Alma Rosé (1906-1944) was an Austrian violinist of Jewish descent and the niece of composer Gustav Mahler. An extraordinarily talented performer, Rosé had a promising musical career until she was deported to Auschwitz in 1943. Upon her arrival, she was sent to the infamous Block 10 for medical experimentation and torture. A Nazi guard soon recognized Rosé as a famous violinist and had her perform for some of the other guards to prove her talent. They eventually had Rosé assume leadership of an all-women’s orchestra composed of prisoners in the camp. Through performing and expanding the orchestra to as many members as possible, Rosé was able to spare her own life as well as the lives of many other women in Auschwitz. Though she eventually died of sudden illness after almost a year in the camp, most of the women in her orchestra lived to see the end of the war.
I found this story to be horrifying—not only because of my Jewish identity, but also from the perspective of a musician. The idea of being forced to perform under the threat of death is unimaginable, and it is disturbing that Rosé’s artistic talent was twisted into a tool for survival.
Alma is a musical biography of Alma Rosé’s story. The electronic accompaniment is primarily made up of her only existing recording: a performance of J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins featuring her and her father as the two soloists. The recording is twisted, expanded, and often transformed beyond recognition to create a multitude of textures that serve as the foundation for this piece. Other sounds, such as sirens and explosions, loosely relate to the time period of World War II. The solo violin part floats over the top of these textures, sometimes oblivious to its tumultuous surroundings and sometimes directly responding to them. My hope is that this piece will both celebrate the achievements of a life cut short and commemorate the artistry and soul that was unjustly exploited.