Exhibit revives memories of family, music and war

Alfred Rosé Collection // Special to Western NewsThey were the finest violinists of their time – until the Holocaust stole their lives. Now an exhibit at The D.B. Weldon Library is highlighting the lives and legacy of Alma Rosé and her father Arnold Rosé.

They were two of Austria’s brightest lights, the toast of Europe’s classical musical scene.

He was Arnold Rosé: concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Court Musician to the Emperor, a virtuoso held in such esteem that a patron countess gave him a Stradivarius violin for his 50th birthday.

She was Alma Rosé: Arnold’s daughter, accomplished violinist, exacting conductor, founder of a women’s orchestra that played to sold-out venues throughout Europe.

But as war thrummed its ominous beat through Europe, neither their achievements nor their acclaim – nor even their very humanity – were enough to prevail against Nazi Germany’s plans to remove Jews from the planet.

Alma was captured and taken to Auschwitz death camp, where she was ordered to lead its women’s orchestra and where, in the shadows of its crematoria, Auschwitz took her life.

Arnold died heartbroken and in exile in England in 1946.

Only the violins remain.

Those four haunting words are the title of a new exhibition in the Spencer Gallery at the D.B. Weldon Library that examines the lives and music of Arnold Rosé and Alma Rosé.

Drawn largely from resources within Western’s Gustav Mahler-Alfred Rosé collection and first exhibited at the House of Austrian History in Vienna last year, the exhibition is a tribute both to what the Rosés created and to what the world lost.

The multi-faceted exhibition includes a concert on Jan. 17 by Magisterra Soloists, featuring music by composers killed or displaced by the Nazi regime, and a panel discussion on Jan. 28 (the day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day) about music, war and the Holocaust.

The centerpiece of the visual display is a larger-than-life reproduction of a 1936 promotional poster of Alma playing her Guadagnini violin. Photos and other documentation – placed on black music stands and arranged as if mourning a  vanished orchestra – tell the father-and-daughter story.

“In a sense, you’re seeing Alma conducting from the podium,” Brian McMillan, Director of Western’s Music Library. “All these empty stands, they evoke all those musicians who lost their lives.”

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Notable as much for its singular details as for its reminder of the untold constellations of talent extinguished in the Holocaust, their story is equal parts brilliance and tragedy.

You can hear brilliance in the father-daughter 1928 recording of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in d minor – Arnold taking the part of first violin and Alma playing second, a musical dialogue with each voice pushing the other to excellence.

And the tragedy becomes visceral in documents telling how the family traded international acclaim for a longshot at survival.

Weeks after the 1938 death of his wife Justine (who was a sister to composer Gustav Mahler), a grieving Arnold fled with Alma to England, while Alma’s composer/conductor brother Alfred found refuge in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Alma left England for the Netherlands in a desperate bid to earn enough money from performances to stave off destitution for herself and her father.

But she was captured by German occupiers. In July 1943, Alma became one of 1,000 souls crammed into Transport 57’s freight cars en route to Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

There, the commandant recognized Alma as a musician, and she was ordered to conduct the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz.

Their average age was 19; their musical ability was limited by inexperience and deprivation; and they rehearsed 10 hours a day to achieve a proficiency that might win them brief reprieve from their Nazi tormentors.

Alfred Rosé Collection // Special to Western News“Don’t forget me.” Alma Rosé writes in a postcard to her brother Alfred in Ohio in 1940, after she had fled to England from the dangers of Austria.

The orchestra played as the death trains arrived. They played during prisoners’ daily march to work. They played for their captors’ entertainment and for propaganda newsreels that disguised the horror and purpose of the death camps.

“How inhumane it must have been that music was used in a concentration camp to fool people into thinking this was a humane place,” McMillan said. “Yet there also must have been ways their music could sustain people through the worst that humanity could offer. One can only hope that Alma Rosé found some hope and purpose in doing the best she could in an extreme situation.”

She was exacting, demanding, relentless. She was also compassionate and savvy, selecting for the orchestra many Jewish non-musicians who otherwise would have been first sent to the gas chamber.

The skills she demanded of the ragtag orchestra no doubt saved many musicians’ lives, the late London scholar and Rosé family friend Richard Newman (whose wife Dr. Jean Newman is a professor emeritus in Modern Languages) argued in his definitive biography Alma Rosé: From Vienna to Auschwitz.

Alma Rosé died of a sudden illness, likely food poisoning, at Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944.

In 1946, Arnold Rosé died, still in England. For a time, he had re-formed his famous Rosé Quartet, but he lost his heart for performance after learning of his daughter’s death. He had been invited at war’s end to return to his former post at the Vienna Philharmonic, but he refused, saying he would not play with musicians who had supported the Nazi regime.

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Alfred Rosé Collection // Special to Western NewsAlfred Rosé received a telegram in mid-1945 that his sister Alma Rosé had died in Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Notification came more than a year after her death.

Alfred Rosé, the family’s lone survivor, made his way to London and to Western, where he became a professor of music and taught until two years before his death in 1975.

It was Alfred and his wife, Maria C. Rosé, who donated the extensive Gustav Mahler-Alfred Rosé Collection of letters, musical scores, mementoes and memorabilia to Western.

During tours of the Music Library, McMillan always notes that Western houses the largest Mahler collection in the world – the definitive resource for any serious Mahler scholar.

But these days, it is the Rosé family narrative that is driving most of the new research, he said.

“Alma Rosé was something of a footnote (in the Mahler story) and as time has passed, interest in her has certainly waxed. The interest we get now about Alma Rosé is more than we get about Mahler,” he said.

Today, Arnold Rosé’s 1718 Mysa Stradavarius violin is held in public trust in the Austrian National Bank of instruments and is lent to the country’s finest violinists.

Alma Rosé’s 1757 Guadagnini, which she had safeguarded in the Netherlands before her capture, was returned to her father in 1945. The violin is now in private hands and continues to be a prized performance instrument.

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Debora Van Brenk/Western NewsThe musical legacy and the tragic deaths of Alma Rosé and her father Arnold Rosé of Austria are highlighted in an exhibition called Only The Violins Remain, at The D.B. Weldon Library until Feb. 28.

Alma and Arnold Rosé: Only the Violins Remain Exhibit
Jan. 7-Feb. 28
Spencer Gallery in D.B. Weldon Library

Recovered Voices Concert: Music silenced by the Nazis
10:30-11:30 a.m. Jan. 17
D.B. Weldon Library Atrium

Music and Terror: A Panel Discussion of Music, War, and the Holocaust
9:30-11 a.m. Jan. 28
D.B. Weldon Library Atrium