Elisabeth Schumann and Richard Strauss
 
 

 

Elisabeth Schumann being guided around Paris by Richard Strauss in 1921: "I'm a good courier, a middling composer and a dreadful theatre director."

 
One the most important artistic, and personal, relationships of Elisabeth Schumann's life was that with Richard Strauss (1864-1949). The following extracts are from 'Elisabeth Schumann, A Biography' by Gerd Puritz, edited and translated by Joy Puritz (see details below).
 

 
1905 [Schumann first encountered the music of Richard Strauss many years before she actually met him:] Rehearsals for Salome, the new opera by Richard Strauss, were in full swing at the Court Opera [in Dresden]. At that time Richard Strauss was very controversial as an opera composer [. . .] Elisabeth, who had learnt several lieder by Richard Strauss, was particularly interested in the Salome rehearsals. She came out of the first orchestral one quite inspired, and enthused about the music - "These colours, this transparency! Heavenly!" [. . .] She was convinced that it was wonderful music. Later she often said that Richard Strauss had determined the way her life went once she had got to know him. But already in 1905 he was influencing her life indirectly, twelve years before they were to meet.
 
1911 On the 26 January, the Dresden Court Opera gave the first performance of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Its success was great. In February the Hamburg Stadttheater was also to present the new opera. This naturally caused great excitement; for weeks almost nothing else was spoken of among the theatre company but who would sing what. The management had no problem casting the three main parts. [. . .] Only about the casting of Sophie was there doubt [. . .]
 
The role . . . demanded a singer of convincing youthfulness, with girlish innocence. The Hamburg Stadttheater already had two possible ladies: Lotte Lehmann and Elisabeth. Lotte had just had a great success with the role of Anna in the Merry Wives of Windsor, and was virtually promised the role of Sophie by Gustav Brecher. So she began to learn the role. But the management also instructed Elisabeth to get to know the part; that way there would be an understudy in case of illness. As there was a shortage of music the two young ladies had to share one score. As the première drew nearer the management suddenly decided that Sophie should first be sung by Elisabeth. [. . .]
 
The Hamburg première, on February 21 1911, was a sensation. [. . .] Elisabeth took the public by storm. With her Sophie she simply portrayed herself: a young, innocent girl: musically and vocally it was as if the part had been written for her. So it was, that during the presentation of the rose in Act 2 she evoked an almost celestial atmosphere. The phrase "wie himmlische, nicht irdische, wie Rosen aus dem hochheiligen Paradies" ("like heavenly, not earthly roses from the most holy paradise") seemed to come from other spheres. [. . .]
 
The Hamburg production showed what a "silvery light" Sophie could impart to the opera. The librettist himself, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, when he one day heard Elisabeth as Sophie, declared afterwards: "I thought I had created a minor role in Sophie, but she dominates the whole of the second act!"
 
1917 In May came the long awaited meeting with Richard Strauss, on the stage in Zurich, at a rehearsal. Elisabeth described it:
 
I had to sing Zerlina, and as Zerlina does not have to sing near the beginning of the opera I did not turn up until all the others were already gathered - of course I was trembling with excitement. As soon as I arrived Strauss stood up and greeted me most warmly. I was absolutely stunned by his expressive eyes. We started to rehearse again and as I sang I noticed that he often looked up to observe my facial expression or to see how I took a note. I have to admit that I sang with full voice; I did not treat it like a rehearsal.
 
Three years later, in a music magazine, Elisabeth wrote in more detail about her first impressions of working with Strauss:
 
His intellectual face, his open features, his clearly defined yet polished gestures conveyed to me the whole nature of the man, and at the same time gave me the sense of his greatness as a person and artist. His impulsive kindness, which was not of that smarmy, often unpleasant kind, delighted me. The guest appearances with Strauss were for me a period of the most fruitful work. In Zurich we also gave a concert together for the internees. I sang some of his songs. He is a wonderful accompanist. I had never before heard the sound of a whole orchestra coming from a piano.
 
With him music acquired something wonderfully free and wide-reaching. He did not seem to work at rhythmical detail much. But every phrase was shaped to the meaning, and the singing of the melody as a whole was such joy. He was very considerate to singers: they were never drowned by the orchestra. But his way of working at precise phrasing demanded a high degree of musicality.
 
After their first meeting at the Don Giovanni rehearsal Elisabeth and Strauss became good friends. He was staying in the house of the well-known Zürich family, the Reiffs, in the so-called "Genie-Hospiz" ("hostelry for geniuses"), for the Reiffs were exceptionally hospitable to artists. Strauss invited Elisabeth there, where he asked her to sing a couple of his songs. He suggested "Blauer Sommer". When she had sung it he cried: "Ah, a singer who can even sing triplets!"
 
One or two days later Strauss suddenly said that he thought she should sing Salome. When Elisabeth protested that she was a lyric soprano and could not sing such a dramatic role Strauss replied that the youthfulness of her voice, the silvery quality, was exactly what he wanted in the character of Salome. He would go through the role with her and alter bits here and there; anything which was too low he would transpose. He would conduct it himself and keep the orchestra's volume down so that she could last through without any strain.
 
Elisabeth wavered for a few moments, but then her common sense won and she said that one performance of Salome would ruin her voice. Richard Strauss recognized it in the end, so his idea was never realized. [. . .]
 
Strauss whiled away the time with his beloved card game, skat. Elisabeth soon learnt that this playing of skat did not signify an unwillingness to enter intellectual discussion, but was Strauss's way of resting and relaxing. Elisabeth, who was always fascinated by the work of a conductor, held Richard Strauss's conducting art in high esteem. For her biography she dictated:
 
Many people think that Strauss was a boring conductor. But that is because he did not do any antics which one could see well from behind. Everything that went on in his face, the inspiration which he thereby imparted to the singers, was superb. Only sometimes when he was bored he would beat in a strange way, in sort of figure of eight movements. Also he would often beat on mechanically while he turned back the pages of the score to look at something which particularly interested him.
 
1918 . . . she wrote to Richard Strauss, asking him if he might consider being her accompanist on a concert tour in Scandinavia, where she was intending to sing a lot of his songs. In the same letter she mentioned in passing her contract with Dresden. (Secretly she wanted his advice). Strauss replied on December 17 1918:
 
Dear Madam,
 
Thank you so much for your kind invitation, but I am unfortunately unable to follow it up. I have cancelled all concert tours this winter: even you, dear little Zerlina, do not seem to be aware what a journey to Kristiania would involve. At any rate I have given up for the winter, my necessary journeys to Berlin and Vienna are quite enough! I would not take a step in any other direction, not even with you!
 
Are you really going to Dresden? If you want a "change" please do not make one without letting me know beforehand.
 
With the warmest greetings I am sincerely yours,
 
Dr Richard Strauss
 
The last sentence of the letter seems to have been a reminder that he rather wanted Elisabeth to come and work under him. But this would no longer mean Berlin: he was shortly to be appointed co-director with Franz Schalk at the Vienna State Opera [. . .]
 
Word had got round in the theatre world that she had cancelled her contract with Dresden, and one day, as she walked into the theatre she was handed a telegram from Berlin. She read: "Have just heard that you are free. Offer you contract with the Vienna State Opera. Dr Richard Strauss." [. . .]
 
Elisabeth had an idea that she might be able to persuade Loewenfeld [director of the Hamburg Stadttheater] to let her sing for half the season in Vienna and the other half in Hamburg. Loewenfeld absolutely refused: he knew that as soon as Elisabeth sang in Vienna he would lose her for ever. He even went so far as to make it impossible for her to give the obligatory guest performances there: he would grant her no leave for them. Elisabeth's letter explaining this could hardly have reached the maestro before a second telegram came from him: "Will engage you without guest performances." [. . .]
 
By the time Strauss received Elisabeth's indecisive letter the contract was already in the post to her. He had been so certain she would accept. He addressed his reply not to Elisabeth but to her husband [the conductor Carl Alwin]. He felt sure that such an ardent admirer of his as Alwin would do all he could to sort things out. He wrote on April 13 1919:
  
Dear friend and colleague!
 
Please say to your dear, charming but, as it seems, rather indecisive wife that I cannot and will not accept her refusal of the Vienna contract, for I have looked forward to having your wife far too much for me to release her just like that, simply because Dr Loewenfeld is putting all sorts of ideas into her head. The situation in Vienna is as safe as anywhere, and for an artist like your wife prospects couldn't be more brilliant - whoever the government might be and whatever might happen. . .I do not understand the dear little lady. Hamburg compared to glorious Vienna!! Please talk to her and don't let her think of being unfaithful to me.
 
I am firmly relying on your authority as husband and on the pull of Vienna. I know what a magnificent position your wife would win for herself in Vienna, and she would languish under Hamburg's rain-drenched skies! Be a kind, wise fellow and keep your word with me.
 
With warm regards to you both
 
Dr Richard Strauss
 
I am unfortunately not very well otherwise I would write more insistently!
 
This letter dispelled Elisabeth's doubts for the most part and any remaining reservations were eliminated by Alwin's "authority as husband", so Elisabeth put her signature to the contract sent to her by the Austrian Federal Theatres. [. . .]
 
1919 On November 10 Elisabeth was due to give a concert in Berlin with orchestra under Arthur Nikisch. This meant the possibility of seeing Richard Strauss. [. . .] On the day of her arrival in Berlin a messenger brought a letter from the concert management saying that because the railway system was still not working properly Herr Nikisch was unfortunately not going to be able to make the concert in time; Herr Strauss had agreed to take over and she was to contact him immediately. This she did joyfully. In discussing the programme they both agreed that it would be a shame not to take the opportunity of singing some of Strauss's own songs. They decided on "Morgen", "Die heiligen drei Könige" and "Meinem Kinde". They also added Mozart's Exsultate Jubilate, which showed off Elisabeth's coloratura so well. Strauss wrote her a cadenza for the first aria. He scribbled it in pencil on the back of a hand-written orchestral part which was not going to be used, and when he gave it to her he said with a twinkle in his eye: "It's not so easy composing Mozart."
 
This concert in Berlin with Strauss, and also a recital with him on November 19, were in a way a starting point from which Elisabeth rapidly became world famous. It was as if the peace which now reigned was relaxing an iron grip on her existence. Suddenly she could radiate far and wide - the restrictions of war had been blown away. People were still hungry, but they were not hungry only for food: they flocked to the many concerts which were put on every evening. Inside eighteen days Elisabeth herself gave three concerts: the two with Strauss and, on the 28th, one with Alwin, after which a critic wrote: "Schumann has become famous overnight." With those three concerts she truly conquered Berlin. When commenting on her performance of Exsultate Jubilate the critics said that she had the purest Mozart style since Lilli Lehmann (who in fact had rediscovered the motet); that "her singing rises out of the subconscious. She does not sing, the singing is in her, flows out of her. In a sense she just stands there, and the miracle happens"; that she and Strauss made a rare duet of conductor and singer in the spirit of Mozart; that Frau Schumann had the Berliners in her pocket. [. . .]
 

 

Richard Strauss in 1919; a lithograph by Max Liebermann, an illustratration from Elisabeth Schumann's introduction to 'German Song'

 
1920 Probably her most important role that season [in Vienna] was as Despina in a new production of Cosí fan tutte conducted by Richard Strauss. An attempt at achieving the greater intimacy of a chamber opera was made by building the stage out over the orchestra pit, where most of the action then took place. The lights in the auditorium were not dimmed throughout the opera, thus bringing the audience much nearer to the action. A critic maintained that this role was so far Elisabeth Schumann's best and that they had not had such a talented soubrette in Vienna for many a year.
 
1921 Carl was always on the alert for new opportunities for his wife. [. . .] One day he rushed home from rehearsal and told her excitedly that a telegram had arrived from New York which said that a woman was required to sing with Strauss on his tour, instead of the baritone Franz Steiner.
 
Why could not she go! He rang up Strauss, full of enthusiasm. And the maestro agreed at once.
 
So, in the early summer of 1921, the Viennese read in their newspapers:
 
Director Dr Richard Strauss and Elisabeth Schumann of the State Opera have been engaged for a concert tour throughout North America. Frau Schumann will leave for New York on 20th October and stay until 10th January in America, where she will sing Strauss works in sixteen concerts. [. . .]
 
Both Elisabeth and Strauss were unhappy at leaving Europe: Elisabeth because of the length of time away from Alwin, and Strauss because he feared the tour would be boring. With that comment he raised his eyes heavenwards in a typical gesture. "Oh well, at least I've brought plenty of manuscript paper with me," he then said cheerfully. [ . . .]
 
[From Munich] Elisabeth and Strauss travelled through the night in adjacent sleepers, Franz Strauss joining the train at midnight. By the time they reached Paris Strauss had persuaded Elisabeth to come and stay in the Grand Hotel with him instead of the Majestic. "We want to see Paris," he said, "so we must stay together." Strauss loved Paris; everything there was to his taste. For their first lunch he chose Prunier, where they enjoyed oysters and Elisabeth's favourite: lobster. She praised his choice of restaurant, whereupon he said: "Yes, I'm a good courier, a middling composer and a dreadful theatre director." He was not, however, always so modest: later, in America, he said one evening to Elisabeth: "It is difficult writing endings. Beethoven and Wagner were able to do it. Only the great can do it. I can do it too."
 
On the evening of their first day Elisabeth summed up its events excitedly:
 
After lunch we went at once to the Louvre - wonderful impressions - stood for ages in front of the Mona Lisa too - then by car to the Château de Madrid in the Bois - beautiful drive, coffee - elegant people - discreet music with modern dances - we sat outside "au soleil" - back by car as far as the Place de [la] Concorde from where we walked down to the Seine and enjoyed the view. Strauss spoke about architecture - I admire his many interests - we returned to the hotel - I announced that I had to go to bed or else I would keel over with tiredness. . . the Dr. . .has just shown me the separate entrance to his bathroom which he says I should use as well. He is so sweet.
 
The next day they went up the Eiffel Tower:
 
Wonderful view - had coffee, Strauss talked about his new ballet, which he wrote in the summer. It is called "Schlagobers" [whipped cream] and he said jokingly: "Oh yes, when one gets old one has ideas like that."
 
So far the journey was not proving quite so bad after all; there was always something interesting happening. Having embarked on October 19 at Cherbourg, Elisabeth was lying in her rather cramped cabin writing when Richard Strauss knocked at the door. He was wanting her plan of the ship because he had met the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin on board; the latter was going to try to find them better cabins. "What fun this is going to be!" Elisabeth immediately noted in her diary. "What interesting company!" But Chaliapin was not often around: "he sits in the Turkish bath all morning," she wrote two days later. But every now and then Elisabeth would play an amusing game of poker, with Strauss, Franz, Chaliapin and the singer Lucrezia Bori. Chaliapin kept calling Elisabeth "Madonna" because she reminded him of a Madonna he had seen in a Russian church.
 
One day at table the captain asked Elisabeth if she would be willing to take part in a charity concert on board in aid of seamen's widows and orphans; Chaliapin had already agreed to take part. Elisabeth was glad to oblige, and Strauss willingly accompanied.
 
25 Oct. '21 . . . had great success with three Strauss songs. Chaliapin sang too - wonderful artist - unfortunately not quite on top form any more. Then a lady played a violin sonata by Strauss too. Strauss is so delightful and always intent on my success. Before the concert he said: "Why not hold your top notes a little longer, don't always sing so precisely." Afterwards I asked him: "Well, did I sing the top notes long enough?" - "Yes," he said gaily, "but always with a bit of a guilty conscience. . . .He beamed at my success. [. . .]
 
The very next day Elisabeth had to start working with Richard Strauss; their first concert was on the following Tuesday, in Philadelphia. It could be quite strange working with the Doctor sometimes: rather grumpily he would sit down at the piano - it made Elisabeth a bit nervous. But in the first song his face would clear. He would nod encouragingly and not interrupt until they had gone right to the end. Only then would he pick out the odd place for rehearsal. He would grow warmer by the minute. At the end he would beam, stand up, kiss Elisabeth's hand and say: "You sing like an angel, like a violin."
 
But there was not much time to rehearse. Invitation upon invitation flooded in: there were receptions galore. First Diamond's great dinner to which mostly German artists were invited, including the singer Claire Dux and the pianist Elly Ney who were both engaged to perform in orchestral concerts with Strauss. And then, at noon on Sunday October 30, it was out to the Untermyers' beautiful estate by car. It lay in a charming location, high above the River Hudson. There was a garden with little Greek temples, an open-air theatre and wonderful Greek archaeological finds. [. . .]
 
In the afternoon I sang Strauss songs, the new ones ["Schlechtes Wetter", "Einerlei", "Der Pokal", "Waldesfahrt", "Der Stern"] - everyone cheered enthusiastically. Tomorrow Mrs Untermyer is moving to her town apartment which is also in 5th Avenue, very near to our hotel - and we are invited to lunch with her again the day after tomorrow. If it goes on like this we can save a lot of money; so far I haven't paid for a single lunch! [. . .]
  
The next day Strauss was tired and on edge. But the train was very comfortable and the journey to Philadelphia not long. Elisabeth hoped Strauss's mood would have improved by the time of their recital. And sure enough, when the moment came for them to go on stage, he was as calm as he always was before performing. Elisabeth was dreadfully nervous.
 
Now I have survived the first concert - it was, thank God, a great and wonderful success. Of the new songs "Schlechtes Wetter"" won hands down - we even had to do it again. I was in good voice, but I didn't enjoy myself one bit - I was unbelievably nervous and agitated - oh, this profession! My nerves aren't on top form at the moment. If only it were all over and I were at home! After the concert I ate quite alone with "Richardl" - he congratulated me so sweetly on my success and was delighted. By tomorrow midday we will be back in New York, thank God . . . Now I shall sink dead tired into bed.
 
Elisabeth's happiness at being able to work with Strauss is conveyed in a letter written to her friend Lene Jung on November 7:
 
Warmest greetings from our chase around America. Have already celebrated many triumphs and am happy at my success. . . Everywhere mayors hold receptions for Strauss - this is an important time for me and it is a great joy to be able to tour the New World with this man! And of course we are together all day, we usually share a little apartment in a hotel, and on a personal level it is a particular pleasure to live so close to him. . .
 
Strauss made music-making a pleasure. He would radiate calm, and Elisabeth could interpret in the confidence of knowing that the authority of the great man was right behind her. The audience could sense this and were all the more enthusiastic. The concert in Chicago was a good example of this:
 
Evening of 6.XI.21. Wonderful concert - huge success - the hall had about 4,800 people in it - but a heavenly acoustic. Didn't get at all tired. Countless repeats and encores. [The singer] Mary Garden applauded like mad. Also saw [the conductor] Giorgio Polacco again. After the concert, supper at the German Club. Will sleep well tonight, am pleased with myself today.
 
Everything with the concerts seemed to go well even when there were problems:
 
9.XI.21. [In] Pittsburgh terrible rain - impossible to put a foot outside. . . Concert great success - [audience] not as warm as in Chicago. Strauss said: "You sing much too beautifully for these people". . . The music was missing for the last number, "All mein Gedanken". Strauss said: "I know it off by heart". But he played such a hotchpotch of notes that I can't think how I managed to keep in the right key. Otherwise I was very calm, I wasn't even tired afterwards - I've learnt the trick of pacing myself. [. . .]
 
Strauss must have been beginning to feel the strain, as his grumpiness on their arrival in Baltimore on November 10 indicated. One could see it in his angular movements as he stepped off the train. Nothing pleased him. The porter seemed to be mishandling the cases: the bottle of Château Margeaux was going to get smashed! [Strauss's son] Bubi, the idiot, was standing around doing nothing; instead of seeing after the luggage. What did he come on this barbaric journey for in the first place? What a trial and a sacrifice this tour was!
 
Once in the car Elisabeth asked Strauss how he could think of the tour as a sacrifice considering how many marks they got to the dollar - 180! "Yes, yes," he replied, "I'm only doing it so that I can one day afford to live in Italy again." Elisabeth wondered how he could not afford to anyway, and remembered how he had made Franz clean his own and his father's shoes in the hotel in New York in order to save 50 cents. [. . .]
 
We were sitting at breakfast - his elbows were working - bad sign - at last I broke the spell and made such fun of everything - especially his scolding of Franz, that we started laughing like mad. Otherwise I couldn't stand it if he moaned all the time. But mornings are a bad time - that I have learnt. At midday his mood clears - then he is sorry about his gruffness - and in the evening he is charming. . .
 
Somehow Baltimore made Elisabeth's spirits rise. There was a sparkle in the air, a brightness, a cheerfulness. It gave her confidence for the recital, despite the night spent in a sleeping car.
 
Baltimore is a charming town, and the people are very enthusiastic - it was a colossal success with countless repeats and encores. I was a tiny bit tired. . . but paced myself well. I now know the trick. . . After the concert there were masses of people in the artists' room - everyone was thrilled. "Yes, that is how we sing in Germany," said Strauss. . . Two daughters of a musical director in Baltimore came to me quite beside themselves. I was sitting on a chair in the artists' room, they knelt on either side of me and kissed my hands. They were lovely young creatures, pretty as pictures.
 
Elisabeth did not mind sleeping on trains. But the clockwork precision with which the schedule had been planned, and with which it had to be kept, was somewhat trying. [. . .]
 
But there was an unpleasant side-effect to all this precision and punctuality: it ran so smoothly that she did not have to think, and sometimes forgot where she was. In her interview she further related:
 
Once, to my great regret, I hurt the feelings of a very nice lady. She asked me where I was going to sing the following day, and I said, after careful deliberation, "I think in Baltimore!" "Excuse me," the lady retorted, somewhat piqued, "you're in Baltimore now!" [. . .]
 
They had time to have a quick evening meal in Boston. "Strauss christened me 'Elobsterbeth'. . . (because I once again had a lobster on my plate) . . ." [. . .]
 
After a few days of rest, when tiredness really hit Elisabeth worse than ever, they were off on a twenty-five-hour train journey to St Louis. Despite this, Elisabeth was in good voice, and the concert on November 21 was a great success. (Upon their arrival, the local paper had been full of the fact that "The Waltz King is here", with a picture of the statue of Johann Strauss in the Vienna Volksgarten). [. . .]
 
Elisabeth liked Indianapolis much better than St Louis: "Quite a pretty town". But on the day of the concert the weather was awful:
 
27.XI.21. Dreadfully foggy day - you couldn't see a thing. I started the first song full of catarrh - felt that Strauss was laughing at me, turned my head slightly and saw the corners of his mouth near to his ears. I wasn't bothered by the frogs - in fact we were both in such a silly mood. Few people in the hall - virtually performed to ourselves - got through it fantastically so that Strauss said at the end: "One cannot sing more beautifully than that, no, one cannot sing more beautifully than that." Just now we played poker in the train and he told me that I look particularly pretty from the side when singing. . . He often says nice things to me, strokes me a lot - he likes me very much. [. . .]
 
The next evening, in Cleveland, the public went mad with enthusiasm, making Elisabeth sing almost another whole concert, what with all the encores they demanded. Strauss was, as always, lavish with his praise. In fact, he often made it sound as if their successes were largely due to Elisabeth's performance, but she knew perfectly well that his reputation and genius played a large part. Later, in Vienna, Elisabeth said in her interview:
 
Everywhere one could feel the terrific tension with which people regarded Richard Strauss, and nowhere did we feel that these people had come out of snobbery or plain curiosity. Their enthusiasm was clearly genuine, and for the first time in my life I saw, twenty times in succession, concert halls completely packed with people. . . I experienced the most wonderful thing in one town where, when Strauss entered the hall, the whole audience, from the front row to the back, stood up. Quite spontaneously and silently. [. . .]
 
Detroit 7.12.21. Arrived 9 a.m. Unlucky day - trunk did not arrive. Had to buy dress, shoes, stockings, while the manager rushed around trying to find music. He only got hold of some of it. . .
 
Here was a real panic situation: a concert that evening and only half the music there! In her newspaper interview in Vienna Elisabeth described how they coped:
 
I suggested putting one or two Schubert songs into the programme, and Strauss rehearsed them with me in the hotel. He played, then he took his hands from the keys, looked at me and said: "You know, I'll spoil my chances if you sing these wonderful pieces after my songs!" The joke was that the American public, who had come to hear compositions by Richard Strauss, only accorded Franz Schubert a succès d'estime.
 
Elisabeth wondered whether she was singing the Schubert songs to Strauss's liking. But when she asked him rather doubtfully whether he liked her interpretation, he answered: "I'm really not that musical. My ear isn't that precise either."
 
Not surprisingly the concert proceeded quite differently from normal; one particularly remarkable thing happened:
 
Strauss as always completely calm. Thank goodness, because I was rather nervous. But in the evening I was in good voice - great success. I announced each song individually, which the audience particularly liked. Schubert songs "Musensohn", "Frühlingstraum", "Forelle", "Geheimnis" and "Lied im Grünen". We had managed to get various Strauss songs, and some of them Strauss played from memory. He is not a good by-heart-player, and something extraordinary happened in "All mein Gedanken". Already after the third bar he didn't know what he was doing any more and composed an entirely new song. I leapt along with him, the words fitted perfectly, no one in the audience suspected a thing, and when we got to the end I turned my eyes to the right to see what his reaction was. All I saw was him grinning from ear to ear - I really found it hard to find the calm and seriousness required for the next song. After the group we couldn't stop laughing in the artists' room, and I asked him to write down the new "All mein Gedanken" straightaway afterwards, but he replied: "Oh, I've already completely forgotten it." What a pity! I liked it much more than the original.
 
On the way to the station afterwards Elisabeth asked Strauss again if he could not write it down. He replied: "It just leapt down the stairs - and no one saw it." [. . .]
 
But this endless performing even began to blunt Strauss's enthusiasm. Two days later the two of them were giving a concert in Cincinnati at three o'clock in the afternoon. Suddenly Strauss stood up from the piano and walked out, right in the middle of a group of songs. He had mumbled something which Elisabeth had not understood. Should she follow him out? Undecided she remained at the piano. The audience sat quiet as mice waiting for something to happen. The passings seconds seemed like an eternity. What was the matter? Had Richard become ill? After a few minutes he was back, seating himself at the piano as if nothing had happened. He explained afterwards, grinning: "My digestion seemed more important to me than the concert." [. . .]
 
After an even longer break of six days Elisabeth was again caught up in the excitement of New York musical life, but this time in quite a novel way. She agreed to take part in a trial of that new technological achievement which was so strongly to influence the civilized world and which was to become so important for musicians. The big New York piano dealers, Knabe Pianos, were putting on a musical afternoon, in front of an invited audience, for those new "wireless" machines about which the whole world was talking. In addition, a new kind of player-piano was to be introduced, the Ampico.
 
So, on December 22 1921, Elisabeth Schumann became one of the first great singers ever to sing in a radio broadcast - and it was live, of course. First she performed three songs with Strauss at the piano. Then she sang to some other, played back, accompaniments, which Strauss had just before recorded with the Ampico.
 
3,500 wireless sets were tuned in, and I could be heard all over America and at sea. The audience, about 300 strong, were very enthusiastic - a very interesting audience, the cream of society, and all the artists staying here, including [Artur] Schnabel. . . when I sang with his [Strauss's] accompaniment while he was sitting in the audience, he beamed like a child at Christmas. [. . .]
 
The last few hours before embarking for Europe turned into a mad rush. Not until she was out at sea could Elisabeth breathe easily again and draw a line underneath the tour.
 
31.12.21. Evening, on board the Olympic. So Strauss did manage it after all that I should make records with him. He gets so much done on my behalf, and with what tenacity!
 
In Reading someone asked him when records of him and me would be coming out, and he replied dryly: "Whenever Frau Dux permits it." He told this to the "International" - and this did the trick. For eight weeks we were in America, and on the last morning, two hours before my departure, I had to sing records. At a quarter to 12 I raced on board, at 12 the Olympic set sail. It was a frightful rush, I just hope the recordings turn out well [they were in fact never issued]. No one was happier over his triumph than "Richardl", and at our parting [he still has some orchestral concerts to do] he folded me in his arms and kissed me on both cheeks. . .
 
Here I shall end this little diary. . .and of you, great man, of you RICHARD STRAUSS, I think with a grateful heart and thank you with all the sincerity I can command. You were a wonderful friend - at your side I was protected from all intrigues and managers' tricks.
 
You were always intent on my success, cared for my wellbeing and brought me medicine, like a father to his beloved child. I have got to know you as one of the noblest of people, who supports, with the whole of his personality, the cause of truth and honesty. It was a wonderful time, these two and a half months, being daily, even hourly at your side. You always have something to give, even when you are silent.
 
I am indebted to you for the rest of my life - one day you will see how grateful I am and that I will never forget you! [. . .]
 
1922 The success [in Salzburg] was boundless. Many, many times the singers had to reappear before the curtain with their conductor, Richard Strauss - again and again. [Schumann's son] Schnuck was allowed to watch from the wings and was surprised that Strauss was always there too. He said to him: "Why are you bowing as well? You haven't done anything!" To which Strauss replied: "Quite right, little lad, I've done nothing!" Perhaps he was partly serious; perhaps he had felt what a miracle the place they were in had wrought on the performance. [. . .]
 
One lunchtime C, who always had the latest theatre news, came home even more hastily and excitedly than usual (on arriving home he would always tear open all the doors calling hoarsely: "Elisabethchen! Elisabethchen!"), with the woeful tidings that she was not to sing in Don Pasquale at all until later on. Ivogün was singing. Elisabeth was only to take over when Ivogün was gone. Second cast!
 
At first Elisabeth took it calmly. But when she started to think about it the situation began to rankle. She had been in Vienna three years now, and her roles were always Sophie, Susanna, Zerlina, Marcellina, Micaela. Here was a new role at long last, and what happened? - she was placed in the second cast!
 
Strauss was in Garmisch so Elisabeth went straight to Schalk and protested. Not long after that a letter came from Strauss:
 
Garmisch, 23.10.22
 
Dear Schumännchen!
 
Direktor Schalk has told me of your complaints and justified wishes. I am in complete agreement about complying with your request for new roles. . . I hear that you have refused to sing after Ivogün. I most ernestly entreat you to reconsider on the following grounds: the performances in the ballroom need to have a sensational start if they are to continue to be a box office draw for some time. Works like Figaro and Barber do not usually need this. Not so with the weaker Don Pasquale, for the première of which not even the best house cast would be sufficient to cover costs in such a place as the ballroom. Therefore I decided on the engagement of Ivogün who, with such a rare guest appearance in Vienna, would give the première enough sensation to allow 30 more performances in the ballroom with the equally good house cast. These are not artistic considerations but purely business ones. I beg you to respect these and to declare yourself willing after all to sing Don Pasquale after Frau Ivogün without feeling slighted, which is the last thing we would want.
 
Please be the good and sensible artist you always are! Please co-operate: I promise you that everything will be done to compensate in other ways.
 
With warmest greetings from all of us . . . to you and Alwin,
 
Your ever sincere and devoted
 
Dr Richard Strauss
 
Almost immediately Elisabeth's feelings changed. If that was the reason, these business considerations&emdash;well then. . . Had she not vowed never to forget what he had done for her? And how near to his heart her wishes always seemed to lie! [. . .]
 
 

 

Villa Strauss in Garmisch

 
1924 There was an invitation from Strauss to visit his country house, "Villa Strauss", in Garmisch. How wonderful to be allowed to see him in his own home and where so much heavenly music had come into being! - Der Rosenkavalier, Salome, Elektra and the many, many songs.
 
Tall, dark pines stood thickly round the site so that visitors could not see the white-walled house with its red-tiled roof until they were at the gate. There they had to say who they were into an electric gadget, then the creaking gate let them onto the paved path leading to the house.
 
If anyone held sway in Richard Strauss's country house it was his wife, Pauline. The parquet floor was the first indication; it compared favourably with a still mountain lake - spotless and cool, it reflected everything around it. The concomitant row of felt slippers stood impressively along the wall of the entrance hall: one was kindly requested to choose a pair to pull on over one's shoes.
 
C looked so comical in those thick slippers! Even taller, and his legs even lankier. Of course he immediately started fooling around, intoning the giants' leitmotif from Der Ring des Nibelungen and making arm movements to suggest a tree trunk of a staff in his hand. Thus he slid with long skating strides into the drawing room. Even in the maestro's house he had to play the fool! But his boss let him do what he liked, and was even perhaps quite glad that these obligatory abominations of felt could allow a bit of fun in all this rigid orderliness. However, Alwin was quickly slapped down by the sobering voice of the mistress of the house: would he please sit down and stop this silliness; the parquet had already been polished, thank you!
 
The house was embarrassingly clean and tidy; everything was in place, there was not a bit of fluff to be seen; even the maestro's large study lined with books was in perfect order. The composer's grand piano was so polished it seemed to be laughing at one.
 
This great artist, confined in this regimental household! A wife who jealously watched over his everyday routine, who would burst in and call him out for his daily walk, who could not abide a minute's lateness at table . . . yet she herself was an artist. She had met him when she was a singer, Fräulein de Ahna, from the beer-brewing family Pschorr; a wilful little madam with a voice which had made him prick up his ears. According to Alma Mahler-Werfel he is supposed to have proposed to her immediately after a rehearsal at which she had thrown her vocal score at his head! He rather liked her tactless, frank remarks and seemed to need a domineering partner. They gave recitals together, and he laughed at her objection to any piano postludes in his songs: "With your pattering postludes you ruin all my applause!" He would do anything for her, even compose songs without postludes! But life could not have been a bed of roses for her either; Elisabeth remembered how moody he had sometimes been in America, how hard, cold and snappish. Pauline was also up against another problem; she once asked: "What does one do with a man who, when he begins to get sensual, starts composing?!" Yes, he needed this woman who would not let him get away with anything.
 
But then he could be charm itself No sooner had he gathered that his guests were thinking of buying a house in the mountains than he suggested: why not build one? And why not in Garmisch, near to him? What could be a lovelier spot, with here the wonderful view onto the Zugspitze massif with its wild, craggy rocks, and there the view onto the long range of the Wetterstein Mountains, which glowed in the evening light? The only sensible thing to do was to build. The farmers were always glad to make a bit of money selling a piece of land.
 
So Elisabeth and C found a patch of meadowland not at all far from the Strausses for their longed-for country home. It was to be a cosy little house, mainly for holidays of course, but with room enough for a piano - C insisted on that. Strauss wanted to give them his grand piano as a moving in present, but they would not hear of it.
 

 

Elisabeth Schumann, Vienna 1920s

 
1926 Richard Strauss . . . was working on a new opera, Die Ägyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helen), for which Hugo von Hofmannsthal had written the libretto. He wanted to give his collaborator an impression of the music, not just by playing it on the piano but with the human voice. He wondered whether Elisabeth would be so kind as to learn Helena's first big aria, "Ein Feuer brennt, ein Tisch ist gedeckt" ("A fire is lit, a table laid"). He would then invite Hofmannsthal and one or two friends to his large house in the Jaquingasse to hear her sing it to his accompaniment.
 
March 27 was the date chosen. Not until the morning did Elisabeth receive the pages of manuscript with Strauss's tiny writing. She only had the melody line and the words. It was a highly dramatic aria, six pages long, an aria which she would never dream of performing on stage as a lyric soprano. And how was she to learn it in a few hours without an accompaniment? Alwin came to his wife's rescue, improvising an accompaniment in as Straussian a fashion as he could. By the afternoon's performance she was note-perfect and confident.
 
Hofmannsthal was spellbound by the music. The day after the little concert he wrote to Strauss from his home in Rodaun:
 
The joy which this "Helena" music has given me is, I think, greater than that which any of your compositions have ever given me before, and I feel that I am justified in this, although I have not the means to express myself properly. But, poor though my ear may be, I evidently have some kind of sense of the essence of music, and this sense was most deeply touched yesterday. . . The feeling this music has left me with is truly spellbinding; everything so light and bright, even in all that great, unalloyed solemnity. I am happy beyond measure. 
 
Elisabeth asked whether she might keep the manuscript, and Strauss presented it to her with the droll dedication: "To the first Helena, Elisabeth, in memory of March 27 1926."
 
1933 [Schumann fell in love with a doctor called Hans Krüger in 1932 , and she and Carl Alwin were divorced in November 1933.] Elisabeth had to pay for her happiness with the loss of something irreplaceable: the friendship of Richard Strauss. For the rest of her life Elisabeth always assumed that his wife Pauline had decreed that Schumann was no longer a respectable person, and that all contact should cease, but it was probably largely out of loyalty to Alwin that he now avoided all contact with her. The political developments of the next decade were to make separation inevitable in any case, and Elisabeth only met him twice more in her life: once by chance on a mountain path near Garmisch, when they exchanged little more than a polite greeting, and once, right at the end of the composer's life, in London.
 

 

Elisabeth Schumann, London 1946

 
1947 For Elisabeth the cultural highlight of that autumn in London was going to be the concert in the Albert Hall by the recently formed Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Richard Strauss. The eighty-three-year-old composer had come to London without his wife - flying for the first time in his life.
 
At the end of the concert, in which Don Juan, Burleske and Sinfonia Domestica were performed, Elisabeth was moved almost to tears. She wanted to leave at once but friends held her back, old Viennese colleagues and London friends crowded round her. "You must go to him! - You must!" they cried at her from all sides.
 
Strauss half turned as he heard someone coming into the artists' room. He was completely exhausted, just looked at her and did not recognize her. Elisabeth wished the earth would swallow her up. Then he asked: "Who are you?" When she quietly replied "Elisabeth" he brightened and said: "Good God, Schumann! I hear you still sing so well."
 
After very few more words Elisabeth quickly left. For a long time she could not bring herself to tell anyone what had happened. Finally, months later, when Lene had repeatedly asked her about it, she described the scene adding: "With 'great Richard' it was so disappointing because I was completely alone with him - and he did not recognize me! It was very embarrassing, and I wish I had never gone to see him."
 
1949 On September 8 news came through that the kidney disease from which Richard Strauss had been suffering had got much worse. The following day the unhappy news was spreading round the whole world: that early in the afternoon of September 8 the great man had died in Garmisch. At home - at least it had been in his home where he had created so much. "My poor Strauss! Am very sad - what a loss!"
 
© Joy Puritz 1993

'Elisabeth Schumann, A Biography' by Gerd Puritz, edited and translated by Joy Puritz, was first published by André Deutsch in 1993 and reprinted, with corrections, by Grant & Cutler Ltd, London 1996 (paperback, £14.99, ISBN 0-7293-0394-2)
 
Copies may be obtained directly from the publishers: Grant & Cutler Ltd, 55-57 Great Marlborough Street, London W1F 7AY, England (email: orders@grantandcutler.com, website: www.grantandcutler.com).