February 1, 2018
My mother, who attended one of our Guarneri String Quartet concerts some time ago, told me afterwards of a conversation she overheard in the ladies room during intermission.
“Are any of the Guarneri members Jewish?” one woman asked another.
“No,” responded her friend. “Arnold Steinhardt is of German origin, John Dalley, English, Michael Tree, Scottish, and David Soyer is French. Soyer, of course, was originally pronounced Suayay.”
I was amused to hear about the conversation because almost none of it was true. I’m not of German origin, John may or may not have an English background, Michael is definitely no Scot, and David has nothing French about him. Not only that: three out of four of us in the Guarneri Quartet were Jewish.
How could that woman have gotten things so wrong? It seems that a name can tell you something about the person attached to it, and sometimes even hide, deceive, or reinvent where that person came from and who he or she actually is.
I only learned in my teenage years that I was originally to be named after my grandfather Aaron, and that my parents, immigrants from Europe, decided to change it to Arnold. They told me that Arnold sounded more American.
In music school, I knew fellow student Michael Tree as Michael Applebaum. That, apparently, was not good enough for his teacher, Efrem Zimbalist, who refused to sponsor Michael’s budding concert career unless he got rid of Applebaum, the name he was born and raised with. Perhaps Applebaum, which actually means apple tree, tells us about someone in Michael’s distant family background who grew fruit trees. Was Applebaum too prosaic, or too ethnic-sounding for Zimbalist? Ironic that Zimbalist would think that way. His name might well indicate that a percussion player, perhaps a cymbalist, had been in his own family background.
Applebaum might not be the fanciest name around, but what do you do as a budding concert pianist if your name is something as common, even silly sounding, as Texas-born Lucy Hickenlouper? Why, you change it to Olga Samaroff of course. Very Old World and cultured sounding, don’t you think? Samoroff had a glittering career first as performer and then as a world-renowned teacher.
And what about the great cellist Zara Nelsova, who was born Sara Katznelson in Winnipeg, Canada. How would both Samaroff and Nelsova have fared in the music world with monikers like Hickenlouper and Katznelson?
These two ladies exchanged their ungainly names for something more exotic, but there are musicians who wanted their names to have no connection with that cultured Old World. They preferred something less foreign and more neutral. In some cases, the threat that anti-Semitism might exert on the career of someone with a Jewish name was enough motivation to make the change. And so, Jacob Gershwine, a name already changed a generation earlier from Gershowitz, became the composer George Gershwin. Arnold Rosenberg, a Romanian-born Austrian violinist, who was the concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for over fifty years, re-titled himself Arnold Rosé. The American pianist Byron Yanks, whose family name a generation earlier had been Yankelevitch, emerged as Byron Janis. The Hungarian conductor born Jen?, became Eugene Ormandy.
Ethnic? Not ethnic? Or would you prefer a more aristocratic touch as in Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, or before I forget, Lady Gaga, born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. Try putting a lady in front of that!
And moving from aristocracy to geography, there are musicians such as the violinist David Oistrakh, whose last name likely derives from the German word for Austria; the dancer and singer Fred Astaire, born Frederick Austerlitz; and the composer Israel Beilin who changed his name to the far more cosmopolitan Irving Berlin. The singer songwriter Henry John Deutchendorf, Jr. (Deutchendorf meaning German village in the German language) changed his name to John Denver, as much a shuffling of countries as of names.
Then there is the unusual case of the young American pianist Abraham Kotzer, who traveled to Berlin, Germany, in the nineteen-thirties to study with the pianist Arthur Schnabel. I can imagine that Schnabel must have burst out laughing when Kotzer introduced himself. The word “kotzer” in German means one who vomits. Imagine the posters in German-speaking lands announcing the performance of the brilliant pianist Abraham Vomit. Necessity is the mother of invention. Kotzer cleverly rearranged the letters of his name and, presto, he became Aube Tzerko.
In the late nineteen-twenties, four gifted students from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia decided to form a string quartet. What would be more fitting than to use the name suggested by Mary Louise Curtis Bok, the school’s founder: the Swastika String Quartet. Bok and her husband had named their estate in nearby Merion, Pennsylvania, Swastika, an ancient religious icon and a sacred symbol of spiritual principles. All fared well for the Swastika String Quartet until the Nazis came to power in 1933, embracing the Swastika as a symbol of their political party. The name suddenly turned toxic. Even in Nazi Germany, the Swastika Quartet’s success would have been short-lived once it was discovered that some of its members were Jewish. The group quickly changed its name to the Curtis String Quartet and embarked on a long and distinguished career.
I’ve never thought about changing my name before, but perhaps I’ve been shortsighted. Who knows what a new and more glamorous name might bring. Recognition? Concerts? Even wealth? I could draw on my hometown for a name, for example. How does Arnold Los Angeles sound? Or what about basing a name on my profession? I kind of like the idea of seeing Arnold Violin up there on the marquee.
Here’s another idea, however. If Prince Rogers Nelson could change his name to “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” why can’t I become “The Musician Formerly Known as Arnold”?
I’ll keep you posted.
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