Claude Frank: Pianist & Childhood Friend

Claude Frank

The last time I saw Claude Frank was after his performance at a Schneider concert at the New School. Though we rarely saw each other, we were always extremely happy when we met accidentally. These encounters were never planned, yet occurred every few years.

Claude and I shared a long distant past. My mother, born in 1902, Claude’s mother Irma, and her sister Ella grew up together in Nuremberg, Germany. They went to the same high school and dance classes where Irma met Lutz Frank, a future lawyer. They married and had two sons. Claude, the younger, obviously was a musical prodigy. His mother reported that he hummed music while being wheeled about in his baby carriage. Even though my mother left Nuremberg when she was twenty-two, she remained good friends with Frankfurt-based Ella who married a Mr. Heinzheimer, a very early victim of Hitler’s Dachau concentration camp.

Fast forward to 1938. Hitler took over Germany and fortunate Jews left their birth land. Claude’s parents had gotten divorced in Nuremberg but remained lifelong friends. Irma and Ella and their children relocated to Paris, where 12-year-old Claude went to school and studied piano at the Paris Conservatory. My nuclear family moved to Brussels, as did Lutz Frank, now an insurance agent. He visited us frequently as did Claude whenever he visited his father since he could not take care of him during the daytime. Claude and I became real good friends, mostly exploring a sand quarry near our house.

Brussels’s displaced German Jews formed a tight bond trying to take care of one another. One of their activities was to collect money for refugees in need. So it was that my mother organized a benefit piano recital that featured Claude. I remember addressing envelopes. The concert, perhaps Claude’s first, was a success. When the “phony” war started in 1939, Lutz packed up his insurance business, moved to France and volunteered for the French army, only to be interned as an enemy alien. So much for heroism!

The entire Frank and Heinzheimer family escaped to America illegally, climbing the Pyrenees and taking a boat from Lisbon to New York. My mother resumed a somewhat distant friendship with Irma and Ella. When Mom turned eighty I invited the sisters, as well as another 81-year-old “child” from their school, to lunch. I always thought that this was an amazing event, illustrating the vagaries of fate and firmness of human bonds. At this lunch the women bragged about the achievements of their offspring. There was Claude and his career, Ella’s daughter Ruth, an accomplished mathematician, and me, the writer. (Not bad, given that all of us were immigrants!)

By then Claude could look back on a fabulous career. He studied with Artur Schnabel, Maria Curcio and Serge Koussevitzky. At the height of his career he gave 70 concerts a year. He loved to play Mozart, Brahms, Schubert and especially Beethoven, recording his entire thirty-two piano sonatas in 1970 as part of the composer’s bicentenary. He was a member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Music Players. Claude taught at the Curtis Institute of Music, presented master classes at Yale and many other venerable institutions. Towards the end of his life, he concertized with his daughter Pamela Frank, a gifted violinist.

I have always regretted that time and other constraints prevent maintaining contact with many wonderful people one encounters in one’s life.

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