Heritage

The Filipino Violin Prodigy Who Wowed the U.S. President and Hollywood Stars

As a teenager, Ernesto Vallejo impressed audiences all over the world.
IMAGE ALEX R. CASTRO COLLECTION
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When the former concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, Michel Piastro, heard the 13-year-old Filipino violinist Ernesto Vallejo play in Manila in 1922, he gushed: "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." The famed Jewish violinist, Mischa Elman, who had also heard the boy, had an even more urgent plea: "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.” 

And so, at age 14, the violin virtuoso was granted a scholarship and became the country’s youngest pensionado in history. With Don Ariston Bautista providing additional funding assistance, Vallejo was sent off to America in October 1923.


Ernesto Vallejo, Boy Virtuoso. Just 13 in this photo, Vallejo impressed New York Philharmonic orchestra conductor Michel Piastro with his masterful performance. His talent would take him to America as the country’s youngest pensioando, where his star would shine even more.

There had been signs that Ernesto Fausto Vallejo was destined for greatness at a young age. Born on December 19, 1909, Vallejo grew up in a home filled with music. Jose Vallejo, his Ilocano father, played the violin and led the Army and Navy Club Orchestra, while Feliza Arriola, his Visayan-Tagalog mother was a talented harpist. Many of his 11 siblings (he was the sixth child) could play the piano and sing—sister Fely not only became a singer, but also an actress, who later became the wife of director Gerry de Leon.

Family lore had it that the very young Ernesto was fascinated early with the violin. His father used to hang his violin high above his children’s reach, but Ernesto always managed to find it. Once, in an effort to reach the instrument, Ernesto used a high chair but lost his balance, and fell on the floor. His father gave him a sound thrashing, and then to avoid another incident, he bought his son a toy violin made of tin. The older Vallejo began teaching him the rudiments of violin playing, and the boy learned very fast, sometimes learning musical pieces on his own.

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The young Vallejo was already adept with the violin while still in grade school at the Santa Cruz Primary School. He was sometimes featured at the Zorilla Theater, the Columbia Club and the Army Navy Club where he never failed to wow the patrons with his violin skills. His playing brought him to the attention of music maestros Marcelo Adonay and Bonifacio Abdon, who took him under his wing, under the sponsorship of the Asociacion Musical de Filipinas. There, the seven-year-old, fondly called “Vallejito”--owing to his diminutive size—was given a violin perfect for his size.

Coming to America

His journey abroad, however, started on a negative note. While on a stopover at Japan en route to America, Vallejo’s name was mistakenly linked to the snatching of a five-year old boy. Yokohama police boarded the ship to try to arrest the young violinist. His passport was confiscated, and was brought to the police station. The shocked boy was finally cleared when the American consul vouched for Vallejo’s character, and the Japanese soon realized that it was a case of mistaken identity.


TAKE A BOW. Ernesto (X) with his violin, as a member of the Riverdale Country School Glee Club.

Upon arriving in America, Vallejo enrolled as a high schooler at the Riverdale Country School in New York where he would stay for four years.

Likewise, he started studying violin techniques under the private tutorship of Herr Franz Kneisel, a German violinist who ranked among the world’s best. Often made to practice seven hours a day, the young Vallejo became a favorite student of the temperamental master. His progress was quick and he was soon giving concerts for the benefit of the Riverdale community. In recognition of his musical ability, Vallejo was made a director of the Riverdale Country School Glee Club, a group reserved for the best students.

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Incidentally, Vallejo not only excelled in music but also in sports. He was an ace tennis player, and for three successive years won the Riverdale Junior Championship title, boosting his popularity as a campus figure. 

In 1924, several multimillionaires from Florida, headed by Henry Seligman, requested Kneisel to send his best violinist to headline an annual concert for the aristocrats of Palm Beach. Vallejo was the master’s choice, and his impressive performance won the hearts of the discriminating audience.

Of the 16 year-old virtuoso’s performance, the Palm beach Journal gushed, “Vallejo’s first two numbers were capable of showing all the beauty of tone, the restraint so rare, the marvelous technique and warmth of feeling surprising from one so young…In Wieniawski’s “Russian Airs”, he was particularly delightful, and the spirited “Slavonic Dance” by Dvorak, (a severe test, using Kneisel’s arrangement) he stood nobly, playing with verve and distinction.”

 

AMERICA’S GOT TALENT…and it’s a Filipino! Teen-ager Ernesto Valljo was a prized student of Franz Kneisel who was often sent to perform in music events around America, with very important people in attendance.

 

Seligman was highly impressed; not only did he invite Vallejo for the next year’s concert but he also gifted him with an antique Landolfi’s violin worth $20,000, and even offered to adopt him!

The year’s highlight was a performance before President Calvin Coolidge at the White House, where he would win fans and admirers like California millionaires Mrs. Lionel Atwill, who gave him another violin valued at two thousand dollars.

 

The Artist is Recalled to the Philippines

In the six years he stayed in America, Vallejo gave a total of 14 concerts all over America—Boston, Philadelphia (where the press made much of him), Washington D.C. (private concerts before the governor and Secretary of War, James Good), Chicago and San Francisco.

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He toured both East and West Coast, meeting Hollywood stars like Janet Gaynor, Marion Davies, Ramon Navarro in the process. He hobnobbed with musical luminaries as Heifetz, Zymbalist, Eddie Brown, Ruth Breton, Sasha Jacobsen (his tutor after Kneisel’s death in 1926) and Samuel Gardner. He would also perform for Gen. Douglas MacArthur at his Stotsenberg Estate in Philadelphia.

 

IN BAD SYMPHONY. Ernest Vallejo, on an outing with his American and Filipino friends. His alleged questionable conduct put him in hot water with Pensionado Committee in 1929, who gave him marching orders to come home.

 

Due in part to his time on the road—performing, travelling and socializing—unfavorable news about his conduct soon reached Manila. It was rumored that the 20-year-old was leading a Bohemian life among kindred artists in New York. 

As a result, in early 1929, Vallejo was ordered recalled to Manila by Governor General Dwight F. Davis to face the Pensionado Committee. The controversy was a result of a misunderstanding between Vallejo and his pensionado agent Georgia Williams and the incident was soon settled.

His final graduation concert was held on March 14, 1929 at the New York Town Hall—the first Filipino to do so—where he brilliantly performed Edouard Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole and Brahms' Sonata in A major. Noel Strauss of the Evening World of New York observed that “although many violinists have tried their hands at the overworked Brahm’s sonata, it remained for a 19-year old Filipino boy from Manila to give an adequate interpretation of the work.” The Columbia Recording Co. dangled a lucrative contract for him to record original Philippine compositions, but by then Ernesto Vallejo, now a young adult, was ready to come home. On his way home to the Philippines, he gave concerts in Shanghai and Hong Kong that drew large, appreciative crowds.

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Home is the Hero

 

THE WORLD AT HIS FEET. Twenty-year-old Ernesto Vallejo returned to Manila to show off the fruits of his musical education in America. His homecoming concerts were huge successes, all met with standing ovations.

 

Vallejo returned to Manila to a rapturous welcome in September 1929. He immediately gave a series of homecoming concerts at the Manila Grand Opera House. As expected, he brought the house down. The founder of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Lippay, enthused: "He plays everything with soul…..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!"

Vallejo had expected to be sent to Italy after resolving his difficulties with the Pensionado Committee. This, apparently, did not materialize. Undeterred, he focused on performing and mentoring student violinists for the next decade or so. The violinist and later, conductor Redentor Romero was a student.

In 1934, Ernesto Vallejo married Nona Guebert of Manila, and started a family (they had 3 children) and also a new job as a member of the U.P. Conservatory of Music faculty. He later resigned this post to teach at the Academy of Music, and to join the Manila Symphony as concert master.

 

VIOLINS IN THE MOVIES. Ernesto Vallejo had his musical moment in the Parlatone-produced “Bahay Kubo”, which premiered at the Fox Theater in 1938. The musical romance starred his sister, Fely Vallejo.

 

Vallejo even found time to dabble in movies, appearing in the 1938 film “Bahay Kubo”, directed by brother-in-law Gerry de Leon and starred in by his sister Fely Vallejo. It was a story about a poor girl who was discovered for the opera, and Vallejo has a scene showing him skillfully playing his violin with passion and aplomb.

But Vallejo loved most his concert tours with pianist Prof. Esteban Anguita that allowed him to bring his violin music all over the country. His last public appearance was at the Times Theater, where he performed musical interludes, often with sister Fely joining him.

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A cruel end to a charmed life

The coming of the War brought untold miseries to many Filipinos. Even the Vallejos were not safe from enemy threats, so they fled to Tanauan, Batangas upon the invitation of an affluent friend and godfather Manuel Gonzales. Vallejo encouraged the rest of his siblings to join them there, but they refused. The move proved to be a tragic one for Vallejo.

The initial years of Japanese occupation seemed uneventful enough, as Vallejo—who had brought along his musical pieces and 4 violins to Tanauan—would hold impromptu concerts,some of which were even attended by Japanese officers and soldiers, many of whom he befriended.

But when the Japanese got wind of the coming of the American liberation forces to Laguna and Batangas, they went into a murderous frenzy. On February 9, 1945, guerrillas issued a warning for civilians to flee Tanauan, as reports of massacres in Laguna had reached them. Fifteen members of the Gonzales family immediately packed up and left the town, but Martin Gonzales chose to remain. Also opting to stay put was Vallejo and his family.

The next day, February 10, 1945,  Japanese soldiers rounded up a number of civilians in Tanauan, a group that included Vallejo and his family. The violinist hoped he would be recognized by the commanding Japanese officer who had once been part of his concert audience, and he raised his hands. A hail of bullets was fired by the Japanese as they massacred the group, ending the lives of Vallejo, his wife, and his children. Vallejo was just 35.

Their bodies were said to have been thrown into a well, but no traces of them were ever found.

 

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ONE BRIEF SHINING MOMENT. The war put an end to the brief, shining career of violin prodigy Ernesto. He and his wife and three children were massacred by Japanese in Tanauan, their bodies never to be found. His memory lives on in his music, a few recordings of which survived.

Today, save for a few in the music circle, the name Ernesto Fausto Vallejo remains unknown and forgotten. Even the Vallejo home in Malate had been bombed and razed to the ground, and whatever was left of Vallejo’s personal items—photographs, souvenirs, mementos—were lost forever.

For years, rumors abounded that someone had found Vallejo’s valuable violins and musical pieces amid the rubble and decay, but they remained hearsay.

Still, Vallejo left behind a legacy of records that will be hard to surpass and will be long remembered—first, for the music that he created as a phenomenal violin savant with no equal, and second, for being the youngest government pensionado in Philippine history.

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Alex R. Castro
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