Anna Schoen-René: Soprano, Conductor, Minnesota Pioneer

Anna Schoen-René – singer, conductor, entrepreneur, author, teacher, and the godmother of the present-day Minnesota Orchestra – is like a character from a feminist fairy tale. Walter Damrosch once asked her, “Haven’t they erected a monument to you in Minneapolis yet?” That monument remains conspicuously unbuilt.

In 1941, at the age of seventy-seven, Schoen-René published a book called America’s Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences. (It’s available to read in its entirety for free here.) Because so little research has been done on her life and career, we have to listen carefully to everything she says, while simultaneously remembering that not all of it has been verified.

This is the first paragraph:

I received my first singing lessons at the age of four – odd little lessons – from our household orderly, Matinetti. He was an all-round fine fellow, always ready to help us children out of our troubles. In his room behind the kitchen, my brother Otto and I used to sit on little stools, watching while he cleaned the uniforms, shoes, and other personal equipment of our large household, and listening to his fairy tales and songs. Matinetti was of Italian descent, though a native of Coblenz, and had a great store of both Italian and German folk-songs. Under his instruction, we not only learned many of these by heart, but acted them out dramatically. After the lessons, the doors to the kitchen would be thrown open, and we would give a performance before an almost tearfully admiring domestic staff. All this was carried on with utmost secrecy – no one in the front of the house was aware of this initiation into the world of make-believe. I have always felt that this marked the beginning of my great desire for a public career as a singer. I began about that time to develop a lively imagination; and as I walked in the forests I would sing to myself and build dream castles by the hundreds – always of future triumphs as a singer.

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Anna Eugénie Schoen was born in 1864, the youngest of eight children, in Koblenz, Germany. According to her book, her father was “Royal Master of Forestry and Agriculture in the Province of the Rhineland and a Councillor at the Court of Wilhelm I, Emperor of Germany, and also an officer of the Reserve in the Honorary Battalion of the Guards.” The family was wealthy, sophisticated, and well-positioned, frequently rubbing elbows with empresses and czarinas. But her father had a strong egalitarian streak, and he insisted that his children spend at least two years in public school in order to become acquainted with children of every class.

Anna’s passion for music was obvious from the start. At an early age, she heard that singing in a choir could potentially harm the voice, so at her school chorus auditions, she “just barked, so to speak.” She succeeded in tricking the chorusmaster, but couldn’t resist singing in front of her friends. Ultimately, word of her deception got back to school officials, and to discipline her, they forced her to sing in front of all her classmates and teachers. Of course, that punishment had the exact opposite of its intended effect: “My longing for a career took a firmer hold than ever.”

Her childhood was shattered when her beloved father died. His funeral was held on her tenth birthday. “The enormous stately ceremony impressed me deeply, and to this day I cannot bear to listen to Chopin’s Funeral March.”

Even then I felt a change come over me. It was as if I were suddenly as grown up as my brothers and sisters, who were so much older than I. Henceforth, I knew, life would be serious.

The Schoens were extremely fortunate in that their position and privilege saved them from destitution. The royal family itself promised to take care of them, in tribute to her father’s loyal service.

Anna’s mother moved the family eighty miles southwest to the town of Treves (now known as Trier) so that they could be closer to her relatives in France. Accordingly, Anna spent her pre-teen years sequestered in the countryside. But a life in music was never far from her mind:

Next to our villa was a large farm. There, under supervision, I enjoyed the delights of leading the horses from the barns, riding and helping to train the beautiful and intelligent hunting dogs of our neighbor. In winter, I greatly enjoyed participating as guest leading singer and conductor in the practicing hours of the grape-pickers.

She also partook in unusually unladylike activities:

I was brought up more or less as a boy because my brother Otto needed a companion to encourage him in his studies and training. But he refused to do anything without “Anna.” So, supervised by a military instructor, I learned to shoot a pistol, ride, and take part in all boys’ sports and games with him.

Her mother became increasingly alarmed:

Even as a child I had envisaged myself as a singer. When I still kept these dreams into my fourteenth year, the fact that my mother altogether disapproved of them made me feel quite lonesome, and I began to retire more and more within myself.

Anxious to put a stop to what she termed “my foolish musical notions” and “living in the air,” Mother insisted that during the school vacation I should go into the kitchen of the household to learn the duties of a good cook and housekeeper.

I began, under our excellent cook, to try to develop a little domestic talent, but without much success. Instead, I arranged all the kettles and spoons in the form of an imaginary orchestra, pounding on them with much noise. “Anna’s Kitchen Symphony Orchestra,” my brothers called it. My mother had no idea of what was going on, until the cook, finding the noise intolerable, complained to her.

Her mother and her older brother Fritz (the de facto head of the household after their father’s death) consulted and decided that Anna should be enrolled in a boarding school in Holland. Thankfully, Fritz, “a great lover of music” who enjoyed listening to his sister sing, chose a school with a strong music department.

Not long afterwards, I lost this brother – my best friend and strongest supporter. He contracted a fatal illness, in research laboratory work, and asked that I be sent for so that he might have me near to sing to him. I can never forget those summer mornings – the last few mornings of his life, when, in an effort to please him, I would join my song to the notes of the nightingales singing in our garden.

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Anna’s boarding school was in Brummen in the Netherlands, sixty-some miles outside of Amsterdam. Her fellow pupils were mainly the daughters of “rich merchants, retired army officers, and officials from the Dutch East Indies.” Anna, who had spent the majority of her childhood in the countryside befriending dogs, horses, and goats, felt “confused and out of place.” To cope, she threw herself into her musical studies.

Every year, the pupils and teachers of the school were invited to an afternoon affair given by Queen Emma on her summer estate at Hetloo, on August 31st, in celebration of the birthday of the little Princess Wilhelmine, now the reigning Queen of the Netherlands. There Queen Emma, who was a German Princess of Pyrmont, asked me to sing my German songs.

Queen Emma was so impressed that she worked to snag Anna a scholarship that would pay for her future musical training.

Anna was back at home when a bombshell letter arrived from the Emperor’s office:

It asked me to come to Cologne for an audition with Dr. Ferdinand von Hiller, the Music Director General and founder of the Rhenish Festivals. Enclosed were 200 Marks – enough for my passage there, and ominously enough, for the return fare! Thus my mother heard for the first time of my plans. She was naturally shocked at the idea that a daughter of hers might become an opera singer. Looking very much distressed, she protested, “What will people say?”

Anna, for one, didn’t care.

*

She passed her first audition in Cologne with flying colors. (There was a strange man present who did nothing but stand and stare out the window at the Rhine. She found out later he was Brahms.) But she also had to audition and interview at the Royal Academy of Music in Berlin. Brahms’s friend Joseph Joachim was the director at at the head of the panel.

The ceremonious proceedings, with these great artists solemnly seated at the long table, were most impressive to a young student. After the examination I was dismissed to another room to await their decision. What my emotions were as I sat there alone, I will not describe in detail. I thought of the humiliation I would undergo if I failed, and already saw myself back in the kitchen, learning to be a good Hausfrau. My fears were without foundation, for after half an hour I was called back and told that I could enter the Academy.

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“I enjoyed my life as a student thoroughly,” Anna later wrote. In Berlin, she studied under soprano Anna Schultzen von Asten, who she became fiercely devoted to. When Joachim divorced his wife, gossips claimed that he and Schultzen von Asten were having an affair.

Quickly I went up to the singer whom I knew to be the chief troublemaker, and said, “You mischief maker, stop talking about my teacher and my Director.” When she became enraged, I took the heavy score of “Die Meistersinger” from the piano and hit her over the head with it, promising her more severe treatment – with Wagner’s entire “Nibelungen Ring” – if she continued to spread scandal.

Schultzen von Asten clearly saw great potential in her fiery student. She decided to prepare Anna for study with her former teacher, and one of the greatest voice teachers of the century: Pauline Viardot in Paris.

Pauline Viardot was a towering presence in nineteenth-century culture, and she immediately became one in Anna’s life, too. It’s easy to imagine Anna falling a little bit in love with her:

It was Mme. Viardot’s face that I shall never forget! Markedly Spanish in type, she was beautiful, with her white hair, the harmonious expression of her face, the look of the heavily shaded eyes – her most impressive and expressive feature – and the little smile around the left side of her mouth which was her way of showing approval.

A large portion of Anna’s book is actually devoted to Viardot, Viardot’s family, and all that she learned from them. Even after she became an American, Anna returned to Europe every summer to spend time with Viardot.

Another two years of intensive study passed. Finally, after the years of rebellion and meticulous preparation, Anna Schoen was on the precipice of fulfilling her operatic dreams. She was offered an engagement in Berlin, but she refused to sign a contract until she had Viardot’s approval. Viardot telegraphed back: “One does not begin in Berlin, one ends there.” So Anna turned down the offer, instead deciding to build her career by performing in smaller cities and working her way up.

Only one obstacle remained: her family’s disapproval.

From the very start, as I have said, almost my entire family opposed my ambition to become an opera singer. But my heart was set on it, especially since Mme. Viardot demanded that I should begin with an operatic career. I did promise not to use the family name, lest doing so might make some difficulty for my brothers in government service. I first took the name Rene from my French ancestry, later, as a teacher, combining it with the family name to make “Schoen-René.” For two years none of my family knew that I was on the stage; and I had to fight my way quite alone.

*

The newly minted Anna Schoen-René enjoyed a successful German career for several seasons. “On Viardot’s advice” she returned to Paris “to be prepared for the Opéra Comique.” She made an impression in France: in 1891, she was elected a member of the Union Internationale des Sciences et des Arts. In 1892, she was asked by director Maurice Grau to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

But just as she was about to take the Met stage, the curtain fell on her career. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The disease wasn’t just a threat to her voice and to her lungs; it was a threat to her very life.

On the advice of Mr. Grau I decided to go to America at once and make a concert tour to first find out how the climate suited me, for my health had begun to break down and I had to use all my energy to keep up my appearances… It is painful even now for me to dwell on that time of failing health and shattered hopes.

Anna arrived in New York in 1893, a sick shadow of her former self. A doctor made the suggestion that every stymied doctor made to consumptive patients: go West to the Rocky Mountains, where the air was cold and clear. She trusted this advice enough to embark on the journey, but not enough to finish it, stopping in Chicago to get a second opinion. This doctor proclaimed that she didn’t have tuberculosis at all. He thought she was simply suffering from “a complete severe nervous breakdown.”

Regardless of whether Anna was suffering from physical illness or mental illness or both, she was clearly in bad shape. The doctor suggested spending a bracing winter in the Midwest. As it happened, her sister Marie was teaching German at the University of Minnesota, and, desperate to feel better, Anna took the doctor’s advice. She was 98 pounds when she arrived in Minneapolis: “a skeleton,” she wrote, “ill and tired, [who] had been given up by more than one physician.”

Minneapolis proved to be a turning point, the place where she would conduct the most meaningful work of her life. Here she embarked on a seemingly impossible crusade: to bring the highest-quality European music to an isolated city that had been incorporated a mere twenty-seven years before.

Some time previously, my sister Marie had established a German club in the university, made up of students who were mostly of German, Scandinavian, or English descent, a fine class of young men and women eager for European culture. One day they asked my sister whether I would give them a talk. I asked the students to suggest a subject on which they would like to have me speak. One young man then asked how a music department might be started at the University of Minnesota. I told him the first step would be to organize glee clubs, which should be well trained and representative of the student body. By the time the meeting ended I had agreed to start two of them – one for men and one for women – which I would conduct privately, giving my services free. From this small beginning grew the Music Department of the University of Minnesota, of which I can proudly say I sowed the first seed.

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Anna Schoen-René’s story is simultaneously so obscure and so important, I felt it deserved two entries. So come back in two weeks, on November 29, to find out how exactly Ms. Schoen-René left her mark on the Twin Cities music scene. That mark includes a huge chorus trained from scratch; multiple massive concerts; a truly epic rivalry with Minneapolis Symphony conductor Emil Oberhoffer; and a hunt through literally hundreds of early 1900s newspaper articles to discover the answer to the question, do we owe the existence of the Minnesota Orchestra to her? (Spoiler alert: we just might.)

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Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, Women In Music

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