James Simon was a highly intelligent and accomplished pianist, composer and musicologist. He studied philosophy, loved poetry and felt at home with the great German musical tradition. Music was his life. So much so, that his son would call him ‘other worldly’. He continued to compose until the very end.
(By Phillip Silver and Carine Alders)
James Simon was born on 29 September 1880 in Berlin, in a highly assimilated, well-to-do Jewish family. His father being a private banker, the family enjoyed a luxury life. Reading the postcards young James sent home on his holidays, he comes across as a witty teenager. James was the eldest of three siblings. Their parents kept a low political profile, trying to blend in. Their main concern was to educate their children well. In his hometown, James studied piano with Conrad Ansorge and composition with Max Bruch. Like many young and privileged Germans, he studied philosophy at various universities, including Heidelberg and Freiburg. In 1904, he wrote his doctoral thesis on the German composer Abbé Vogler in Munich. Three years later, he married Anna Levy, an equally well-to-do banker’s daughter. Two sons were born: Jörn Martin and Ulrich Ernst.
Being an outstanding pianist, James began his career as a freelance musician. He gave recitals and lectures and sometimes played chamber music. Earning an income was not an issue, both the Simon and Levy family capitals provided for the young family. In an interview with David Bloch, Ulrich remembered how he and his brother would go to their father’s recitals in the Beethoven Salle. He also remembered how his parents would always quarrel. While James was devoted to German classics, Anna was more adventurous and would have liked him to be more like Hindemith or Schoenberg. ‘He was very German, really. For me he became the great guard of the German classical repertoire, especially Bach and Mozart’, said Ulrich. From 1907 to 1919, James taught at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory, where he came to know colleagues like cellists Marix Loevensohn and Daniel Hofmekler. Although not dated, he must have composed his Cello Sonata during these years. It was published by Friedrich Hofmeister in Leipzig. His other compositions from this period – mostly songs and chamber music – were published with various publishers in Berlin.
Unlike many young Germans, including his brothers-in-law, James never had to serve in the army – we don’t know why. After the First World War however, the family capital had vaporized. All was lost and Anna had to keep the family alive with potatoes – if she could find any. James would teach an American pupil for one dollar per lesson. It barely bought some groceries. He also taught his niece Rosa, so that his sister Berta and her husband could help with some extra money. In the post war years, James started to compose more seriously. He would get up at 7 am every morning, working at his desk. As a musicologist, he would also write articles for magazines like the left-wing weekly Die Weltbühne. One of the major compositions he was working on was the opera Frau im Stein. It premiered in Stuttgart in 1925 and was a great success. However, that same night, president Friedrich Ebert died and there was no room for reviews in the newspapers. By that time, the family’s financial situation had improved a bit. James and Anna would host ‘domestic improvisations’ to add to their income. The audience consisted of more fortunate acquaintances, no programs were given in advance. Ulrich remembered how his father would present the finale of the second act of Mozart’s Figaro, singing all the different parts and playing the orchestral parts on the piano. Despite their rows, Anna and James would work together as well. Anna helped him prepare Rainer Maria Rilke’s text for Ein Pilgermorgen, a cantata composed in 1930.