The Nightingale’s Sonata

When you write a book about music and musicians, you constantly have melodies running through your head.  It inspires the writing.  But how does one share that music with one’s readers?

In the case of my book, The Nightingale’s Sonata, it was easy. The book is built around a specific piece of music, César Franck’s magnificent sonata for violin and piano, and each section of the story is introduced by one of the movements.  There is no better way to present the narrative than to set it to an actual performance of the music. How fortunate that violinist Ayano Ninomiya and pianist Natalie Zhu make that possible in this presentation.

The story I tell is about my grandmother, the incredible Lea Luboshutz—among the first internationally known female violinists and certainly a larger-than-life character.  But it is also the story of seven generations of her musical family beginning with Lea’s grandfather (an opera singer) and extending to a handful of her musical descendants. It is a gripping story with plenty of triumphs and tragedies, much love and betrayal, and, in my grandmother’s case, a determination to overcome adversity and become successful.  It was not easy to be a professional female performer in those days—even tougher if you were Jewish.  The rampant anti-Semitism of Tsarist Russia did not abate under the Soviet system and persecution forced many of my family to seek safe havens again and again in Russia, Germany, France, and the United States. Yet even when it appeared that they had done so, some members of the family got caught in the Nazi Holocaust and lost their lives in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

But it would be misleading to leave the impression that Lea’s is a sad story—though there is plenty of unhappiness that accompanied the family over generations. Rather it is an optimistic tale. My grandmother had an amazingly positive attitude throughout her life and she was adored by huge numbers of fans and many patrons.  How else could a poor female violinist acquire the Nightingale Stradivarius—one of the greatest of all violins, noted for its beautiful tone?  How else could she be entrusted with the secrets of Franck’s violin sonata by the man to whom it was dedicated, the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, who was mesmerized by Lea’s playing when she was a young girl and decided to teach it to her? How else could she and her talented sister and brother (a cellist and pianist respectively) be selected to perform at Tolstoy’s memorial service in Moscow? And how else could Lea be selected by one of the most famous pianists of all time, Josef Hofmann, to become his recital partner?  Some jealous observers said Hofmann’s decision was based on the fact that the two were lovers.  As I explored the historical record, I realized that if it were true (a distinct possibility), he was only one of several.

I learned many other family secrets in writing this book.  One was that my grandmother was never married to my grandfather—an equally famous lawyer and a political activist whose persecution after the Russian Revolution led to his premature death.  Despite fathering Lea’s three children (including my mother), Onissim Goldovsky was married throughout his adult life to the writer Rashel Khin.  It was an exotic love triangle about which I learned accidentally when a Russian-based cousin, helping me with research for my book, came across Rashel’s private diary in an archive in Moscow.

One of Lea’s sons. Boris Goldovsky, became a distinguished opera impresario, pianist, and conductor who eventually became more famous than she. A grandson on whom she lavished much musical attention—including teaching him the Franck sonata—ended up performing the work in Carnegie Hall and the White House. And it is that grandson, pianist Andrew Wolf, who has brought together my story with the Kingston Chamber Music Festival.

My brother died very young at the age of 42 of a brain tumor just as his career was taking off.  After his death, family and friends endowed the Andrew Wolf Chamber Music Award to be given every few years to an outstanding pianist who has made a commitment and contribution to chamber music.  And who was the 1993 winner of that award?  None other than the Kingston Chamber Music Festival’s Artistic Director, Natalie Zhu. How wonderful that we can celebrate his life and Lea’s as we perform together once again.

Notes by Thomas Wolf