January 27, 2012 at 1:55 PMKreutzer Sonata
In 1922 Albert Einstein toured Japan. He not only gave lectures, but also played the violin at parties given in his honour. In Nagoya, on 8 December, he performed with Leonor Michaelis (1875-1949), recently appointed professor of biochemistry at Aichi Prefectural Medical College (now a faculty at Nagoya University), whom he may have known in Berlin. Michaelis also performed with Suzuki Shin’ichi (in January 1926) and introduced him to Einstein. (I wrote about Suzuki and Einstein, my article at http://www.stthomas.edu/rimeonline/vol7/mehl.htm )
Einstein’s most memorable performance, however, may well have been a week earlier. On 1 December, at a welcome reception in Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, he played Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata with a Mrs Edith Eccles (?) at the piano. The audience went wild and the newspapers praised his playing to the skies. Well they would, wouldn’t they? It would have been churlish to say that the distinguished guest, who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize and was well on his way to becoming one of the century’s icons, played less than perfectly. Besides, most Japanese at the time were more likely to know the “Kreutzer” Sonata through Tolstoy’s “Krejcerova sonata” (published in 1889, first Japanese translation published in 1895) than actual performance of this challenging work.
One listener, whom Einstein’s performance inspired – there must have been many – was Terada Torahiko. His dairy does not record what he thought of Einstein’s playing, but he seems to have felt, “I can do that too.” He bought a new violin and - for the first time in the 20 years since he had bought a Suzuki (Masakichi) violin and attempted to play the Japanese national anthem as a student - he took lessons. In December 1924, he heard Efrem Zimbalist perform the “Keutzer” Sonata on the second of his six tours to Japan and realized that he still had a long way to go from his current assignment, the third volume of Christian Heinrich Hohmann’s (1811-61) “Practical Violin Tutor.” The sonata is hardly an easy amateur party piece. Harold Haynes’ “Chamber Music Repertoire for Amateur Players” (3rd ed., Cambridge 2002, p.177) lists it among the sonatas “considered too difficult for amateurs”. Not that such a patronizing observation will ever deter the determined. It certainly wouldn’t have deterred Terada – quite the opposite, I suspect. Like many of his compatriots, Terada was not content to absorb Western civilization passively through reading books and listening to music; he wanted to actively engage in it, and playing the violin was one way to do it. This kind of determination goes a long way towards explaining the Japanese’s success in making Western classical music their own. We can only imagine how many Japanese enthusiasts practised the “Kreutzer “Sonata in their home after having heard Einstein or Zimbalist, but Terada was surely not the only one.
By 1934 he was definitely working on the sonata and on 30 January 1935 he recorded in his diary that he played it with his fellow-physicist Tsuboi Tadaji. Eventually it came together well enough to be recognizable. Terada talked half-jokingly of hiring a hall to perform it and even making a gramophone recording. And - who knows - if he had not died in December that year he might have done it!
Reference: Suenobu, Yoshiharu. “Terada Torahiko: Baiorin o hiku butsurigakusha.” (jTerada Torahiko, the Violin-Playing Physicist) Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2009.
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