Musical Prodigies: Grisha Goluboff (United States, 1919-2002)

Figure 1.--Grisha is seen here at age 5, it would have been about 1924. He has a child's size violin. He wears a sailor suit, a popular child's style at the time. Image courtesy of Gladys Chase.

Grisha Goluboff was a famous boy violinist during the 1920s and 30s. His parents were Russians who emigrated in the 1910s. His family moved a great deal and he traveled extensively for his concerts, but spent a great deal of time in California. For Grisha's upcoming 5th birthday, his father asked him what he wanted for a gift. What Grisha asked for was a violin. His father was able to locate the smallest size violin for him and found a teacher who taught Grisha all he (the teacher) knew in about 1 year. His manager was Isidore Nobel of New York/San Francisco. Grisha gave his first concert at age 6. He performed throughout America and Europe. Grisha gave a concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra when he was 6 years old. After that he played all over the United States, then from about the age of 9, started concertising in Europe and other countries. A German nobleman presented him a Guarnerious, but Hitler demanded it be returned. Grisha was interviewed about reincarnation and genius by Geoffrey Hodson in 1939. He was performing with the Peninsula Symphony Orchestra in 1952 when he played the Beethoven Concerto, which was recorded by the Ampex Corp.. Almost amazing as Grisha's music is the number of people whose lives have crossed his. He met and worked with many prominent musicians of the 20th century. But his life story is not only liked with the great luminaries in the music world, but such diverse individuals as Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Adolph Hitler, Hedy Lamarr, Max Reinhardt, and many others.


Grisha's parents were Russian Jews. Both parents came to America from Russia (separately) about 1914, although I'm not really sure of the year. Times were very difficult in Russia for people of Jewish heritage. The Tsar, 'pogroms', prejudice, etc. I don't know of a specific reason except that there were more opportunities in America than in Russia. Grisha's does know why their mother's family emigrated. She explains, " There were five surviving children in the family, four girls and one son. The Jewish people did not even keep track of the children's birthdays because when the boys got to be a certain age they would have to serve in the Tsar's army. So when the one son became old enough, our grandfather took him and they traveled by foot at night and hid in the fields by day and made their way to Germany where they were able to book passage on a ship to America. [HBC note: It is interesting that before World War I that Germany was a haven for Russian Jews. Not all emigrated to America. Many stayed in Germany and this influx from the East was a factor in the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany.] When they reached America, our grandfather sent for the rest of the family. It takes a great deal of courage for people to come to a strange country, not speaking the language, and carving out a decent life for themselves."

Grisha came from a musical family. His father played the violin and always had good music playing (at the beginning, on his crank-arm victrola). His mother also wanted to learn the violin as a child but family finances made it impossible for her to do so. He had numerous relatives in music and the arts. His maternal grandfather (the one who fled the Tsar's Army) was a violinist and made it his life's work. He was the father of Lennie and Agnes Niehaus, the music arranger, and Agnes, the concert pianist. His sister was a concert pianist, another cousin was an opera singer, and another an artist (twice nominated for an Oscar for his work in the film industry), and another uncle who played the violin professionally.


Grisha had a brother and sister. Gladys was about 4 1/2 years younger than Grisha, the youngest in the family. Gladys remembers her brother fondly, "He was such an amazing child, it was a rare blessing that I was born his sister to see him growing up and also as an adult." His sister also remembers that the family moved a great deal. " Our family moved several times, to my memory we lived in California (Stockton, San Francisco, and Los Angeles). We did, however, spend a great deal of time in San Francisco. When he would go to Europe, it was from the east coast (New York primarily). At such time the rest of our family (there was also another brother) would move to the west coast where our mother's family lived). When he returned to the U.S., we moved back to the east coast. (I went to 16 different schools between the two coasts by the time I reached the 6th grade.)" [Chase]


Grisha was born May 4, 1919. His early childhood was uneventful excdept that he showed a considerable interest in music. For Grisha's upcoming 5th birthday, his father asked him what he wanted for a gift. What Grisha asked for was a violin. His father was able to locate the smallest size violin for him and found a teacher who taught Grisha all he (the teacher) knew in about 1 year. [Chase]


Figure 2.--Grisha is seen here in 1932 aboard the "SS Europa" on the way to Bremen. He wears a white sailor suit in which he often performed. This was to be his last visit to Germany because Hitle and the NAZIs seized power in 1933. Image courtesy of Gladys Chase.


We have only limited information on Grisha's clothing as a child prodigy. Most prodigies at the time wore Sailor suits. Ir was a popular style at the time and almost like a uniform for boy prodigies. Grisha very commonly wore sailor suits, even as a teenager. He wore several different styles of sailor suits. Several photographs taken abpard oceamn liners crossing the Atlantic for his European tours show him wearing these sailor suits. He also performed in them. One photograph taken about the Bremen during 1934 when he was 14-15 years old shows him with Misha Elman, another famous violinist. Grisha wears a sailor suit. He was very small, even diminutive as achild. He looked much younger than he really was. In fact his birth date was sometimes moved up as much as 3 years to 1922, effectively extending his career as a child prodigy. [Gold]


In retrospect, it was amazing that so young a child showed so much self-discipline and passion for music. He practiced for hours each day because HE wanted to. Our parents were simple, poor people but sacrificed a great deal so Grisha could develop the way he did. Grisha was a very serious youngster. Music was his whole life. He was about as close to egoless as anyone I have ever known. He was simply what he was and accepted that role in life and practicing was not a 'chore', it was his fulfillment. [Chase]

Ruggiero Ricci (1918- )

Ruggiero was born and raised in California and became a childhood friend of Grisha. He was an important childhood prodigy in his own right. Ruggiero was born during World War I and in a fit of patriotic exuberance, his father named him Woodrow Wilson Rich. His baptismal name was Roger. When he proved to be a very talented violinist, the family realized his commercial potential and they renamed him Ruggiero Ricci. Like Grisha, his birth year was often moved forward to 1920. Ruggerio and Grisha shared the same teachers in San Francisco and New York: Mishel Piastro and Louis Persinger. Ricci's extraordinary career as a concert violinist spanned almost 70 years in San Francisco playing a formidable program of works by Vieuxtemps, Saint-Saens, Mendelssohn and Wieniawski, astounded the audience and started him on the road to early stardom. Since that time he has performed more than 5,000 concerts in 65 countries and made over 500 recordings, he has played more often, before more people, in more places, and has recorded more music for violin than any other soloist.


When very young, Grisha attended public school for a few years. Then, as his travels increased, he had a tutor. I am not aware that he missed going to public school per se. Some prodigies are very talented in mathematics. His sister reports, "I'm not sure whether or not he was good in math, we never really discussed that topic. However he was good at WHATEVER he did. He had a tremendously analytical mind and wanted to know the whys and wherefores of everything." Grisha spoke a smattering of German, no other language fluently that I know of.


Even as a child, he showed tremendous interest in photography which stayed with him his whole life. He only had an interest in the sea and was a sailing enthusiast all his life. [Chase] As a boy being invited to the bridge of the "SS Bremen" anf actually getting to stear the vessel was a real thrill.

Figure 3.--Grisha is seen here in 1932 on the "SS Bremen" returning to New York from Europe. For Grisha the travel associated with a concert tour could be very tiring. but there were exciting aspects here to such as the opportunity to see the bridge of the ship, even getting to stear the it. Click on the image to see another photogrph board the ship. Image courtesy of Gladys Chase.


He gave his first concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra when he was 6 years old. I believe that he played the Mendelssohn Concerto. At his New York debut he played: Brahms "D minor Sonata", Bach "Chaconne", and Ernst "Concerto". The Ernst Concerto is arguably the most difficult violin concerto ever composed. The fact that such a young child was playing it astonished the music world. With that beginning, Grisha played all over the United States, then from about the age of 9, started concertising in Europe. Grisha's concerts were as a soloist, often accompanied by symphony orchestras sometimes by just a pianist. His sister remembers attending a concert which I believe was at Carnegie Hall, in which he was called back to do 11 encores.


Grish's concerts required a great deal of travel. This was especially true when he began performing in Europe. Getting to Europe in the 1930s was not just a short flight aboard a jet airplane as is the case today. In the 1930s European concerts meant taking ocean liners to cross the Atlantic. Several photographs Grisha at the time aboard these liners. Then there were trains that criss-crossed Europe.

Important Musicians

Grisha's career brought him in contact with the luminaries of the music world. Almost amazing as Grisha's music is the number of people whose lives have crossed his. He met and worked with many prominent musicians of the 20th century. But his life story is not only liked with the great figures of the music world, including conductors, fellow violinists, and others. Some took an interest in teaching Grisha and some performed with him. Others he simply shared the stage with at important concerts. There were memorable events both on and behind the stages with these individuals.


Grishas tone was, according to one of his students, "... always warm, as colorfully nuanced as a calidescope, and at the same time brilliant". [Gold] He liked the classics best, but also acknowledged that 'music was music', and all types had their value and were a part of a 'whole'. In his later life, he moved to Las Vegas and played as a part of the Las Vegas type of the entertainment world. Although he played other types of music as part of his job, it was solely for the paycheck. Classics were his life and his consciousness and his heart. His sister reports, "Last Christmas he visited us over Christmas and he told me the most beautiful piece was one named "Poem" by Ernest Chausson. Baron Frederic d'Erlanger (Frederic Regnal) (1868-1943) also wrote a "Poeme" which Grisha played. [Chase]

Prodigy Experience

Some childhood prodigies look back as adults on their childhood and prodigy experiences with misgivings. This does not appear to have been the case with Grisha. He told one of his favorite students, Joseph Gold, that he had a lot of fun as a boy. He especially loved the playing. He met a lot of interesting people. What he didn't like was all the travel. [Gold]

Hitler and the Violin

Grisha three times in his life was presented with great violins. He was provided with two Stradivarius violins and one Guarnerious. In Germany after a 1932 concert a nobleman taken with his wonderful playing gave him a Guarnerious. Grisha immediately fell in love with it. He had never before had such a destinguished violin to play. Hitler and the NAZIs who seized power in January 1933 was incensed thatvsuch a trasure had been given to a Jew. Hitler claimed that such a wonderful violin was the property of the German people and no one single individual. [HBC note: This is quite a statement considering the way the NAZIs looted the art treasures of the countries that they occupied during World War II.] Shortly after, just before Grisha was to give a concert in Soldiers' Field in Chicago, an emissary from Hitler came and demanded that it be returned immediately. A May 24, 1933 movie newsreel carried a feature about him having to return an instrument loaned to him during a tour of Germany. The news reel was entitled, "Boy prodigy bids good-bye to violin". The announcer explained, "Grisha Goluboff, famous 10-year-old genius, must return fare instrument loaned in Germany."

For young Grisha this was a great tragedy. He had never before played on such a great instrument and had fallen in love with it. Violinist Joseph Gold explains, "For Grisha it was like departing with a close friend. A great violinist develops a close reatlionship with such a wonderful violin. It is this relationship between violinist and violin that allows the instrument to 'sing' in the bitter sweet tones that the audience hears." [Gold]

Figure 4.--Grisha is seen here probably in 1933 with Henry Ford who loaned him a Strad after learning about Hitler's recalling the violin that a German nobleman had provided him. Image courtesy of Gladys Chase.

Henry Ford

It was automobile industrialist Henry Ford, of all people, who let Grisha use a Strad from his personal collection, later delivering it to Grisha in an armored car with armed guards for Grisha to use as long as he needed the instrument. All the drama does rather smack of a public relations department. There is a wonderful picture of Henry Ford presenting Grisha with the Strad. This is of course surprising because because Ford and with his hate-filled mouth piece, The Dearborn Independent, was one of the most vicious anti-Semites in American history. The NAZIs actually reprinted some of Ford's books as part of their anti-Jewish campaign. One wonders if this was Ford's idea or that of his public relations department. Ford at the time was locked in a bitter and increasingly violent struggle with the United Auto Workers (UAW) and badly in need of good publicity. As it sometimes the case of many ardent haters, they sometimes find one "good" individual from the target group. Or perhaps it was that Grisha was a child. Whatever the reason, he did loan him the Strad. After Ford's death, his son recalled it saying Ford's collection of violins couldn't be broken up.

Baron Ferdinand de-Langer (1868-1943)

Shortly after Ford's son recalled the Strad, Grisha was presented with another Strad, this one from England. The English nobleman Baron Ferdinand de-Langer, a nom de plume for Frederic Regnal, presented Grisha with a 1867 Strad. While not a distinguished violin, it was a flawless Strad in immaculate condition. Grisha used it until a few years before his death.


Grisha was a devote of the Tourte bow. The development of these masterful bows was perfected by François Tourte (1774-1835). Tourte was trained as a watchmaker, but focused on the creation of the perfect violin bow. After a search of Edisonian proportions, he concluded that "pernambuco" was the optimal material for a violin bow because of its weight, strength and elasticity. Pernambuco was a wood used in colonial times as a colorant for dyeing fine clothes and was also called Brazil. (Permanbuco is a state in northeastern Brazil.) Grisha told a favorite student, "There is something about a Tourte". Perhaps it is the material or the design, but Grisha was convinced that any great violin should be played with a Tourte. [Gold]

Orchestra of Los Angeles

Grisha was engaged to play Pablo de Sarasate's "Gypsy Aires" with the Orchestra of Los Angeles. The conductor, ???, had the habit of improvising showy cadenzas. This was a problem when the concerts were broadcasted because the shows were tightly timed. When it was clear that the show was going to run over, the producer asked Grisha to cut out the middle section of his performance of "Gypsy Aires". Grisha refused, standing on his high-minded music principles, and firmly declined to cut anything. The program thus ran over time and in the end the conductor was fired. [Gold]

Figure 5.--Here Grisha is seen in 1937 as a young man. He would have been about 18 years old and is returning to New York after one of his European tours. Image courtesy of Gladys Chase.

Albert Einstein

One of Grisha's many fans was Albert Einstein. Grisha's sister mentions a 3-page collection of press releases in which Albert Einstein comments on Grisha's talent. Einstein calls him an "unexplained miracle".

Hedy Lamarr

Sultry movie queen Hedy Lamarr writes about Grisha in her autobiography Extasy and Me. Actually what she has to say does not appear to be what actually happened. She embellished it considerably to enhance her own image, and helping Grisha is NOT what happened. Grisha's sister writes, "It was Grisha who helped HER, actually. From what I remember hearing Grisha's manager and others say, she was rather an opportunist and used it to advance her own career." [Chase]


Woeld War began in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Concert tours of Europe were no linger feasible. Gisha's career declined in the 1940s. It is not altogether clear why this happened. There are a variety of possible causes. There is always a difficult transition that a child prodigy has to make to an adult performer. Perhaps the greatest problem lay with Grisha's particular talents and being born at just the wrong time. He was a subtle, nuanced violinist. He did not have a "big sound" that could carry in large auditoriums, let alone stadiums with mass audiences. Gold explains, "Grisha's music was beautifully colored and nuanced--very subtle. It did not carry well in auditoriums. A century earlier he would have been acclaimed in the salons of smart society, but in large auditoriums his wonderful music was not heard to best advantage." [Gold] Modern recording technology would have captured his beautiful sound.


Grisha's manager was Isidore Nobel of New York/San Francisco. One report suggests that Grisha's adult career languished in part because Nobel neglected him. Grishs's sister, however, tells us that this was not the case. Sge writes, "About Mr. Nobel, his manager, he did not 'neglect' Grisha, rather the other things he was trying to accomplish would have been beneficial to them both. Mr. Nobel was like a second father to Grisha and the bond between them was strong to the very end." [Chase]


As an adult Grisha in "polite society" often called himself George Holcombe. I do not know why he selected this name or in fact why he used a different name. Perhaps he wanted a private more American xsounding name separate from his muic life. On the stage he was always Grisha Goluboff.

Joseph Gold

Joseph Gold, violin Virtuoso and author, like Grisha grew up in California--also the son of Russian émigré parents. He is a specialist in the music of Sarasate and Paganini. He began studying the violin at the age eight. A graduate of the University of Southern California where he was coached by the great Jascha Heifetz. He also studied as a highschool student under Grisha. He remembers being told by a friend that his uncle was a famous violinist. Joseph had never heard of him, but he mentioned Grisha's name to his father who had. Joseph's father tried to convince Grisha to give his son lessons, but he was not interested. Then Joseph played a Beethoven concerto for him, and Grisha was so impressed he asked when Joseph wanted to begin. The two became close friends.


Grisha married the beautiful Jo-Ann Johanson, herself an accomplished cellist. Some of his friends believe that she rather monopolized his life and for years many Grisha's friends lost contact with him. Here we have only limited information and do not know how strongly this attitude was among his friends. A family friend that was close to both Grisha and Jo-Ann, however believes that is unfair. She writes, "He was married for 2 years, everybody knew where he lived and his true friend were always there." [Durand] Grisha and Joann had a daughter, Bethany, who is also an accomplished violinist. Bethany lives in Canada and did her Master's work on her father. She ardently denies that her mother monopolised her father's life. She writes to HBC, " There is a page about my father [on your website), Grisha Goluboff. The information was given by his sister Gladys Chase - some of it is true, some not. There is a short paragraph about Mr. Goluboff's family towards the end of the page - there Chase wrote that 'some of Grisha's friends felt his wife, Jo-Ann Johannsen monopolized his life for years'. I find this sentence offensive, as his daughter and knowing the truth: none of his friends lost contact with him or felt this way -- Gladys Chase is the only one who feels this way, due to a falling out she had with Johannsen over 30 years ago. My mother is deceased and can no longer defend herself from this kind of petty ridiculous degradation. In any case, statements of personal spite do not belong in an article about my father's carreer." [B. Goluboff]

Jerry Reisler

In later life, Grisha was befriended by Jerry Reisler, an excellent violinist himself. He helped find engagements for Grisha when his career was floundering. Grisha then went to Las Vegas.


Grisha always kept his humbleness and humility and caring for other people and trying to help them where it was needed. He was never a spoiled child, just a simple, gentle person who was the personification of a truly great person. His sister Gladys writes, "Late in life he told me he wished he knew more about his role in life regarding women, his role as a husband. He was in essence an idealist and saw only the best in people. His was a truly 'pure' spirit, never said anything negative about anyone. Sometimes I thought he was too good a person to be on this planet with the rest of us." [Chase] One associate remarked, "I never heard him say anything negative about anyone!" Grisha even as an adult had a kind of child-like innocence about him. This appears to have been the case with many other prodigies. This is interesting because you would think that the travel, the professional career, meeting many adults would cause a child to mature early. This perhaps affected the solefulness with his playing that critics often mentioned. Even so, a certain youthful demeanor stayed with Grisha even to old age. [Gold]


An interesting insight into Grisha as a boy can be seen in this poem he wrote, "GO NOW MY CHILD".

AWAKE - Thou, My sleeping child
Arise and prepare for thy journey.
Thy path will soon be flooded
By dawn's fast approaching light.
It is a long winter's walk
And the way is hard.

Though many have gone before thee
And many are to come, Thy turn is now.
Attend well to all I have said unto thee
And hearken always to My voice.
For I shall ever abide within thee.
Go now on thy journey, My child.

The way lies beyond yonder mountain top
Where the setting sun is last seen.
And when night once more falls upon the land,
Thou wilt have descended deep into the valley
And come upon a rocky path,
Broken by many pitfalls and covered
With great pools of clinging slime.

Let not thou tarry when the way becomes hard,
For many dangers clothed in garments of luring temptations
Lie hidden in the shadows by thy path.
And much time will be lost should thou be led astray.

Keep thine eyes ever fixed on the path ahead,
And a gleam of light in the distance far
Will ever lead thee on.
Seek with all thy heart to reach that light,
To gain its warmth and spread its rays,
To make light the darkness more.

If through the long night thou will keep to thy path,
Morning will find thee among flowers beautiful,
Surrounded by trees in stately splendor.
And a gentle breeze shall come from the East
To cool and refresh thy body from the trials of the night.

Slowly the path will wind and rise to higher levels,
Until thou shalt reach the peak of yonder far mountain,
Where thy journey will have come to end.
There wilt thou have found the land
Of harmony and eternal peace.

Go now My child.

Final Years

Grisha died April 5, 2002 and is greatly missed by those who knew and loved him.


Chase, Gladys. E-mails, July 27 and August 27, 2002.

Durand, Maude. E-mail, September 7, 2002.

Goluboff, Bethany. E-mail message, June 14, 2006.

Gold, Joseph. Interview, August 15, 2002.

Lamarr, Hedy. Extasy and Me.

Lengyel, Cornel. Ed. 50 Local Prodigies: Prodigies in the Golden Gate (WPA, California, 1940), pp. 32-34.


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Created: July 27, 2002
Spell checked: August 15, 2002
Last updated: 1:02 AM 8/1/2006