Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.
Hilde Somer and her immense musical talent was “discovered” while fleeing Hitler’s Vienna with her family on an ocean liner bound for the US in 1938. Then an 8-year-old refugee with an uncertain future she would become a vibrant pianist and legendary supporter of contemporary composition.
A child piano prodigy, Somer began her musical education under her mother’s tutelage and continued with a retinue of recently arrived Jewish immigrant talent starting with Polish Jewish pianist, (and former student of Franz Liszt), Moritz Rosenthal before she entered Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music to study with Bohemian Jewish pianist and fellow refugee, Rudolf Serkin. (Additionally, she was known to have taken private classes with acclaimed pianists such as Wanda Landowska and Claudio Arrau.)
While Somer played standard classical romantic pieces — she was to become known as a major supporter and performer of 20th century compositions. Her contemporary repertoire was wide ranging from Villa-Lobos to Copland. She is recorded performing Janacek among others, and is known to have premiered piano concertos by cutting-edge composing artists of the 1960s such as Henry Brant.
Her deep engagement with and support of contemporary musical artistic expression in the classical field, extended to the historic avant garde. A well known performance in 1970 of noted early Russian modernist composer Scriabin’s work to the accompaniment of colored laser lights— as indicated in his directions — has been described as psychedelic. Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, teacher of noted tango composer Astor Piazzolla, even dedicated his Second Piano Concerto to Somer.
With a body of recordings as well as a noted career as recitalist and soloist in America and Europe — Somer had journeyed far and wide blazing a unique musical career from that day in 1938 aboard the French liner Normandie. It was then, before she first ever set foot on the Lower East Side that Jewish New York found her, as beloved Loisida performer Eddie Cantor discovered her while he was arranging a shipboard concert. Her genius sound and her devotion to the experimental and the modern faded out completely in 1979, when at the young age of 49 she died abroad in the Bahamas, after a reported long illness.