We comfort ourselves that the dead live on in our memory. But there are so many beneath our feet that I have never heard of.
Evi Liivak, for example. She is buried with her American husband and in-laws at Concordia Cemetery in south St. Louis. But she was famous as a European violinist—and for the legendary Stradivarius her mother-in-law purchased for her. Carved into her gravestone are the words “Child prodigy great divinely inspired concert violinist.” I suspect the family wrote that inscription ahead of time, rather than let Liivak dictate something more straightforward.
She had been born into an Estonian Jewish family in 1924. Her father was a lawyer but also a violinist, and her older brother was automatically given lessons. Little Evi, barely yet steady on her feet, watched him practice so hungrily that she, too, was given a violin.
Her brother blew off music and became a painter. Evi gave her first recital at age six. At eleven, she played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Helsinki Symphony. At fifteen, she was presented with a Maggini violin by the president of Estonia.
The year was 1939.
Though she had a government scholarship to continue her musical studies at an academy in Budapest, her years in Hungary were complicated by the war. First, the Soviets occupied her homeland, then the Germans, and then the Soviets annexed it. She was recalled to Estonia in time to see her father killed by the Gestapo. She refused to play her violin for German officers, and when she went to Berlin to obtain papers to return to Hungary, she was denied her scholarship money and forced to remain in Germany. She finished her master’s degree there in less than a year.
Kneeling in the grass that edges the family tombstone, I close my eyes and hear her playing, the evening she gave a private recital for Estonian refugees. Air raid sirens shrieked over the tremolo of her violin, and they all rushed to the basement, where she finished playing by candlelight. She went home to find her apartment building bombed to rubble and nearly everything she owned destroyed.
Shaking off the image, I switch to the night she played in an unheated university hall because Munich’s concert hall had been bombed. The conductor and the other musicians wore their winter coats, but Liivak “came onstage in a strapless gown, causing a collective gasp.” Her passion for the music burned warmth into her hands; one critic pronounced her “the violinist who brought a heat wave to frozen Munich.”
When the war finally ended, she had no passport so could not tour Europe—or go home. Undaunted, she played with symphonies across Germany. Audiences were captivated. Though she looked like one of the porcelain dolls of her day—fair skin, finely drawn features, big expressive eyes—her playing was animated, mature, and deeply human.
Richard Anschuetz, an American pianist who came to Berlin to study conducting, met Liivak while he was working as a translator for the U.S. Army during the War Crimes Trials in Nuremberg. He, too, was captivated. He began to accompany her at recitals whenever the trial schedule allowed, and they soon fell in love and married. After the war trials, they settled in Paris. Not about to let housewifery consume her, Liivak studied with Jules Boucherit—who was so bowled over by her talent, he charged no fee.
Soon, though, Anschuetz and Liivak left Paris for New York—and more applause. The New York Times praised her “urbane, polished, refined, elegant playing.” By 1961, she was restless, wishing for a new violin. She and Anschuetz—who must have been quite a good husband—traveled from city to city hunting for the right instrument. When they heard the Lipinski Stradivarius, they knew.
Crafted in 1715 during Stradivari’s “golden period,” the Lipinski was first owned by Giuseppe Tartini. Years earlier, he had dreamed that he let the devil play his violin, and the devil played the most exquisite sonata he had ever heard. Tartini used the Strad to recreate, to the extent humanly possible, what he had heard. We know the result as the dreamy, bittersweet, technically virtuosic Devil’s Trill Sonata, his best-known work.
Tartini left his violin to a pupil, Salvini. It is said that Salvini listened to Polish violinist Karol Lipinski play and was so moved, he asked to see Lipinski’s violin—then smashed it against the corner of a table and handed him the Stradivarius.
Several owners later, Liivak’s mother-in-law wrote a check for $19,000 for the Lipinski. (It is now valued at more than $5 million.) Liivak played it in at least thirty-five countries, her “crystalline technique” and “extraordinary musical and intelligent personality” marked by the reviews. What perhaps mattered most, though, were the times she performed the music of Estonian composers, under an Estonian conductor, at ESTO, the international gathering of the Estonian diaspora.
Not until the 1990s, when she had retired, was she finally able to spend time in her homeland. An Estonian documentary, released in 1998, includes what may be the only surviving video of Liivak performing in concert. The plan was to do extensive interviews with her, but she died in 1996, just before the crew began filming.
As for the Lipinski Stradivarius, it was inherited by a family member and loaned to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, Frank Almond. In 2014, he was tasered in a parking lot, and the violin was stolen. A month later, Milwaukee police—who had contacted international police organizations to track any sale—announced that the violin had been recovered. Now retired as concertmaster, Almond plays it every day.
Memories can be stolen, too, and vanish for a time. I think of the richness of Liivak’s life, how proud her husband and St. Louis in-laws were of her, how heartsick she must have been to lose her father to the Nazis, how brave she was to rebuff the German officers. Her early life was a blur, with all those moves—fleeing to safety, getting bombed, getting evacuated, being forced to Berlin, touring, Paris, New York. Her music was the home she carried with her.
A violin can press a cool hand to the forehead of someone in pain; wrap itself around someone whose heart is broken; transport the worried to a place of serene beauty. Liivak’s performances touched thousands, and thanks to her mother-in-law, she was partnered with the finest of instruments. Joseph Nagyvary, professor emeritus of biochemistry at Texas A&M University, was the first to prove that Stradivari soaked his violins in borax and brine to protect them from a worm infestation then plaguing Italy. Those chemicals, by a divine serendipity, produced a quality of sound that luthiers have been trying to replicate for four centuries. Next, Nagyvary mapped a Stradivarius’s tones and those of a soprano singing vowels, scientifically demonstrating the old notion that a violin sings in a human voice by showing that the Strad had the same formal frequencies as the soprano’s vowels.
Liivak’s cherished Lipinski was recovered; it still sings. Her own existence is acknowledged in silent stone at a little Lutheran cemetery in Holly Hills. But anyone who happens upon that stone and does a little research can recover her memory, can almost hear it.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.