Gerhardt, Elena (1883–1961)

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Gerhardt, Elena (1883–1961)

German-born British mezzo-soprano universally recognized and honored as one of the greatest lieder singers of the 20th century and a master interpreter of the great cultural tradition embodied in the German Romantic song. Born in Leipzig, Germany, on November 11, 1883; died in London on January 11, 1961; married Fritz Kohl.

Born in Leipzig in 1883 into a family that loved music but had produced no professional musicians, Elena Gerhardt exhibited remarkable talent from an early age. While still a student at the Leipzig Conservatory, she was discovered by the renowned conductor Arthur Nikisch, with whom she began to present song recitals. Her first recital, given on her 20th birthday in November 1903, was a huge success and her future was assured. At first, it was assumed that she would become an opera singer, and Gerhardt did in fact appear briefly on stage as an opera singer. She quickly decided, however, that her strength was not in the spectacular theatricality found in standard operas or in the vast music dramas of Richard Wagner. Instead, she chose to explore the infinite variety of human experience to be found in the miniature universe of lieder, the psychologically and emotionally complex German art song. For the remainder of her long and successful career, Elena Gerhardt sang only lieder, mastering to perfection the vast repertory of songs by Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Schumann, as well as songs by Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf, composers who were her contemporaries.

After achieving a spectacular success with her Leipzig debut, Elena Gerhardt toured throughout Germany and Central Europe. Her singing elicited the highest praise, including a compliment from the Italian-born British composer Francesco Paolo Tosti that he believed her to be almost unique among German singers in her ability to sing in the "bel canto" style (she began her singing career as a soprano, but her voice deepened to mezzo-soprano during her maturity). In 1906, she made a profound impression on British music lovers during her first tour of the United Kingdom. One of Gerhardt's British recitals, which included Queen Alexandra of Denmark in the audience, was so wildly successful that she had to encore every one of the 15 songs on the program. During the next years, before the start of World War I in 1914, Gerhardt concertized not only in her native Germany, but in most European countries, including Spain, and in Russia. In January 1912, she made her American premiere in New York City, earning glowing critical reviews. The New York Times praised her for having given a performance that "penetrated deeply into the essence of the German song," going on to state that she was "in fact, a mistress of variety and characteristic interpretation of a wide gamut of moods and emotions." The New York Tribune joined in the chorus of critical praise, describing Gerhardt as "an artist of the finest grade calibre" and pointing out that her phrasing "was truly exquisite." At a subsequent New York recital two weeks later, the Times again commented on the young German singer's "versatility and variety of expression," as well as her ability to project charm and vivacity by means of a voice that combined with rare artistic excellence the attibutes of "beauty, power, and sympathetic quality."

Although she continued to concertize in Germany and Austria-Hungary during World War I, Elena Gerhardt was cut off from her admiring audiences for a number of years because of the war and the period of chaos that followed it. By the mid-1920s, however, she was again an international musical celebrity, performing not only in the major cities of Europe but in the United States as well (by the time she retired, Gerhardt had made 16 tours of the U.S.). In 1928, when she toured the States to commemorate the centennial of Franz Schubert's death, Gerhardt's loyal and enthusiastic audiences, many of whom had been introduced to her artistry through her numerous recordings, now showed up in sold-out recital halls for virtually every one of her appearances. Olin Downes, music critic of The New York Times, reported that the net effect of one of her recitals "was one of uncommon satisfaction and pleasure for an audience which packed the hall." Several weeks later, another enthusiastic New York audience heard Gerhardt give a memorable performance of Schubert's song cycle "Die Winterreise," a setting of 24 lyrics which include some of the Austrian composer's most hauntingly beautiful creations including "Der Lindenbaum," "Die Post," and "Der Leiermann." That evening and on countless other occasions, audiences and critics alike felt that they had experienced what Desmond Shawe-Taylor has described as a performance "of memorably exalted and tragic character." Although "Die Winterreise" is more often than not performed by a male singer, Gerhardt was able to project this tragic figure so effectively that her audiences completely ignored her gender.

The world economic crisis of the early 1930s and the rise of Nazism in Germany resulted in dramatic changes in Elena Gerhardt's life and career. In 1932, on the eve of the establishment of the Hitler dictatorship, she married Dr. Fritz Kohl, director of Radio Leipzig. In 1933, with the onset of Nazi rule, Kohl was arrested for having encouraged broadcasting policies that were "un-German." After Kohl's release from incarceration, Elena Gerhardt and her husband immigrated to Great Britain and found a country where personal security and artistic freedom were assured. Already highly acclaimed by British audiences, Gerhardt continued her concert career. At the same time, she began teaching advanced pupils, both through classes at London's Guildhall School of Music and by giving private instruction.

Soon after arriving in London, Gerhardt continued to make recordings. The most important of these, in the 1930s, were her renditions of the lieder of Hugo Wolf, the Austrian composer whose reputation was still on the rise in the English-speaking world and many of whose songs had not yet been transcribed. In 1931, even before she fled Germany, Gerhardt had been approached by the His Master's Voice recording firm to sign up for a recording project of Hugo Wolf lieder. When she asked for an advance royalty of 300 guineas, a substantial sum, the company replied it was impossible in the midst of a world depression and an uncertain market for the music of a relatively obscure composer. Nevertheless, she went ahead without payment, and recorded the discs as the first installment of the limited-edition subscription set known as The Hugo Wolf Society.

When the first Wolf set sold out immediately after release, many recording executives were astonished but also gratified, and The Hugo Wolf Society recording project continued until 1937 with the issuance of five additional volumes (an additional 20 lieder were recorded in 1937–38, but the projected seventh volume was never issued because of the start of World War II). The Wolf project enlisted other noted singers besides Gerhardt, including John McCormack, Alexander Kipnis, Tiana Lemnitz , and Elisabeth Rethberg , but Elena Gerhardt's recordings remain incomparable in their interpretation of the art of Hugo Wolf. Many critics continue to regard Elena Gerhardt's recordings of Hugo Wolf songs from this phase of her career as the best imaginable introduction to his lieder, and indeed to the art of the German lied in general.

Deeply grateful to her adoptive country for having granted her and her husband refuge from Nazism, Gerhardt performed on many occasions during World War II at the National Gallery concerts in the heart of London. Organized by the renowned pianist Dame Myra Hess , these lunchtime recitals played a crucial role in maintaining the morale of London's population during the worst days of the Blitz. Although the British nation found itself in a life-and-death conflict with Nazi Germany, Elena Gerhardt's wartime audiences were as appreciative as ever of the artistry of a German-born singer who sang the greatest of German lieder in such a heartfelt fashion.

Despite her international celebrity, Elena Gerhardt never took on the airs of a prima donna. As pointed out by her accompanist, Gerald Moore, she was "charming and unpretentious as most great artists are." Before a concert, she would sit quietly, chatting with Moore or others about any subject other than music. In a career than spanned more than four decades, Gerhardt was able to entrance many thousands of music lovers who experienced her ability to dramatically change moods from song to song. In Brahms' "Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer," she was an ailing woman, while in the same composer's "Feldeinsamkeit" she could produce a tone so dematerialized that the world seemed to have stood still. Elena Gerhardt enjoyed a recording career of extraordinary length, making her first recordings in 1907 and her last in 1953, when she was 70. Even in her earliest discs, Gerhardt revealed an astonishing level of artistry, being able to express not only many different moods, but virtually transforming herself into a different personality within each lied.

Elena Gerhardt was, in the words of Gerald Moore, "an instinctive singer, born to sing." Her audiences sensed that all of her subtle effects of tone color, mastery of rhythm and structure of phrasing were not the result of probing analysis or coldblooded calculation, but flowed directly out of her deeply artistic personality. Although she was by any standard a great artist, Gerhardt was at the same time able to remain in many ways a remarkably normal human being. A physically attractive woman, she possessed a lively sense of humor and was extremely sociable, becoming an expert practitioner of the games of bridge and poker. A no-nonsense person who disliked sentimentality, in March 1947 she simply informed her longtime accompanist Gerald Moore, "Gerry, this next concert at Liverpool is going to be my last." Unbeknownst to her Liverpool audience, she simply gave her last recital without any prior announcements, ending her extraordinary performing career of 44 years by partying afterwards with close friends, exhibiting neither melancholy nor tears, displaying instead laughter and high spirits.

After the death of her husband in 1947, Gerhardt continued to live in the charming house they had purchased in the Hampstead district of London, and where she taught pupils from all over the world. She lived her last years "with the same simplicity and dignity" that had marked her long and acclaimed singing career. By the time of her death in London on January 11, 1961, few would dispute the fact that Elena Gerhardt had been successful in her life's mission of converting "the English-speaking world into worshippers of Schubert and his royal succession."


Downes, Olin. "Elena Gerhardt Sings," in The New York Times. February 1, 1928, p. 30.

"Elena Gerhardt, Singer, 77, Dead," in The New York Times. January 12, 1961, p. 29.

"Elena Gerhardt's Recital," in New York Tribune. January 10, 1912, p. 7.

Gerhardt, Elena. My Favorite German Songs. Boston: Ditson, 1915.

——. Recital. St. Clair Shores, MI: Scholarly Press, 1972 (reprint ed.).

——, et al., eds. The Hundred Best Short Songs. 4 vols. London: Paterson, 1930.

"Miss Gerhardt's Recital," in The New York Times. January 25, 1912, p. 11.

Moore, Gerald. Am I Too Loud? Memoirs of an Accompanist. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979.

——. Furthermoore: Interludes in an Accompanist's Life. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1983.

"Opera Has No Lures for Elena Gerhardt," in The New York Times. January 15, 1912, p. 13.

Radford, Winifred. "Elena Gerhardt," in Recorded Sound. No. 40. October 1970, pp. 671–677.

"Recital by Elena Gerhardt," in The New York Times. February 19, 1928, p. 27.

Steane, John. "The Art of Elena Gerhardt," in International Classical Record Collector. Winter 1996.

related media:

The Christmas Album: Holiday Melodies from Around the World [Sony MHK 63309].

Gerhardt/Nikisch: Lieder Recordings [HMV HLM 1436031].

Hugo Wolf Society, 1931–1938: The Complete Edition [EMI CDHE 66640/2, five CDs].

John Haag , Athens, Georgia