In 1940, 52-year-old composer Rosy Wertheim saw her new piano concerto performed in The Hague. That May, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands.
Within two years, Wertheim’s rights – and the rights of her fellow Dutch Jews – would be severely curtailed, then eliminated entirely. Initially this meant relocating Jewish musicians to the back rows of the storied Concertgebouw Orchestra. But by May of 1941 it meant firing them outright. (By 1944, the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s harpist, Rosa Spier, was imprisoned in Theresienstadt.)
In late 1941, the Nazi Kultuurkamer was established in the Netherlands. In order to work, artists, actors, authors, and musicians were forced to pledge written loyalty to the Nazis. Censorship would follow if deemed necessary. Wertheim subsequently withdrew from music entirely and escaped to the countryside, where she went into hiding. She was unsure if she’d ever emerge.
Thereafter, live music hardly played a role in my life. Occasionally I played for a housekeeper, a nurse and a gardener…“Rosy Wertheim”, Forbidden Music Regained
She waited there for a chance to escape the silence.
Rosalie Marie Wertheim was born on 19 February 1888 in Amsterdam, the eldest of Johannes and Adriana Wertheim’s four children. Johannes was a stockbroker, and the family was wealthy and well-respected. The Wertheimpark, the oldest park in the city, was actually named after her grandfather Abraham. (It is now the location of an Auschwitz memorial, constructed of broken mirrors and containing the cremains of Holocaust victims.)
The Wertheims felt it was important to employ their wealth to better the lives of Amsterdam’s less fortunate. The fountain in the park contains inscriptions describing the philanthropic character of Rosy’s late grandfather: “Helper of the poor / Officer of the weak / Man’s friend / A voice that evokes life / Supporter of artists / Impetus for the sluggish / Mourned over by city and country.” That spirit of public service would prove to be hereditary.
Growing up, the house was full of art and music. (Adriana Wertheim was both a painter and a musician; clearly talent ran in the family.) Rosy would later recall playing creative games with her brother:
Bram and I were just nine and ten, when we constructed a glockenspiel of the various glasses from our dollhouse; we filled these with water to different levels to tune them. Then my brother tapped the glasses with a bone spoon and I accompanied him on the piano. My first composition was a little dance for this glockenspiel ensemble. We fantasized a lot together, devised complete operas! He sang and I played piano.“Rosy Wertheim”, Forbidden Music Regained
As a child, Rosy hated practicing the piano (she “preferred improvising”). That led to an interest in composing, but she quickly ran into a brick wall, realizing that she’d need extensive training in harmony and theory in order to give full voice to her musical ideas. Perhaps consequently, as a teenager, her professional ambitions didn’t lay so much in the direction of music; instead, she decided she wanted to become a social worker, or at least pursue some kind of career that would involve caring for the poor. But her parents dissuaded her (“they didn’t want me to be confronted with unpleasant things,” she said), and they opted to send her to a boarding school in Neuilly, France, where she continued her piano lessons.
But her fascination with fixing society’s ills proved more than just a teenage phase. After she returned to Amsterdam, she attended the School of Social Sciences and enrolled in a two-year program where she learned about poverty and politics. She also continued studying music, and composed. Her singing teacher, a woman named Dora Zweers-de Louw, brought one of Wertheim’s songs to her husband, who just happened to be an important Dutch composer. Bernard Zweers had attended the Berlin premiere of the Ring des Nibelungen, and, in his words, “returned” to the Netherlands “a full-blooded Wagnerian,” but he also believed in the importance of creating music with a uniquely Dutch character, and he encouraged his students to embrace their own unique styles.
Wertheim was intrigued by this more independent-minded approach. She began studying composition more seriously and pursuing her developing interest in modern French music, encouraged by another teacher named Samuel Dresden. Her work began taking on tinges of Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Fauré, Stravinsky, and Les Six.
In 1912, at the age of twenty-four, Wertheim earned a degree from the Netherlands Society of Music. She was among the first Dutch women composers to receive such a comprehensive musical education. After graduation, she taught piano and voice at the Amsterdam Music School.
She may have begun her career as a teacher, but her professional life evolved into something much broader over the next fifteen years. She taught at the Amsterdam Music Lyceum in addition to composing and conducting there. One of her songs – Neutraal, on a text by Francois Pauwels – became well-known, and it even led to a May 1915 performance at the Concertgebouw featuring the voices of six hundred child singers.
Wertheim soon discovered that she could combine her two great passions by using music to improve the lives of the marginalized. She taught piano to poor children and conducted choirs made up of singers from disadvantaged (and often Jewish) neighborhoods. “These activities were most satisfying because I could ventilate my musical talent and my social inclinations,” she later remembered. “It was a big workload but it gave me great fulfillment, also because my musical friends supported me.”
But by 1929, the year she turned 41, she was ready for changes and new challenges. So she moved to Paris, the sparkling home of so many of her musical heroes. The experience changed her life. “Eventually, I became attracted to newer sounds and colors, and varied rhythms. Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky were a revelation, and of course my own compositions were influenced by them for a time.”
The Paris sojourn, which lasted from 1929 to 1935, proved dazzling. “Paris was an enormous boost, the most interesting years of my life! I worked hard and met many musicians and artists. At that time I composed a sonata for violin, a string quartet, a divertimento for chamber orchestra, some songs and other works.”
To support herself financially, or maybe just because she enjoyed doing it, she began writing about the Parisian music scene for Dutch audiences in the socialist newspaper Het Volk. She also studied with a teacher named Louis Aubert (the dedicatee of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales), who helped to cement her French-inspired musical voice.
Her Parisian salon soon became well-known. Musical stars of the early 1930s showed up to talk, debate, and exchange ideas, including Milhaud, Messiaen, Tailleferre, Ibert, Honegger, and even her dear friend Elsa Barraine (who I recently wrote about on the blog).
In 1935, ever the lifelong learner, she relocated to Vienna to study counterpoint with Karl Weigl, a former classmate of Webern. But she bristled against the Austro-Germanic music of the era, which she found incompatible with her own personal style. The deteriorating political climate proved unnerving, too. In 1936 she left Europe for the United States, not to study with anyone, but to promote her own work.
At the time, America was digging itself out of the Great Depression. Many Americans were taking advantage of government programs meant to put them back to work, and composers and musicians were no exception. The Federal Music Project and the Works Progress Administration had teamed up to create a unique program called the New York Composers’ Forum, which ran for five seasons, from 1935 to 1940. The Composers’ Forum ensured that the works of up-and-coming American composers could be performed and championed.
There was just one (fascinating) caveat: a main purpose of the program was to cement bonds between performers and audiences, so Q&A sessions followed the Composers’ Forum concerts. This format resulted in composers hearing audiences’ verbal critiques spoken directly to their faces. Not surprisingly, a lot of the critique was harsh, especially when composers dared to present more dissonant or “difficult” works. (Also not surprisingly, this method of feedback led to a steady stream of overtly sexist comments from audience members.)
Despite the potential downsides, Wertheim apparently found the prospect of these performances enticing. She participated in several, garnering appreciative comments for some of her “easier” works and audience pushback against more difficult ones. She also used her time in America to lecture about music and witness various American premieres of her works.
In 1937, with the shadows of war creeping over Europe, she left America for Amsterdam. Just as she was re-establishing herself in Dutch musical life (the 1940 performance of her piano concerto in The Hague was a particular highlight), WWII broke out. After the Nazi invasion, life for Wertheim – as an unmarried woman, a professional composer, a feminist, and a Jew, even a religiously unobservant one – became increasingly untenable.
She resisted in the best way she knew how. Not only did she hide Jews in her basement, but she gave concerts there, too. At these (literally) underground performances, she ensured that work by banned Jewish composers continued to be heard and disseminated. (Her friend Elsa Barraine was doing a similar thing in occupied France.) It is staggering to contemplate the conviction these women had in the power and necessity of music.
In 1942 Wertheim faced the Kultuurkamer quandary and ultimately refused to sign. Consequently she went into hiding that September, sacrificing her career to protect her life. During this terrifying time, she heard no music performed at all. She had to content herself with the fact that her work was being performed elsewhere, in places where she could not go.
The human cost of the Holocaust was obviously incalculable, but so was the artistic cost. Rosy Wertheim’s was only one of countless careers hampered or cut short entirely by the rise of fascism.
By the time the war was over, over three-quarters of the Jewish Dutch population was dead. Many of Wertheim’s friends and colleagues were, too. But by a stroke of luck, Wertheim herself survived.
She seems to have approached the postwar world with a resolve to recover: “The Germans robbed me of all my possessions and books,” she explained after the war, “but now they are gone and I will try to make something of my life, at least what’s left of it.”
After the war ended, she took a job as a music teacher in the town of Laren, near where she had been hiding, ready to make the most of her new circumstances. But tragically, ill health thwarted her creative comeback. She was diagnosed with cancer and passed away on 27 May 1949.
Despite Rosy Wertheim’s output and her presence in important musical milieus, large holes in her biography still exist. Many of her works remain unpublished and are archived at the Dutch Music Institute in The Hague. They wait there to escape the silence, just as their creator ultimately – fortunately – did.
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