Mezzo Alert: von Otter and Terezín


[Anne Sofie von Otter. – Photo Credit: Mats Bäcker]

Anne Sofie von Otter has released many albums and certainly has a few more up her sleeve. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to know that I own most of them. I couldn’t choose a favorite (although I am very, very, very fond of the Mahler/Zemlinsky when it comes to solo recitals), but the most important, most touching and most impacting recording that von Otter has ever made is, in my book, her Theresienstadt album.

It’s been on my mind a lot these days with the holocaust memorial days. I freely admit that there are many days where I don’t listen to it, not because of the voice, but in a way because of how it is voiced: the warmth, the unpretentiousness and the comprehension of von Otter’s interpretation are intricately linked with the how the music came to be. Listening to this recording leaves me uneasy in the best of senses – so very aware of the horrors, so humbled by the humanity and beauty of the music, so utterly unable to grasp this context look at it from a comfortable distance.

I always cry when I listen to the songs, and it’s not the kind of culinary tears one cries during a Verdi opera. It’s a helpless reaction at bearing witness to humanity lost, and humanity found.

The voices of Theresienstadt and their musical and human legacy couldn’t have a better spokesperson than von Otter, who – along with her colleagues from the recording, likeDaniel Hope and Bengt Forsberg, seems to have revisited some of the material. There is a concert performance with Hope and von Otter moderating airing at the Bayrischer Rundfunk tomorrow, 7.05 p.m. (GMT+1), and special feature with interviews and background information on music in Theresienstadt (featuring two survivors and Daniel Hope), starting 9.03 p.m. (GMT+1). Livestream access here.

Reading the announcement, I remembered an interview with Daniel Hope in last year’s Oct/Nov edition of “Crescendo” (p. 50; I just looked it up again), which is one of those free classical/jazz review magazines,where he wrote a column on being able to interview Theresienstadt survivor and pianist Alice Herz-Sommer and also mentions that there is a documentary in the works, presumably including not only Herz-Sommer and Hope, but also Forsberg and von Otter. The BR feature tomorrow seems to be linked to it; I’ll keep my ears open regarding a release date.

Tune in, even if you won’t sleep afterwards. Most of the composers and original musicians may be long gone, but the least we can do is listen to their voices and keep their memory alive.

(and I apologize for the PSA tone, but this week tends to get to me. I’m not sure whether it’s my being German, or having visited Thersienstadt as a teenager, or my particular family history (as discussed in the prologue to “Troubled Passage”), but this is an issue where I can’t help but be involved.)

6 thoughts on “Mezzo Alert: von Otter and Terezín”

  1. Danke for the link in order to be able to listening to it “live stream”. It is a very moving music. I’m really enjoying it.


  2. To me, the Ilse Weber remains the hardest to listen to – because it’s so beautiful, but listened to in context of her brave, heartbreaking biography, it is overhwleming, in every sense.


    1. Do you happen to know Ilse Weber’s “Letter To My Son” ?

      – sorry for the poor translation. The original is in German.
      The mutual language of both, offenders and victims … :

      My dear boy, three years ago today
      You were sent into the world alone.
      I still see you, at the station in Prague,
      How you cry from the compartment, and hesitate –
      You lean your brown head against me
      And you beg: let me stay with you!!

      That we let you go, seemed hard for you —
      You were just eight, and small and delicate.
      And as we left for home without you,
      I felt, my heart would explode
      And nevertheless I am happy that you’re not here.

      The stranger who is taking you in her family
      Will surely go to Heaven.
      I bless her with every breath I take —
      Your love for her will never be enough.

      It has become so murky around us here,
      Everything has been taken away from us.
      House, home, not even a corner of it left,
      Not a piece of what we loved and prized.

      Even the toy train which belonged to you
      And your brother’s little rocking horse…
      They did not even let us keep our names:
      We walk through the streets marked like cattle:
      With numbers around our necks.

      That would not be so bad,
      If I were with your father in the same house!
      Not even the little one may stay with me…
      I was never so alone in my life.

      You are still small, and you hardly can understand…
      So many are pressed together in one room.
      Body against body, you carry the suffering of the other,
      And feel the full pain of your own loneliness.

      My boy, are you healthy and learning your studies?
      No one sings you to sleep now.

      Sometimes in the night it seems
      That I feel you next to me.

      Just think, when we see each other again
      We will not understand each other.
      You’ve long ago forgotten your German in Sweden,
      and I, I can’t speak Swedish at all.
      Won’t that be strange?

      If only it already were,then I’d suddenly have a grown up son…

      Do you still play with tin soldiers?
      I am living in a * real * barrack,
      With dark walls and dreary rooms!

      There’s no sun, nor leaves and trees.
      I’m a nurse here for the children
      And it’s nice, to help and comfort them.

      Sometimes I stay awake at night,
      the little lamp doesn’t give much light,
      I sit and guard their rest,
      And to me every child is a little piece of “you”.

      My thoughts then fly to you
      and nevertheless, I am happy that you are not here.
      I would gladly suffer a thousand torments,
      If I could pay for your childhood happiness that way…

      It is late now and I want to sleep.
      If I could only see you for a moment!

      But – I can do nothing except writing letters,
      Full of longing, never to be sent… .


      1. thank you for the translation.
        And yes, this is exactly what I mean. It’s unimaginable what she went through, and yet she remained brave, and human, and in an inhuman time and place at that.


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