This year marks the 76th anniversary of the Battle of Manila, also known as the Holocaust of 1945.
On that year, members of Manila’s prominent families became victims of war-time massacre, among them the Lims (Vicente), the Escodas (Josefa Llanes Escoda, mother of former Cultural Center of the Philippines president Bing Roxas), the Quirinos, the Syquias, the Del Mundos and the Colaycos.
But to Manila’s music world, the holocaust of 1945 was also the year the first Filipino celebrated violin prodigy—Ernesto Vallejo—met his untimely death at the hands of the Japanese invaders.
Born in Manila on December 19, 1909, Vallejo started his musical training from his parents. His father, Jose Vallejo of Ilocos was himself a violinist and was for a long time, leader of the Army and Navy Club Orchestra. His mother, Feliza Arriola of mixed Visayan/Capiz and Tagalog roots, was a skilled harpist. The sixth in the brood of twelve, three of Ernesto’s brother played the piano while a sister was an accomplished singer. (Fely Vallejo, became an actress and was married to Filipino film director Gerry De Leon).
Vallejo spent his elementary schooling at Santa Cruz Primary School and, from there, went to Mabini Interm
ediate School and later to Manila North High School. He was always presented in music programs in schools and was also featured at the Zorrilla Theater, the Army and Navy Club, and at the Columbia Club, not only as a violinist but also as a classical guitarist which he also mastered.
His talent was soon noticed by the likes of Prof. Marcelo Adonay and Prof. Bonifacio Abdon, studying the violin for years with the latter under the auspices of the Asociacion Musical de Filipinas. Fondly called “Vallejito” by his peers due to his short stature, visiting renowned artists who saw him perform would soon notice his immense native talent.
Mishel Piastro (one-time concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic) heard him play in Manila when he was 13 and said: “It is a crime that this child should continue here longer. Of the 11 million Filipinos, I am sure there is only one Vallejo. What is more, I doubt that in the entire Malay race, he has his equal. No time should be lost in sending young Vallejo to the United States. To fail to do so would be to lose a genius who will bring honor to the Philippines.”
With the help of Filipino philanthropist and art patron Dr. Ariston Bautista Lin, the Philippine government granted Vallejo a scholarship. In October 1923 at the age of fourteen, he left the country as a pensionado and remained in the US for six years.
Ernesto Vallejo studied under renowned American violinist Franz Kneisel, while also continuing his high school education at Riverside Country School, New York.
Vallejo related that when Kneisel saw him play and listen to him for the first time, he immediately took him into his class instead of assigning him to one of his assistant teachers. Vallejo then related: “He told me not to be offended, but my bowing was all wrong, and that the secret of the great violinist lies in the bowing. He made me practice one bar for two weeks to two months, over and over again. Every moment in the bowing and fingering had to be perfect. I practiced seven hours a day. But everything went smoothly, and only a year afterward, I made my debut at Palm Beach.”
When Franz Kneisel died in 1926, Vallejo continued his violin study under Sacha Jacobsen, a pupil of Kneisel. For his graduation concert on March 1929, Vallejo was presented at Town Hall, New York. He performed Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole and Brahms’ Sonata in A major.
For the record, Vallejo was the first Filipino violin soloist of the Manila Symphony Orchestra (MSO) which was founded in 1926 by Lippay.
If piano prodigy Cecile Licad impressed Van Cliburn at age 11, Vallejo at age 12 impressed no less than the great violinist Mischa Ellman when the latter visited Manila in 1921.
It was Ellman himself who suggested that Vallejo be given the chance to study abroad.
The young Vallejo was not just an exceptionally talented violinist but a renaissance man probably in the mould of Jose Rizal. He also studied the piano, became proficient in French and excelled in tennis and swimming at the same time.
After only three years of violin studies in the United States, he held his first series of concerts in Florida, Ohio, Washington D.C., and Boston, among others.
After one such concert, an admirer gifted him with a 200-year-old Ferdinand Dondolfi violin, costing $10,000 in the late 1920s. Another admirer, this time a widow from California — also gifted him with a violin worth $2000 after one such performance.
For the record, Vallejo was the first violinist to debut at the New York’s Town Hall to great acclaim. He was also the first Filipino to give a command performance for then US President Calvin Coolidge at the White House and for General Douglas MacArthur with whom Vallejo stayed for two weeks at the latter’s Stotsenberg Estate in Philadelphia.
Among the reviews of Vallejo’s performances which came out in the US papers was one written by Noel Strauss in the March 15, 1929 issue of Evening Word. It said: “Although many violinists have tried their hands at the overworked Sonata in A Major of Brahms during this season, it remained for Ernesto Vallejo, an 18-year old Filipino boy from Manila to give a completely adequate interpretation of the work.”
Carmita Legarda, who witnessed first-hand the performances of Vallejo with the MSO before the war, wrote: “Vallejo’s great artistry and commanding presence, despite his diminutive size, always proved a drawing card whenever he was soloist and his level musicianship helped to mould the MSO to achieve a standard of musical excellence and maturity.”
Among the noted pupils of Vallejo were violinist-turned-conductor Redentor Romero and Basilio Manalo.
In September 1929, Vallejo returned to Manila and did a homecoming concert at the Manila Grand Opera House.
Dr. Alexander Lippay, MSO founder, described Vallejo’s genius thus: “He plays everything with soul and his interpretation is always intelligent. His tone and modulation are beautiful, and his bowing technique masterful. There is no question about his talent. Although only 20 years old, he plays with the maturity of a man of forty. It is phenomenal!”
The 1945 historic concert of MSO under Herbert Zipper at the Sta. Cruz Church ruins without its distinguished soloist — Vallejo — who was killed by Japanese soldiers along with his wife and three children.
Ernesto Vallejo would then devote his career in the Philippines to performance and teaching. He is also remembered having been the maestro of some of the finest violinists and violin pedagogues in the country.
Where was Vallejo in the last two years before the Holocaust of 1945?
As early as 1944, Vallejo found it hard to survive in Manila.
One of the pupils of Vallejo was Redentor Romero who recalled that living in Manila during that year was pure hell. The prices of staple food rose, the looters multiplied and mere suspected guerrillas and innocent civilians were being tortured, among them Romero’s brother.
For this reason, Vallejo accepted the invitation of a wealthy family friend, Manuel Gonzalez to evacuate in Tanauan, Batangas. His cherished possessions then were his four expensive violins and lots of musical pieces.
Before the holocaust, there were regular concerts in the Tanauan house where Vallejo lived in 1944. Japanese officers were seen in some of those concerts.
But on the night of February 9, 1945, a messenger from the guerrilla forces warned them that the Japanese command based in Batangas had received orders that all civilians left in the town would be massacred and their houses burned.
For a while, the Vallejos thought that since they befriended some Japanese officers during those house concerts, they would be spared.
The next day, February 10, 1945, the retreating Japanese Marine Corps in Tanauan town killed scores of innocent civilians, among them Vallejo, his wife and three children.
Their house was burned along with priceless music scores and their four expensive violins.
A few gifted violinists have emerged after the war but none of them came close to the short but phenomenal career of Ernesto Vallejo. (With accounts from Francis D. Yumul)
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