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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Beloved Contralto


Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Beloved Contralto

The great contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink was born Tina Rössler in the German- speaking town of Liben, near Prague. Her father was a shoemaker, and the family moved many times in her youth: Chezkoslovakia, Austria, Italy, Germany and Poland, finally to Graz, in Austria, where she had her first voice lessons as a girl in her early teens. In 1877, when was only 16 years old, she made her debut in Graz, singing in a performance of Beethoven's 9th. The following year, she made her opera debut at Dresden's Royal Opera House, singing Azucena in Trovatore. (at 17!) It was during this period that her first big break came, in Hamburg, when she substituted for another singer who had fought with the management and refused to sing. She performed Carmen with one day's notice and no rehearsal! It was a success, spurring the angry (and perhaps jealous) prima donna to walk out altogether, with the result that young Tina sang La Prophete the next night, again with no rehearsal, and Lohengrin the following night, again with no rehearsal! This was an amazing feat for the young woman, and what it means, in essence, is that she knew the roles already, and had them in her head. She was a very hard working woman, and remained so for the rest of her life. Her biography is easily consulted. It is a tale of endless toil and many troubles.

By 1898, she had sung all over Europe and was appearing regularly at both Bayreuth and the Metropolitan. She was very active in the Wagnerian repertoire. Schuman-Heink, as she was by then known, had one of the rarest of voices—a real contralto. There have always been a fair few mezzo-sopranos parading as contraltos, but there have in fact not been that many genuine contraltos. Schuman-Heink was possibly the greatest of them all. The lower register of her voice was very deep, and yet curiously she possessed so solid a technique that the upper register was amazingly flexible, and she commanded an excellent trill and even the ability to sing coloratura passages when required. Here she is in a 1909 recording, when she was already 48 years of age, singing the lovely "Parto, parto," from Mozart's The Clemency of Titus:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVYI6KvtNsA


Isn't that just wonderful! I call your attention especially to the trills and coloratura passages at the very end. This was a voice that had it all...range, timbre, color and flexibility, all handled with a great musical and stylistic sense born of a near lifetime in the theater.

Here is a recording I posted on Youtube just a few days ago—and I believe it may be the only example of it currently up, in which Madame Schumann Heink sings what is easily one of the best known and most loved melodies of the 18th century, Gluck's "Che farò senza Euridice," from Opheus and Euridice. This recording is in German, and dates to 1907:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fxprN6ANF4


This is what might be called tragic lyricism—not easily comprehended or controlled. It is stylistically excellent, exactly in the 18th century tradition. She was not, however, without the extreme dramatic sense that characterized much classical singing in her day, and to a large extent still does now. When she needed it, it was there. Here is a particularly spine-tingling interpretation of Der Erlkönig, a famous poem by Goethe, set to music by Schubert:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxJzBOWNxv0

She seems almost on the point of losing control of herself toward the end, but such are the (melo)dramatic requirements of the song, which depicts the horror of child attacked by a supernatural being, and finally killed.

Schumann Heink established herself in America eventually, and lived in California, on a 500 acre ranch. She was, like Alma Gluck and Louise Homer, very much a musical presence in America in the 20's and early 30's, thanks to her many recordings and regular appearances on the radio. By the mid to late 20s, she was especially known for her Christmas/New Year's appearances, when she commonly sang Brhams' "Lullaby," and—on Christmas Eve—"Silent Night":

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocq6QSofUiw&feature=related

A larger than life figure, Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink elicited extreme affection from her audience, one that resonates even now, some 74 years after her death. One of the true giants of classical music; of that there is no question.

28 comments:

JD Hobbes said...

Larger than life is a good description. She was single-minded and tough, owing largely to her difficult childhood, I imagine.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, her youth was dreadful. When she was 17 or so, she was told by one opera house manager that given her looks and voice, she would be well advised to give up any hopes of an opera career, and ask her father to buy her a sewing machine, so she could make a living as a seamstress. She was abandoned by her husband at one point, when she had just given birth to her 4th child, and in a fit of despair she went to the local railroad statin, with her children, with the intention of thowing the children, then herself, in front of a train. At the last moment, when her daughter, frightened, asked her to take them home, she came to her senses. It is too horrible even to think about. She paid her dues, many, many times over, right up until 1929, when she lost almost everything she had in the crash, and had to go back to singing again, at the age of 69. She was singing Wagner the Met at age 71. God, she was a strong woman!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article, Sir Edmund. I didn’t know about this singer ( I don’t know a lot of singers:)) She is amazing - such a beautiful voice, expressiveness and precision of singing. Her voice is agile and flows freely; I don’t know why , but this effortlessness is a rare quality now. A brilliant artist; it’s easy to understand why she was loved so much ( even though she was not a pretty woman).
I read an article on her personal life - she had four children, and it’s not typical for opera stars, isn’t it?

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much for your comment. Actually, she had four children by her first husband, and three more by a second husband, so she had 7 altogether! And yes, that is truly unusual. She had so much trouble all her life, but she persevered through it all. If you look at the comment I wrote above, to Mr. Hobbes, I outline some of the very difficult circumstances of her life. Life was not easy back then. She goes back even farther than Nezhdanova...she was born in 1861, so that by the time of the Stock Market crash in 1929, she was 68 years old. She lost everything, and had to go back to concertizing again, and even sang on stage. She sang until she was 72 or 73 years old, in order to establish her finances again. A very hard life, but a wonderful artist.

Edmund St. Austell said...

My pleasure, my friend. Thank you for commenting.

JING said...

A very moving commentary and choice of selections. Her pianissimo is astonishing. And those dramatic moments! I have to mention that her "Silent Night" comes as quite a surprise. I have always felt that there is something quite uncanny about this song, a hard-to-describe depth and essence that are often lost through routine and careless performances. Her legato and rallentandi at the end of the phrases made me feel I was hearing it for the first time. Though so much of the quality and range of this magnificent voice come through on these antique recordings, one can only wonder what more today's technology would have captured.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, my friend. Lovely comment, much appreciated. Yes, the voice must have been very fetching indeed. She had, and has, an enormous audience. Her name, like Caruso's, is almost a generic for "opera singer." To judge from one very faint ancient film on Youtube, her presentation was also very dramatic. She was telling stories as well as singing. This comes through especially in Der Erlkoenig, which is such a highly dramatic, even frightening piece.

Thanks again. Nice to hear from you.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much. I really appreciate that. My best, Edmund

PACaso said...

Did Madam Heink ever perform in San Francisco,California? We have in our family a baby grand piano that my father said he bought from Madam Heink. According to the family story, Madam was was moving from a practice studio she had in San Francisco and he was able to purchase the instrument from her. If you are able to give me any information regarding this possibility, please write to pacasoteter@sbcglobal.net Thank you Patricia Caso-Teter

PACaso said...

Did Madam Heink have a studio in San Francisco, California? My father told us that the baby grand pianio that has been in our family for many years ( I am 80 yrs.) was purchased from Mdm Heink when she was moving from a practice studio in San Francisco.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I'm certain she did sing perform in San Francisco. She toured the U.S. for years and years. Let me look into it a little bit, and if I can find any specific information, I'll let you know. Edmund

Edmund St. Austell said...

My pleasure! Thank you very much, I appreciate your comment.

Jerry Eiland said...

Sir Edmund: Would you happen to have any information about those who traveled with the Madame in the early 1900's? I grew up hearing stories of this tiny little woman who was born in India to the English Ambassador; predicted the exact date of her death at 93; always wore widows-weeds; and toured with Madame Schumann-Heink as a back-up pianist. I'm embarrased to say, I don't know her full name and there's no one left in my family to ask. She was my great-grandmother and all I ever heard her called was Granny Brown. Would you have any records with this information? If it helps, I once saw an old newsreel with Madame Schumann-Heink disembarking a ship (I think the Queen Mary) and I'm sure Granny Brown was with her. Thank you in advance.

Edmund St. Austell said...

What a most interesting story! Please give me a little time, and I will look into it, and see if I can find any information. If you wish you could contact me at edmundstaustell@gmail.com and give me a working address for you. I hope we can find something!

Anonymous said...

Do you happen to know her heigth?

Edmund St. Austell said...

Sorry, I don't know.

jehjhk said...

Hello Edmund St. Austell,

I am going to read and research as much information about Madam Schumann-Heink.

My grandmother was a very close friend of Madam Schumann-Heink's. I do know the complete information, but I can tell you that my Grandmother was an accomplished concert pianist. Also, my Mother was a concert violinist and performed at Carnegie Hall at the age of 13.

The music genes continue in our family. It is definitely a "gift", as my Son completed his degree in classical music performance and plays the trumpet (as well as other instruments). He has performed with orchestra's at the Lincoln Center as well as other locations in New York City.

I am now going to look at the You Tube videos as well as ordering Madam Schuman-Heink's updated CD's.

I should mention that my grandmother birthplace was Germany in 1882.

Edmund St. Austell said...

What an interesting story! I wish you well in your research. It will be pleasant one. Schumann-Heink was one of the world's truly great singers, and is remembered fondly even today. You have a lovely task ahead of you!

S. Sarkisian said...

I was introduced to Schumann-Heink's singing by a friend who taught me voice as a young man. It is nice to see that attention has been given this great instrument and person. I love the contralto voice and this is by far the best!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much! An elegant comment, and straight to the point! Yes, I agree!

Gerhard Santos said...

GREAT POST! Such a very useful article. Very interesting to read this article.I would like to thank you for the efforts you had made for writing this awesome article. thanks and Good day! *GOD BLESS*

Scott Wallace said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your post and the many clips on YouTube. My grandfather's sister was married to a man named Sam Frank, who lived in Louisville. He was totally captivated by Madame Schumann-Heink, and sometime during WWI, when she was touring hospitals and camps entertaining our troops, he was able to get a souvenir from her, a white wool scarf that she wore. The Franks gave it to my grandfather's mother who later gave it to my grandfather. It has since passed down to my father and to me. With the scarf I have a letter hand-written by my grandfather in 1952, telling the story of the scarf. I am very proud to have it, and only wish I could have heard her sing in person.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Wallace, for a most interesting comment! Personal stories, of this kind, really help bring it all alive, and bring these great artists back to us, if only for a moment. Very much appreciated. Thank you!

Elizabeth Hilpert said...

What a fine and enjoyable article on such a lovely lady of such significant character. Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink my grandmother knew personally, as Mme. Shumann-Heink was a good friend of my Great-Grandmother Caroline Weyand. They would get together when Mme. Shumann-Heink was either performing or residing in her home in Chicago. After WWI Mme. Shumann-Heink donated her Chicago home to veterans of the war. My Great-Grandfather--who came from Germany to the USA as a Shakesperian actor working the Mississippi paddlewheeler showboats and for awhile the German Theater in Peoria, IL--was once on stage with Mme. Schumann-Heink...but later, in Chicago (when he was manager of his Aunt Louise's costuming business, that being L. Hagemann and Co., which supplied the larger theater's in Chicago and also shipped costumes for the Mississppi showboats in large wicker baskets to keep the costumes fresh via breezes. L. Hagemann and Co. was located close to Hooley's Theater. Hooley's became Powell's and both were strongly associated with the Masons, lodge rooms on upper levels. Paul Shumann, 2nd husband of Mme. Shumann-Heink was a Mason, as were the Weyands. Mme. Shumann-Heink's son Hans married my Grandmother's cousin, Zelda Lina nee Marker (daughter of Peter Marker and Lena/Lina Miller...Lena/Lina being twin of Caroline Weyand's mother). We have a photo of Mme. Shumann-Heink lovingly holding our nation's flag while helping to sell bonds for the war effort. My Grandmother used to recite Mme. Shumann-Heink's poem "A True Home....where even the teakettle sings from happiness..."

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed for an absolutely fascinating comment.The historical detail is riveting! Again, many thanks!

Anonymous said...

I just recently was doing a bit of Family research and came across your website. I am greatly honored that so many people still enjoy her voice and make such nice comments about Madame Schumann-Heink. I am the last living descendant to carry any part of the family name. All others have either passed away or married out of the family and lost the family name. I am still in contact with many of the other descendants and can help answer many of the questions that relate to her personal information. I saw a question about her height and it intrigued me. I have a picture of her in front of a Victrola XVI and I have that same model in my own home. It is my way of knowing her size/height and literally measurable in my own home.

Thank you for your responses to so many about her and let me know if I can help you in any way.

Karl Heink
Heinkman@aol.com

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Heink! I am honored to have a comment from you. I'm glad you enjpyed the article. Madame Schumann-Heink was certainly one of the most beloved singers of her era here in the United States, and still remember very fondly even today. I certainly will forward any appropriate inquires your way, and thanks again! Edmund StAustell

Anonymous said...

Hello. Your blog is a valuable way to learn more about opera. Thank you for this.

My great-aunt, Marie Shramek Brothers (Marie Brothers) was a student of Madame Schumann Heink. I'm attempting to discover more about her singing career in late 19th century/early 20th century Chicago. Marie Brothers and Madame were born in the same area of Bohemia, and I believe theirs' was a lengthly association.

Might there be possible historical information about Marie Brothers in your archives?

I'm very appreciative of your time.