“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Daniel Melsa, Prodigy Violinist and his Shanghai Sojourn

Posted: December 20th, 2015 | 10 Comments »

Sometimes when researching old Shanghai and the foreign community in China in the first half of the twentieth century a name crops up that makes you sit up and pay attention and say “I wonder if…?” Writing about Florence Broadhurst and her Broadhurst Academy in 1920s Shanghai yesterday threw up one such name – Daniel Melsa. I knew I knew the name – apparently a violin teacher at the Broadhurst Academy in 1926, but surely from somewhere else. I admit I am not exactly au fait with many virtuoso violinists but this one had warranted a mention elsewhere. I’m a fan of the writing of Israel Zangwill, the London Jewish author and Zionist, largely forgotten now, but who wrote compellingly of the Jewish ghettos in London and New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He mentions a Daniel Melsa, a Polish-born child prodigy on the violin who took London, Berlin and New York by storm before the First World War – could this Daniel Melsa have spent time in Shanghai teaching violin at the Broadhurst Academy. I very much think so…but if anyone knows different please let me know?

And I could be wrong…references to Melsa in Shanghai are scant, but it seems to be the same man.

Here’s Daniel Melsa’s story, the early part of which is given in an appendix to Zangwill’s 1908 play The Melting Pot (which popularised the term) about a Jewish family fleeing pogrom and settling in the USA :

220px-TheMeltingpot1Melsa (originally I believe Isek David) was born in Warsaw of Russo-Jewish parents in 1892. He began the violin young, being taught in Lodz by a well known professor. At the age of 9 he was admitted to the Lodz Conservatorium of Music under Professor Grudzinski. he studied there for two years until disaster struck – his father and younger sister were murdered in the 1905 pogroms by Cossacks. His sister’s body was later discovered in a Christian graveyard “riddled with bullets” while his father’s body was never found. With his mother he went to Berlin where friends arranged for him to attend, free-of-charge, the famous Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory. He won the Conservatory’s top prize for violin in 1909 and came to the attention of the American Ambassador who bought him a Carlo Bergzoni violin (see postscript at end for more on this). He made his debut as a soloist in 1912 in Berlin, took the audience by storm and then played to sell out venues across Britain and the United States.

1450445561_tmp_The_Huntington_Herald_Sat__May_17__1913_Melsa in 1913 with his beloved Bergzoni

Successful now Melsa married an English pianist and actress Joan Carr, who’s stage name was “Miss Joan Carr”. She performed with him regularly and also went on extended tours with him. As an actress I believe she appeared in 1929 at the New Theatre in London in a play The Circle of Chalk. It ran for 48 performances, was well reviewed and also starred a young newcomer from America to Europe, Anna May Wong, the Australian-Chinese actress Rose Quong and a very young Laurence Olivier (Anna May and Olivier in the production below). The play, which is still regularly performed, is a popular adaptation of a Yuan Dynasty play by Li Qianfu and later inspired Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. More on that here.

72-1Rose Quong in Chinese costume

tumblr_lj2sfhJbc21qzm06qo1_500Olivier at 22 with Anna May Wong, just 23 here

By the time of World War One Melsa was a sensation and in high demand. In 1913 the London Jewish Chronicle wrote:

“Melsa is not yet 20 years of age, but he looks somewhat older. He is of slight build and has a sad expression…He seems singularly devoid of any affectation, while modesty is obviously the keynote of his nature.”

183px-GEH_1967_0097_0014Daniel Melsa in 1917

Melsa’s spent most of the war years in London and New York but in the 1920s began travelling further afield. Australia was keen to hear him and the circuit there profitable and, of course, between Europe and Australia was the Far East. He visited Australia and New Zealand in 1921 after performances in Colombo and other Far East cities. Such is the life of the travelling virtuoso – he seems to drop off the radar in Europe and America between about 1923 and 1934. This seems to be the time he was travelling mostly in Asia…

The_Sydney_Morning_Herald_Sat__Aug_20__1921_Advert for Melsa’s concert at the Sydney Town Hall in August 1921

Certainly he played concerts in Singapore and seems to have come to China around 1926 (the same time as Florence Broadhurst). Perhaps he knew her from the circuit – she was travelling around Asia with the Globetrotters revue at around the same time – or from Australia? He did appear in Peking in 1926 – Sidney David Gamble, then in Peking amassing his treasure trove of pictures of China during that period, saw him perform in the city. So it is highly possible that the Daniel Melsa recorded as a violin tutor at Bobby Broadhurst’s Academy on Kiangse Road, Shanghai is the same man – merely taking a break in a pleasant city for a while. But little else to my knowledge is recorded of his time in Shanghai. This includes when he left and returned to Europe?

Melsa, with his wife Joan Carr, did return to London and settled there around 1934 – at least he then regularly begins appearing on the BBC Home Service radio and at the Proms. He published a book called The Art of Violin Playing (below). Melsa died in 1952 at home his home in Hendon, North London at just 59.

1436090221-27327-65

Postscript – and that Bergzoni, bought for the young prodigy in Berlin by the American Ambassador (who I think was David Jayne Hill), stayed with Melsa all his working life. However, in 1940 Cyril John Curtis, a “showman” appeared at Bow Street Police Court in London charged with having stolen Melsa’s Bergzoni, valued at 1,200 pounds, from the violinists car while he had popped into the Globe Theatre. Curtis claimed he had found it in the doorway of a nightclub on Gerrard Street (today’s London Chinatown) and had telephoned and handed it back to Melsa after hearing an appeal for its return on the radio. The judge believed Curtis, who had a number of good character references in court, and dismissed the charge. Melsa got his beloved Carlo Bergzoni violin back. Melsa was reported in the Times as being “in tears” when the instrument was returned to him.

Rev._David_Jayne_Hill_(June_10,_1850_–_March_2,_1932)_circa_1916David Jayne Hill – diplomat and music lover

 

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10 Comments on “Daniel Melsa, Prodigy Violinist and his Shanghai Sojourn”

  1. 1 Mr Gary Melsa said at 6:04 pm on March 20th, 2016:

    Daniel Melsa was my Grandfather who I never had the pleasure of meeting.
    I will be 60 this year and my brother is 62.
    I named my first born after him but as she was a girl her name is Danielle, I also have a son 30 this year and my brother has 2 children also a girl and boy. My daughter gave me a grand daughter now 3 1/2.
    Daniel’s son David died 18 years ago but his wife Iris is still with us – 88 this year.
    After Daniel’s last wife died his 1/2 sister did get in touch and Iris went to visit her on the Isle of Wright, she told my mother that her life had been playing the piano, something my father never wanted to do, so at 14/16 he went to sea.
    So nice to catch up with family history !

  2. 2 Frank Gent said at 3:50 pm on April 8th, 2016:

    I recently discovered Daniel Melsa through my research on Joan Carr, later Countess of Drogheda. She was a protégée of my second cousin Sydney Schiff and his wife Violet, through whom she met and married Daniel days after her seventeenth birthday. Violet’s admirer Julian Fane wrote the roman à clef “Eleanor” about her life, and her first disastrous marriages. It is reasonably accurate as far as I am able to ascertain.
    Joan was illegitimate, and her marriage certificate gives her surname as Birkbeck, her mother’s married name. At the time of Joan’s birth she was divorced from her husband, but later remarried him.
    Daniel Melsa appears to have married twice more, in 1928 in Hampstead to Edith Fry, and in 1935 in Hendon to Elizabeth McCarroll. I had found no trace of any children from any of his marriages but I am delighted to see that his descendants are certainly here. I wonder, in the light of reading this page, whether his children were born abroad.

  3. 3 David J. Hill (III) said at 10:12 am on November 25th, 2016:

    My great-great grandfather was David J. Hill, the Ambassador. According to an article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette Times -Dec. 5, 1912, it was his second wife, Juliette Packer Hill, who discovered Melsa “half-starved” in Berlin when he was 14. She used her connections to such people as Andrew Carnegie and started a fund to raise money for him for his musical education, and to purchase the Bergzoni violin.

  4. 4 Matthew Cole said at 2:54 am on March 25th, 2017:

    Daniel Melsa was also my grandfather, and my mum (Elaine, still on the Isle of Wight) is his daughter with Elizabeth McCarroll. My second name is Daniel, after him, and although he died long before I was born, his story has always been an inspiration to me.

  5. 5 Sandi Melsa said at 5:19 am on March 25th, 2017:

    Daniel was my grandfather as well and I named my first son after him. The really strange thing is that I was possibly walking in his footsteps when I was in shanghai in the 90s. His story has always inspired me the same as it has my brother Matthew Cole.

  6. 6 Stuart Brooks said at 7:04 am on February 21st, 2018:

    My Gran’s sister was Elizabeth McCarroll, known as Aunt Betty but always preferred being known simply as Melsa.

  7. 7 Robina Lund said at 6:30 am on March 8th, 2019:

    I was a piano student at the Mabel Lander School of Music with Elaine Melsa

  8. 8 Philip Melsa said at 5:35 am on July 30th, 2019:

    Daniel Melsa was my grandad. I am the eldest son of Daniel’s son David and brother of Gary. It has been very interesting reading the previous comments regarding my grandfather and other relatives. I would love the opportunity to discuss any aspect of my family history with anyone with similar interests.

  9. 9 Name (required) said at 11:35 pm on November 3rd, 2019:

    My name is Robert Brooks,nephew ,by marraige ,of Uncle Daniel,He met my aunt
    Betty,at a concert in
    nGlasgow. He was the soloist at the St.,. Andrew, s Hall
    the premier concert hall in the West of Scotland. I remember visiting them in the early 60,s in Mill Hill.
    Early in the war years my parents agreed to have Elaine and her half brother David live with us in Carluke in Lanarkshire.David attended the local High School where he became close friends with
    Matthew Lang who was an accomplished pianist.My mother was musician who encouraged both of them in their musical interests.I remember when Uncle Danny died as Aunt Betty arranged that his collection of pure silk ties came my way.
    It appears that Daniel was a soloist at the Proms many times.Ironicslly the name next to his in the Roll of Proms soloists,Leigh Melrose, is the son of acquaintances of mine.

    .

  10. 10 Name (required) said at 3:35 am on November 7th, 2019:

    Joan Carr (née Birkbeck) divorced Melsa in 1929 (per a 1935 newspaper article) and married Dawson R. Miller shortly thereafter (divorced 1930, per same article). She then, in 1935, married Viscount Moore, the future 11th Earl of Drogheda. I do not believe she was an actress, though there was an American film and stage actress of the same time period named Joan Carr, whose birth and death dates are not the same as Lady Drogheda’s.


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