From Australia’s Jewish Past: Florence Menk-Meyer – known as The Greatest Living Female Pianist

August 2, 2022 by Ruth Lillian
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Florence was born Catherine Florence Meyer in 1860 to Menk and Rebecca (nee Fink) in St Kilda Melbourne and was one of six gifted children.

Florence Menk-Meyer

Her father, who was related to the great Russian musicians Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein, arrived in Melbourne in 1853 during the Victorian Gold Rush period and established himself as a general merchant.  Florence commenced learning piano at a very early age and whilst she was well known in Australia where her name had become a household word as a pianist, dramatic soprano, and composer, she was not known in Europe.  It was not long, however, before reports of her overseas triumphs began to appear in the Australian press.

In 1884 Florence travelled to Europe with her older sister Milli, accepted many invitations to perform as a pianist and became an instant success.  Florence was looking to perfect her keyboard technique and work with some of the leading pianists – including Anton Rubinstein in St Petersburg – and then return to Australia and launch herself as a concert pianist.  Her European travels, in fact, kept her away from Melbourne and her family for five years. Whilst in Europe, she travelled to and performed in Frankfurt, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, St Petersburg and Moscow.  It was at this time that Florence took the stage name – Florence Menk Meyer – commemorating her father, who had passed away in 1881.

She became a favourite of audiences overseas and in Australia for many decades afterwards.  Her achievements as a pianist compared to Liszt and other legendary masters, including Beethoven and Chopin. She was considered by some the greatest female pianist of her generation worldwide, while as a vocalist, she also won great praise.

Florence was a “hit” and won extravagant praise from well-known musicians and composers, not only from the world of music but also from critics, audiences and the press.  She had the opportunity to be seen at fashionable salons, mix with many affluent members of society and was invited to play for the Tsar and Tsarina.  Her great uncle – Anton – told many that she ‘played to perfection and with her entire soul’.  Milli and Florence returned to Australia in 1889 to a rapturous welcome and many invitations for Florence to perform.

As is often the case, there was jealousy among certain Australian musicians, and, at the end of 1890, the sisters sailed back to Europe where, in Rome, further success awaited Florence.

In 1891 Melbourne’s Jewish Herald reported that “It is both interesting and gratifying to note the enthusiastic reception which is accorded to her in places where the highest class of music is thoroughly understood, and, above all, where the musical portion of the press is not in the hands of jealous rivals.” It quoted a glowing review of a concert she gave early in March that year at the Sala Dante in Rome, when “a numerous and brilliant assemblage” including “a large contingent of foreign notabilities” gathered to hear her. “She stands almost unrivalled as a pianist, not only for her marvellous execution but also for the sweetness and pathos of her play, the majesty of her touch in the forte passages, and, above all, the depth of her powers of interpretation…. Her own exquisite compositions called forth continued applause and gave us proof of the originality and strength of her creative faculties”.

From 1892 she was performing in Italy, Switzerland, France,  England,  and Scandinavia.  Early in 1893, she triumphed with what was regarded as one of the best concerts of Berlin’s winter season, followed by a most successful series of recitals in 1894 in Brussels and in Antwerp before a capacity audience.   In May that year, she concluded a tour of Holland, where – having been coached in Berlin by the renowned soprano Mathilde Mallinger – she sang Wagnerian opera and thrilling audiences with her own operatic works. In the late 1890’s she returned to Australia and New Zealand and enjoyed a successful career in the concert hall, on the radio, and in private recitals. In 1904 she turned down the offer of a teaching position at the Milan Conservatorium.

In 1912 the sisters visited Israel.  Milli had become a popular lecturer on the topography and socio-economic conditions of Egypt and the Holy Land.  Whilst there, Florence was invited to give a concert in aid of impoverished Jews. The following year she arrived back in Australia with glowing newspaper reviews in French, Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic.  They had had a wonderful tour in Switzerland, a successful season in Paris and a meeting with a Zionist leader – Max Nordau – who greatly admired Florence’s musicianship and offered her an invitation to be a soloist at a new theatre on the Champs Elysees.

Florence’s European travels were no longer possible due to World War I.  By the time it was over, she was nearing 60 years of age and, whilst she continued to perform in private recitals, on stage and occasionally on the radio, her travels and visits to Europe became less.  The sisters did however continue to visit Brisbane which had become their most frequent city to visit outside Melbourne.

In 1944 a feature article about Florence in a periodical devoted to music and musicians began: “To go swimming almost every day throughout the year at the age of eighty-four is even rarer than to achieve a worldwide reputation as pianist, vocalist and composer of her calibre” (Australian Musical News, July 1, 1944).

Milli passed away in 1935 and Florence on 31 May 1946.  Her brilliant career slipped into obscurity, perhaps due to the paper shortages during and immediately after the war, when obituaries in the newspapers were not seen and, it may also have been because so many people who would have remembered her were no longer alive.  Her name lives on only in a music prize that was endowed in 1975 through the University of Melbourne.

The AJHS Acknowledges the following references in the preparation of this story 

Encyclopaedia of Jewish Women – article by Hilary Rubinstein – last updated June 2021;

AJHS Journal 2019, Vol. 24 Issue Part3, p437-467;  Jewish Herald Melbourne 1891; Australian Musical News 1944

The Australian Jewish Historical Society is the keeper of archives from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 right up to today. Whether you are searching for an academic resource, an event, a picture or an article, AJHS can help you find that piece of historical material. The AJHS welcomes your contributions to the archives. If you are a descendent of someone of interest with a story to tell, or you have memorabilia which might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via www.ajhs.com.au or its Facebook page.

Comments

One Response to “From Australia’s Jewish Past: Florence Menk-Meyer – known as The Greatest Living Female Pianist”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    A pity there’s no opportunity to hear her voice that I can locate.

    Maybe Jewish Women’s archive will assist.

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