In America with Richard Strauss: Elisabeth Schumann's 1921 diary

As far as we know, the only diary Elisabeth Schumann ever kept was that of her tour of the United States of America with the composer, conductor and then joint Musical Director of the Vienna State Opera, Richard Strauss, undertaken in the autumn of 1921. They were accompanied by Strauss’s son, Franz (“Bubi”), who acted as chaperone and general helper. Elisabeth Schumann had not originally been booked for the tour, the baritone Franz Steiner had, but one day in the early summer of 1921 a telegram had come from New York to say that a female singer was required instead. At the time Schumann was married to her second husband, Carl Alwin (whom she called “C” or “Ce” for short). A répétiteur and conductor at the Vienna State Opera he was always ambitious on her behalf, so when he knew that a female singer was to be booked he suggested his wife to Richard Strauss who agreed at once. The concerts would mostly be of Strauss’s works, accompanied by him on the piano, or conducted by him if an orchestra was involved. The Polish soprano Claire Dux, who had recently moved to the States from Germany, and the pianist Elly Ney, were also booked to do one of two orchestral concerts with Strauss on the tour. (Dux had sung Covent Garden’s first Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier in 1913.)

Although the diary is reproduced here unabridged there are several incidents on the tour which Schumann surprisingly left out of her diary but which have come to light through her letters. For example, she does not mention that they carried on tour in their luggage a precious bottle of Château Margaux 1888 for a special occasion, only to have it ruined by a waiter serving it up to them in a bowl with pieces of fruit. She also does not mention the extraordinary behaviour of Strauss in their afternoon concert in Cincinatti when he walked off the platform in the middle of a group of songs only to return within a few minutes as if nothing had happened. He explained afterwards that he had considered his digestion to be more important than the audience.

Strauss was 24 years Schumann's senior. The diary gives a marvellous insight into his personality. Because Schumann’s voice was so suited to his songs people have often thought that he wrote songs with her voice in mind, and even dedicated some to her. This was not the case: most of the songs she sang had already been composed by the time he first heard her sing. The only piece of music he in one sense dedicated to her was Helena’s first big aria in Die Ägyptische Helena. During composition of the opera Strauss wanted to give his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a taste of the music. He asked Schumann at a few hours’ notice if she would sing it to him. With her husband’s help she learnt the aria, a very dramatic one which she would never have performed in public, and sang it beautifully to Hofmannsthal, who was bowled over. When she asked if she could keep the manuscript Strauss presented it to her having written on it: “To the first Helena, Elisabeth, in memory of March 27 1926”. This manuscript is held in the library of the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia.

Joy Puritz 31 July 2010

The actual diary itself has been scanned and made into a DjVu document: 1921 Diary. The original German text is also available and there is an English translation.

31 July 2010

In order to view the diary, it is necessary to install a plugin. This is obtainable from the DjVu site. The plugin works with both the Netscape and Internet Explorer browsers.

The Elisabeth Schumann Website would like to thank Jeffery A Triggs and Michael Richter for invaluable technical assistance with this project.