Wednesday, February 20, 2013
A celebrated concert pianist who began working as a cleaner when she fled Vienna and got her big break when Humphrey Bogart paid for her first concert has died, aged 82.
Katharina Wolpe lived in Wellside in Well Walk, Hampstead, for 45 years.
When Ms Wolpe was a teenager her mother abandoned her, leaving the young woman to fend for herself – and so she had adventures all over Europe working as a waitress, a cleaner, a model and a singer.
In Paris, she met her first husband, painter and sculptor William Turnbull, and the couple moved to London, where her mother re-joined them.
It was here, at the star-studded Casanova Club, where the young pianist was spotted by the debonair American actor and heart-throb Humphrey Bogart.
He was so moved by her playing and singing - as well as taken with her beauty - that he paid for her first concert at the Wigmore Hall.
She never forgot his kindness.
Ms Wolpe was a self-taught pianist and gave her first concerts to families at refugee camps as she made her way around Europe on her own.
Novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett also helped her in her early days. After meeting the young woman at a café in Paris, he helped her find a piano to practice on.
Ms Wolpe played classical music all over the world ranging from Mozart and Schumann, to Schoenberg and Messiaen, and performed with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra and other major orchestras.
Her concerts were widely reviewed and praised in newspapers. The Times once described one of her recitals as “arguing the gifts of a master”.
A deep love for music ran deeply through Mrs Wolpe’s life and it was part of everything that she did.
She once touchingly said that she did not feel like a stateless, paperless refugee because she had Schubert.
Ms Wolpe’s lack of professional training allowed her to be a very original and inspiring teacher and she spent many years teaching music at the esteemed Morley College in Westminster.
She also spent two years as artist in residence at Toronto University in Canada.
In the early 1970s Mrs Wolpe married her second husband, Lawrence Leonard and the two played music together for many years.
He also taught at Morley College and he was professor of conducting at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Tessa Jaray, 75, of North Road, Islington, who met Ms Wolpe when they were in their 20s and remained a very close friend, said that as well as devoting her life to music, Ms Wolpe could not lay eyes on an animal in distress without helping it.
“She was a very good friend, very kind, very mindful, very warm,” said Ms Jaray. “She was a fabulous musician and an extraordinary beauty.
“She is completely and utterly irreplaceable and will leave a terrible hole.”
Ms Wolpe’s second husband, Lawrence Leonard, died in 2001. She is survived by two step-children from their marriage.