How Anna Schoen-René Nearly Founded the Minnesota Orchestra

If you want to learn about the early life of Anna Schoen-René, check out this entry.


In her 1941 memoir, America’s Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences, soprano Anna Schoen-René claims she originated the idea of the Minnesota Orchestra.

The orchestra was to be called the Northwestern Symphony Orchestra, and was to serve Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the surrounding cities, thereby appeasing the rivalry which traditionally existed between the first two named.

She writes she went so far as to raise $30,000 (the rough equivalent to $800k today), arranging players’ contracts and even hiring conductor Walter Rothwell (who went on to become the first music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic).

But she faced, in her words, “a good deal of opposition.” While she took her annual trip to Europe, shadowy unnamed forces conspired to raise $60,000 and poach her players. “A wealthy citizen of Minneapolis had been persuaded to give that city its own orchestra, which was not to be shared with other places,” she writes. Presumably she’s referring to Elbert L. Carpenter, the Minneapolis lumberman who organized the Minneapolis Symphony and who bestowed its first music directorship upon local conductor Emil Oberhoffer. Her insinuation here is clear: she saw herself as champion of an egalitarian ensemble belonging to all Minnesotans, in contrast to the unnamed “wealthy citizen” who saw the orchestra as a tool to advance the interests of a particular set of people.

How did a young female immigrant come so close to founding one of America’s great orchestras? Why did her efforts to do so excite such intense antipathy? And how on earth have we forgotten her so utterly? Much of the story remains buried in the archives; it will take months, if not years, of work to interpret in all its nuance. But thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society’s online newspaper archives, portions of the history are in plain sight, provided you have the interest and the time to chase them down.


In 1893, Anna Schoen-René was twenty-nine years old, unable to pursue a singing career due to poor health, but restless, and eager to find a way to contribute musically to her adopted country. Not long after she arrived in Minneapolis, she offered to conduct a chorus of University of Minnesota students, free of charge. This directorship proved life-changing.

Intermittent references to a university glee club appear in the local press as early as 1871, but Schoen-René envisioned something much bigger: a choral ensemble dazzling, almost reckless, in its ambition. Within weeks, nearly two hundred singers had signed up to perform beneath her baton. Good press followed. On March 4th, 1894, the Minneapolis Tribune wrote, “It is only a few months since the University Choral Association was organized, but it has proven a remarkable praiseworthy venture.”

Schoen-René was not content to stop there. She reached out to a former colleague, celebrated American soprano Lillian Nordica, a mainstay at the Met from 1891 to 1910, and asked her if she’d like to appear in concert with the University Choral Union. She did, and so in May 1894, “Madame Nordica” came to perform alongside Schoen-René’s chorus in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

For this concert, Schoen-René took on the roles of chorusmaster, impresario, and promoter. To raise money and infuse glamour, she approached not only patrons, but patronesses. In St. Paul, the supporters named in the press were actually exclusively women. Some were civic-minded wives or daughters of titans of industry, but others were professional musicians like Jessica DeWolf, a renowned local soprano. (Interestingly, given later events, Mrs. Emil Oberhoffer, wife of the future Minneapolis Symphony music director, is listed as a patroness of the Nordica show.) In Minneapolis, the choral union “enlisted the support” of both men and women with famous surnames like Northrop, Pillsbury, and Lowry.

newspaper article

An advertisement in the St. Paul Daily Globe; April 29th, 1894

Interestingly, the program itself featured two works written by women: Amy Beach’s “Ecstasy” and Cécile Chaminade’s “Berceuse.” (x) It’s unknown who planned the program, or if the presence of female composers was intentional.

The choral union appeared in three numbers which Schoen-René conducted herself: the Brahms lullaby, the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, and an arrangement of “America.”

When the curtain rose upon the ranks of young singers who formed an unbroken line across the middle, front and rear of the stage, their fresh appearance and graceful presence was a signal for applause. A few tastefully arranged plants formed a screen for the leader’s box in the center and each member of the chorus carried a single rose. x

Surprisingly, the press didn’t bat an eyelash at seeing a woman conduct. The Minneapolis Tribune actually declared her a “a sympathetic and intelligent wielder of the baton”, while the St. Paul Daily Globe wrote:

…The programme proved the most delightful of the season. Fraulein Schoen-René undertook a stupendous task when she determined to weld into harmony the two hundred voices of this chorus. Her success has been remarkable, for while they do not follow with perfect response the wave of her baton, which, by the way, is both exceedingly vigorous and graceful, the voices possess a delightful freshness and the parts of the chorus are well balanced.

According to the Minneapolis paper, Schoen-René’s mere appearance onstage inspired a round of grateful applause. This world-class concert, spotlighting a local chorusmaster and local performers, and featuring an internationally renowned guest artist, wasn’t just a musical triumph; it was a uniquely Minnesotan one. It suggested that home-grown, world-class culture might indeed flourish on the prairie after all.

Schoen-René easily could have sat on her laurels after the success of the Nordica appearance. But Schoen-René refused to rest. Instead, she set her sights even higher.


In September 1895, an article about the University Choral Union appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune, describing how “this week…Fraulein Anna Schoen-Rene will resume her work in training the University Choral Union.” A grand concert was announced for November, starring Dame Nellie Melba herself:

It will be necessary to push the work vigorously in order to prepare for the grand concert which is to be given Nov. 29, when Melba and her company of supporting artists, with 10 members of the Boston Symphony orchestra, will take a leading part in the program.

Schoen-René was intent on making this concert even bigger and better than the Nordica one. So she booked a much larger space capable of holding thousands of people: the Industrial Exposition Building, which had been built in 1886 and hosted the Republican National Convention of 1892.


The Industrial Exposition Building as seen from the Pillsbury A’ Mill, ca. 1890 (x)

Convention halls are hardly known for their acoustics, but Schoen-René was determined to make the venue work. In the summer of 1895, she actually met with Melba’s manager to discuss the subject. In the words of the Minneapolis Tribune:

She gave the audience room abundant test, while he took up positions in different parts of the hall, and as the faintest pianissimo note reached him distinctly and clearly, as well as the forte tones, he expressed himself delighted with the acoustics, and pronounced them unexcelled.

Astonishingly, she went so far as to buy a new heating plant for the building at her own expense, just so the audience would be comfortable during the concert.

Word about this event spread far beyond the borders of Minneapolis. The Northfield News commented:

Minneapolis is the only city in the West where Melba and her company will play, in costume, scenes from opera, exactly as in the Metropolitan opera house, New York. This is a chance of a lifetime. Someday parents will be proud to be able to tell their children that they have heard the world’s greatest singer, Mme. Melba. The program will be the same as presented to the largest and most cultured audiences of the East. The people of the Northwest have never before had the opportunity of listening to such a program.


The concert was a triumph.

The Minneapolis Tribune raved, “The event is looked upon as having been a distinct triumph for the University of Minnesota Choral Union…and for Fraulein Anna Schoen-Rene, the director of the Choral Union, since its inception.” That such a world-class concert could be presented here, and so successfully, became, like the Nordica concert before it, a symbol of civic pride and identity: “There is no other Western city where music of the highest class receives such generous support as here.”

The program was a varied one. To start, Schoen-René conducted her choral forces in the March from Tannhauser, then Melba and members of her opera company sang individual arias, accompanied by a portion of the Boston Symphony. Later came an act from Gounod’s “Faust” (with Melba taking the role of Marguerite), and the finale was the mad scene from “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

Melba in the “Mad Scene”, 1910

It must have been a truly magical night; even Melba herself seemed bewitched by its import. The Minneapolis Tribune wrote on December 1st:

Mme. Melba watched the work of the chorus with the greatest interest, peering through the folds of drapery in the rear of the stage during their rendition of one of the most difficult choral compositions, and at its close, when Fraulein Schoen-Rene had left the stage, grasped the latter in her arms and in most glowing terms complimented her upon the entire success of the very difficult undertaking.

The concert made a tremendous impression on the Minnesotan students who were lucky enough to participate in it. The Mantorville Express published a student letter, chronicling what it felt like to attend and be onstage:

…When we had made up our minds, after Campanari and Sealchi, that nothing could surpass these splendid artists, in comes the lovely white-robed Melba and, with the quietest of beginnings and the simplest and least assuming air in the world, leaves them miles and miles behind her! and carries you – up, UP, UP, with her wonderful, wonderful voice! till you leave all consciousness of the vast sea of faces, of the world, of yourself, and float forever in a rosy sea of light, filled with the tinkling and rippling and warbling and soaring of the most angelic music I ever expect to hear, until I hear Melba again…

If I should write all night I could never begin to tell you of the wonders of her voice, so I [will]…talk about the audience. There was an immense crowd, about 6,000 people, and the great auditorium was full. It was very interesting to simply watch the people, not to speak of anything else, for you know I was on the stage, with the chorus – the very first time I ever saw a great event “from the front,” and was, so to speak, a part, though a very small part, of it myself.

There were over 200 of us in the chorus, and we did not sing very well either – got out of line twice; but we “looked nice,” and we rose when Melba came on and gave the college yell with a will, joined by every “U” boy in the audience; and when she finished her first song we rose again and showered her with a rain of roses (people in the audience said it was a lovely sight – the beautiful singer and the shower of roses covering her), and she gave us the sweetest bow; and we went wild over all the singers, and they all smiled at us, and the splendid leader of the orchestra smiled at us – and altogether we had a fine time up there in front of the great audience.


Unfortunately, once the receipts were counted, there was bad news. As the St. Paul Daily Globe reported on the 15th:

The Melba concert in Minneapolis was a losing enterprise for its projector. Miss Schoen-Rene has made public the actual figures of income and expenditures. They show that although the concert resulted in a total sale of $6,669.50, Miss Schoen-Rene was a loser to the extent of $95.18. The company was guaranteed a net income of $5,000. If the receipts exceeded that sum they were to have 85 per cent of the receipts. The remaining 15 per cent gave Miss Schoen-Rene $1,000.42 with which to defray the expenses. These amounted to $1,095.60, leaving a deficit of $95.18.

Despite the healthy attendance, ticket prices had been too low (or maybe Melba too expensive) to break even. Schoen-René, as sole presenter, had to absorb these losses by herself. To add insult to injury, the Minneapolis Tribune reported“Fraulein Schoen-Rene is the owner of a [heating] plant which cost nearly $500 to set in place, and which she is holding in its original position in the Exposition auditorium in the hope of a reasonable offer for release.” (No word in the papers about its ultimate fate.)

Despite the loss, she made a point of telling reporters that she wished to present additional large-scale concerts in the years ahead. But unfortunately, the next few months brought a series of disappointments on that front. In the spring of 1896, she did her best to bring her friend Anton Seidl, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, to Minnesota, but concert promoters across the West couldn’t scrape together the $30,000 guarantee necessary for him to make the trip, and so that tour was scrapped. That November, she consulted with conductor Walter Damrosch, who ran a prestigious touring opera company bearing his name, to see if a week of grand opera could be staged in Minneapolis. Again, the funding fell through.

Undaunted, she kept trying.

And unfortunately for her, so were others.


In mid-1895, a group of prominent businessmen, members of the newly founded Minneapolis Commercial Club, began privately floating the idea of launching a major music festival. Its purpose would be to advertise the city and the state to the world at large. This great festival was tentatively scheduled for June 1896, but was ultimately postponed due to the election (which, at the presidential level, starred populist firebrand William Jennings Bryant and pro-business Republican William McKinley; in Minnesota, it featured a nail-biting gubernatorial race just barely won by the Republican).

After the election was settled, the Club’s attention returned to the festival. In early December 1896, they issued a circular to “every professional musician in the city, as well as to many others (x)”, announcing a meeting to share their plans. This meeting was scheduled for the evening of December 21st.

Obviously such a festival was of great interest to Schoen-René, but as fate would have it, she was distracted that week. On December 14th and 15th, Lillian Nordica returned to the Twin Cities. This time, she didn’t appear under Schoen-René’s auspices (as she had in 1894), but Schoen-René was leading the Choral Union in performance alongside her. The press reported that, after the Minneapolis concert, an impromptu reception took place on the stage behind the curtain. Nordica spoke, then the choral union gifted their director with a framed photo, inspiring spontaneous cheers.

Schoen-René couldn’t make the Commercial Club’s December 21st meeting, but she did write to John F. Calderwood, head of the effort and former Minneapolis comptroller:

Dear Sir: A gentleman called yesterday at my studio and gave me a circular of the proposed June musical festival and asked me to give my interest to it. Everything connected with music, to elevate it here in this city, I am willing to give all my interest for it. It is impossible for me to attend the meeting tomorrow evening, but I like to ask you to call on me in any way in this matter and assure you of my services any time and my advice, etc., of my experience in this line. Hoping for a success, I am, yours truly, A. E. Schoen-Rene.

Calderwood and the Commercial Club interpreted this as Schoen-René’s endorsement of their project. Around January first, 1897, they incorporated as the Minneapolis Musical Festival Association.

The backgrounds of the association’s leaders were all very…homogenous. The president was the aforementioned James Calderwood, man of finance; the vice-president was William Lane Harris of the New England Furniture Company; and the treasurer was Captain Charles W. Brown of Brown & Haywood Company, a glass manufacturer. In fact, the only professional musician in a senior leadership role was Alfred Mayhew Shuey, who was organist at a Congregational church in Minneapolis…but even he had a day job at the Superintendent’s office at the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway. Presumably the artistic goals of the festival would be overseen by the advisory board (made up of thirty men), as well as the program committee (made up of eight men). (An up-and-coming local musician named Emil Oberhoffer sat on both boards.)

The Minneapolis Musical Festival hadn’t yet booked any performers, but “the management is in active correspondence with leading artists,” the Minneapolis Tribune promised, vaguely. The Festival mentioned three orchestras they were thinking of hiring: Seidl’s, Damrosch’s, or the Boston Symphony. The concerts would be held in the Exposition building. Its musical centerpiece would be a chorus of a thousand local voices. And not only that, but the Festival was envisioned as a permanent institution that would lead to even bigger and better things: “In time this might result in the erection of a music hall as the home of music, a consummation devoutly to be wished, and in the establishment of a great school of music,” as the Minneapolis Tribune put it. In short, if Schoen-René didn’t get in on the ground floor, it was possible her career as grand-scale impresario was over.

One can only imagine what went through Schoen-René’s mind when she realized who would (or rather, wouldn’t) be leading the Minneapolis Musical Festival, or the extent to which these men were adapting (some might say hijacking) so many of her own ideas…especially when she had been so open in the press about her desire to continue presenting major concerts in Minneapolis.

On January 5th, Schoen-René, who was not on the programming committee, told Shuey that she was thinking of hiring Jules Massenet to conduct, should he be available. This was the first outward sign of friction. On January 11th, Schoen-René took a major and irreversible plunge: she signed a contract to hire the Boston Festival Orchestra…to appear under her own auspices, and not the Minneapolis Musical Festival’s. “The effect was as if a musical bomb had been discharged in the community,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported. It’s still not clear what specifically led to her fateful decision.

On January 17th, local newspapers broke the news that two major music festivals were being planned for the month of May. But it was obvious that the city wouldn’t be able to support both. On January 23rd, the two sides met to discuss consolidation. After hashing it over, it was apparently agreed that the Festival would assume the contract Schoen-René had just signed. The Festival would also “accord Miss Schoen-René the privilege of having her University Choral Union make one appearance on either program she desires by themselves, and if she wishes under her direction.” (How magnanimous!) As for programming, the Festival agreed to “carry out the program for the concerts as originally outlined by Miss Schoen-René, as nearly as may be consistent with the program planned by the Festival Association.” (It’s unclear what that meant, practically speaking.) Schoen-René was also offered a seat on the program committee alongside Oberhoffer and Shuey, as well as a position on the thirty-man-strong advisory board. (She would be the only woman on both.)

The representatives of the Festival left the bargaining session under the impression that a deal had been struck, with the details to be finalized between Shuey and Schoen-René at a separate meeting at her studio on January 25th. An almost comically relieved Tribune trumpeted the deal on the 24th:

all is harmony

The headline proved to be premature. On January 25th, Schoen-René made it clear to Shuey that she had one condition that had to be met before moving forward. She wanted to be named the festival’s music director. As Shuey put it, this arrangement had been shot down on the 23rd and “deemed impracticable by all present.” He doesn’t elaborate why.

But Schoen-René held firm: no directorship, no signing over of the contract.

On February 3rd, the feud boiled over into the Tribune. In the weeks previous, the paper had been remarkably even-handed in its coverage of the two competing festivals. Things had changed, though, and now the headline-writers were out for blood.

harmony wanted

What follows is a scathing editorial by the Festival criticizing Schoen-René, scoffing at the idea that she had ever “been slighted at [the festival’s] inception and since then persecuted by those at the head of the movement.” They also published her private December correspondence with Calderwood (quoted above), claiming it was proof of her support for the Festival.

The officers of this association have neither the time nor inclination to enter a specific denial of many of the absurd statements which have been made.

If there is any ground of complaint on the part of Miss Schoen-Rene, such cause cannot be laid directly or indirectly to the charge of this association…

The broad and comprehensive plan promulgated by the Minneapolis Musical Festival Association is not in the interest of any one musician, or set of musicians, but to be an annual event calculated to advance the art of music throughout the entire Northwest… Conscientiously aiming to present a grand musical festival along these lines that will long live in the pleasant memory of all, being in the interest of no individual or corporation, but only in the cause of the art of music and its devotees in the great northwest, we remain, respectfully,


Apparently no rebuttal was printed (although Schoen-René doubtless had one). Needless to say, any hope of consolidation of the two festivals was gone.

A few days later, on February 7th, the Tribune proclaimed:

ITS PLANS ARE LAID. Minneapolis Musical Festival Association Adds Many Assistants to Its Corps of Workers – Dates for the Event Selected.

To quote the paper, “the association has been much encouraged in the offers of assistance that have come from different directions.” To accommodate Schoen-René, the association decided to cut the festival from three days to two, and to schedule their concerts a full month before hers. Repertoire by Gade, Mendelssohn, Gounod, and Wagner had been selected, and a chorusmaster (a “Mr. McAllister, a musician of Fargo“) chosen to help train choirs in North and South Dakota, as well as northwestern Minnesota, with the understanding that they’d all perform together in Minneapolis in mid-April.

If these plans seem a little absurd, that’s because they were. Amazingly, despite the Twin Cities power players who backed it, and despite the loud discourse surrounding its conception, this is the penultimate reference I’ve found to the Minneapolis Musical Festival’s ultimate fate. The last was one sentence published in The Etude in April 1897:

The Minneapolis Musical Festival, which was to have taken place this year, has been postponed on account of hard times.


Against all odds, Anna Schoen-René’s festival was the one to move forward. She dubbed it the Northwestern May Festival, and it was, by far, her most ambitious project yet. In April, the Tribune reported that ticket inquiries had been made from as far afield as the Dakotas and Nebraska, while the Musical Times of Chicago even sent a reporter named Ada Brisbane to cover the festivities.

The festival was to consist of three concerts, one on the evening of May 17th (starring Lillian Blauvelt), the second on the afternoon of May 18th (starring baritone Giuseppe Campanari), and the third that night (starring soprano Emma Calvé). These three concerts were perceived as yet another moment of truth for Minneapolis’s identity: “Should the people of the Northwest fail to show their interest in music and their appreciation of the magnitude of the event, there will be less acceptance in the future of their claims to intelligent artistic enjoyment,” the Tribune warned. Of course, more than civic pride was at stake for Schoen-René; she had thousands of dollars of her own money riding on the success of the festival, and she had made some powerful enemies.

The first night got off to a rocky start. The Exposition auditorium could hold six thousand patrons, but only fifteen hundred came. “There were almost more vacant chairs than occupied seats,” the paper observed.

But artistically, the show was a marvel: “a triumph for American art,” the Tribune opined. The Boston Festival Orchestra played the overture from Die Meistersinger, as well as a Liszt symphonic poem. Great singers of the day – Katherine Bloodgood, J.H. McKinley, and Henrich Meyn, with starring attraction Lillian Blauvelt – all took the stage. Despite the crowd’s small size, the artists were received rapturously.

Blauvelt singing Gounod, 1905

Schoen-René’s work as chorusmaster was also put on display when the Choral Union performed Rossini’s Stabat Mater. Interestingly, the festival chorus had become a regional one…albeit in a much more organic way than the men of the Festival had intended. In the spring of 1897, the Cecilian Club, an organization of musical women based in Duluth, approached Schoen-René, asking if their chorus of eighty female voices might participate in the festival. Schoen-René turned them down, since it would unbalance her own forces. Undaunted, the Club found an equal number of Duluth men to join them. These enterprising women helped the number of voices in the chorus to swell to nearly four hundred. They “sang in splendid form,” said the Tribune.

If Schoen-René was hoping that positive buzz from the first night might increase ticket sales for the following day’s matinee, she was sorely disappointed. “The concert of the afternoon was attended by a small audience, the vacant chairs being painfully in evidence, but an enjoyable program was rendered,” offered the Tribune. Since it was a matinee, the selections offered were light. A variety of instrumentalists and vocalists performed pieces by well-known composers like Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and Schubert, as well as now-obscure ones by Litolff, Servais, and Bomberg.

After two sparsely attended performances, the pressure was on. The grand evening finale, starring French superstar Emma Calvé, would be the ultimate verdict as to the festival’s success.


A May 19th review from the Minneapolis Tribune says it all:

The Northwestern Festival closed last night in a blaze of glory, and there were upward of 5,000 persons to enjoy their fill of such music as is rarely vouchsafed. One of the old time crowds resorted to the Exposition until the auditorium was a sea of faces and variegated blossoms. Above, below, on either side, there were no vacant spaces except for a few chairs in the extreme corners flanking the stage. It was an audience to delight the plaudit-loving soul of any singer and its size and body was not unmarked behind the somber draperies that held from view the kings and queens of song.

The night began at 8:30. The concert opened with the overture to Weber’s Oberon, featuring the Boston Festival Orchestra conducted by Emil Mollenhauer, a former Boston Symphony violinist who had left to organize and conduct his own ensemble. He now spent his time touring the United States, bringing high-quality performances to cities that were still too young to support first-class symphonies of their own. Next, McKinley sang Gounod. And then Calvé herself took the stage:

She came forward between the musicians, with the chorus flanking the orchestra, and her advance was the signal for applause. Her attitude was familiar as she waited for the prelude, just turning her head to catch the phrasing, and then with her hand on her side looking out over the expectant faces before her. At the conclusion, when applause had called her back twice and thrice, she lifted both her hands and kissed them dramatically as if to say, “More I can not do.”

She sang a piece from Félicien David’s opera La perle du Brésil, then continued with the Habanera from Carmen. Calvé was considered to be the Carmen of her era, and the audience response to her performance was rapturous.

Calvé singing the Habanera, 1907

Campanari sang the monologue from Verdi’s Falstaff and the Figaro aria from the Barber of Seville so beautifully that flowers were thrown “over the footlights” during the applause. Next the orchestra and chorus performed the Tannhauser march and chorus, “which reflected pleasantly on the training of the voices,one review remarked approvingly. Two additional numbers from Carmen followed: the orchestral ballet music (“the best executed work of the evening“) and Campanari singing Toreador (“in a manner and voice that defies criticism“). The orchestra followed up with “Le Ruet d’Omphale” by Saint-Saëns (a relatively contemporary piece of music, having only been composed in 1871). The grand finale consisted of the fourth act from the opera Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas, followed by the fifth act trio from Gounod’s Faust.

The audience was spellbound and eager to thank the impresario who had made it all possible:

Nor in the distribution of favors was the indefatigable spirit behind the successful enterprise forgotten. When the meeting was all but a third concluded there arose a cry for Schoen-Rene, followed by a tumult of hand-clapping, and from the protection of the stage hangings, Fraulein A.E. Schoen-Rene was pushed in view. She bowed with smiles of pleasure at so public an acknowledgment of her zeal and was led to the front by Mr. Stewart, of the festival aggregation, while ushers came down the aisle loaded with enormous baskets of roses which they bore aloft. This pretty little ceremony boisterously concluded, the program was allowed to proceed.

The Minneapolis Tribune summed it all up:

To recall last night’s concert in anything like a spirit of criticism is not possible.


Unfortunately, artistic triumph wasn’t enough to balance the books. According to the Tribune, Schoen-René lost more than $2000 on the Northwestern May Festival. In 1900, an American’s average salary was $450.

People were not as loyal in their support as appeared in promise,the Tribune later remarked, acidly. The article goes on to report that, due to poisonous local politics, “the Northwest is not yet ready for a festival of this character.”

It is not difficult to surmise that local musicians were in a self-evident measure responsible for the financial failure of the festival, since they gave as little support to the undertaking as they consistently could. Diligent inquiry revealed the fact that the majority of the professional musicians and teachers were present for Calve night, but that very few were in attendance Monday night, to enjoy what was undoubtedly the more artistic program of the two. Certain of the musicians lost sight of the cause of music for which they had loudly vaunted their sympathy, declaiming their earnest desire to welcome anything which would contribute to the musical advancement of the community, and nursed their own personal injuries, declining to give any support even by their presence. A couple of days after the festival one of the best known musicians, who has repeatedly proclaimed his devotion to his art, admitted he had not gone to one of the concerts. “I have heard all those artists before,” he said, “and under the circumstances I could not be expected to take any interest in the event.” Such broad-minded musicians as these were among those who first advocated the festival when it was proposed as a business men’s and musicians’ project.

Who was this nameless “best known musician”? Emil Oberhoffer? It’s possible.

The reporter asked a nameless representative of the “eclipsed” Minneapolis Musical Festival if they’d attempt another festival next year.

One man was found to say that if it could be carried through in some such way as was the first plan of the association, to act as a commercial advertisement for Minneapolis, it might be undertaken.

There it was, stated bluntly: the “first plan” of the Minneapolis Musical Festival had been economic, rather than artistic. Had the festivals somehow succeeded in merging, it’s easy to imagine its private-sector leaders and Schoen-René eventually coming to blows over its direction.

And what about Schoen-René?

On the other hands, Fraulein Schoen-Rene is not discouraged. Less on the Melba concert, hardly more than even on the Nordica concert, and great loss on the festival, have not broken her spirit. She does say, however, that in future any such enterprise must be conducted with an absolute guaranty to insure against loss.


After the dual triumph and failure that was the 1897 Northwestern May Festival, Schoen-René continued her careers as teacher, conductor, and, yes, even impresario.

A few of the many highlights of her professional life:

  • In 1898, she became involved with the local dramatic club. Under its auspices, she conducted the Danz Orchestra, a male ensemble that was a precursor to the Minneapolis Symphony. (x) This likely made her among the first female orchestral conductors in America. In her memoirs, she claims she didn’t like conducting, doing so reluctantly and behind potted palms.
  • In 1902, she hired Marcella Sembrich to appear in Minneapolis. Sembrich’s agent attempted to break her contract in favor of more lucrative dates, but Schoen-René refused to let that happen. As the Minneapolis Journal wrote: “A fusillade of letters and telegrams between Fraulein Schoen-Rene and Mr. Graff followed, in which the New York manager was informed that no compromise would be accepted under any circumstances or on any terms and that he had but one choice, to send Mme. Sembrich or stand a lawsuit. He capitulated and has engaged Mme. Sembrich’s apartments at the West and has announced that she will reach Minneapolis Oct. 31.”
  • In 1904, the Woman’s League, in partnership with Schoen-René, brought a world-class production of Parsifal to the Minneapolis Armory. Schoen-René’s friend Walter Damrosch even brought the New York Symphony Orchestra to perform. (x)
  • She became a renowned vocal teacher, eventually joining the faculty at Juilliard and teaching stars like Risë Stevens, Mack Harrell, Kitty Carlisle, Paul Robeson, and dozens of others. (x)

And all this, of course, is only a small part of her very big life story.


After she turned forty, Schoen-René decided it was time for a change. Bluntly, what she had sought to achieve in Minnesota had been achieved by others. She writes in her memoir:

I had finally decided to leave Minneapolis. Viardot had for several years been urging me to return to Europe to become a representative of the Garcias’; but I had sworn not to leave until I saw a musical faculty established at the University of Minnesota and a good symphony orchestra started in the Northwest.

In November 1903, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (“a good symphony orchestra” if there ever was one) gave its first concert. It performed under the baton of music director Emil Oberhoffer, who had been chosen by businessman Elbert Carpenter. (Of course, nowadays we know the Minneapolis Symphony as the Minnesota Orchestra. Decades before the traumatic 1968 name change, Schoen-René had anticipated the pitfalls of naming the orchestra for the city rather than the region.)

As for seeing the University of Minnesota establishing a music department, this was a cherished dream from the time she arrived in Minneapolis. It begs the question: why did she and the University Choral Union ultimately part ways after achieving such success together? Hopefully further research sheds light on the question.

In 1902 a successor director to the choral union was named. From the September 27th Mineapolis Journal:

The new department in music at the university is progressing very encouragingly and has already proved a success. Dr. Frankforter, the chairman of the music committee, says that the popularity of the course warrants the organization of a choral union and steps have already been taken in that direction. This choral union, assisted by soloists of distinction, will give a number of excellent programs in the “U” chapel in the course of the winter. The university had a choral union several years ago under the direction of Fraulein Schoen-Rene and several musical artists such as Melba and Nordica were brought here under its auspices.

The new organization will probably be under the direction of Mr. Oberhoffer and credit will be given all students who take musical work.

Emil Oberhoffer did indeed go on to conduct the University Choral Union. (x) Despite the years of groundwork that Schoen-René had laid for the University of Minnesota music department, Emil Oberhoffer was the one ultimately given authority to found it. The department began in 1902.


It may be difficult to draw a direct line between Schoen-René and, say, the Minnesota Orchestra. But it is the easiest thing in the world to draw one from her artistic personality to the orchestra’s artistic standards, which remain higher than ever after 114 years of concerts. Her legacy may be an unsung one, but it certainly still resonates.

She finishes her memoir’s Minnesota chapter like so:

Although my venture in Minneapolis meant a great financial loss to me, I will always have a very warm feeling for that city. It was there that I regained my health, and there I became an American citizen. The people of Minneapolis used to call me a fighter, and some said that I went around with a chip on my shoulder, but my fighting was all done in the interests of pioneering for the recognition of music in the highest sense in the cold Northwest of America.

I think I can proudly say that I played my part in awakening that region to the appreciation of good music, and in making Minneapolis the center of music in the Middle West. There may even be a bright side to all the trying experiences and struggles of those days, for they have perhaps helped to make me what I am – determined to succeed under all circumstances.



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Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, Women In Music

2 responses to “How Anna Schoen-René Nearly Founded the Minnesota Orchestra

  1. Steven Ledbetter

    Fascinating article… I knew her only by name, and my understanding and appreciation are greatly enriched.

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