Printer-friendly version

Three Violin Maidens (2): Iwamoto Mari 巌本真理

September 10, 2011 at 1:57 PM

The "Three Violin Maidens": Japan’s First Child Prodigies Part 2

Quite some time has passed since my last blog about Suwa Nejiko. I have spent most of the summer struggling to finish my book about the violin in Japan. Now, at last, I am nearly ready to approach a publisher. I hope that readers of my blog will also be interested in the book, which tells the story of the three girl prodigies and other remarkable Japanese violinists in more detail.

The second of the three girl prodigies, Iwamoto Mari (1926-1979) was another early pupil of the Russian Auer-student Ono Anna, with whom she studied from the age of five. Her father Iwamoto Masahide had spent many years in America and brought home an American wife. The 1930s were not a good time to be a mixed-race child. Mari, originally named Mary Esther, suffered bullying at school. Eventually she was allowed to study at home on the condition that she worked hard on her violin in order to become Japan’s number one violinist; "at least as good as Suwa Nejiko", said her father.

Mari hated violin practice, but she was also ambitious. In 1936 the fifth All Japan Music Competition was won in the violin category by Hatoyama Hiroshi (b.1923), the first of a string of teenage winners. Mari determined that she would the next winner. ‘You’ll have to practise at least three hours a day,’ warned Ono Anna. Mari did indeed win the first prize in 1937, and her parents began to plan her career as a professional musician. They hired new private teachers for piano, music theory and voice and arranged a debut recital in 1939 as well as a concert with the New Symphony Orchestra in 1940.

The war cut Japan off from the tour circuit of famous artists. This increased opportunities for indigenous talent. Mari braved infrequent and overcrowded trains to give concerts, many of them in factories, hospitals and military bases. In 1945 the Iwamotos lost first one home then the next to air raids. The second time, on 13 April, Mari fled with only her violin case, waiting for daybreak in an air shelter ditch. The next day she was scheduled to perform in Hibiya Hall; the trams were not running, and so she walked the twenty kilometres or so. When she reached the hall she found a notice on the door: ‘Cancelled due to Iwamoto Mari missing’. She played as she was, in trousers and with blistered feet. A month later she toured Manchuria. But the Japanese empire was crumbling and she was lucky to get back to Japan just in time to escape being stranded.

Iwamoto Mari resumed performing only weeks after Japan’s capitulation, playing both as a soloist and a member of chamber music groups. Soon, however, she had to limit her performances. In September 1946, at only twenty years of age, she was appointed as professor of the Tokyo Academy of Music. It was a revolutionary appointment, born out of the atmosphere of renewal at the time, but it was not a happy one. Mari had no experience of college herself, and her students were almost her own age. She did not enjoy teaching and was not much good at it. Nor did she like her older colleagues. In the end her parents organized a trip to America for her as an excuse to resign.

She left Tokyo in March 1949 and stayed in New York for over a year, taking lessons from Louis Persinger and enjoying her newly-found freedom. On 14 June 1950 she gave a recital New Town Hall, the first American performance by a Japanese violinist after the war. The reviewer in the New York Times (15 June 1950, p. 41) deemed the concert a success; praising her "excellent fiddling" and continuing, "Among her talents Miss Iwamoto displayed a musical temperament that was unusually controlled by thoughtfulness and understanding, a fine ear for subtleties of pitch and phrasing, a big, colorful tone and – not unimportant in a concert artist – good looks."

After returning to Tokyo Iwamoto resumed her performing career, playing in all parts of the country. Gradually, however, she became tired of giving solo performances – as often as not of the same popular pieces – and discovered her love for chamber music. She had had her first taste of it during the war years, playing in various small ensembles. During one such performance she had met the cellist Kuranuma Toshio (1918-92), one of the most experienced and dedicated chamber music players Japan had at the time and a pioneer of the professional string quartet. Iwamoto and Kuronuma played in different ensembles together in the 1950s and early 1960s.

From 1964 Iwamoto and Kuronuma played quartet regularly. The Iwamoto Mari String Quartet was born, although it did not call itself that until 1966. The other violinist was Tomoda Yoshiaki and the violist Suganuma Junji (Suganuma was replaced by Oinuma Seiji when he became first violist of the NHK orchestra in 1976). From 1967 they gave their own series of 8 yearly concerts in Tokyo, and – thanks to Iwamoto’s fame and popularity - received engagements all over the country. But although she gave the quartet its name, the real leader was Kuronuma. He made sure the quartet acquired a wide repertoire. Already in 1966 they performed all the Bartok String Quartets, the first Japanese quartet to do so. Until the fiftieth regular concert in Tokyo they avoided playing the same work twice.

The Iwamoto Mari String Quartet was one of the first, if not the first all-Japanese string quartet that could have held its own on the stages of America and Europe, but it only made one foreign tour, to Australia and New Zealand in 1971. They did, however, make several recordings, and left what Tully Potter in The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet (p. 92) refers to as "a large discography of rare quality."

Sadly, the quartet did not last as long as it might have done, especially since the restless and sometimes troubled Iwamoto Mari seemed to have at last found fulfilment in the medium of the string quartet. With the patient guidance of Kuronuma she had metarmophosed from a soloist into a fine chamber musician. On 12 April 1979 the Iwamoto Mari String Quartet gave its

94th and last regular concert. Iwamoto Mari died of cancer on 11 May 1979, on the day the 95th concert should have taken place.


Iwamoto Mari’s story again illustrates impressive achievements of Japanese violinists well before they began to appear on the radar of Western observers.

You can hear an early performance of the Iwamoto Mari String Quartet playing Brahms in 1965 on the following clip, from around min 7:00. (The other performers are the young Etô Toshiya, 1927-2008; the pianist Tanaka Kiyoko, the Pro Musica String Quartet with Iwabuchi Ryûtarô, the pioneering flautist Yoshida Masao, and finally the pianist Yasukawa Kazuko, playing the first known piano piece by a Japanese composer, a minuet by Taki Rentarô, 1879-1903).


From Emily Liz
Posted on September 11, 2011 at 12:06 AM

Once again, many thanks for sharing your research! This is all so fascinating. We violinists have such astonishingly strong-willed forerunners to look up to, admire, and emulate!

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker

Miroirs CA Classical Music Journal
Miroirs CA Classical Music Journal

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Classic Violin Olympus

Coltman Chamber Music Competition

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Jargar Strings


Violin Lab



Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine