Who was Frieda Belinfante?

There are so many reasons we should know the name Frieda Belinfante (1904-1995). Her musical story alone is something to be shared and celebrated. She was a talented cellist, making her debut at the Concertgebouw aged 17. The daughter of pianist Aron Belinfante, Frieda studied at the Amsterdam Conservatory and in Paris with Gérard Hekking.


Composer Henriëtte Bosmans, with whom Frieda was in a relationship, wrote music for her, but conducting would also capture Frieda’s heart. Before the outbreak of World War Two she impressed conductor Hermann Scherchen enough to win the top prize in his class in Switzerland, giving her the opportunity to conduct the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. And she was then invited to form the Het Klein Orkest in her native Netherlands and was a regular guest conductor on the Dutch national radio station. A woman presiding over an orchestra in 1937? It happened…

Frieda Belinfante, the resistance fighter

The War put a temporary halt on Frieda’s podium ambitions, but the unfolding conflict saw her play a new role… resistance fighter. Being half-Jewish, and gay, meant she was a potential target for the Nazi regime which was infesting Amsterdam, but that didn’t faze her.

She knew many Jewish musicians and was acquainted with other women who could be a target, so wanted to act. As a gay artist, she was well connected in the city and bravely undertook a mission to help members of the Jewish population and thwart the Nazi effort along with a group of friends and fellow artists, led by the painter Willem Arondius.

They used their skills to forge identity cards for Dutch Jews, and others, so that they might not be picked up by the regime. The plan was made difficult not only by the sophistication of Dutch identity cards, but by the fact the Nazi’s insisted on holding a copy of every single one at their headquarters, so as to spot forgeries. The answer? Blow up the HQ and destroy the copies… something Frieda, Willem and their friends set about doing, but with the express plan to do so without causing anyone harm. Bloodshed was not on their agenda.

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Stephen Fry: Willem & Frieda – Defying the Nazis

It's a truly fascinating and emotional story, and one which Stephen Fry has immersed himself in for a new documentary film being broadcast on Channel 4. Directed by John Hay, Stephen Fry: Willem & Frieda – Defying the Nazis sees Fry go to The Netherlands to uncover the story of these brave, gay artists. It was deeply illuminating, as he shares.

‘I knew nothing and I was slightly ashamed, but one of the things that so excited me was that a lot of Dutch people weren’t aware of them either. Gerrit van der Veen was a fellow artist and resistance member, but he is well known and has streets and schools named after him. We think of The Netherlands as this wonderfully tolerant, accepting country with all kinds of progressive ideas, but you could say that Willem and Frieda weren’t celebrated until recently because they were gay. Above all, I was fascinated by these two incredible people.’

Pictured: Stephen Fry / courtesy of Channel 4

The music for the film is by Debbie Wiseman, who was recently revealed as one of the 12 composers commissioned to write new music for King Charles III’s Coronation. Given Frieda’s cellist background, the generous score has prominent solo cello lines (performed by Justin Pearson), as well solo piano and strings. While Wiseman’s score doesn’t use any traditional Jewish melodies, she told me she wanted to draw on its traditions and give the score a little bit of the heart and flavour of Jewish music.

When is it on television?

Defying the Nazis is broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK on Thursday 2 March at 9pm, and will be available to stream on All4.

What happened to Frieda Belinfante?

But what became of Frieda Belinfante? She fled her homeland, and crossed the border into Switzerland on foot in 1944. She could easily have been sent back, but music saved her in that the conductor she had so impressed a few years before, Hermann Scherchen, assured the authorities of her identity and status as an accomplished musician.

In 1947 she emigrated to the United States and settled in southern California. The podium called once more and she found herself establishing not one but two ensembles, The Vine Street Players in 1953 and the Orange County Philharmonic in 1954. She remained at the forefront of the latter’s activities for some years, until it was felt that the ensemble’s fortunes might fare better with a man on the podium…

It makes you wonder what would have happened to her career had it not been interrupted by the War.

Stephen Fry: Willem & Frieda – Defying the Nazis is broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK on Thursday 2 March at 9pm, and will be available to stream on All4.


Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Frieda Belinfante


Michael BeekReviews Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.