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Schumann, Elisabeth (1885–1952)

Schumann, Elisabeth (1885–1952)

German soprano. Born in Merseburg, Thuringia, Germany, on June 13, 1885; died in New York on April 23, 1952; studied with Natalie Hänisch in Dresden, Marie Dietrich in Berlin, and Alma Schadow in Hamburg; married Karl Alwin (a conductor).

Debuted at the Hamburg Opera as the Shepherd in Tannhäuser (1909); made Metropolitan Opera debut (1914); was a principal member of the Vienna State Opera (1919–38); made Covent Garden debut (1924); lived in the United States and taught at the Curtis Institute of Music (from 1938); became an American citizen (1944).

Possessed of a "a clear and high soprano of pure quality and agreeable timbre, a voice possessing the bloom of youth," Elisabeth Schumann became a highly popular opera singer from her debut in Hamburg in 1909. She had been born into a musical family in Thuringia, Germany, in 1885, to parents who recognized her talents and saw to it that she received sound training from childhood. She was also a descendant of Henriette Sontag , who had been the first solo soprano in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and his Ninth Symphony.

After achieving immediate success in all of Europe's major opera houses, Schumann made her American debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in November 1914. She won high praise for her interpretation of Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, which would go on to become one of her best-known roles, as well as for her acting ability. During the remainder of the season she spent at the Met, Schumann performed as Papagena, Gretel, the first flower maiden in Parsifal, and Musetta. She then returned to the Hamburg Opera, performing there until 1919, when composer Richard Strauss engaged her to sing at the Vienna Opera. Her career soared both in Vienna and on the frequent tours she took with the company, and she became acclaimed particularly for the clarity and beauty with which she sang in Mozart's operas. She also became known as a supreme Lieder singer, and in 1921 traveled back to the U.S. with Strauss to perform many of his Lieder on tour.

Schumann made her London debut (again as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier) in 1924 at Covent Garden; her appearance there two years later, singing Mozart, was considered one of the season's highlights. In the 1920s and early 1930s, while still performing at the Vienna Opera, she was a featured singer at the Munich festival and appeared four times at the Salzburg festival. Her reputation as a Lieder singer and as a stellar performer of Mozart's operas continued to grow, and she made frequent guest appearances on the best European opera stages and also toured South America. Schumann's characterizations of Despina, Susanna, Zerlina, and Blonchen were considered especially memorable. In 1931, she performed again in New York, giving a concert recital at Town Hall that prompted music critic Olin Downes to write that "she recreated [Schubert's] spirit" while singing his songs. In the mid-1930s, on a return trip to the U.S., she performed at the White House before some 300 guests as well as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt .

Schumann was a revered citizen of Vienna, and had been granted one of the city's highest tributes when she was made an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic. However, her husband Karl Alwin, the conductor, was Jewish, and after the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in March 1938 they fled Vienna for America. She gave up her opera career in mid-stream, and that year joined the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Schumann devoted the rest of her life to teaching and singing Lieder, becoming an American citizen in 1944. At her death in New York in 1952, she left a valuable legacy in her influence on American singers and a series of recordings for the Victor label, including many Lieder.


Ewen, David, ed. Living Musicians. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1940.

Puritz, E. The Teaching of Elisabeth Schumann. London, 1956.

Schumann, Elisabeth. German Song. London, 1948.

Whelbourn, Hubert. Standard Book of Celebrated Musicians Past and Present. Garden City, NY: Garden City, 1937.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia

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