Saturday, March 31, 2012

Pianist and piano teacher Alice Herz-Sommer talks about life and music

The documentary film “From Hell to Paradise” or “Chopin Saved Me” (2005), in German with English subtitles, directed by Michael Teutsch, in which pianist Alice Herz-Sommer talks about her life and the strength music has given her to deal with its tragedies, was shown at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on March 30th, 2012. Proceeds from the event will provide a scholarship to a piano student at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. The renowned pianist, now aged 108, was a member of Faculty of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance for 37 years. She now lives in London.
Born in Prague in 1903 to intellectual, secular Jewish parents, Alice Herz was educated in the German cultural tradition and language. The family home was a cultural salon where writers, scientists, musicians and actors met. One was Franz Kafka, whose best friend journalist, author and philosopher Felix Weltsch married one of her sisters. There was much music-making at home, thanks to her mother, who encouraged the children to play music. Alice went on to become the youngest pupil to study at the German Music Academy in Prague.

In 1931, Herz married Leopold Sommer, a fine amateur musician. In 1937, their son Raphael was born. In 1939, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia; she spoke of the humiliation of wearing the yellow star in Prague. Her two sisters fled to Palestine. In 1942, the Germans arrested her 72-year-old mother, subsequently murdering her. Losing her mother was terribly traumatic for Alice Herz-Sommer (in the film, she talks much about the mother-child relationship and the privilege of having been a mother) and she suffered an emotional crisis, unable to be comforted by her husband, doctor or child. What gave her new hope was a sudden drive to immerse herself in playing all 24 Chopin Études. In 1943, Alice Herz-Sommer, her husband and son were deported to the Terezin-Theresienstadt concentration camp. There, she took part in many concerts, alongside other fine players, conductors and composers. Despite the hunger inmates suffered – their diet consisted solely of coffee and soup - she was happy playing music and gave over 100 concerts; the atmosphere in these concerts, she said, was indescribable. She spoke of an all-Beethoven concert there as being unforgettable. One day, several of the prisoners were rounded up and taken to a remote field. Herz-Sommer and her son were among the lucky ones to be returned to the Terezin Ghetto. There young Raphael played a leading role in “Brundibár”, a children’s opera by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása (libretto: Adolf Hoffmeister). In September 1944, Leopold Sommer was sent to Auschwitz. He survived imprisonment there, but then died of typhus in Dachau. A workmate from Dachau later brought Herz-Sommer the wooden spoon her husband had used there to eat his meager rations.

In 1945, Alice Herz-Sommer and Raphael immigrated to Palestine. The pianist spoke of her time in Jerusalem as “the best period of my life” in a city that was challenging, interesting and dynamic; “Jews are not easy to live with”, she observes. Raphael studied the ‘cello at the Rubin Academy of Music, later studying in in Paris, finally moving to England, where he took over the ‘cello department of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). In 1986, Herz-Sommer moved to London to be close to her son and grandsons. Raphael Sommer died in 2001 on concert tour with the Salomon Trio in Israel. He was 64. “Still I am grateful to have had such a son” she adds sadly.

The film is about the powers and therapeutic qualities of music. Alice Herz-Sommer’s lively personality and wisdom, however, are no less gripping than the subject of the film and her articulacy is astounding. She speaks of the importance of daily routine and discipline – we see her at the supermarket, at the swimming pool, cooking in the kitchen of her London apartment and, of course, playing the piano. Despite two paralyzed fingers, the film shows her playing the piano on a daily basis; we witness her playing pieces by Beethoven and Chopin and sense her total absorption in the music. She speaks of music as a gift of a higher power, as her religion, hoping, with a glint in her eye, to be a piano teacher again in her next life. Despite memories haunting her at night, Alice Herz-Sommer is not bitter: she mentions the fact that evil did not start and end with Nazism and that every person houses within him both positive and negative qualities. Alice Herz-Sommer has an optimism that could never be crushed. She is an inspiring person. Her favorite composer? Beethoven.

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