Thursday, February 27, 2014

Alice Herz-Sommer

The pianist and teacher Alice Herz-Sommer died last week, after a remarkable and remarkably long life.

Born to middle-class parents in Prague, she began piano lessons at age 5, graduated from conservatory, and had a performing career while still quite young. Because of the circles in which her parents moved, she met both Mahler and Kafka in her youth.

On the brink of World War II, she stayed in Prague to care for her mother. In 1942, Mrs. Herz was deported to Terezin; in 1943, Herz-Sommer, her husband Leopold, and their young son were also deported. Her mother was killed in a death camp and, eventually, so was her husband. Herz-Sommer and her son lived on in Terezin because of the musical performances she had given, and both survived the war. Her son, the cellist Raphael Sommer, died in 2001.

In recent years, Herz-Sommer was profiled in biographies and a short documentary that is up for an Academy Award. She was 110 at her death, and very likely the oldest Holocaust survivor.


Zwölftöner said...

The story of Alice Herz-Sommer meeting Mahler as a child derives from Caroline Stoessinger's book and seems to appear nowhere else. In other interviews Herz-Sommer is asked if she met Mahler, and she says she didn't (although she did hear Mahler conduct, and her mother was a childhood acquaintance). The Mahler thing isn't the only discrepancy in this cloying book, which reads as if accuracy took a backseat to telling the story in an uplifting way. It's interesting, reading a Facebook page run by the family, to see some quite outspoken statements about Herz-Sommer approving only of the Christopher Nupen documentary and Melissa Müller's & Reinhard Piechocki's 'A Garden of Eden in the Middle of Hell' ("Any other book does not come with Alice's blessing").

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Z. I think every obit I've seen mentions her meeting Mahler.

The SFCV Music News item called her a "renowned concert pianist," but I don't think she was, particularly, certainly not after the war. I can't tell from the obits how much of a career she had pre-war.

Zwölftöner said...

Yeah, the Mahler thing has been repeated in many obituaries. But I'm pretty certain Stoessinger is the only source for it, which is the problem.

There's a really terrific, informative interview Martin Anderson reposted the other day, which draws a no on the Mahler question and comments on her piano playing, taking speculation quite far. But I do have the recordings he mentions and agree that she was a very, very fine pianist. She talks about getting support and jobs after the war but I imagine those years were far tougher than she lets on.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you - I'll take a look at the interview.