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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

Emmy Rubensohn – A Cultural History of Arts Patronage amidst Persecution and Emigration

The Museen im Grassi in Leipzig, Germany, will host an exhibit titled "Emmy Rubensohn! Networker and Music Patron – from Leipzig to New York” from June 25 to October 8, 2023. It follows the life of the Jewish, German-born Emmy Rubensohn (1884-1961) at the crossroads of art and the historical turmoil of the 20th century.

Tracing Rubensohn's German cultural heritage and passionate support for the arts and the artists she admired, worked with, and befriended, the exhibit also provides – documented in Rubensohn's testimonial guestbook - a slice of the international cultural history of the performing artists of her time.

Curated by the musicologist Prof. Dr. Matthias Henke and the art historian Rachel Stern of the Fritz Ascher Society for Persecuted, Ostracized, and Banned Art in New York, the exhibition is organized by the GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde, the GRASSI Museum für Musikinstrumente, and The Fritz Ascher Society.

The exhibition's poster is based on Emmy Rubensohn's wedding photo, the only existing photo of her. (Collection Otto Rubensohn, Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Gifted by Fortunatus Schnyder-Rubensohn. Seen in front of the Market Place from 1890 (Marktplatz) in Weimar.

The exhibit goes beyond the 2021 presentation at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, titled: "Curtain Up for Emmy Rubensohn - music patron from Leipzig," which was cut short due to the pandemic. It has been expanded with new documents and artifacts and is now displayed alongside and in the context of the GRASSI museums' collections. It offers an extensive compilation of photos and personal correspondence accompanying Rubensohn's narrative during her life's passage through the end of the German Kaiser Reich, the Weimar Republic, Nazi persecution, her emigration to Shanghai, and then New York.

Photo: Grassi Museen Leipzig.

Despite facing dispossession, persecution, displacement, and emigration, she stayed committed to the arts and the artists she befriended. This passion – perhaps the most vital and only consistent part of her life – served as her guiding force, motivating her to become a highly energetic and effective networking pioneer for the ages. Without drawing attention to herself, she actively sought out new opportunities for the artists she had become friendly with. She also had her own unique ideas for commissions and collaborations and worked tirelessly to connect, support, and finance the artists and their creative endeavors.

Growing up in the home of entrepreneurs Wilhelm and Auguste Frank with a sophisticated education ignited her passion. Emmy enjoyed attending the various concert programs in Weimar, especially with its renowned Gewandhaus Orchestra, and collected autographs from some of the prominent performers.

After she married Ernst Rubensohn in 2007, she extended personal invitations to many artists to her home in Kassel, warmly welcoming conductors, composers, and artists she befriended. Among her esteemed guests were renowned figures such as conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Walter Braunfels, composer Ernst Krenek, painter Oskar Kokoschka, and sculptor Benno Elkaan.

During the hyperinflation in Germany, artists desperately needed patrons to support their work. The Rubensohns lived comfortably in a large house, happy to extend their prosperity to the artists they felt at home with. Emmy had a keen eye for talent and believed that art was an essential aspect of life.

During the increasing isolation and threats against Jews in Germany in the early 1930s, followed by the abrogation of their political, legal, and civil rights after the radical takeover of the Nazi regime in 1933, Rubensohn organized concerts for the Jewish Cultural Association.

Until the Night of Broken Glass in November 1938 (Kristall Nacht), the communal association organized 8,457 programs, including lectures, concerts, plays, art exhibits, and operas.

When German society stopped its previous assimilation of Jews and implemented a ban on their employment, Jews were not allowed to participate in cultural events, and Jewish performers were prohibited from performing on German stages, thus relying on a solely Jewish audience.

Photo: Program of the Jüdischer Kulturbund Kassel with Joseph Rosenstock und Wilhelm Steinberg (Leo Baeck Institute New York) for two pianos. Joseph Rosenstock, a conductor, founded the Jewish Cultural Association's own orchestra.

Rapidly progressing in their plans to rid Germany of its Jews, the Nazi regime forced Jewish business owners to foreclose, and losing their livelihood, the Rubensohn family had to leave their home. In fear for their lives, they escaped, first to Berlin and then – have the only country that did not require visas in 1940 - to Shanghai.

They found a sizable German-speaking community among the thousands of immigrants from Europe who had found safe passage. Soon Emmy was involved in cultural activities again and helped organize - and attend concerts.

Ultimately, in 1947, they relocated to New York; like many other expatriates, they chose not to return to Germany. Together with her husband, and after he died in 1951, Emmy Rubensohn continued to form new connections with artists such as violinist Roman Totenberg and the eminent conductor, and musical director of the New York Philharmonic, Dimitri Mitropoulos, working behind the scenes to establish new collaborations with some of her former rekindled friendships.

With artists like Oskar Kokoschka, whose retrospective was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1949, she spun potential plans of staging his work with renewed interdisciplinary collaborations, for others she found commissions, and others yet, who came to the cultural metropolis of New York, she applauded their performances, which she was often personally invited to. Alma Mahler-Werfel became a close friend.

But perhaps one of her most meaningful reunions was with Ernst Krenek, one of Rubensohn's earliest protégées. "The reason for his New York visit was the premiere of his Fourth Symphony Op.113, on November 27, 1947, at Carnegie Hall, with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. "A new beginning after 15 (!) years," reads an entry in Rubensohn's Gästebuch…(Guestbook). He must have leafed back to the year 1932 when he last held it in his hands such a long time ago."*

A now world-renowned composer from Vienna, who had conducted at various Opera Houses in Germany, he had married Anna Mahler, Gustav's and Alma Mahler's daughter, in 1924 and dedicated his Second Symphony to her. However, their marriage was brief, as they divorced a year later. This happened after the composer had an affair with an Australian violinist named Alma Moodie and dedicated his Violin Concerto No.1, Op.29, to her.

Photo: Jonny spielt auf, the title page of the 1926 vocal score (1st edition)

From 1925-1927, the Rubensohns granted Krenek an "artist residency" at their home in Kassel, where he could live, use their Bluethner grand piano and finish working on his jazz opera. Completed in 1926, Johnny spielt auf immortalized the violinist in the opera's character of Anita. It premiered in Leipzig in 1927 and became one of Europe's most significant new opera successes of the late 1920s.

It was Krenek who Emmy Rubensohn, after the death of her husband, commissioned to compose a piece in his honor. Krenek composed: Two Sacred Songs to the memory of Ernst Rubensohn. The piece premiered in New York’s Townhall in January 1953. In her letter to Krenek, she writes: ”The 104th psalm is like a modern creation, so pictorial and cheerful – like an old picture…Ernst’s memory could not have been more beautifully honored….” **

In his memoirs, in return, Krenek sheds new light on Rubensohn's selfless support of the arts and the artists she was fond of, revealing further details about her life and involvement and sparking renewed interest ***in researching and giving long-deserved credit to Rubensohn's contributions.



*Matthias Henke, Emmy Rubensohn, Musikmäzenin/Music Patron (1884–1961) Hentrich & Hentrich, p311, Leipzig, 2022.

** ” p327.

***Generously supported by the US Consulate General of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, and Reinwald GmbH, Böhlen.

The exhibition is on view June 25 – October 8, 2023, at Museen im GRASSI, Johannisplatz 5-11, 04103, Leipzig, Second Floor, Foyer and Special Exhibition Space of the Musikinstrumentenmuseum der Universität Leipzig, T +49 351 49 14 2000.

OPENING HOURS: Tuesday – Sunday, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm.

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