Miriam Solovieff was born in San Francisco on November 4, 1921. When she was 3 years old, the family lived in an apartment directly above the studio of a piano teacher, Ela Rittisin, Miriam earnestly listened to the students at their lessons, and soon made known her desire to made music herself. When Rittisin heard of this she gladly gave the child a few lessons. In a few months she realized that the child had remarkable ability which called for greater teaching skill. Adolph Ryss, who had guided the early steps of several prodigies, became interested in Miriam and taught her for the next 3 years. As his pupil she appeared before various musical organizations, on one notable occasion, as a 5-year-old debutante in the junior section of the Pacific Musical Society. Her father Aaron Solovieff was born in Russia, of a strictly orthodox Jewish family, and was an assistant cantor at Beth Israel temple in San Francisco. He studied the Talmud until he was 16. In 1914, as a young man of 21, he had been conscripted into the Prussian Army; but he escaped to the United States, and came to San Francisco where he met and married Miriam’s mother another Russian.
On November 15, 1928, 10-year-old Ruggiero Ricci made a sensational debut in Scottish Rite auditorium in San Francisco. In the audience was Miriam who had just passed her seventh birthday. The child violinist’s performance made a deep impression on her. For days afterward she heard in memory the sustained legato singing of the violin and compared it tally with the cooler detached voice of the piano. Soon she begged her parents to be allowed to change. They objected, and pointed out that she was doing unusually well with the piano. Eventually a compromise was reached, Miriam could have violin lessons but must continue her study of the piano. She became a pupil of Robert Pollack, head of the violin department of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. When Pollack left for Tokyo, the young violinist came into the able hands of Kathleen Parlow’s assistant Carol Weston, she progressed so rapidly that it was not long before she went to Parlow with whom she remained for 4 years. Five years after her first appearance before the Pacific Musical Society as one of a group of children, Miriam again played for this organization. Although but 10 years old she was now a member of the senior section and her playing of the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 was the outstanding performance of the program. Among those present was Mr Mason, dean of Pacific Coast critics, who said: “Miriam must be added to our little circle of San Francisco prodigies.” A few months later on December 17, 1931, she made her debut in the Community Playhouse, playing a Handel sonata, the Mendelssohn Concerto, the Bruch arrangement of Kol Nidrei and a group of short pieces. Her list of sponsors resembled a “Who is who of San Francisco Patrons of Music.” The concert was a pronounced success. A few months later she made her first appearance with an orchestra when she played with the San Francisco Symphony on the occasion of the fourth Young People’s Symphony concerts, conducted by Basil Cameron, February 26, 1932, in the Tivoli Theatre. Her interpretation of two movements of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole was judged by Alexander Fried as “remarkably able and just”. When Artur Rodzinsky heard her play, he invited her to be a soloist at one of the regular concerts of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, He is quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, February 5, 1933, as writing: “Never in my previous experience have I heard any child who offers such wonderful possibilities: for the future. She has so much already – tone, technique, and understanding – that I qualify her without hesitation as a matured artist now and it was on this basis that I selected her to play with the Philharmonic. The fact that her personality is that of a normal healthy child enhances her genius as a musician.”
After a successful Los Angeles appearance Miriam’s parents decided that she should go East to study with Louis Persinger who had gained extraordinary prestige as the teacher of Yehudi Menuhin and Ruggiero Ricci. In order to secure sponsors for Miriam, Philip Bush of San Francisco arranged a private recital in this house. It was attended by a number of patrons prominent in San Francisco musical life and was successful in its purpose. In September 1933, Miriam, her mother, and her baby sister left for New York, where she began study with Louis Persinger, which continued until 1937. During a brief return visit to California in 1934 she appeared in August with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Ossip Gabrilowitsch, in a summer concert in the Hollywood Bowl, where an audience of thousand listeners went to hear her play the enchanting Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. By that time she had already achieved a fantastic reputation as one of those miraculous child prodigies from San Francisco, birthplace of wonder children.
No other noteworthy performance was recorded until her debut in Town Hall, New York on January 3, 1937. The New York Times, on January 4, stated: “Miriam Solovieff made her local debut in a recital last night in Town Hall, her playing possessed sufficient warmth, vitality and technical address to evoke a ready and strenuous response from her many hearers. Though only 15, she seemed thoroughly at home on the concert platform and played with the poise of a veteran of the bow.”
San Francisco acquaintances of the family had been collected $ 10.000 to send her abroad for study after the triumphant appearance in New York. She went to Europe and studied with Carl Flesch in Belgium. After a year’s study with Flesch, she went on a tour of Holland, making her debut at The Hague, November 21, 1938. Shortly after she made her London debut, December 15, drawing a capacity audience to Wigmore Hall. The enthusiasm she aroused on this occasion led to 22 engagements in England from January to March 1939. A criticism in the London Times, December 17, reported: “Neither Brahms’ D minor Sonata, with Gerald Moore’s valuable aid”, nor Bach’s Chaconne, without it, suggested a fully awakened sense of style, or even a very lively regard for the finer points of interpretation, but gifts of temperament and an unusual technical development were remarked in both performances .As it was, Glazunov’s A minor Concerto served best to display an admirable tone production and a measure of skill and animation well above the average.” Of the many young artists who presented concerts in London, only a few achieved the honor of a review in the Times. The cautious, qualified praise of the above review represented honestly strong approval. She continued her study with Flesch until November 1939, when because of the war, she returned to America.
On December 28, 1939, Solovieff dodged two bullets and escaped injury when her father, shot and wounded her mother Elisabeth (38) and sister Vivienne (12) and killed himself in their fashionable Riverside drive apartment in New York. Her father (41), who had been estranged from his wife for 5 years died a few minutes after the shooting. Her mother was wounded in the abdomen and was expected to die and her sister was struck in the neck and had an even chance to survive.
Police Capt. William Hughes thus described the affair after a preliminary investigation: “Mr. Solovieff, who I understand is an artist and has been living in San Francisco for many months, arrived in New York this morning. He had been writing threatening letters to the family ever since the separation five years ago. This morning, he came directly from the train to the apartment and began to argue with them apparently he terrorized them all day long. Tonight, apparently realizing the futility of his argument, he drew the gun, shot first at Miriam and missed. He shot the little girl (sister) and then shot his wife. Then he shot himself in the head. Miriam, who planned to make concerts and recitals next month was hysterical and that it was difficult to get a coherent story from her. As her father opened fire in the apartment she ran screaming into the corridor and into the nearby suite of a registered nurse. Mr. Solovieff himself rushed into the corridor, where he put the pistol to his head and fell.” About an hour later Miriam described as a dark, slender girl whose lips trembled, went away silently to the hospital where her mother and sister were taken. She clutched a violin which was police said was a Stradivarius valued at $ 25.000. Her mother paid a monthly rental of $ 150 for their suite and had registered from San Francisco, as they had once in 1939 when they were en route to Europe, where Miriam studied. Detectives said “Mr. Solovieff’s coat pocket contained two notes, one in English and one in Jewish. The English one said “They gave me a rough deal. When they wrote, they ignored me. I’ll get revenge. Too bad she is not here. She would be the first to go.” Police expressed belief “she” meant a relative or acquaintance whom Mr. Solovieff blamed for his family separation. Miriam was quoted by police as saying that her father had come to the apartment about 10 a.m. and insisted upon living with the family. He argued with her mother until 2.45 p.m., the left to rent a furnished room. At 5.20 p.m., he returned and, after another argument with her mother and girls, suddenly drew a pistol from his coat and began firing. A box of 44 cartridges also was found in the coat.” Her mother and sister died of the wounds the day after. Vivienne, was already being praised as a precociously competent pianist when she was 4. Left as the only surviving member of a family, Miriam’s life was forever marked by this tragedy and it was a vain effort to continue her career.
Her international career was interrupted due to WW II. She had to serve for the U.S. Army where she met and married William Rubin, an infantry lieutenant at that time, and she had gone with him through desert maneuvers. He was stationed in Tennessee and she visited him, whenever her concert schedule permitted. In August 1945, Solovieff set out on the first interracial USO tour of American military bases in Europe. For the next two months, during thirty-two appearances in France, Germany and Czechoslovakia, she brought vibrant spirit to the troops. During her subsequent concerts in Buchenwald and Dachau, the performance was halted, announcing that the German prisoners of war in the back of the halls would have to leave because Solovieff was Jewish and refused to play in their presence.
A highly successful USIS-sponsored concert of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the young American Jonathan Sternberg, was presented in Vienna in March 1946 in which she was the soloist. During an interview after a performance in 1947 she said that her name when translated from the Russian into English means “Nightingale” and that she tried to make her violin sing like a nightingale whenever she played. And had a message for young people: “I don’t know of one person today who studied music in childhood and then later gave it up, who did not regret it. I would suggest that every child who has the opportunity to study music, stick with it, and while everyone cannot become famous in this field, it is a wonderful source of amusement and comfort to boys and girls when they reach their twenties!
In the 1950s she moved to Paris where she taught and many gifted young artists came to her for advice. Solovieff recorded in the early-mid 60’s all of the Brahms Violin Sonatas with Julius Katchen and then had a breakdown that ended the session. While there are private tapes and copy CD’s around, the sessions were never released commercially as far as we know.
Myriam Solovieff died in Paris on October 3, 2004 at the Georges Pompidou European Hospital.
© Michael Waiblinger 2014