The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on March 25th, 2014

Often when we become caught up in the whirlwind of daily activity, we have a tendency to take our precious lives for granted. Our dogged preoccupation with the details of our personal struggles as they play themselves out can blind us to the inconspicuous miracles that surround us. Small things, like the intake of freshly-minted air in the early morning, birdsong, the colors and fragrances of Spring, the blue of the sky, or encountering an unexpected smile. Volumes have been written about the passing pleasures that we fail to acknowledge as we hasten to get on with life and how our existence is diminished by missing them. Music is one of those small things to many people, inadvertently taken for granted in a world in which everyone has constant and instant access to it via electronic media.

I was again reminded of all this when I read last February that the pianist Alice Sommer-Herz had passed away at the advanced age of 111 years. The passing was partly considered noteworthy simply because of her age, but mainly because she was the oldest living Holocaust survivor. She was a woman who had every reason to be bitter about at least some aspects of the trajectory of her life, the worst of which involved her imprisonment in one of the Nazi death camps during World War II. Yet, although the experience lent an inevitable gravity to her personality for the rest of her life, it did not eclipse her appreciation for the “small things” ---- especially music. But then, I would argue that in fact music is really no small thing at all, and when you listen to her speak you will understand why she would wholeheartedly agree.

When I was in music school, both my piano and my conducting professors were Hungarians who had endured terrible suffering during the Holocaust years as the result of their own imprisonment in the death camps and through the loss of close family and friends who did not survive the ordeal. They rarely spoke of it, but when they did I could feel the weight of the atmosphere in the room shift from that of the everyday to a crushing sobriety at the recollection of those events. My piano professor told me that amidst the pain, hopelessness, and despair, the only thing that continued to sustain him during that impossibly difficult time was the music he retained in his memory. As he put it, “They (the Nazis) took away my freedom, my health, my family, my hopes for the future, my possessions, and they were entirely prepared to take away even my life. The only thing they couldn’t touch was the music that still resonated in my imagination as a result of all the repertoire I had learned. I have a photographic memory that enables me to “see” musical scores in my imagination and hear them with my inner ear. If it hadn’t been for the profound beauty and inspiration contained in the works of Bach, Beethoven, and others with which I occupied my attention during every available moment, I know I wouldn’t have made it. The music encouraged me, heartened me to endure, and reminded me that better things had been and might still be possible.”

Alice Sommer-Herz suffered these same rigors, and for her, too, music was her primary salvation. As you listen to her speak, it quickly becomes clear that music, particularly music that communicates great beauty and noble sentiments, is no small thing. Throughout history, many have counted on its inspirational qualities to help carry them through difficult times. But my hope is that it does not require hard times for us to be responsive to great music. It just requires not taking it for granted. Alice Sommer-Herz moved on from the difficult days of World War II and lived a long, fulfilling life, at the core of which was an abiding belief that great music points the way to those things that are most important in life --- love, generosity, beauty, self-expression, and a faith in the ultimate “rightness” that lies behind all of life.

Posted in MUSIC    Tagged with Alice Sommer-Herz, music, classical music, The Holocaust, inspiration


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