Posted on: April 8, 2015 in: Programmes>2016-17 Season>ÉMIGRÉ, Émigré stories

In the weeks around our ÉMIGRÉ concert series, we’ve been collecting stories on the theme. While our concerts explore the journeys composers and musicians have made across the world, this blog series, ÉMIGRÉ STORIES, focuses on the journeys made by the individuals that together make City of London Sinfonia. 

Our third émigré is violinist Sarah Barnes, a regular and much-loved player with the orchestra. She talks about her family’s emigration from Russia in the early twentieth century, and story of her Jewish grandmother, whose memoirs ‘Growing up in Shoreditch’ reveal much about the musical culture, traditions and life of East End, so populated by many other kindred émigrés.

My Jewish great-grandparents’ emigration from Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century

Children of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe, my paternal grandparents grew up in the East End of London.  My grandfather’s parents emigrated from Romania and my grandmother’s parents from Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. It seems they all moved here separately and met their spouses after joining the growing Jewish émigré community in the East End. Jews from Eastern Europe moved to England and America in increasingly large numbers during this period. Pogroms (attacks on Jewish people) had been occurring across the Russian Empire and discriminatory laws meant that there were few livelihoods open to them.

My grandmother’s mother, Janie, came to London in 1902 at the age of twenty from Vidz, Lithuania (now Vidzyin Belarus – Vidz was the Yiddish name). Janie left behind her parents and a sister, and sadly, never saw them again until 1960, when her long-lost sister, Sonia, got in contact. She and her family had miraculously survived both the Holocaust, Stalinist invasion and escaped to Israel. Her parents (my great-great grandparents) were killed during the invasion of Vidz by the German army in 1915. Almost all of the Jewish population fled Vidz at this time and those remaining were subject to persecution, torture and rape. Some returned to rebuild their lives after the war, but during the Second World War, the Jewish population there was wiped out by the Nazis.

Janie’s shtetl (a small, Jewish populated town), Vidz. This picture was taken around 1900, the time she left for England. Picture taken from http://www.eilatgordinlevitan.com/vidzy/vidzy.html

The musical culture of London’s East End: music hall, bandstands and dance-bands

On arriving in London, my great-grandmother, Janie lived with and worked for her sister, Fanny, who had emigrated earlier and owned a tobacconist and sweet shop with her husband in Spitalfields.  Later, Janie worked in a shop making cigarettes – a common occupation for Jewish émigrés. She was introduced to her husband here, Morris (also a cigarette-maker) and they married in 1906 and had three sons and a daughter; my grandmother, Anne. In her memoir, Growing up in Shoreditch, Anne recalls her father being frustrated in his job. He was an avid reader; he read Tolstoy novels and books about socialism borrowed from the library. He also talked about how, when he was single, he used to frequent the music hall, as well as the Royal Albert Hall and Covent Garden opera. No doubt he couldn’t afford to once he had four children! What is striking is that these kinds of cultural activities seem to have been accessible for working class people at this time.

The first piano we owned when I started piano lessons at the age of eight was given to us by my Jewish grandparents. It was always about a quarter-tone flat, which is not surprising since it was the piano that my great-grandfather bought for my grandmother in 1927! He worked hard to save up for it as Anne had long wanted to learn the instrument. The family were poor but hard-working and keen to improve their quality of life. Janie fought hard in 1922 for a bigger flat in the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch (the first good quality social housing, built by the London County Council on the site of a slum). Their previous flat  had no toilet, bath or hot water, although it was still considered desirable to live in a self-contained flat.

The Buildings in the Boundary Estate c.1907, shortly before my family moved  there. In each street there was a small park. Photo taken from https://boundarylaunderette.wordpress.com/boundary-estate-a-history/

For Anne, the park around Shoreditch church and ‘The Bandstand’ on Arnold Circus provided a haven amid the city streets, and she loved to listen to the band there. In her memoirs she also describes how she and her friends amused themselves by creating musical and theatrical entertainments on the landing of their building. There was a girl who wanted to be a ballerina and later became a film actress; the girl’s brother who did monologues and became a film director; a boy who told jokes who became a comedian/actor; and Anne’s brother, Sid, who ‘drummed on a hard chair with two coins’ and became a drummer and dance-band leader. Apparently, Joe Loss (also born in the East End and son of Russian Jews), the Big Band leader best known for the hit tune, ‘In the Mood’, was one of the musicians who played in my great-uncle Sid’s dance band in Shoreditch.

The children of my great-grandmother, Janie’s sister, Fanny were also musical. One of them, Alec Frankel, became a professional violinist and leader of a dance band.

Perhaps Alec may have played music like this in the 1920s and 30s:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gd5MPUdPcVI&w=560&h=315]

These stories and images conjure up a picture of the musical and cultural vibrancy of the East End in the early twentieth century. Having lived in East London myself for the past ten years, I’ve found that this is still a characteristic of the area today, although very different musical cultures exist here now.

Musical threads passed from generation to generation

The story of how Anne met my grandfather, Gerald in 1942 also involves music. They met at a gramophone concert, and Grandpa used to joke that he could blame Shostakovich for his marriage to Anne, as that’s what they listened to the night they met. I’d love to know what piece it was. Grandpa didn’t like it, he said, so perhaps it was one of Shostakovich’s heavier works!

My grandparents moved to Pinner in North West London when they married. Compared to the East End, this was the countryside! There was even a farm nearby, which may have appealed to Anne because of her idealised image of her mother’s life in rural Vidz. In her memoir, Anne says she felt creatively frustrated growing up, which is why she encouraged her two sons in their artistic and academic endeavours. My dad didn’t take to the piano as a child but later taught himself the electric guitar, which became a passion, and he passed on his love of music to me.

Despite not being brought up Jewish, I’ve long been curious about both the Jewish East End and the Eastern European origins of my great-grandparents. I’m also attracted to what might be described as a particularly‘Jewish’ style of violin playing –  this can be heard in both the sensuous sound of Jewish violinists like Itzhak Perlman and in Klezmer music, where the violin is very expressive (it’s apparently meant to mimic the sound of wailing, crying or laughing). Below is a video of Itzhak Perlman playing Klezmer.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkmFgQ9fM94&w=420&h=315]

Not much in the way of an Eastern European musical culture seems to have been passed on by my émigré ancestors in the East End. The desire for assimilation and economic opportunity seems to have led them to immerse themselves in the existing popular culture. However, my dad does remember that at the Jewish ‘simchas’ (celebrations, such as weddings and barmitzvahs) which he went to as a boy, his cousins would entertain the guests with the ‘kazutzka’ dance. This is basically the Slavic ‘Cossack’ dance, and thus a remnant of the folk culture my great-grandmother, Janie would have experienced in Vidz.

With thanks to Warren and Marshall Colman for their assistance with the above.

City of London Sinfonia: ÉMIGRÉ 
25 February – 16 June 2015
Village Underground | Cadogan Hall | Shoreditch Church
Tickets available from £5
See our website for more details.