On February 11, 1861, one of the great pianists of her era was born in Hanover. Because sexism exists, you probably don’t know who she is. This despite the fact that she toured the world, opening fricking Carnegie Hall and giving important early performances in Minnesota, Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities. If you’re looking at the history of classical music in America, you have to look at the career of Adele aus der Ohe.
Adelheit Johanne Auguste Hermine aus der Ohe was very much a bonus baby. Her dad was 55 when she was born; her mom was 44; and she was nine years younger than her next-youngest sibling. This family dynamic would have repercussions for Adele’s life and even her career.
Adele was unnervingly precocious. She was identifying notes on a piano before she could even pronounce the notes’ names. In 1869, her father took a position in Berlin so that his daughter could learn from the best teachers in Germany. Adele enrolled in Theodor Kullak’s massive Neue Akademie der Tonkunst (the New Academy of Musical Art), which employed a hundred teachers and taught over a thousand students. (You know a bit about Kullak if you read Amy Fay’s book.) Despite her young age, the demanding Theodor Kullak accepted Adele as one of his own personal students.
Adele’s greatest influence and inspiration, however, was Franz Liszt. She began studying with him in the summer of 1873 at the age of fricking twelve, and continued studying with him over the next decade. By the time she was sixteen, she was playing an eight-hand piano arrangement with Liszt of the brand-spanking-new Funeral March from Götterdämmerung.
In 1884, she stopped attending Liszt’s classes after her mother died. Her death came as a heavy blow to their closeknit family. Interestingly, none of the aus der Ohe siblings ever married. Adele herself opted to hire Mathilde as her lifelong cheerleader and traveling companion. In 1886, the two sisters took a risk and left Europe for America, arriving in New York just days after the dedication of the Statue of Liberty.
On December 23rd, 1886, the unknown pianist took to the Steinway Hall stage alongside conductor Anton Seidel to play Liszt’s E-flat major concerto.
To use a musicological term, bam.
She was practically buried by rave reviews. The New York Tribune declared, “She took at once a leading position among American performers,” and that was one of the less breathless assessments. Over the next two years alone, she played in New York eighteen times.
Not content with Eastern success, she and her sister took to the rails and began touring the country. Adele aus der Ohe would become the first pianist to make an international career by first making her name in America.
She seems to have had a special fondness for Minnesota. She played in the Twin Cities multiple times, including on October 5, 1888; January 16, 1889; March 12, 1890; and March 18, 1890 (with the Danz Orchestra in St. Paul, a forerunner of the Minneapolis Symphony, which was itself later re-named the Minnesota Orchestra). On March 4, 1893, she gave the inaugural recital for St. Paul’s Schubert Club, which is still presenting internationally renowned artists 124 years later; she is even one of a handful of artists who have been asked to return twice (which she did on January 17, 1895 and January 28, 1904). The following night, on January 29, 1904, she played the Liszt E-flat concerto at the second-ever performance of the Minneapolis Symphony. Obviously this is some awesome Adele aus der Ohe history, but her presence also speaks to the absurdly high level of artistry that the Minneapolis Symphony was aspiring to mere months after its founding.
Despite this love affair with Minnesota, during one stay here she wrote, “We both [she and Mathilde] cannot very well stand the climate here and should greatly like to run away from the cold regions, if we were not obligated to stay a few days longer on account of my playing in St. Paul on Tuesday next. We seldom experienced such cold as there was yesterday in spite of bright sunshine.”
Yep, that checks out.
In May 1891 Adele was the guest artist chosen to inaugurate a new concert hall called Carnegie in New York. The conductor would be a Russian composer named Tchaikovsky, and the repertoire would include some new music in the form of his recently revised first piano concerto. Needless to say, everyone adored her, and she opened the hall with aplomb. Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary, “My concerto went magnificently, thanks to aus der Ohe’s brilliant interpretation. The enthusiasm was far greater than anything I have met with, even in Russia. I was recalled over and over.” Adele was, too, but, typically, she refused to accept any applause for herself.
Tchaikovsky was so struck by her playing that he invited her to travel to Russia to repeat their triumph. So in 1893, Adele and Mathilde packed up their trunks and gowns and embarked on a strenuous, weeks-long journey across the globe together.
In late October, she performed at a historic concert in St. Petersburg. The first half of the concert consisted of the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, the Pathétique. The second half contained some operatic filler, along with Adele’s Tchaikovsky 1 performance. Then, in an indication of how sought-after her Liszt performances were, she wrapped up the concert playing Liszt’s piano solo Spanish Rhapsody, as a sort of programmed encore.
To use another musicological term, mic drop.
That Tuesday, Adele later wrote, a couple of days after that triumphant concert, Tchaikovsky called on her, and she played some of his piano works for him. On Wednesday, Tchaikovsky went to a restaurant with friends and drank some unboiled water. On Thursday, he began showing symptoms of cholera. The next Monday, on November 6th, he died.
What made her colleague’s sudden death even more unsettling was that Tchaikovsky had mentioned it to her. She wrote in an account that appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune:
Tchaikovsky was well and happy, but there seemed to lurk in his mind the presentiment of sudden death. In the intermission he spoke of Gounod’s demise and of the great age granted him. Several times he repeated “If I could only live twenty years more, how much more I could write, what things I might be able to do.”
Tchaikovsky’s funeral was famously well-attended, with tens of thousands of people begging for entry. Adele performed at the concert given in tribute to him. She wrote that it was difficult to see the keys through her tears. After the audience left, she played themes from the new symphony in tribute to her friend.
What Adele’s performance might have sounded like
In addition to the astonishing places where she played her repertoire, it’s also worth looking at what her repertoire was. It was massive. Unusually for her era, she played un-transcribed Bach, in addition to other Baroque composers like Couperin, Rameau, and Scarlatti. She refused to play Beethoven in an indulgent or ultra-romantic way, preferring a cooler, more modern approach instead. She also played new music, including works by Max Vogrich, Arthur Foote, and Henry Holden Huss. She even played Brahms’s second piano concerto at Carnegie Hall in November 1898, a year after he died, and only seventeen years after it was written. She also loved playing chamber music, and she performed with the well-known Boston-based Kneisel Quartet.
Adele aus der Ohe was also a composer, because of course. She wrote at least forty pieces, including vocal solos, piano solos, violin and piano music…and she may have even written a piano concerto. The New York Times teased in 1904 that Adele might be bringing her own piano concerto to Carnegie Hall that December, but she ended up playing the Liszt E-flat major instead. Questions still remain as to the whereabouts and even the existence of this concerto.
Her compositions appear to have been generally well-liked; they were certainly more celebrated then than now. The Century Illustrated Monthly wrote in 1898 about her Suite for Piano, op. 2, that “It has made a deep impression upon severe critics, and is indeed a real achievement. Written in the old style, it is remarkable for catching the very spirit of that music. It is not a mere happy imitation, but an expression so spontaneous and personal that Bach himself might have been proud of it.” Intriguingly, an 1887 magazine article about Adele indicates that she was “a composer of music – under an assumed name.” If she did write recital music under an assumed name (a la Rebecca Clarke), she also wrote under her real name, because she eventually began programming her own works quite frequently, and you can see her name proudly displayed on vintage printed programs next to Liszt’s and Beethoven’s.
Her personal life began to fall apart in 1902, when her brother died. Then, in 1906 and 1910, her sister and companion Mathilde passed away, followed by her last surviving sibling, Luise. After these deaths, Adele retreated from America, preferring instead to work in Berlin.
After the turn of the century, she became involved in education and advocacy work. She founded the Department of Music of the Berlin chapter of the Women’s Lyceum Club. Women’s clubs of the era provided badly needed alternatives to the private no-girls-allowed “old boys’ clubs.” It appears the Lyceum Club did vital work: in early 1912, they sponsored an exhibition of women’s work in music, and even included work samples by American composer Amy Beach, who was a longtime acquaintance of Adele’s.
Once World War I began, living conditions in Berlin deteriorated rapidly. There were crippling shortages of food, clothing, and fuel. And the end of the war only heralded new problems, including horrifying inflation. It was common to spend a life’s savings on a single loaf of bread. Men and women were dying of starvation in the streets. Luckily, friends helped keep an elderly Adele – who by this point was suffering from eye trouble and severe arthritis – alive. Rachmaninoff was actually one of the people who sent her money in tribute to her groundbreaking career. Ever polite, she replied with a gracious and earnest thank-you note.
LaWayne Leno, in his loving book The Untold Story of Adele aus der Ohe, posits that if Adele had remained in America after her siblings’ deaths, her last decades would have been significantly easier. He also wonders if she might be better-remembered today if she’d stayed. Maybe. But also – knowing sexism – maybe not.
Adele aus der Ohe died on December 8, 1937 at the age of seventy-six.
After reading about Adele aus der Ohe – realizing the numerous awe-inspiring debuts she was a part of – learning about her second career as a composer – and seeing how she helped to establish high musical standards in America, and especially in my beloved Minnesota – I find myself asking yet again:
How the f*ck did I not know this woman?
Come back in two weeks (on October 4th) for the next installment of the series: in this case, a look at the career of pianist Sophie Menter.
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