Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

By Richard Newman with Karen Kirtley
Amadeus Press. 400 pages. ISBN 1-57467-051-4
AmazonUK £22.50  AmazonUS $20.96


Alma Maria Rosé was born in 1906 to Viennese "musical royalty". Her mother was Gustav Mahler's sister Justine and her father was Arnold Rosé, for over fifty years the Concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera Orchestras and leader of the legendary Rosé Quartet. Alma, named after her Aunt who was Uncle Gustav's wife, first knew only a world of music and a world where music making meant renown and privilege. The early part of this book details this lost world as almost a "Who's Who" of musical Vienna seemed to spend time it's in the Rosé household. By the very end of Alma's story, however, music would have become the difference between life and death.

Alma grew up beautiful, clever and talented as a violinist like her father. When she married the Czech violinist Vasa Prihoda in 1930 the two went on tours together. Even though he appears to have been given more of the attention, Prihoda still resented Alma's presence, resented the name of his famous wife, not to mention her getting in the way of his philandering and the tours tailed off. Then in 1932, in a bizarre pre-echo of what would be her eventual fate, Alma founded and led an all-woman orchestra, "The Vienna Waltzing Girls". They were a big draw with audiences. Leaving aside the fact that this was a top class string orchestra, the fact that they were also pretty girls in flouncy frocks guaranteed attention and Alma had a winner.

Her family was Jewish but Arnold Rosé cared little about religion. Like many assimilated Jews of his musical circle his art was his god. Though baptized as a Protestant and then converted to Catholicism when she married Prihoda, Alma also appeared to be of the same mind as her father. But this was now Europe in the 1930s, Nazism was spreading, anti-Jewish laws were soon enacting the resurgent anti-Semitism always beneath the surface in Europe in the first half of the 20th century and the Nazis determined who was Jewish and who was not. In the end "The Waltzing Girls" found their dates gradually being canceled causing them finally to fetch up penniless in Munich in 1933 where Prihoda had to pay their debts to get them back to Vienna. Two years later Prihoda and Alma divorced and new Nazi racial laws meant the days of "The Waltzing Girls" were numbered. When Hitler turned the screw on Austria, Jewish musicians found it harder and harder to perform and by 1938 the group disbanded completely. Alma still worked in Holland but the sky was darkening and she decided to get her aging parents out of Europe altogether.

Enlisting the help of her old friend Bruno Walter, she got her father to England just after the death of her mother. Alma even came to London with the old man but then fatally went back to Holland to carry on working as a virtuoso, even staying when the Nazis came, playing in private homes to earn enough to live. When the Nazis inevitably decided to clear Holland of all Jews she tried to cheat the SS but, in the end, while attempting escape to Switzerland, she was betrayed, captured and sent to Auschwitz. Had it not been for her musical ability she would have become victim of the medical experiments of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. But fate had other ideas. Saved by her name and talent she was appointed director of the recently formed women's orchestra in the camp.

For ten months she shaped a large number of starved and terrified girls into a brilliant orchestra using whatever talent they had in whatever instruments they could play on. Mozart played on accordions and mandolins, as well as violins and pianos, for example. So impressed were the camp masters by Alma's exacting standards that visiting Nazi leaders were given special performances by this remarkable ensemble whose fame spread through the hierarchy of the "new order". By doing so Alma undoubtedly saved the lives of her players because if they played and played well they would not be sent to the gas, or Dr. Mengele. It was as simple as that. That Alma herself did not survive the camp with the fifty or so women she inspired and who owed her their lives was probably due to one of the many ironies that cut through this story. Among "privileges" granted her and her musicians by the camp for what they did was better food rations. At a special dinner given for her by Nazi guards she seems to have contracted botulism from a contaminated can of meat and died from it in April 1944. One final, appalling irony then remained. One of the doctors who tried to save her was Josef Mengele himself. After her death, after she was laid out honorably on a catafalque, he came to see the woman whose music making had moved him to tears many times. A singer with the orchestra, Fania Fénelon described the visit: "Elegant, distinguished, he took a few steps, then stopped by the wall where we had hung up Alma's arm band and baton. Respectfully, heels together, he stood quietly for a moment, then said in a penetrating tone, 'In memoriam.'" That is one of many contradictions you are forced to face in the course of this book.

In "Playing for Time" Fania Fénelon wrote of her own time as a member of the women's orchestra in Auschwitz, leading to her survival. But Fénelon had entered the camp after Alma Rosé and came to see her as little more than a tyrant and so left a very unsympathetic view that was skewed and biased. For example, Fénelon knew nothing of what Alma had been through prior to Auschwitz and, crucially, her early days in the camp. Especially she knew nothing of Alma's courage in standing up to the SS with the certainty that whatever she did would save many lives. But you can read it all now because Richard Newman was a friend of Alma's brother Alfred who, in Canada long after the war ended, discovered a large collection of Alma's letters that paint a different portrait from that of Fénelon. Newman also heard from Alfred Rosé's widow a story that an Auschwitz survivor that his sister had indeed saved the lives of many Jewish and non-Jewish girls in Auschwitz by her courage. And this is the touchstone for this book in which Richard Newman with Karen Kirtley set out to put the record straight about their subject at last. Their attention to detail, thorough research over many years and painstaking zeal to piece together the tatters of evidence that remain to get as close to the truth as possible is as compelling and moving as the story that emerges. Their detailing of daily life in the corner of Auschwitz that the women occupied is especially impressive in its grotesque detail. This is not hagiography, though. It's a rounded, warts and all portrait of a life whose appalling end inspires as well as saddens beyond words. Not an easy book to read, principally because you know from the start how it will end, throwing the carefree glitter of the earlier episodes into tragic relief. But read it you should.

A true story brilliantly told where music comes to mean the difference between life and death and where life is stranger and crueler than fiction could ever be.

Tony Duggan

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board.  Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.This is the only part of MusicWeb for which you will have to register.

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: