If you’re a violin nerd, you’re probably familiar with the name of Baron Johann Knoop, who was very possibly the greatest violin collector the world has ever seen. But I’d wager you know nothing about his wife, the mysterious Maya Stuart-King.
This new focus on literary guests was due to the influence of Johann’s second wife, whom he married in 1899. Maya Stuart-King (1875-1945) was a young violinist who had run away from home at the age of 18 to search for her godmother, a German princess. She never did find her godmother, but she did find a Baron. She met Baron Knoop while playing at a salon in Vienna. The Baron fell in love with her and eventually convinced her to marry him, despite the fact that he was 30 years her senior.
There are a couple different versions to how this marriage came about. According to Mike Ashley, the author of a biography about the writer Algernon Blackwood, Knoop first hired Maya as a governess for his son and only married her some years later when Ludwig turned 18. On the other hand, the author Stephen Graham, who knew both Maya and Algernon quite well, remembered Maya relating events differently:
‘It was in Vienna. I was a violinist and I lived for music. I had my own Stradivarius and was one of a string quartet enjoying high social patronage. One evening a guest at a musical entertainment saw me. It was the Baron and he became infatuated. At first he tried to make me his mistress, but I was elusive and drove him to what was an unwise decision. I was a poor girl of no family; he was a nobleman of great wealth and he was sixty. But he made me a formal proposal of marriage. For me that made his courtship serious. I consulted my friends. They all said it was a golden opportunity for me because the man was fabulously rich. So I accepted him. The wedding itself, in the Russian Orthodox Church with crowns on our heads, was most impressive, and I felt at the time we were achieving something magnificent.
Whatever the case, the marriage was not a happy one for Maya. As Graham recalled, Maya continued with the story as follows:
But once married I soon realized I had lost my freedom. Courtship ceased and the Baron showed himself fanatically possessive. He stopped my playing and deposited my Stradivarius in a bank. It is still there for all I know. He cut me off from my acquaintances and friends and the patrons of my music. I was switched away to Russia, to Paris, to Egypt, and finally to England, and all the while I was his private – almost his secret – personal property. He affected to despise music and would never go to a concert. When he came to live here he had no guests beyond a few members of his family.’
At first Maya obeyed the Baron and did completely as he wished. But eventually, according to Graham’s account, she broke free, thanks in part to a certain German philosopher:
‘He stinted me for money and I was dressed always in black, like one of his German maids. Whatever he told me to do I did. I had no resistance. But one day I discovered Nietzsche and his philosophy was an inspiration. The sloppy faith I had been brought up in was no good; turning the other cheek had made me a slave. The German philosopher said, “Be hard as a diamond”. I could not get as hard as that, but hard enough to begin to live my own life and defy the restrictions which my husband put upon it. Then his power over me dissolved as if I had wrought a spell.”
Once Maya gained some independence from the Baron, she quickly became a favorite in literary circles and befriended many authors, including Graham and Ranier Rilke. But her closest friend – in fact they were almost inseparable from about 1911-1918 – was Algernon Blackwood, a journalist and novelist whom Maya met on a Nile steamer which belonged to the Baron. Blackwood specialized in books about the supernatural and occult. As Graham describes the relationship, Blackwood became her “Slave of the Ring.” “A love affair began,” writes Graham, “and lasted the rest of his life, though without physical expression. For him Maya became a wonder-child, and then a mystical being with an awareness of invisible things.” Blackwood dedicated virtually all of his books to Maya.
What the Baron thought of this relationship is not recorded but if he objected to it he was also resigned to the fact that there was little he could do about it, short of divorcing Maya. It seems that the couple had a devil’s pact. The broody Baron needed Maya’s presence – her lightness and gaiety. For her part, Maya enjoyed the Baron’s money and the freedom of being married in letter only. Though undoubtedly not the ideal union that each wished, the marriage nevertheless survived 19 years, and ended only with the Baron’s death.
The story about Maya’s Strad being locked in a bank vault is one I have not been able to confirm. Indeed, it’s not clear which of the many Strads owned by Baron Knoop was actually Maya’s. Interestingly, the accounts of Graham and Ashley conflict with what Doring has written. According to Doring, Baron Knoop actually purchased a Strad as a gift for his wife. This instrument was the ‘de Barrou’ Strad, previously owned by C.G. Meier. “After Meier’s death,” writes Doring, “this violin of 1714 was acquired by Baron Knoop as a gift for his wife.” But as Meier was still alive at least as late as 1911, and the Baron and Maya married in 1899, this cannot be the same Strad to which Maya referred.
By the early 1900s, Knoop and Maya were more-or-less permanent residents of England, living first in a mansion in Tunbridge Wells. It was here that Graham had his first and only encounter with the Baron. Graham described the castle as “an immense structure, a castellated aggregation of brickwork. . . The music room, in which no music was allowed, was as big as a church.”
Graham had travelled widely in Russia and had written many articles and books about Russia, including a biography of Alexander II, so one might have assumed that he and Baron Knoop would have much to discuss. But this was not the case. Graham and his wife were not invited to stay at the castle itself “because the Baron would not allow any guests to stay the night.” During the entire weekend they were there, Graham saw the Baron only once, for about 5 minutes.
The Baron had apparently been traumatized by the death of his first wife and child, and the near-death of his son. “He lived in a draught-proof little room,” wrote Graham,“where the temperature was not allowed to vary from 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The rest of his spacious domain he ignored.”
“The Baron was not stricken by disease,” continues Graham, “but was mortally afraid of ill-health. “
Graham summed up his opinion of the Baron thus: Knoop was a “jealous and morose Russian baron. . . His idea when he saw anything beautiful was to take it for himself and hide it from the rest of the world.”
In 1903 Knoop purchased a large mansion in Wadhurst overlooking Kent and Sussex Weald, “with one of the most beautiful views in the south-east.” And although he himself remained in seclusion, he apparently allowed Maya to invite houseguests. Algernon stayed there frequently and even gave South Park as his forwarding address during the summer of 1911.
Algernon’s biographer, Mike Ashley, believes that Knoop and Maya were the models for characters in several of Algernon’s books and stories. In The Damned, for example, one of the main characters is Samuel Franklyn, a rich but gloomy man. But whereas the fictional Franklyn was grudgingly respected for his philanthropic works, the real-life Knoop seems to have kept his wealth mostly to himself. Aside from a Ruggeri violin that Knoop loaned to the Russian violinist, Carol Gregorowitch, in the 1880s, there is no evidence that he ever loaned any of his instruments to musicians, and the only record of philanthropy he left was a 75 pound scholarship at the Guildhall School of Music awarded each year, starting in 1899, to a promising violinist… [snip]
Meanwhile, the Knoops were being similarly persecuted in their Prussian homeland of Bremen. In 1915, the Prussian government took control of their Muhlenthal estate, justifying this seizure with the fact that one of the owners, namely Baron Johann Knoop, had permanent residence in England, and that his wife, “Baroness May Knoop,” was German-American by birth. By this time, the Baron had anyway abandoned the castle, with his last visit there believed to have been in 1910.
In 1916, probably to give their company a more Russian flavor, the Russian Knoops reorganized their enterprise and renamed the resulting company ‘Volokno’. But as Russia was increasingly hostile to any successful companies, and especially those with German roots, the Knoop family transferred as much of their assets as possible into the Manchester de Jersey company, whose chairman was Baron Johann Knoop.
After June, 1918, all of the Knoops’ Russian enterprises were nationalized (with the exception of the Kraenholm cotton mill in Estonia), and the Knoops – Johann’s two brothers and their families – were forced to flee Russia.
A few months after the Knoop’s Russian empire was nationalized during the Russian revolution, Baron Johann Knoop died at his castle in Tunbridge Wells. The cause of death was not reported, but it was most likely the influenza pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people 1918. In his will he had left most of his estate to his son Ludwig, but Maya received a generous annual stipend, with the provision that she would lose the income should she re-marry. This may have put Maya in quite a quandary in relation to Algernon Blackwood. While she undoubtedly loved him as a friend, it’s not clear that their relationship was romantic, and she had become accustomed to a life that his book royalties could not support. Graham writes that“Maya might have taken a chance and married him for love, but Blackwood would not.”
Graham continues that “Maya recovered her Stradivarius from the bank where the Baron had stored it, and organized a string quartet and gave music parties.” She belonged to a group called ‘Higher Thought’ which believed that thought more than actions worked miracles. Another member of this group was a coal magnate named Ralph Hilton Philipson, whose first wife had died in 1873. Once again, Maya was courted by a wealthy, elderly widower, and once again she accepted the marriage proposal. But where the Baron had been a dour, possessive personality, Philipson was his opposite – affable and generous, and a patron of many artists, authors and musicians. By all accounts, her marriage with Philipson was happier than her life with Baron Knoop, but the marriage was a short one. Philipson died of food poisoning in December, 1928. Maya herself continued to live in London until her death in 1945. What became of her Stradivari is not known.
Obviously I write non-fiction, and I absolutely love doing so, but fiction will always be the genre that I love the best and feel the most comfortable in. So as soon as I read this post on Cozio, I headed to the library to get a book by Algernon Blackwood in an attempt to discover more about Maya. His stories are spooky, unique, and ridiculously atmospheric; they’re highly recommended. The first one I read was Chinese Magic, which is the story of an older academic man who becomes entranced with a striking young woman. Turns out, there are shades of the Maya/Algernon relationship in just about every story.
I’ve looked around for more information on the Baroness and found little else. I’m writing a novel now (that has nothing to do with music), and I’m committed to finishing that, and I’m going to be busy with it for the foreseeable future, but…I have to confess, I’m totally inspired by the idea of somehow fictionalizing this strange love triangle between a reclusive violin collector, a spiritualist writer, and an independent musical young woman…