"His pupils called him Awe"

::::::::by Marita Gunther















He was born in 1896 in Berlin. Son of a cabinet maker, who died when Awe was only ten years old. Just having finished school, the First World War broke out. Thus, at the age of 18, he was conscripted into the army. France, the war in the trenches severely wounded in St Quentin, also at the Eastern Front. When the war ended, he came back a young man, broken in body and soul. Medical diagnosis: shell-shock. Years of treatment, sanatorium etc . . did not heal the psychic wounds he had received at such a young age. Certain war experiences - like the cries of wounded soldiers - haunted him throughout many years, shaped his thoughts and later helped to form his outlook on life and his ideas on the human voice in particular. He briefly studied law, but soon gave up. He had a wish to sing. Musically gifted and possessing a natural voice, he began to take singing lessons. After several attempts, and many different singing teachers with their different methods and beginning to get disturbed - as he seemed not to improve or rather not find what he was seeking - .

He abandoned the training and started research on his own. The problem he set himself was to find out whether the fault lay with himself or whether there was something wrong with the way he was taught: more precisely, whether his idea of what a human voice could be capable of expressing, was a figment of his imagination or whether it could be realised in an altogether different approach to it. In order to survive and help support his by then old and ailing mother, Awe earned his living in the difficult post-war years as bank-clerk, rent collector, playing the piano in cinemas and synagoges etc. But slowly he began to search and research by giving singing lessons to other people with similar problems; often singers who had lost their voice or who had other speech and singing difficulties. Invariably he found that their so-called loss of voice or other problem lay not in the malfunctioning of their larynx but - as it was in his own case - on a much deeper level, namely in the soul. And he found out that unless some way of repairing or healing that psychic damage could be achieved - always cognizant of the fact that he had to start healing himself first - no real progress of voice could be made.

The pupils he had at that time and with whose co-operation he was able to substantiate his basic ideas, learned that this delicate instrument - the human voice - was capable in its range and in its possibilities of expression to a far greater degree than hitherto thought possible.

Awe's dream and belief that man had within him all the elements of male and female, ranging from height to depth in colour and expression began to take audible shape. In his mind's eye and ear he saw and heard a voice, not restricted to particular registers, carefully trained to express the beautiful alone, but a HUMAN VOICE, capable to express all human emotions. He began to write down his ideas and the results - of his research so far. The first manuscript, written around 1938 is entitled "Orpheus or the Way to a Mask", not long before he had to flee Hitler's Germany in 1939. He found refuge in London, where at the outbreak of World War II, he went into the Pioneer Corps of the British army, but was soon invalided out. Soon after he began to teach again and found a group of pupils who worked with him over a long period of time. After the end of the war, he began working on his manuscript "The Bridge" and in the 1950's the essay "Problems of Limitations". (There are also a number of unfinished manuscripts.) Up unto his death in 1962, with small interruptions because of his failing health, he taught and spoke and gave that which was necessary to inform and shape this HUMAN VOICE: a human education. All his manuscripts repeat this theme in ever wider variations, born out of his experience.

Whilst still in Berlin, he became acquainted with the step-daughter of a well-known singer, who in fact made it possible for him to teach during the Nazi-time and who also studied with him. The young daughter, longing to become a painter, received warmth and encouragement from Alfred Wolfsohn. To what extent their meetings and dialogues had nourished the artist in her, became clear several years after the war. Having been sent to 'safety' in the south of France in 1938, she began to paint the short story of her life as she then saw it in over a thousand gouaches. She was killed in Auschwitz. Her paintings survived and are now in the possession of the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam.

Her name is Charlotte Salomon and the title of her life's work is "Life or Theatre?" The central figure in it is Alfred Wolfsohn. In recent years, the exhibition of these paintings in the Jewish Museum (and which is now being taken to many other coutries) as well as a book, containing the greater part of these paintings, have stirred an enormous interest, raised many questions as to who is this man who played such a decisive role in Charlotte's life. Awe himself was deeply affected by the news of her death and on hearing about the collection in which he played so great a part. In his manuscript "The Bridge" he writes in great detail about Charlotte and gives his analysis about some of her drawings, dated still from the Berlin period. And although Charlotte was not a singing pupil of Alfred Wolfsohn in that sense, looking at her paintings it becomes clear that she had.in the most profound way understood his teaching, culminating in the realisation that to sing means to live. Thus the two are linked and continue to teach and enlighten about this phenomenon, called the HUMAN VOICE, and the indestructable qualities of human life.

Marita GŁnther.


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