This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Irma Surányi - A Child Violin Virtuoso

01 March 2013

The child prodigy. The young phenom. The whiz kid, The precocious youth. The wunderkind. The next Mozart. Exceptional musical talent in a child has always been an astounding, even miraculous experience, because it seems so improbable that a mere youth can exhibit fantastic skills and artistry. We can't understand it, so we call it a gift.   Here is one such gifted child,  Irma Surányi, the 8 year old violin virtuoso.

Wearing a white dress with her long hair in tight curls, Irma presents a kind of surreal effect as she stands in front of a photo studio's impressionistic pond. She holds her violin down in a classic resting pose, looking directly at the camera. Even without the caption of Die 8 jährige Violinvirtuosin, we can see a confidence and sensibility in her that is beyond a beginning violin student.

The postcard was sent from Veitsch, Austria on 19 XI 1907. The penciled scribble on the back and front looks like the handwriting of several people. Perhaps a card for a birthday congratulations or just a "wish you were here" message. Under the picture is another date of 18.11.07   finishing with an exclamation mark. Did the writer hear Fraulein Surányi perform and was marveling at her music?

Just because I think it is pretty impressive mountain, this is the Hohe Veitsch. It is in the Mürzsteg Alps in the Austrian state of Styria, with a height of 1,981 m (6,499 ft). 

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Here is a second postcard of Irma, this time holding the violin in playing position. Her hair is shorter and she is taller. Her dress is no longer that of a child but of a young girl. The caption reads Surányi Irma, jugendliche Violinvirtuosin. Her name is Hungarian, though in this time before the first world war, Hungary was one of the kingdoms of Austria under the rule of Kaiser Franz Joseph.

Back in 2011, I posted the story of another young violin prodigy, Kun Arpad, who was also Hungarian and from Budapest. This postcard, which I didn't use in that earlier post, dates from 1901, and shows the boy violinist at age 7.

Hungarian names are complicated because the family surname and given forename are reversed in order. So in the other European languages he would be known as Arpad Kun. However in all the newspaper accounts of his short career in London and New York, he was always called Kun Arpad. 

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This third postcard shows Surányi Irma, 12 jährige Violinvirtuosin, four years later. Here she stands at the ready with violin under her chin. There is a white bow in her hair and the photographer has placed her before a simple blank wall which concentrates our attention on her angelic gaze. 

Like the second card, this one was never posted but with Irma's age we can date it to around 1911.

Kun Arpad received quite a number of newspaper and magazine reports. Irma Surányi - not so much, in fact nothing. Unfortunately with the distance of time and the obstacle of language, it seemed my research would only tell the story in just these images of a lovely wonder child. 

The Sunday Repository, Canton OH
 June 3, 1917

Then I found a tantalizing advertisement in the aptly named newspaper of Canton, Ohio - 
The Sunday Repository
.  The date is June 3, 1917 and The Courtland Restaurant placed a big box ad for performances by the

Suranyi Ladies

Two Singers, All Soloists
Popular and Classical Music
Violin, Piano, Cello, Cornet
and Trap Player

Never mind that there are five instruments, a drummer never counts anyway, the violin is listed first and the name is linked to an ensemble of lady musicians. Could Irma Surányi have emigrated to America before the Great War? Did she live in Canton or was she a touring artist on the vaudeville circuit?

Here is most of the entertainment page from The Sunday Repository  so that readers can see what they missed at the theaters in 1917. Satan's Private Door; The Silent Lie; Mystery of the Double Cross; and The Railroad Raiders.

Despite my best effort, I could not find Irma's name in any US census or city directory. Of course  by 1917, she is now a young woman and regrettably for historians and genealogists, a marriage confers a new name that becomes the cloak of invisibility for a woman. Maybe she left the music halls of Europe for the concert stages of America, but we can never know for sure. Another musician lost in mystery.

Or maybe not.

Just as I was nearly finishing this post, I decided to try once more with a new combination of search terms. Google now finds PDF files too and it found a university graduate paper, written in Hungarian, on the history of Hungarian people educated in London. Irma Surányi was listed as an example of a Hungarian music student at London's Royal Academy of Music in 1915.  Could this young prodigy have gone to London to study violin? It certainly seemed plausible, even for an Austrian national in 1914-15.

Then just like catching a fish, I hooked a big one and this time it didn't get away.

The London Gazette 23 May, 1947
The London Gazette of 23 May, 1947 published a long, long list of names of people who had been granted re-admission to British nationality. The list included alternate names, nationality, occupation, and address.

And on page 2344, Steier to Tajg, is the entry:

Suranyi, Irma. See Szlovak, Maria Stefaniia.

Which convienently, is just 8 names below.

Szlovak, Maria Stefania (also known as Irma Suranyi); Czechoslovakia; Music Teacher and Concert Artist; 103, Brunswick Road, Buckley, near Chester, Cheshire.
11 April, 1947.

It would be hard to find a more authoritative documentation than the London Gazette, the official record of British court and government proceedings. If it linked the name Szlovak with Suranyi then it must be true. 

(Let us take a moment to appreciate the fairness of the British legal system that  would allow Mr. Abraham Szmuclerz Dit Fuks to become Mr. Albert Fox)

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Last week I wrote a fictional story based on musicians whose names will always be unknown. Even when we know an identity, without the continuity of a real history we are forced to imagine one. Looking at this young girl, Surányi Irma, from 1907-11 we know that she faces the years 1914 to 1945, a period filled with immense turmoil. Therefore it is a great sense of relief to know that by 1947 she had survived this horrible void of time that tragically stole so many names from history.

It is also satisfying to know that she continued in music after her inevitably brief career as a child violin virtuoso. Did she play restaurant music in Ohio? Did she marry a Czech? Her full history must remain a mystery since the records of the second half of the century are still sealed.  But I found one last reference from Rhuddlan, Wales. A death notice dated July 1989 for Maria Stefania Szlovaka, age 92, birth date - 20 September 1896. Perhaps Surányi Irma was a bit older than 8 when the photographer took that first photograph in 1907.

But a woman never reveals her real age.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you might meet more young ladies in white.


Mike Burnett said...

Sometimes the real in more interesting than the imagined.

Great bit of research

Wendy said...

I don't understand the name change. It's amazing you traced as much of her life as you did. Our child stars today seem to burn out early in life, so it's rather satisfying to know this prodigy was still going strong so many years.

Karen S. said...

All of your research is always so amazing, and such fun to read about. These photos are perfect too, and as much as I hate seeing photos covered with writing- it's also interesting to see their handwriting as well.

Brett Payne said...

That is indeed an unusual and unexpected name change, even if she married. The fact that she was being re-admitted to British nationality suggests that perhaps it had been taken away from her. I wonder where she was during the war? Was she interned, was she in Europe or America? If the latter then one would expect to find her on passenger lists to and fro across the Atlantic. An intriguing story.

Titania said...

So very interesting and also your research into the the further life of this young Violinist Irma. In a way it is a little sad. She has been a prodigy child and ended as a violin teacher not much later. Imagine her today, the touring and performances. I wonder how she felt about it.

Boobook said...

Your fantastic research has turned up more gaps to explore. Well done.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

You definitely have awesome research skills! Interesting info.

Little Nell said...

I wonder if Irma Surányi was her 'stage name', chosen for her by her mentor. Sometimes this happens today because it sounds more glamorous or if there was another artiste of that name. Whataver the truth of the matter it appears we will never know but it was very enjoyable to read your path to re-discovering her.

Bob Scotney said...

Another extremely interesting post with lovely photos. I am in awe of your research.

Postcardy said...

I'm glad you kept trying to find her and were successful. She could have been older than eight in the first picture, or the picture could have been a few years old when the postcard was used.

Alan Burnett said...

I always look forward to these journeys you take us on, in this case a story that almost seems to span the twentieth century. You have that wonderful ability to make movies out of static images.

Kathy Morales said...

Such satisfaction in finding evidence of her later in life. I wondered if the ladies quartet took er name as inspiration.

tony said...

Wow! A Perfect Blend Of Enquiry!Well done tracing the lady's Life.What A Journey!Well Done.

Howard said...

Brilliant post Mike. As it looks like she survived the wars, I wonder if she ever recorded anything? Perhaps though, when she came to Britain to escape the 1st war she settled into being a provincial music teacher and gave up ideas of being the star that she could have been.


Ah, you know how to create some suspense!! A great read and I'm glad there was this twist in the story. Maybe you are right and her age was falsified, for some reason...
But we'll never tell anyone!!

ScotSue said...

A fascinating story and set of photographs to illustrate greeat detective work.

Barbill said...

My father was born in 1914 and was a violinist. He did have violin lessons with Mr H.G.E.Hollins at least up to 1930 when he took his violin exams at "Higher" level. Soon after this date he had lessons with Madam Suranyi, as she was known in Buckley at that time.She gave my father one of her violins, which I still have although it is now in extremely poor condition and unplayable.

Priska Kuntz-Belleville said...

Hi, I just found this post when I was triying to find out a bit more about my family. Irma was the sister of my grandgrandfather Rudolf Szlovak. She was born in Budapest, her father was a musician and she and her brother started making music as little children. The name Suranyi was already the stagename of their dad. She never got married but we know that she was still giving concerts in England but earned her money as music teacher. Her brother, my grandgranddad was a musician all his life together with his wife an toured around Europe. My dad got in contact with her about 40 years ago and she wrote him back a few times before my grangrandmum stopped the conversations. We don't know what the reason was. Rudolf died in 1983. My Mum read a few reviews about her concerts when Rudolf died and she said they were all very good. My Grandgranddad always said they were hungarian and were Sudeten Germans later till they got the German Nationality. We are not totaly sure what her Nationality was in the end.
I hope I was able to light up some secrets about Irma. I'm sorry I don't know more.
Yours sincerely, Priska

Mike Brubaker said...

Thank you very much for sharing more of Irma's history, Priska. To judge by the many postcards I've found, child violinists were very popular entertainers in this era but it took real talent and hard work to develop a career as an adult musician. Irma clearly had talent and must have had a good musical foundation to become a teacher too. If you have any more to share on her life, please contact me through my email address found on the side bar.


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