Remarkable Women of Vienna
I am a Canadian-born opera singer, entrenched in the music of the great classical composers. So naturally I am drawn to the city of Vienna. During my happy relationship with the city, I have become familiar with details of the lives of some remarkable women in her history. Let us consider some of them as we celebrate women this March.
Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914)—She was the first woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 for her untiring efforts to eliminate war from mankind’s set of options to solve political and religious differences. Born into a family of impoverished nobility, her fervent social conscience, lead her to write “Lay Down Your Arms”. The anti-war novel was a sensation. Its translation into forty-three languages made her famous the world over. During her extensive travels she even made two lengthy trips across the United States. Coincidentally, she had briefly been secretary to Mr. Alfred Nobel many years earlier but at that time it was love for a Viennese man that compelled her to leave Nobel’s employ in Paris and return hastily to Vienna. For all her efforts, her death on June 21, 1914, seven days before the shots at Sarajevo started the mobilization to World War I, presents humanity a stunning irony.
Anna Sacher, (1859-1930) — The simple young woman from Vienna’s working-class Second District, was the early executive director and CEO of the Hotel Sacher, Vienna’s number one hotel. With her inordinate energy and latent management skills she made her late husband’s hotel internationally famous, energetically marketing the Sachertorte into a gourmet favorite. Furthermore, she brought the tantalizing “chambre separée” or “separate room” to the hotel, whose idea originated in Paris. She smoked cigars, adored and bred Belgian bulldogs, often provoked the intimidation of her guests, which included an entire world of celebrities, diplomats, royalty, religious and leaders of culture.
Alma Rosé (1906-1944) — She was a violinist, born into musical aristocracy, her mother, the sister of Gustav Mahler, her father Arnold Rosé, one of the most impressive violinists in Central Europe and founder of the legendary Rosé String Quartet. After her failed marriage to a Czech violin superstar Vasa Prihoda, who expected her to relinquish her musical ambitions for traditional domestic life, she established and managed the “Vienna Waltzing Girls” that became the toast of Central Europe. It presented good music with femininity, humor and first-rate musicianship. Following Hitler’s invasion of Austria, she was caught by the Nazis and transported to Auschwitz. When the commandants learned that one of their prisoners was the famous Alma Rosé, they pressed her into service, as conductor of the camp-women’s orchestra. Through that, she was able to save the lives of many other women, some of whom are still alive today and honor her memory. Her sudden death in 1944 under mysterious circumstances is attributed most probably to typhus.
Fritzi Massary (1882-1969) — Born into a middle-class Jewish family, with her combination of irreverent Yiddish humor, and feminine elegance, she represented the “new” woman and became the greatest star of Operetta in Berlin and Vienna until she was forced to leave Europe in 1938. She was muse to many of the famous composers whose operettas we still love today. With her musical nuance, diction, sighs and asides rarely heard from less-daring performers, she took the stage and is still revered as the greatest of Europe’s performers from the era of the flowering of romantic musical theater. At the time of her death she was living within the rarified community of German and Austrian cultural ex-patriots in Beverly Hills.
Alma Mahler (1879-1964) — We know her as the widow of composer of Gustav Mahler and the embodiment of the notion of “muse” to great men. She had an indefinable capacity to seduce and encourage men of genius. As a 22-year-old inexperienced but formidably intelligent woman, she married the 41-year-old irascible composer and music director of the Vienna State Opera who proceeded to crush her musical ambitions. After Mahler’s death in 1911, she acquitted herself singly and enthusiastically around Vienna. She was briefly married to Walter Gropius, German architect, founder of the Bauhaus School of Art and Architecture, whose influence we see around us even today. At fifty, she married the writer/poet Franz Werfel, and it was after their dramatic escape on foot, over the Pyrenees Mountains from France into Spain that the Werfels finally found safety and freedom in Los Angeles. Werfel wrote his internationally famous novel “The Song of Bernadette,” recalling their escape route during the traumatic days he and Alma were awaiting exit visas from France. After Werfel’s death in 1945, she relocated to Manhattan and spent the remainder of her 84 years reliving her colorful cultural and romantic history for eager young admirers.#
Barbara Lowin is an opera singer who teaches voice at The City College of New York.