Fleeing from war-torn Eastern Europe: Cecilia Hansen's tale is modern and historical
The violinist left St. Petersburg with Russia in revolt in 1921, and by 1926 was playing for crowds in Rochester.
The story of Cecilia Hansen’s flight from war-torn Russia could have been written in recent weeks and months.
But it was in 1921 that Hansen, a brilliant young violinist, made a daring escape from St. Petersburg and relaunched a career that brought her to perform in 1926 in Rochester.
Hansen was born in 1897 in southern Russia, where her Danish father was a music professor. She was a music prodigy, already being admitted at age 10 to the St. Petersburg Conservatory. She made her concert debut at age 13, and studied alongside classmates Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein. She was, at age 15, the youngest woman ever to receive the gold medal at the conservatory.
She met and married pianist Boris Sacharoff, gave concerts in northern and central Europe, and in 1917 gave birth to a daughter. That same year, Russia was engulfed in revolution, and the situation soon became untenable for a violinist with a foreign-sounding name.
“There was only one way out, that was to escape,” Hansen said later in an interview published in the Post-Bulletin. “An unsuccessful attempt would mean tragedy for all of us, but we decided to venture it.”
Hansen and her family rented a small boat, and on a dark night were rowed out into the rough waters of the Baltic Sea. “We were afloat for 12 hours on a stormy sea,” she said. “Yet we did not mind, for we saw a new life ahead.”
Then, as the little boat passed the Russian island fortress at Kronstadt, searchlights scanned the water.
“We thought the end had come,” Hansen said. The oarsman frantically tried to avoid the lights. “How it was we were not discovered I cannot tell,” Hansen said. “But at noon the next day we landed on the shores of Finland. And then my career really started.”
Indeed it did. In 1923, Hansen undertook her first concert tour of the United States and made her Carnegie Hall debut. Violinist Yehudi Meuhin, who was a boy at the time, saw her concert in San Francisco and recalled that, “She looked like an angel, clothed all in white, and played like one.” American critics labeled Hansen “the queen of the violin.”
So it was with great anticipation that Hansen was booked for a concert Dec. 17, 1926, at the Rochester armory. Hansen was accompanied by her husband on piano, as she performed works by Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Pugnani and Gluck.
“Rarely does Rochester have an opportunity to hear violin music such as that heard last evening, and played by a woman,” wrote Pearl Hagen in a Post-Bulletin review of the concert. “Miss Hansen’s performance will not soon be forgotten.”
Hansen would continue to be an acclaimed and popular concert attraction, but her life was marked by disruptions and tragedy. In the 1930s, on a concert tour of the Far East, Hansen’s husband decided to stay in China to establish that country’s piano school. The couple later divorced.
In the late 1930s, Hansen was living in London when she married Hermann Friedmann, a Jewish-German-Finnish jurist and philosopher. In 1940, during the London Blitz, a Nazi bomb attack killed the couple’s 2-year-old daughter.
When Hansen resumed her career after the war, her music, informed by sorrow, solidified her artistic reputation. After living for years in Germany, she died in 1989 in London.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.