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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHUMANN, Elisabeth: Mozart and Viennese Operetta Aria Recordings (1926-1938)
A star member of the Vienna State Opera from 1919 to 1938, Elisabeth Schumann’s rôles ranged widely from Mozart to Wagner, Richard Strauss and Viennese operetta. Her pure, silvery voice and innate gift for communicating with audiences were legendary. Full of vitality and exuberance, warmth and tenderness, favourites such as Mein Herr Marquis from Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus and Im chambre séparée from Heuberger’s Der Opernball are the perfect illustration that Elisabeth Schumann was an artist born to sing in the Viennese style. Also featured are excerpts from lesser-known works by Zeller, Ziehrer and Berté, and the disc closes with nostalgic Viennese popular songs.
Elisabeth Schumann (1888-1952)
Arias by Mozart, J. Strauss II, Berté, Zeller and Ziehrer
Elisabeth Schumann was born in Germany in 1888 of musical parents. Her father, Alfred Schumann, was cathedral organist and music teacher in the town of Merseburg, where they lived; her mother, Emma Schumann, had a lovely though untrained singing voice and performed locally in oratorios. At an extremely early age their daughter possessed an unusual musical talent and a pretty singing voice. Alfred Schumann was determined to develop these, and he gave the child a good grounding in piano-playing and music theory.
Her first visit to the opera was to see Tannhäuser when she was seven years old. She was spellbound: the combination of music and theatre seemed to her quite magical. By the time she was ten she was visiting the opera regularly, but without her parents' knowledge: after she had been put to bed she would creep out of the house and run to the Tivoli, where visiting operas were performed. She made friends with an elderly usher, who always managed to find her a seat in a corner somewhere. In the interval she would discuss the performance with him animatedly. By then she knew that she wanted to be a singer.
Elisabeth Schumann's early singing training was with teachers in Dresden and then Berlin, where she became engaged to Walther Puritz, a student of architecture. By 1909 Puritz was working in Hamburg where his fiancée sometimes came to visit him. On one such occasion, when she was feeling particularly confident, she walked into the Hamburg Stadttheater one morning and asked for an audition. Within half an hour the Hamburg Opera were drawing up a contract for her.
She began her operatic career there in the autumn of 1909 with the part of the Shepherd Boy in Tannhäuser, the first opera she had heard as a child. She sang so enchantingly that she became a box office draw even in such a tiny rôle. With the help of her new teacher, Alma Schadow, who became the great teacher of her life, she progressed to rôles such as Aennchen, Mignon, Marzelline, Cherubino and Susanna. The one which really turned her into a star was that of Sophie in the Hamburg première of Der Rosenkavalier in February 1911. Throughout her career this rôle was her most famous, for which she will always be remembered.
There quickly followed two exciting events: in June she was married to Walther Puritz, and in April 1912 she created the rôle of Albertine in the world première of Busoni's Die Brautwahl.
By this time Otto Klemperer was conducting at the Hamburg Opera. After Elisabeth Schumann's success as Cherubino, he had the idea of coaching her in the rôle of Octavian, in which he thought her boyishness would come out beautifully: an extraordinary idea, considering the unsuitability of her voice type. (She only gave one performance, which was not a success.) It was during the time that he was coaching her for this rôle, in 1912, that they fell in love with one another. A scandalous affair followed, culminating in the conductor being whipped in public by the outraged husband, and the two lovers eloping. They thus broke their contracts with Hamburg, and Klemperer was not allowed to return. Schumann was forgiven and taken back gladly after the affair was over. She was also reconciled to her husband, and in 1914 her only child was born.
Richard Strauss did not hear Elisabeth Schumann sing until 1917, six years after the Rosenkavalier première, but he had had such marvellous reports about her singing that he recommended her to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she was engaged for the 1914-15 season. Her début was as Sophie, with which she created a sensation. The other rôles performed by her in that season were Musetta, Papagena, Marzelline, Gretel, a Rhinedaughter in Götterdämmerung and a Flower Maiden in Parsifal.
When at last Elisabeth Schumann did work with Strauss, it was touring Switzerland in performances of Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte. He was so thrilled with her voice that he asked her if she would consider singing Salome: the youthfulness and silvery quality were just what he wanted for the rôle. When she protested, he promised to scale down the orchestration to make sure it would not drown her, and make other alterations to the score if necessary; but she sensibly turned the offer down, knowing that it might ruin her voice for ever.
After another love affair, with a répétiteur at the Hamburg Opera, Elisabeth Schumann was divorced from her husband in 1918 and lost custody of her son, a blow from which she suffered terribly. By the spring of 1919 she was married to a new young conductor at the Opera, Carl Alwin, a brilliant pianist who could play whole Wagner scores from memory, and an adoring husband who was much more ambitious for his wife than she was herself, constantly urging her to accept engagements abroad, for which she often lacked confidence.
Her contract with Hamburg was to run out in the summer of 1919, and she had already signed up with Dresden. Now the thought of leaving her new husband was so appalling to her that, with the help of an acquaintance who was on the Dresden Court Opera committee, she managed to wriggle out of her new contract, and word got around in the theatre world that she was available. Richard Strauss pounced. He had always wanted Elisabeth Schumann to join him at the Berlin Opera, and now he was going to the Vienna State Opera to be joint musical director with Franz Schalk. He sent a telegram offering her a job there. Carl Alwin was adamant his wife should not turn down such a prestigious offer, but the director of the Hamburg Opera was causing problems: he wanted to keep her so much that he gave her no leave for the guest performances in Vienna needed to show her metal before being engaged. So Strauss took the unprecedented step of offering her a contract without guest performances. Still he had to send a persuasive letter before she would sign.
Thus, in the autumn of 1919, Elisabeth Schumann began in Vienna the most successful and happiest part of her operatic career. Her husband was to join her there some months later, but at first she felt quite miserable and lost in a city struggling with the aftermath of the war, and filled by a miscellany of people who had been washed up by its tide.
Once again her début was as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. The applause, however, was not as rapturous as at the Met, and she wondered whether she would ever be able to sing to the liking of the Viennese, who traditionally lived and breathed opera. Her next performance was as Micaëla in Carmen, after which she had a write-up which to some extent explained the lameness of the audience: 'Elisabeth Schumann is the finest of artists, exactly to the taste of the Viennese public. However, the latter is not seen to be at present in the opera house, which has been taken over by a quite differently orientated audience showing no understanding of the true art of singing….Micaëla's aria in the third act was rendered absolutely perfectly by Frau Schumann….Yet the aria awakened no response. Let us hope that soon there will be true Viennese going to the opera house again, and then the time will come for Elisabeth Schumann, one of the most original and charming artists we have ever had.'
The exceptionally high standard of music-making, singing under Strauss, and once again working with her friend and exact contemporary Lotte Lehmann, with whom she had worked in Hamburg, soon brought back her enthusiasm.
Once Alwin had taken up his post with the State Opera and he and his wife had found a lovely flat in the Stallburg above the famous Spanish Riding School, Elisabeth Schumann really began to enjoy Viennese life as, increasingly, the public grew to love her. To judge by the recordings of Viennese songs and arias on this compact disc, she was born to sing in the Viennese style: they are full of vitality and exuberance, warmth and tenderness, just as she was herself; there is even her delightful whistling: the bird imitation she learnt from her pet canary when she was a child.
Elisabeth Schumann was engaged by the Vienna State Opera until 1938. During this time she undertook more engagements abroad than at any other time in her life. Spurred on by her husband, she went on a concert tour of the United States with Richard Strauss, sang, among other places, in England, Italy, Spain, Romania, Hungary, Greece, Germany, France, North Africa, Argentina and at numerous opera festivals such as those in Salzburg and Munich. At Covent Garden, where she sang in the seasons from 1924 to 1931, she was especially famous for her Sophie, and Mozart rôles such as Susanna and Zerlina. In May 1930 she was also very successful as Adele in Die Fledermaus, in which rôle she could show how Viennese she had become. This was the first time that the operetta had been staged at the Royal Opera House: the conductor, Bruno Walter, had finally managed to persuade the board of directors to allow a performance. The audience was a royal one: King George V and Queen Mary were attending their first German-language opera since the war, and they enjoyed it so much that they requested a repeat performance.
In the spring of 1932 Elisabeth Schumann began a love affair with a dermatologist, Dr Hans Krüger. For over a year she kept it secret from her husband until her wish for a divorce led her to confess. Once she was again free she did not, however, immediately wed her new lover: after two failed marriages she was cautious. Krüger was a homely man who did not like her frequent long tours, and she too missed him terribly on such occasions. The result was that she began to go abroad rather less, and by 1936 she was singing the barest minimum at the Opera.
When Elisabeth Schumann sang at the Vienna State Opera on 1 November 1937, she had no idea that it was for the last time. (Her rôle on that last night was a Flower Maiden in Parsifal. Thus the first and last professional rôles of her life happened both to be minor Wagner ones.) She had recently been made not only Honorary Member of the Vienna State Opera but also the first female Honorary Member of the Vienna Philharmonic Society. She was fully expecting to sing at the Opera again in the spring of 1938, after she had been to Philadelphia to teach at the Curtis Institute and then on a concert tour of France and North Africa. The day she left her home for that concert tour was 12 March 1938, the day Hitler marched into Austria. She knew that life in her beloved Vienna could never be the same again, and she was leaving behind Krüger, who was Jewish and therefore in great danger. A week later the reports of anti-Semitic atrocities from Vienna made her realise that she could never return there and that she had to do all in her power to help Krüger escape. They succeeded in emigrating to the United States in the autumn of that year, after getting married in England. It was the unhappiest of Elisabeth Schumann's marriages and ended in divorce after six years. Thus her operatic career had come to an end, just by chance, with no glamourous farewell performance such as that of Mimì on her last night in Hamburg. When Covent Garden asked her after the war to sing some more Mozart rôles, she turned them down: a plump lady in her late fifties should not be seen cavorting around the stage as a young maidservant.
During the war, in New York, she sang very little. She gave a few recitals but concentrated mostly on teaching. In the autumn of 1945 she began singing many recitals in Europe again, mostly in England which she grew to love so much that she decided to make her permanent home in London. Sadly, she died suddenly in April 1952, only a few days before she was due to leave New York.
© Joy Puritz
MOZART: Exsultate jubilate: Alleluia
Recorded on 19 May 1926; Bb 8401-1 (HMV DA 845)
MOZART: Il re pastore: L'amerò, sarò costante
Recorded on 7 June 1926; Cc 8380-5 (HMV DA 1011)
MOZART: Le nozze di Figaro: Non so più
Recorded on 1 February 1927; Bb 9871-1 (HMV DA 844)
MOZART: Le nozze di Figaro: Venite, inginocchiatevi
Recorded on 1 February 1927; Bb 9873-1 (HMV DA 844)
MOZART: Le nozze di Figaro: Voi che sapete
Recorded on 19 May 1926; Cc 8377-3 (HMV DB 946)
MOZART: Le nozze di Figaro: Deh vieni, non tardar
Recorded on 4 February 1927; Cc 8378-3 (HMV DB 1011)
MOZART: Don Giovanni: Batti, batti, o bel Masetto
Recorded on 19 May 1926; Cc 8404-1 (HMV DB 946)
MOZART: Don Giovanni: Vedrai carino
Recorded on 7 June 1926; Bb 8504-1 (HMV DA 845)
J. STRAUSS II: Die Fledermaus: Mein Herr Marquis
Recorded on 11 November 1927; Bb12008-1 (HMV E 545)
J. STRAUSS II: Die Fledermaus: Spiel' ich die Unschuld vom Lande
Recorded on 6 September 1929; BV 614-3 (HMV E 545)
ZELLER: Der Vogelhändler: Wie mein Ahn'l zwanzig Jahr
Recorded on 6 September 1929; BV 612-3 (HMV DA 6037)
ZELLER: Der Vogelhändler: Wie mein Ahn'l zwanzig Jahr, 'Nightingale Song'
Recorded on 17 February 1930; Bb 18667-2 (HMV E 552)
ZELLER: Der Obersteiger: Sei nicht bös'
Recorded on 17 February 1930; Bb 18665-2 (HMV E 552)
ZIEHRER: Der Landstreicher: Sei gepriesen du lauschige Nacht
Recorded on 11 March 1937; OEA 4683-2A (HMV DA 1557)
ZIEHRER: Der Fremdenführer: O Wien, mein liebes Wien
Recorded on 11 March 1937; OEA 4684-1A (HMV DA 1557)
BERTÉ: Das Dreimäderlhaus: Was macht glücklich
Recorded on 25 November 1936; OEA 3931-1A (HMV DA 1541)
HEUBERGER: Der Opernball: Im chambre séparée
Recorded on 11 June 1938; OEA 6362-1 (HMV DA 1651)
KREISLER: Sissy: Ich glaub' das Glück
Recorded on 20 November 1935; OEA 2804-3 (HMV DA 1455)
JOSEF STRAUSS: Sphärenklänge
Recorded on 23 June 1934; OWX 764-2 (HMV DA 1395)
BENATZKY: Ich muss wieder einmal in Grinzing sein
Recorded on 8 June 1938; OEA 6354-1 (HMV DA 1651)
SIECZYNSKI: Wien, du Stadt meiner Traüme
Recorded on 25 November 1936; OEA 3932-1A (HMV DA 1541)
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