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Leo Grigoryevich Sirota
Лео Григорьевич Сирота
Leo Sirota 1940.jpg
Publicity photo of Leo Sirota (circa 1941)
Born (1885-05-04)May 4, 1885
Kamenets-Podolsky, Podolia Governorate, Russian Empire (disputed)
Died February 25, 1965(1965-02-25) (aged 79)
New York City, US
Resting place Ferncliff Cemetery
Other names Leiba Girshovich
Occupation Pianist, teacher, conductor
Years active 1893–1965
Spouse(s)
Augustine "Gisa" Horenstein
(m. 1920⁠–⁠1965)
Children Beate Sirota Gordon
Relatives Jascha Horenstein (brother-in-law)

Leo Grigoryevich Sirota (May 4, 1885 - February 25, 1965) was a Russian-born American pianist and teacher.

Biography

Youth

Sources conflict on where Sirota was born in the Russian Empire. According to his students Joan Kelley Arison and Alexis Abaza, Sirota was born in Kamenets-Podolsky, Podolia Governorate. His daughter, Beate Sirota Gordon, said he was born in Kiev, Kiev Governorate. (Both birthplace locations are today part of Ukraine.) Sirota was the fourth of five children born to a middle-class Jewish family; his father owned a clothing store. Sirota's siblings were all musically inclined, including his two brothers; Wiktor became a conductor of operettas, Pyotr a music agent and promoter.

Sirota began studying piano at age 5 with a pianist who was boarding with his family, Michael Wexler. Sirota's pianistic skill developed rapidly. Administrators at his school regularly called upon him to play for visiting dignitaries. In 1893, Sirota performed his public debut recital. That same year he enrolled at the Imperial Music School of Kiev; Sergei Tarnowsky was among his classmates.

At the age of 10 Sirota embarked upon his first Russian tour, during which he played for Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Impressed by his talent, he invited Sirota to study with him in Paris, but his mother declined the offer believing that her son was too young to study in another country. The following year, Sirota began to teach piano. After graduation, he enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The school's dean, Alexander Glazunov, wrote a recommendation letter for him to Ferrucio Busoni in Vienna.

In 1899, Sirota was appointed a répétiteur for the Kiev Civic Opera, where he also accompanied visiting singers in recitals, including Feodor Chaliapin.

The rise of anti-Semitic violence in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century convinced Sirota to consider emigration. His brothers had already preceded him by emigrating to Warsaw and Paris. Sirota emigrated to Vienna in 1904.

Vienna and studies with Busoni

Ferruccio Busoni photographed in 1916
Sirota became one of the favorite students of Ferruccio Busoni (in 1916)

Sirota's talent, personality, and appearance helped him quickly gain acceptance into Viennese musical society of the time, which opened professional and social connections for him. Women were particularly drawn to him; one admirer bequeathed to him an apartment. At first he refrained from using his letter of recommendation to Busoni, choosing instead to first audition for Paderewski, Josef Hoffman, and Leopold Godowsky. He auditioned for Busoni after and chose him as a teacher. When Sirota presented his letter of recommendation from Glazunov, Busoni replied, "What need is there for this? I have heard you play!" While studying with Busoni, Sirota also enrolled as a philosophy student at the University of Vienna using the name Leiba Girshovich.

In 1905, Sirota entered the Anton Rubinstein Competition in Paris, but failed to win a prize. His fellow contestants were Otto Klemperer, Béla Bartók, Leonid Kreutzer, and Wilhelm Backhaus; the last two winning fourth and first prizes respectively. Sirota decided not to return to live in Russia after the competition and, instead, settle in Vienna.

Busoni regarded Sirota as one of his best students. He dedicated a copy of his Elegies to him after hearing him perform Franz Liszt's Réminiscences de Don Juan. "After that masterful piece of playing, I don't wish to hear anyone else today", he told Sirota. Sirota was proud that Busoni had referred to him as a "colleague" in the inscription. Busoni later also dedicated his Giga, Bolero e Variazione: Studie nach Mozart to Sirota.

Musikverein Goldener Saal
The interior of the Great Hall of the Musikverein, where Sirota's "true debut" took place

In 1910, Sirota won Busoni's permission to perform the Viennese premiere of his Piano Concerto at a concert with the Tonkünstler Orchestra.

The concert took place at the Great Hall of the Musikverein on December 13 and was conducted by Busoni. Arnold Schoenberg was among those who were in attendance. The performance was a public and critical success. Busoni predicted a great future for his pupil.

Sirota's success at the concert was also reported on internationally.

Sirota also praised Busoni's generosity with gifted students with limited financial means, whom he would teach without charge.

1910 Anton Rubinstein Competition

Arthur Rubinstein 1906
Arthur Rubinstein (in 1906) was a friend of Sirota and an admirer of his pianism

Later in 1910, Sirota returned to Russia to participate in the Anton Rubinstein Competition, which was being held in St. Petersburg that year. There was controversy ahead of the event because of a Russian law prohibiting Jews from staying more than 24 hours in St. Petersburg. Despite a petition from local musicians headed by Glazunov, the government refused to rescind the law. Exceptions were made for Russian Jews such as Sirota, who had earned the title of "Free Artist" upon completion of his studies in Russia.

Hoehn was awarded the first prize; Sirota did not place among the winners. His friendship with Arthur Rubinstein, which began at the competition, endured for the rest of their lives.

World War I

Although as a Russian citizen Sirota was exempt from service in the Austro-Hungarian Armed Forces, his career was still disrupted when World War I began in July 1914. He was permitted to perform in public during the war, despite being the citizen of an enemy nation.

During the war Sirota met Jascha Horenstein, a fellow immigrant from Kiev who was also a student at the University of Vienna. Horenstein began to study with Sirota, whom he invited to play with the pick-up orchestra he organized on Sundays. The two became lifelong friends. Horenstein invited his 23-year-old sister Augustine, known informally as Gisa, to hear Sirota play at a forthcoming concert. She was so moved by Sirota's performance and appearance that she forgot to applaud. Afterwards she was introduced to him by her brother. She began to study piano with Sirota. Their relationship developed into an affair, during which he proposed marriage to her; she refused as she was married with a son.

Personal and professional success

Sergei Koussevitzky
Sergei Koussevitzky's invitation to play in Berlin expanded Sirota's international career

The end of the war in 1918 had significant personal consequences for Sirota. Although he identified strongly with Russia and its culture, he was disappointed by the outcome of the October Revolution and felt that he no longer had a homeland to return to. He was also unhappy with the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in Austria. In spite of these and other postwar difficulties, Sirota made a successful return to an international performing career. He also made use of his experience as a répétiteur and facility with modern music during summer 1919, when Lotte Lehmann asked him to help her prepare the role of the Dyer's Wife in Richard Strauss' new opera Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Throughout these years Sirota maintained intermittent contact with Gisa Horenstein, who still refused to divorce her then husband. Busoni interceded and spoke to her, speaking very favorably of Sirota's personal qualities. She finally agreed to a divorce, leaving her son in the custody of her husband. In 1920, Sirota and Gisa were married. "You're married to a great artist", Busoni told her after the wedding ceremony. "Please take good care of him." In 1923, their only daughter Beate Sirota Gordon was born. By the end of the 1920s, the Sirotas had become naturalized Austrian citizens.

In 1921, Sirota was invited to Berlin by Serge Koussevitzky to play concertos by Anton Rubinstein and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. His successful performances resulted in positive reviews from local critics. One wrote that Sirota's "virtuosity, passionate temperament, and engaging personality" had "literally taken Berlin by storm"; another called him a "master" and wondered in his review, "Do Russians have a monopoly on pianism?" Sirota's success in Berlin led to engagements across Europe; in concerts conducted by Busoni, Koussevitzky, Horenstein, Carl Nielsen, and Bruno Walter. Further positive reviews followed, with one critic likening his playing to that of "Liszt resurrected from the dead". The Neue Freie Presse called him the "glorious exponent of the Busoni school".

Busoni's death in 1924 was a shock to Sirota.

Sirota himself performed new music and, together with his friend Eduard Steuermann, regularly performed Schoenberg's piano works.

As the 1920s progressed Sirota began having increased contacts with Soviet diplomats and musicians, including Adolph Joffe. During late 1926 and early 1927 Sirota toured the Soviet Union, playing in Moscow, Kharkov, and Baku. Upon his return Sirota reported to a German newspaper his positive impressions, adding that he was "quite willing to make a second visit". In 1928 he returned for a second tour, this time performing with Egon Petri. The tour concluded in Vladivostok, from which point Sirota embarked on a solo tour of Manchuria.

First trip to Japan

Harbin Modern Hotel
Entrance to the Modern Hotel (circa 1930s) in Harbin, where Sirota stayed after his second Soviet tour

Sirota arrived in Harbin—which in 1928 had large expatriate communities of White Russians, Soviets, and Japanese—and checked into the Modern Hotel.

Kosaku Yamada 01
Yamada Kōsaku (in 1952) brought Sirota to Japan

The circumstances of how Sirota made an unscheduled trip to Japan from Manchuria are disputed. According to his daughter, after a concert Sirota was visited at his hotel by Yamada Kōsaku, who proposed to him a series of recitals in Japan with "generous terms". Yamada recalled that upon arriving in Harbin, Sirota sent him a letter saying he intended to visit Japan. Thereafter Sirota notified Yamada of his itinerary through Keijō, Fuzan, and Shimonoseki, until he was ready to be picked up at Tokyo Station. In both versions of the story, Sirota's trip to Japan had been unscheduled. The arrival of a such an important foreign musical figure surprised the Japanese musical establishment, which had no time to prepare publicity in advance.

Yamada, in cooperation with the Asahi Shimbun, organized a Sirota recital for a private audience on November 4, 1928.

On November 15, Sirota made his Japanese public debut, attracting overflow crowds to Tokyo's Asahi Hall despite heavy rain that day. According to Yamamoto Takashi, the public's excitement for Sirota's debut dovetailed with the celebratory mood in Japan at the time over the succession of the Emperor Shōwa, which had occurred on November 10.

Nihon seinenkan
Sirota's final recital of his 1928 Japanese tour was played at the Nippon Seinenkan (pictured here in 1925)

Altogether Sirota played 16 concerts in the Japanese leg of his tour, which ended with a concert on December 21 at the Nippon Seinenkan. That performance was the first he chose to play on a Yamaha piano, then known as Nippon Gakki. His choice, unprecedented for visiting Western artists at the time, resulted in Nippon Gakki widely advertising his endorsement; he is credited with helping to popularize Yamaha pianos. At the end of the tour, the Japanese press referred to Sirota as a "god of the piano".

When Sirota returned to Vienna, he reported to his family that Japan "went crazy", treated him "as if he were a king", and that it was going to be a "great country one day".

Sirota also informed his family that Yamada had offered him a teaching position at the Tokyo Music School with enough flexibility to schedule concerts as he pleased. He began to discuss with his wife the possibility of moving permanently to Japan. Economic and political problems at home led Gisa to suggest that Sirota engage on a second concert tour of the Far East, this time for six months. The Sirotas packed their belongings and traveled from Vienna to Moscow, from where they embarked onto the Trans-Siberian Railroad destined for Vladivostok.

Interwar years in Japan

Nihonbashi aerial photo
Aerial view of Tokyo (circa 1930)

On the way to Japan, Sirota befriended Kishi Kōichi, with whom he would later play his first chamber music concert in 1930. From Vladivostok they sailed across the Sea of Japan, disembarking at Yokohama. The entire journey took four weeks.

The deteriorating political situation in Europe, particularly the strong showing of the NSDAP in the 1930 German federal election, convinced the Sirotas to settle in Japan permanently. They moved into a home located at the base of Nogizaka [ja], in Akasaka, Tokyo, an area then popular with foreigners and the wealthy. Among their neighbors were Hirota Kōki and Umehara Ryūzaburō, who helped the family adjust themselves to life in Japan and sent them maids he had personally vetted. They were also supported by Yamada and Konoye, as well as some of the leading kazoku families including the Tokugawas and Mitsuis. Throughout the 1930s, the Sirota household frequently received and entertained visiting musicians from Europe and the United States including Chaliapin, Jascha Heifetz, Emmanuel Feuermann, Alexander Brailowsky, Ignaz Friedman, Shura Cherkassky, Joseph Schuster, Joseph Szigeti, Efrem Zimbalist, and Mishel Piastro [de].

Fujita and Sirota
Sirota with his student Fujita Haruko (circa late 1930s)

Leonid Kochanski [ja], the brother of Paul, resigned his position as professor of piano at Tokyo Music School in 1931. He had held the position since 1925 and had become the leading piano teacher in Japan. Nevertheless, his school had lost some of its prestige as Japan's preeminent institute of musical education and was criticized for a curriculum that focused on training teachers rather than performers. Its administrative staff hoped that its newly hired staff, which included Klaus Pringsheim and Robert Pollak [de], would be able to reverse the situation. Sirota was appointed Kochanski's successor and began work on June 14. His Japanese students eventually totaled several hundred. Among his best students were Sonoda Takahiro, Fujita Haruko, and Nagaoka Nobuko.

Tokyo-Rokumeikan-zenmen-1883-1900
The Sirota Trio performed their chamber music series at the Rokumeikan (pictured here in the late 19th century)

Sirota was the most popular pianist in Japan during the period before the Pacific War. He performed and taught in major cities as well as rural areas, putting special effort into the latter as Western classical music was rarely heard live there. He also often performed as a soloist and chamber music partner for the radio. From 1930 to 1931, Osaka Central Broadcasting Company [ja] broadcast a cycle Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas played by Sirota. His fame was such that one of his concerts was referenced in the first installment of Tanizaki Jun'ichirō's The Makioka Sisters.

During the 1930s Sirota performed chamber music frequently with Kishi, Pollak, Alexander Mogilevsky, and Ōno Anna [ja]. The latter two regularly requested Sirota to partner their students in recital; among them were Iwamoto Mari and Tsuji Hisako [ja], accompanying both on their public debuts. In 1931, Sirota, Pollak, and cellist Heinrich Werkmeister [ja] founded the Sirota Trio; they performed at the Rokumeikan and became the most prominent Japanese chamber music group of their time.

Sirota lived comfortably in Japan and integrated into its society. He was also relieved that anti-Semitism was a very fringe notion in early 1930s Japan, stating to Polish journalists that it had "absolutely no Jewish issue". His daughter later said, "I am quite certain that my dad was very happy in Japan".

Japan and rising international tensions

Kishi and sirota circa 1930
Sirota with Kishi Kōichi (left)

On September 18, 1931, the Mukden Incident occurred, which initiated a chain of events that ultimately led to the Second Sino-Japanese War and Pacific War. Sirota and his family were untouched by political events at first, but they began to encroach into their lives as the 1930s progressed. Sirota's home was located near an Imperial Japanese Army barracks; when the 2-26 Incident occurred in 1936, soldiers stood guard in front of his house.

Early Shōwa era Japan treated its residents of Jewish descent equally as other foreign residents. Sirota himself commented to the European press that Japan was "generous" to its Jewish residents and that the country "would never discriminate against them or restrict their freedom". This began to change in March 1938 with the Anschluss, which resulted in Sirota's Austrian citizenship becoming German. In November of the same year, the Japan-Germany Cultural Agreement (Japanese: 日独文化協定), which served to commemorate the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936, was signed. When it was enacted, Germany heavily pressured Japan to dismiss all musicians of Jewish descent from official posts. A German representative at the time told the Japanese press that it was "regrettable that music in Japan is dominated by the Jews". Policy changes that resulted from the agreement included discouraging inviting any more people of Jewish descent to Japan, excepting those considered "especially useful [...] such as capitalists and technicians". Initially, Japanese musical institutions resisted firing Jewish staff or removing them from concert programs, including Nippon Columbia which refused to purge its catalog of recordings by Sirota and other musicians of Jewish descent. They continued to play in public and teach through the early 1940s.

In spite of these and the goodwill Sirota had developed, he and his family came under scrutiny. His daughter, who attended a German school in Tokyo, was harassed by staff because of her ethnic background. She was also given low marks at the end of the school year in 1936 because she had been overheard to have said that the Saarland should have remained a League of Nations mandate, instead of being returned to Germany. Sirota transferred her to the American School in Nakameguro the following school year. It also resulted in his daughter seeking to continue her studies in the United States. Sirota obtained permission for her to do so with great difficulty; he was assisted by Hirota and Joseph Clark Grew, both of whom were personal friends.

Tatsuta maru July 30 1941
The Tatsuta Maru arriving in San Francisco on July 30, 1941

Sirota and his wife sailed on the Tatsuta Maru in July 1941 to visit their daughter, who by then was attending Mills College in Oakland, California. Sirota discovered that a former pupil who had by then become a diplomat for Czechoslovakia was on board. He asked Sirota to mail a pair of letters marked to Edvard Beneš and Jan Masaryk once he arrived ashore. This later came to the notice of the Tokkō, who detained Sirota upon his return to Japan in November on charges of espionage. The charges were dropped after his student Fujita's father, an international lawyer, successfully interceded on his behalf.

When the Tatsuta Maru approached San Francisco on July 24, its crew learned that they would not be allowed to dock because of fraught diplomatic tensions between the United States and Japan, as well as an embargo on a shipment of Japanese silk that was aboard. Some passengers who had remained awake around 11:00 p.m. on July 23 noticed that the Tatsuta Maru came to a halt, then reversed course. The next morning, passengers discovered that instead of being in San Francisco Bay, they were beyond any visible shoreline, with the ship traveling in a northwesterly direction away from their intended destination. Panic began to set in among some passengers, who were dissatisfied with the crew's explanations. In response, Sirota performed several impromptu concerts which were reported on across the United States.

Eventually, on July 30, the passengers aboard the Tatsuta Maru were allowed to disembark in San Francisco.

During his visit to California, Sirota reunited with Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whom he had known back in Vienna. The composer found him and his family accommodations at Eva Le Gallienne's apartment. Sirota's wife and friends attempted to convince him to stay in the United States, warning him that war with Japan was imminent. Although the Los Angeles Times announced in September that Sirota planned to settle in the United States, his daughter said he refused to do so, citing what he had heard through his connections to top Japanese government officials, who had relayed to him that war was unlikely. He also explained that he felt he had to honor his obligations to the Tokyo School of Music and his students.

Honolulu Museum of Art from Thomas Square
Sirota's recital on September 29, 1941, at the Honolulu Academy of Arts was his first performance on American territory

That same month, he sailed for Japan with his wife, but were forced to disembark in Honolulu. His German citizenship had drawn the attention of the FBI, who told him to remain in Hawaii pending clearance. In the meantime, Sirota played concerts to pay for their lodgings. His local debut at the Honolulu Academy of Arts on September 29 was the first time he performed publicly on American territory. He continued concertizing through October and early November, venturing to rural Oahu and to Maui. His October 31 recital at Wailuku's Baldwin Auditorium was the first ever organized by the Maui Philharmonic Society. While in Maui, Sirota and a group of companions hiked to the summit of Haleakalā.

Sirota's concerts in Hawaii were well received by local audiences and press. George D.

The music critic for the Honolulu Advertiser, Edna B. Lawson, wrote that Sirota's pianism recalled that of Paderewski "in his heyday" and Arthur Rubinstein.

In addition to performing, Sirota was feted by Hawaiian dignitaries, including George Burroughs Torrey and his wife at their home in Kalihi.

Sirota's final Hawaiian concert took place on November 3 at Leilehua Auditorium in Wahiawa. Through the intercession of the Tokyo Music School and the Imperial Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sirota departed with his wife for Japan on the Taiyō Maru on November 5. Before he left, he thanked his Hawaiian hosts for their hospitality and expressed his conviction that there would be no war between the United States and Japan. The Sirotas arrived in Yokohama on November 27. On December 7, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor.

Wartime

On November 25, 1941, Germany revoked the citizenship of all its Jewish citizens living outside the country. Sirota, who was still aboard the Taiyō Maru at the time, was left stateless. On December 8, Japan began to conduct mass surveillance of its stateless residents. Extreme nationalists rebuked classical music as a result of the popular animosity against the Allies. The Japanese government maintained its support for classical music; a naval officer, Hiraide Hideo [ja] coined the phrase "Music is munitions" (Japanese: 音楽は軍需品なり) to express official policy. Because of this, Sirota's musical activities increased during the first years of the Pacific War. Aside from concertizing and teaching, he also began to share conducting duties with Manfred Gurlitt at the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.

America

After the Second World War he moved to America and taught in St. Louis. A local radio station frequently asked him to broadcast, and much of his surviving recorded output comes from the paper-based tapes that the studio gave to him after each broadcast. His repertoire was vast, including the complete works of Chopin, which he broadcast. His playing is characterised by a luminous tone and unfussy, almost fastidious interpretations, underpinned by an astonishing technique - his rendition of Rosenthal's arrangement of Chopin's minute waltz with the right hand in thirds was said to have astounded Arthur Rubinstein. Because his recorded legacy required specialised remastering, it is only recently that his stature as a pianist has been appreciated.

Sirota died in 1965.

His daughter was Beate Sirota Gordon.

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