambassador Uchida, had been attached to the embassy at the same time as Ôga; the 21-year-old Mitsuko; now a household name in the West as Mitsuko Uchida.
Even if Suwa no longer performed, she evidently kept on practising. In 1981 a recording of Suwa playing Bach’s unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas was released (recorded between 1978 and 1980), and In 1983 she gave a recital after 23 years of silence: In 1985 she recorded Beethoven’s "Spring" and "Kreutzer" sonatas, with Tanaka Sonoko at the piano Both recordings were re-issued on CD in 1994, bringing her briefly back into the news.
I would have loved to interview Suwa Nejiko when I was in Japan last year, but I was told she has become frail and confused, and so I did not attempt to make contact. I can’t help speculating that she must have had the best time of her life while criss-crossing war-torn Germany, clutching her precious Strad from Goebbels, playing in bombed cities and experiencing young love in Berlin. She may well have enjoyed more freedom than as a young woman in wartime Japan. She may even have been a media darling, except that wartime meant there weren’t many media left to be a darling of. You can see several photos here in a Belgian archive of the occupation period here.
Suwa Nejiko's story has even inspired a novel by a Japanese violinist turned writer: Hino, Madoka, Sôtô no Sutoradivari [The Führer's Stradivarius], Tokyo: Magajinhausu, 1998. The main character is fictional and it’ss a fanciful tale – as if the true story were not strange enough!
Next: Iwamoto Mari, leader of Japan’s first world-class string quartet.
More entries: May 2011
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