I have long maintained that the best way to ring in a new year is by profiling a female opera pioneer who rubbed shoulders with the great composers, inspired Wagner, and (allegedly) wrote a sexually explicit memoir.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient.
Wilhelmine Schröder was born into a theatrical family in Hamburg, Germany, on December 6th, 1804. Her father Friedrich Schröder was a singer, while her mother Sophie was later dubbed “one of Germany’s greatest tragic actresses, so far as declamation and expression are concerned.” The family moved frequently during the tumultuous Napoleonic era, but eventually they settled in Vienna, where her parents got jobs at the Burgtheater. Wilhelmine followed in their footsteps and appeared onstage for the first time at the age of five.
Her debut as an actress occurred at fifteen, when she appeared as Aricia in Schiller’s translation of Racine’s Phèdre. But even as a teenager she was creatively restless: she had her eye on mastering another art form altogether. On January 20th, 1821, she played Pamina in a Vienna Court Opera production of The Magic Flute. Her operatic debut marked the ignition of a revolutionary and uniquely Romantic career, which occurred adjacent to the greatest male composers of the mid-nineteenth-century.
Before the year was out, she appeared as Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz. He was lukewarm about her first performance, writing of her: “pretty, superb voice, apt acting, pure intonation, though in many ways a deficient singer.” She must have consolidated her strengths over the winter, because after a performance the following year, he claimed she had surpassed everything he thought he’d written into the role.
She also appeared as Leonore in an 1822 Vienna revival of Fidelio. Beethoven himself was in the audience. As legend has it, he was so impressed by her performance that he sought the teenage singer out and offered to write another opera for her. The deaf man’s praise speaks to the spell she cast using her physicality and dramatic talents.
(By the way, Schubert was also in the audience for that performance.)
In the early 1820s, Wilhelmine put down roots. She signed a contract with the Royal State Theatre in Dresden, which, despite her frequent touring, became a home base for the rest of her professional life. And in 1823, she married actor Karl August Devrient, a member of a family of German stage celebrities. Together Wilhelmine and Karl had two sons and two daughters. She appeared in a production of Weber’s Euryanthe in the spring of 1824 in between pregnancies, but there’s limited information as to her other professional activities during her early motherhood.
Unfortunately, the marriage was not a happy one. In 1828, she and Devrient divorced and, as was customary, the father retained custody of their four children.
Whether by choice or economic necessity or both, after her divorce, Wilhelmine found herself back onstage and in the music rooms of the elites. She made her Parisian debut in 1830; she met a thirteen-year-old Clara Wieck (later Schumann) in 1832 when they performed together, sparking a lifelong friendship; and in the mid-1830s, she took on the trouser role of Romeo in Bellini’s I Montecchi e i Capuleti, to acclaim.
A man named Richard Wagner was in the audience for a performance of the Bellini. (He later claimed it was Fidelio.) “When I look back across my entire life, I find no event to place beside this in the impression it produced upon me,” he later wrote of seeing Wilhelmine perform for the first time. It wasn’t that she had the greatest voice (according to contemporaries, she absolutely didn’t). But she had something even more powerful: an uncanny ability to use her whole body to tell a character’s story. This all-consuming approach to the art shaped Wagner’s, and helped lead in a very direct way to his conception of operas as music dramas.
Wilhelmine began to sing under Wagner’s baton, and the two became friends. They worked together in productions of Rossini’s Otello, Der Freischütz, Fidelio, and even I Montecchi e i Capuleti. He even began casting her in his own operas. She sang in the 1840s premieres of Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, and Tannhäuser.
But she was no Wagner partisan. She was equally beloved by his rivals. In 1843, a mere ten weeks after the premiere of The Flying Dutchman, she appeared onstage with Felix Mendelssohn, singing the soprano part to Paulus. Felix’s sister Fanny was enchanted, supposedly labeling Wilhelmine “the most amusing, most amazing damme.”
She also burnished her friendship with Robert and Clara Schumann, who moved to Dresden in 1844. Wilhelmine became increasingly fascinated by the golden couple’s work, singing pieces by both. In 1839, after seeing her Leonore, Clara had dubbed Wilhelmine “a powerful woman – my ideal in [this] art.” Wilhelmine returned the admiration, writing in 1847, “How deeply I adore you as a woman and as an artist and you must have to read this in my eyes.” In 1849, she and Robert and Clara went on a joint tour to Leipzig together, where Wilhelmine suggested that she and Clara use the familial du.
Her personal life remained as tempestuous as ever. She was irresistible to men, and they were irresistible to her. According to Wagner, when she met her second husband, a lieutenant named David Oskar von Döring, she was struggling to choose between two other lieutenants. She married von Döring in 1847. Unfortunately (and perhaps unsurprisingly), the marriage fell apart in a matter of months, a collapse no doubt hastened by von Döring’s drawing up a contract which gave him rights to her assets and half of her pension.
She also participated in the unsuccessful Dresden uprising of 1849, although the full extent of her role isn’t nearly as well-documented as Wagner’s is. Wagner famously penned incendiary articles and even helped procure hand grenades in support of the revolutionaries. Had he not been forced to flee the country, Wilhelmine would have appeared in the premiere of Lohengrin.
Apparently Wilhelmine also left (maybe fled?) Dresden after the uprising, choosing to settle in Paris and more-or-less retire. In 1850, she married a wealthy landowner named Heinrich von Bock, who was thirty-two years old to her forty-six. The following year when she and von Bock were traveling through Dresden, she was actually arrested. Eventually, the lawsuit against her was dropped and she was freed.
Records (in English, anyway) of Wilhelmine’s final years are scarce. It appears she left von Bock in 1858. In the spring of 1859, she asked Clara Schumann to perform at a comeback recital. Clara, concerned over the deterioration of her friend’s voice, urged her not to, but the recital occurred anyway on March 6, 1859. This comeback performance was, in reality, a farewell, as Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient passed away on January 26th, 1860.
In the final years of her life, Wilhelmine befriended a writer and translator named Claire von Glümer, as well as Claire’s partner and housemate Auguste Scheibe, also an author. The trio shared history; they’d all been involved in the Dresden uprising and its aftermath. When Wilhelmine realized the extent of her own illness, Claire was tasked with shaping her surviving papers into a biography, which was published in 1862. If you read German, the free e-book is here; go for it.
Wilhelmine’s name re-emerged in print in 1868 when a sexually explicit book called Memoiren einer Sängerin (or Memoirs of a Songstress) appeared, ascribed to her. A sequel dropped in 1875. The two parts taken together are known in English as Pauline, The Prima Donna, and if you want to read the 1898 English translation or buy a $750 illustrated edition, no one is stopping you. (Warning: both of those links are absolutely, positively not safe for work.)
I thought I’d include an excerpt or two here, but literally every one I chose (by randomly closing my eyes and scrolling up and down the page) was too explicit, even if I redacted liberally. The basic plot summary? Lots and lots and lots of graphic, no-holds-barred, no-details-spared nineteenth-century sex. Annnnnnnnnd that’s pretty much it.
Assigning authorship of pornographic novels from the nineteenth century is just a tad out of my area of expertise, so I won’t delve into the argument over whether this truly is or isn’t Wilhelmine’s work. Some sources believe the first half at least might be hers; others find the very idea she wrote any of it absurd. The questions and their implications are fascinating. Who wrote the books, if not Wilhelmine? Why, and why attribute them to her?
But I think we can all agree, no matter who wrote the memoir, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient’s life was bigger than it. She ought to be remembered as one of the great musical icons of the Romantic era: innovative, wildly passionate, and prolific in her love for others and for her art.
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If you want to learn more, here’s a list of sources: