Elisabeth SCHUMANN was born in Merseburg Germany on June 13, 1888 and was baptized as a Lutheran. She was the younger of the two children of Emma Sonntag Schumann and Alfred Schumann, a teacher and organist in Merseburg – which was a district capital in the then Prussian province of Saxony and is now the capital of the Saalekreis district of the German State of Saxony-Anhalt.
Elisabeth SCHUMANN studied voice in Dresden and Berlin. She worked for around a decade as a soprano at the Hamburg City Theater and mostly played naïve comedy roles in Mozart operas, but also that of »Sophie« in Der Rosenkavalier: which was her preferred role ever since singing it in its Hamburg premiere in February 1911.
In the fall of 1914, right after the start of WWI, Elisabeth SCHUMANN had her debut performance at the New York Metropolitan Opera singing the role of »Sophie«. That was the auspicious start of her international career.
Elisabeth SCHUMANN didn’t hit the headlines for her singing though, but rather for her affair with the famous conductor Otto Klemperer. But before she hit the stage of the Metropolitan Opera or the headlines, she had a son from her marriage to the architect Walther Puritz: Gerd Puritz, born in Hamburg in 1914.
Back in Hamburg in March 1919 she married for a second time – this time with the pianist and conductor Karl Oskar Alwin (born as Alwin Oskar Pincus, he was a Jew who had changed his name and converted to Lutheranism).
In 1919, the first year after the war, the artist couple moved to Vienna, the capital of the small state of Austria, whose grand opera on the Ringstrasse was maintained, not least thanks to the efforts of the composer Richard Strauss, who was its artistic director between 1919 and 1924.
Richard Strauss engaged Elisabeth SCHUMANN to sing at the Vienna State Opera – without the usual prerequisite of a previous guest appearance. On September 4, 1919 she debuted as »Sophie« and got a good unsigned review:
… New appointments made some rehearsals inevitable; and this circumstance was all the more beneficial to yesterday evening when these new appointments turned out to be extremely fortunate. Ms. Schumann, who started her engagement as Sophie, is known to have been brought to the Vienna Opera by Richard Strauss. [She is] a graceful creature with expressive eyes and graceful, young-girl movements.
Her voice is not great, but sits excellently and is based on a pure sounding head tone. And the most important thing: there is a strong personality in this petite person with a talent for the stage who is lovable and winning. […]
The orchestra unfolded its most brilliant virtuosity under Franz Schalk’s devoted direction. It had been a long time since it provided such a festive evening. All the more incomprehensible therefore was the cool attitude of the audience.
Neues Wiener Journal, September 6. 1919, p. 9
It is questionable whether said audience reaction was related to the debut of the singer, who had been sponsored by Richard Strauss. In the nineteen years of her career at the State Opera Elisabeth SCHUMANN appeared 85 times as »Sophie«, which makes it hard to understand why she was never engaged to sing that role in the performances of Richard Strauss’ and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier at the Salzburg Festival.
Nevertheless, her services to the Salzburg Festival have not been forgotten.
At the end of 1921 State Opera director Richard Strauss went on a concert tour in US cities with Elisabeth SCHUMANN – which was praised as a »triumphal procession of Viennese art« and proved to be lucrative for the next Salzburg Festival.
In New York Richard Strauss inspired Mrs. Minnie Untermyer, wife of the lawyer and activist against anti-Semitism Samuel Untermyer, to set up a fundraising committee to support the Salzburg Festival. A fundraiser brought in $ 4,000 (which would amount to at least $ 80,000 in today’s money).
Seven days before the opening of the 1922 Salzburg Festival, Elisabeth SCHUMANN made her first appearance in Salzburg interpreting songs by the composer Richard Strauss, and won excellent reviews:
… The greatest living musician spoke to us again and we listened, moved. It was the experience of the evening. Mrs. Schumann presented the songs with her sweet, flexible soprano, while accompanied masterfully by Mr. Alwin. Her interpretation was a creative high point.
Salzburger Volksblatt, August. 8. 1922, p. 3
Not only did she sing the songs brilliantly however: the six songs that Richard Strauss had based on poems by the romantic author Clemens Brentano were dedicated by him to the soprano Elisabeth SCHUMANN.
The »Brentano-Lieder« she sang in the Great Hall of the Mozarteum on August 7, 1922, while accompanied by her husband Oscar Alwin on the piano, were part of the program of the first concert of the International Chamber Music Days, which took place under the patronage of Richard Strauss.
In other concerts in the series Elisabeth SCHUMANN performed »cacophonous« works by modern contemporaries such as Hugo Kauder, which enraged a Salzburg critic signed »O.«:
… at a time when we ourselves are not yet entirely reduced to outsiders in front of our Mozart temple I am still able to protest. Our home dedicated to the Salzburg genius must not be reduced to purely mercenary interests. We must return to the dignity that was sworn at the opening [of the Mozarteum]: Only German art in the German house!
O., Salzburger Chronik, August 11, 1922, p. 3f.
On August 20, ten days after the end of the Chamber Music Days which had been met with anti-Semitic denunciations, Richard Strauss reestablished harmony in the Mozarteum: The Vienna Philharmonic played the young Mozart’s Exsultate jubilate with the soprano solo »Alleluja, alleluja, alleluja …« sung by Elisabeth SCHUMANN:
… The soloist received storms of applause: Ms. Schumann, who sang the cantata ‘Exsultate jubilate’ splendidly, full of fire, warmth and gorgeous verve. When Richard Strauss applauded her vigorously, it was more than a gesture of conventional politeness …
Salzburger Volksblatt, August 21, 1922, p. 4
This Richard Strauss concert, which was received with jubilation, was on the 1922 program of the Salzburg Festival – one that went down in history as »the Mozart Festival« because the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera under the direction of Richard Strauss only played works by Mozart.
Elisabeth SCHUMANN, who appears as a soubrette on the cast of four operas, sang the »Blondchen« role in The Abduction from the Seraglio, »Despina« in Cosí fan tutte and »Susanna« in The Marriage of Figaro several times. But she didn’t appear as planned in the role of »Zerlina« in Don Giovanni. Lotte SCHÖNE did so instead.
Only the soprano Rose PAULY received media attention when at the last moment she substituted for a colleague in the role of »Donna Anna« in Don Giovanni. Without this substitution the festive prelude to the Mozart Festival in 1922 would have failed when the singer cast originally failed to appear. In the next two festival summers no operas were included for financial reasons.
At the Covent Garden Opera in London, however, operas in German could be performed once again in the spring of 1924, the first time since the start of WWI: Bruno WALTER conducted the Der Rosenkavalier with Lotte LEHMANN as »the field marshal« and Elisabeth SCHUMANN as »Sophie«.
In the following years the Covent Garden Opera continued to open its »German season« with the Viennese musical comedy Der Rosenkavalier.
In May 1926 a Mozart opera appeared on the program for the first time: Don Giovanni with Elisabeth SCHUMANN as »Zerlina« and Lotte LEHMANN as »Donna Elvira« with Bruno WALTER as conductor.
Elisabeth SCHUMANN, celebrated as a »Mozart singer of the purest water«, did not appear in any Mozart operas in the Salzburg Festival summers of 1925 and 1926. In 1926, however, she sang the soubrette role of »Serpina« in Pergolesi’s La serva padrona [The Servant Turned Mistress] four times:
… Elisabeth Schumann, sang brilliantly as Zerbine [Serpina] from the beginning to the end of a most masterful display of delicacy and agility.
Salzburger Chronik, August 13, 1926, p. 6
Male critics praised the properties they expected from soubrettes. In the summer of 1927, Elisabeth SCHUMANN appeared in two operas: as »Zerlina« in Don Giovanni and as »Marzelline« in Fidelio. It seems that for the most part her rivals were preferred in the illustrious festival summers.
In any case, Elisabeth SCHUMANN was awarded the title of »Austrian Chamber Singer« by the Austrian President and she was also given Austrian citizenship.
In the early 1930s, Elisabeth SCHUMANN and her husband Oscar Alwin went on concert tours in North and South America. In 1933, however, the couple divorced. The husband remarried soon after. After that Elisabeth SCHUMANN became involved with a Jewish doctor in Vienna named Hans Krüger.
In June 1934 she was the second woman artist to be awarded the Vienna Philharmonic’s Ring of Honor – the first had been »Prima donna« Lotte LEHMANN in October 1933.
At the end of 1934 Lotte LEHMANN and Elisabeth SCHUMANN, who had been good friends since their joint performances at the Hamburg Stadttheater, performed together at the Philadelphia Opera in the Vienna Rosenkavalier production that Herbert GRAF staged for the first time in the USA: with Lotte LEHMANN as »the field marshal« and Elisabeth SCHUMANN as »Sophie«.
After the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier in the 1935 Salzburg Summer Festival – without Elisabeth SCHUMANN – the Vienna critic Fritz Deutsch remarked:
… Now Salzburg can only celebrate its festivals as the vagaries of casting allow. Much has to be foregone in the Rosenkavalier – Mayr, the Novotna, Elisabeth Schumann and others – but the performance saved its highlight: Lotte Lehmann’s Field Marshal.
Neues Wiener Journal, August 3, 1935, p. 11
Elisabeth SCHUMANN never did get a chance to sing that role in Der Rosenkavalier in Salzburg. In the autumn of 1935 she sang her »Sophie« again at the State Opera before setting off on a concert tour to France, England and Holland. In February 1936 she was awarded the French Knight’s Cross of the Legion of Honor (Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur).
A Vienna critic was clearly admiring the Mozart soubrette Elisabeth SCHUMANN, popular at the Vienna State Opera, when he wrote down his first impressions of the Salzburg Festival summer in 1936:
… Some of the “Figaro” people are already there and surround Ms. Elisabeth Schumann, who took over Susanne “at the last moment” and who will also sing Despina in “Cosi fan tutte” “by the way”.
Neues Wiener Journal, July 21, 1936, p. 11
In the festival summer of 1936, after a seven-year absence, Elisabeth SCHUMANN made two appearances in each of two Mozart operas: The Marriage of Figaro and Cosí fan tutte, both under the direction of the conductor Felix von Weingartner.
She sang the role of the chambermaid »Susanna«:
… Elisabeth Schumann sang Susanne. The wonderfully performed garden aria demonstrated what a mature and great artist is like on stage. On the other hand, of course one would like to see a lively young opera soubrette on the boards as Susie[!] …
Salzburger Chronik, July 28, 1936, p. 7
She also sang the »Despina« role, that of another chambermaid:
… Elisabeth Schumann was also new in the role of Despina. When the celebrated singer underlines the delicious trills of the Doctore Magnetico with the necessary humor and thus causes the ‘miracle healing’, or when she acts as a notary in disguise, one is genuinely pleased about the agile attitude and stylish attitude of the artist. But again one could not assert with conviction that the role of this frivolous young chambermaid is tailor-made for her …
Salzburger Chronik, July 30, 1936, p. 5
The Salzburg critic apparently wanted a younger soubrette as a chambermaid. He was probably pleased when Aenne Michalsky, who was 20 years younger than SCHUMANN, sang the role of »Zerlina« in Don Giovanni.
Elisabeth SCHUMANN made 193 appearances in five different Mozart operas in the 19 years she sang for the Vienna State Opera. In June 1937 she was made an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera company. In the autumn of 1937 she made her last appearance on the Vienna stage as a soubrette. She went on a concert tour to London, and among other appearances sang at the Austrian embassy for ambassador Georg Albert »Baron« Franckenstein.
Elisabeth SCHUMANN stayed in England after the German annexation of Austria. On August 15, 1938, she married her partner, the doctor Dr. Hans Krüger (formerly Kohn) who had fled from Nazi Vienna to join her in London.
At the end of August 1938, the couple traveled to the USA. In November they both applied for US citizenship. Their marriage did not last long, however, and they divorced in 1942.
Elisabeth SCHUMANN gave a few more concerts in the US and worked primarily as a teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, one of the leading music conservatories in the country. In November 1944, she received US citizenship.
In October 1946 Elisabeth SCHUMANN traveled to liberated Austria where she gave a fund raising concert in the Musikverein’s Great Hall in support of the reconstruction of the Vienna State Opera:
A reunion with Elisabeth Schumann. First recital after eight years of separation. Once more we heard the beloved voice, and those eight terrible years that lay behind us were like one day.
Elisabeth Schumann came back from far and wide and one of the most delightful chapters of Viennese music history opened before us: it carried the fragrance of the past in the grace of lovely piano tones and was not just reminiscence, but a new, sonic experience, gained through the undimmed personality of a wonderful artist …
Dr. Peter Lafite, Wiener Kurier, October 26, 1946, p. 4
These were beautiful, inflated words that left some things unsaid: displacement, interrupted life and disrupted career.
On November 11, 1946, Elisabeth SCHUMANN was back in New York. She died there at the age of 63 on April 23, 1952. But she was buried in London’s St. Martin of Tours Churchyard cemetery because her son lived with his family.
Her name does not appear in any of the public space of her former places of work in Vienna and Salzburg.
- Vienna City and State archives
- Archive of the Salzburg Festival
- ANNO – Austrian Newspapers Online
- Sabine Keil and Joy Puritz: Elisabeth Schumann. Lebensstationen der weltbekannten Merseburger Sopranistin, Axon Verlag, 2008
Translation: Stan Nadel
Laid 17.08.2020 at Salzburg, Max-Reinhardt-Platz