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Mike Brubaker
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Kun Arpad - A Violin Prodigy

24 September 2011

On April 26, 1901 a weekly newspaper in Utah, the The Coalville Times, carried the following telegraphic wire report on Kun Arpad, a young Hungarian violinist:

Seven-year Wonder

At one of the interesting "five o'clocks" of the enterprising Paris Figaro a little 7-year-old violin virtuoso from Hungary was on the program, who promises to be the musical sensation of the world for some time to come. There is only one objection to the youthful artist, and that is his very unmelodious name — Kun Arpad, which is not a nom de theater. Still, it has a familiar gypsy sound, not by any means as unpronounceable as Bjornstjerne Bjornson and the names of other men who have become famous despite their patronymics.

Kun Arpad is a juvenile virtuoso par excellence. His repertoire embraces some of the most classical pieces of renowned composers, and he plays with wonderful feeling. The musical critic of the Figaro says that during some of the pathetic selections there was not a dry eye in the audience. The little fellow seems transformed into a celestial being while playing, and when away from the stage and romping with his little companions he is as mundanely  mischievous as any urchins of his age. He will make a tour of Europe and America with that excellent Viennese musician, Rodolphe Berger, who will accompany him on the piano. Kun Arpad's forte at the Figaro "five o'clock" was a "Romance," by Mendelssohn, and "Le Mouvement Perpetuille" of  Paginini, which the little violinist executes with wonderful alacrity, not losing a note and beating time with his feet. I predict from what I have read in the Paris papers that Chicago will go wild over the diminutive chap during his season here.

SS Kronprinz Wilhelm
Coalville, Utah whose population in 1900 was 1252 citizens, was unlikely to play host to such a musical prodigy. But the editor obviously thought the local coal miners and farmers would want to keep up with the current fashions and celebrities making news in the rest of the world.

In fact the report on this young violinist playing an American concert tour was a bit premature, as Kun Arpad, accompanied by his mother and grandmother would not reach the US until June 1903. They arrived in New York on the SS Kronprinz Wilhelm from Cherbourg, and as Kun's concerts in France were less profitable than they had hoped, they traveled steerage class to save money.

Within days they had made the newspapers, but not in the way they may have planned. Kun's mother, Mrs. Maria Arpad had signed a contract with a promoter, named Siegmund B. Steinmann, to handle concerts of her son in return for a third of the proceeds. But when the man began to take the child away, she regretted her decision and tried to recover her son. This led to charges of kidnapping and stolen scrapbooks and then counter-charges of broken contracts, and undoubtedly created a small summer sensation in New York City's theater district. One imagines that there was some element of language miscommunication too.
By July 3rd, Kun and his mother had either changed managers or resolved the difficulties with Steinmann, and Arpad was booked to appear at Madison Square Garden in a summer variety show called Venice in New York for ten concerts at $100 a night. The attraction featured splashing fountains and cool gondola rides, as well as quaint folk songs, with mandolin and zither accompaniment .. encored nightly.

There were several theater "gardens" like this in the city, each in competition for new vaudeville acts. After advertising Madison Square Garden's cooler qualities, the headliner was Duss and his Incomparable Orchestra. But Duss already had a violin soloist, Mr. Nahan Franko (1861-1930).

Franko, a native of New Orleans had made his solo debut at New York's Steinway Hall years before at the age of 8, and then toured with the soprano Adelina Patti as a child violinist. After study in Europe, he returned to New York to take the position of concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 1883. Playing in a cool theater in the opera's summer off-season must have been a nice change. 

Before Kun could demonstrate his talent on the violin, the theater needed to attain a special permit for underage performers from the mayor's office. The plan was to suspend all smoking and drinking by the patrons for the short time that young Kun would be on stage. But the politics of New York in the 1900's were more complicated than Kun and his mother could ever imagine, and after his first appearance on July 3rd, further concerts were canceled.

Initially Mayor Seth Low granted the permit, but this was an era of intense struggle between labor and business interests, and one of the powerful forces in the city was the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, also known as the Gerry Society. Named after after one of its co-founders, Elbridge Thomas Gerry , this organization had been fighting for children's rights and establishing protective services in New York since 1874. One of their missions was to guard children from the immoral influences of theaters and other amusement activities. Kun Arpad, child violinist, now became a political pawn in a larger game.

On pressure from the Gerry Society, who protested that at Kun's first appearance the theater management failed to prevent smoking or drinking by the audience, Mayor Low revoked his permission. New York City had only recently been consolidated and Low, the former president of Columbia University, had won election in 1902 as mayor on a platform of fighting the corruption of Tammany Hall which had dominated Manhattan politics in the previous century.

The theater and Mrs. Arpad engaged yet another lawyer and on July 17 made an appeal to Mayor Low. Despite the best efforts of Kun and his mother pleading their case, the Mayor was unmoved and refused to renew his consent. In Boston, the Journal of Education said: "Why should one little boy be denied the privilege of working in a shop by day while another is allowed to work at night, work that is vastly more harmful?" A 9 year-old boy playing a violin was no match for the political machines at work here.

In August, Kun's name appeared again in the newspapers, but this time in the society section, where he was described as entertaining guests at a few house parties in Newport, Rhode Island, the fashionable address for New England's wealthy elite. Yet this must have seemed a dead end for the talented violinist and his ambitious parent, and by the following year 1904, Kun's name appears back in Europe in concert reports from Paris and London.

In the November 1905 edition of The Strad , a magazine for string musicians, was this brief mention:

Another young violinist has made his bow to a London audience, Kun Arpad by name, twelve years of age, who like von Reuter and Lionel Ovenden, is also a composer. One can only hope that the dual role will not be encouraged beyond the point of discovering which career he has the most talent for. At this age it is natural to find the executive ability ahead of composition, and he played the first movement of a Concerto of his own, and Wieniawski's "Airs Russes" with an excellent technique.

But every child prodigy eventually grows up, and by 1910 Kun's short pants had less appeal and he added a more adult title of composer to his promotional postcard.

By 1912 he is listed in the German Wer Ist ~ Who Is, (bottom of page 887) as living back in Budapest, no longer a Wunderkind.

But after that year the trail goes cold. Did Kun Arpad survive the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Did he serve in the Kaiser's army with the thousands of other young men in the Great War? Was his life cut short by the influenza epidemic of 1918? The second World War? The post-war communist period? I can find no answers.

The first decade of the 20th century saw many musicians from Europe trying to expand their careers in America. The free market of America's numerous concert halls offered opportunities for making money that were constrained in Europe by older conservative traditions. The number of young musical geniuses was also very competitive. Every generation seems to produce dozens of shooting stars trying to capture the public's attention. The story of Kun Arpad is an example of how challenging that could be.

My contribution to Sepia Saturday 
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Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

It's a fascinating story. I wonder what did become of him. The first picture is wonderful.

Little Nell said...

A very detailed and interesting story Mike. Often these prodigies do ‘burn themselves out’. I look at Charlotte Church these days and wonder what happened. ‘Voice of an angel’ they used to say.

Liz Stratton said...

Fascinating story as always. It does make you wonder what became of him. Such a tumultuous time.

Tattered and Lost said...

There's a whole wonderful drama here just waiting to be made into a book.

Bob Scotney said...

Of course thes days a lad like this would be on TV shows like the X Factor. I prefer to think his performance would be too 'highbrow' for that.
A interesting story again Mike. It's a pity the trail went cold in the end.

Postcardy said...

That's an interesting story, and I am impressed with all your research. I wonder whether he has some relative who will some day provide an answer to what happened to him.

Brett Payne said...

A fascinating story indeed, and very well put together Mike. I must say that I would have liked to hear such a performance when I was in Budapest 20 odd years ago, but as a penniless backpacker, I wasn't able to do much of that sort of thing.

Christine H. said...

I feel bad for these prodigies. Imagine being spirited off by some money-grubbing manager at that young age. Poor fellow. My guess is that people simply lost interest in him as he got older.

Karen S. said...

besides being a delight to read your excellent posts, there's so much I learn that I had no idea....wonderful post as always!


fascinating story and i think i would have enjoyed watching him play.

so, a kid playing violin is more at risk than a kid working in a shop?
it makes no sense. crazy what goes on in people's mind at various times.

great post!!

Pat transplanted to MN said...

So much interesting history in this post. Had never heard of him but it does make a fascinating story. Waiting for the end----how did he live the rest of his life, what happened to mama, etc.

Unknown said...

According to his father's hometown (Dr. Arpad Kun Mezotur, Hungary) published brochure he died during a concert tour in Egypt.
I have not yet found evidence of this but I found a photo of him that was in 1913 and Egypt.
I post it, but I do not know how.

Mike Brubaker said...

Thank you for this information. I would like to learn more about what you know of Arpad Kun.

Please send me an email. mkbrbkr < @ > Gmail. com


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