Her great presence of mind as an artist was shown a little later in a concert incident, which happened in her fourteenth year, in the Michael [sic] Theater. She played the Chopin E minor concerto, with orchestra, from memory, of course – her musical memory always wonderful – when suddenly a string in the piano broke and fell upon the others, which, by their unwilling vibration, tried to defend themselves from this attack. In spite of the alarming jar, no one thought of hastening to her relief by removing the cause of the disturbance, which so distressed the continuation with the improvised accompaniment of the jarring strings; so with her energetic little right hand, the young player pulled out the “corpus delicti” with a quick jerk and threw it on the floor, without at all interrupting her left hand, and then, unhindered, continued bravely with the playing. But then the audience broke in with enthusiastic cheers, for the brave self-defence, and at the end a profusion of flowers fell at her feet. The most brilliant performance could not have been more admired than was this little incident.
That sketch of quick-thinking pianist Ingeborg von Bronsart comes from nineteenth-century author Elise Polko. An 1898 translation of Polko’s essay is one of the few English-language biographies of Ingeborg available today. It’s an unabashedly romanticized portrait, with lots of unverifiable details. But although the portrait may be incomplete, its brilliant subject is still worth studying.
Ingeborg Lena Starck was born on 24 August 1840 in St. Petersburg. Her father Wilhelm was Swedish. He spent over four decades working in Russia, but never relinquished his Swedish citizenship. Her mother Margarethe was also Scandinavian (although sources differ as to whether her ancestry was Swedish or Finnish). Both husband and wife were amateur musicians. He played the flute and she played the violin (albeit solely by ear), and members of the household, including the help, frequently performed Swedish folksongs together.
Ingeborg had an older sister named Olivia. When Olivia began piano lessons at the age of nine, Ingeborg became desperately jealous. As Polko describes it:
And, when later, Olivia took piano lessons, Ingeborg, with tears in her big, longing eyes, stood by and begged that she might take at the same time, and her wish was granted, although unwillingly, on account of her extreme youth.
Within a matter of months, Ingeborg’s pianistic abilities had surpassed her older sister’s, and within a year, she was beginning to compose. In 1850, none other than Anton Rubinstein (who later taught Tchaikovsky) told a ten-year-old Ingeborg, “You, indeed, play very beautifully, but what especially interests me is your talent for composing.”
Wilhelm Starck soon hired a man named Nicolas von Martinoff to oversee the education of his daughter. Sources differ as to why, and whether he taught her piano or composition or both. Martinoff wasn’t known as a teacher, but he was a socially well-connected pianist and military man, and he was a fixture in the salons of St. Petersburg. During the winter season, the Martinoff family brought the girls to see Italian opera. In the summers, they visited his country estate in Shlisselburg, 450 kilometers from Helsinki. There they were instructed to swim, ride horses, and play billiards…and forbidden to play or study music. It was hoped these breaks would physically strengthen Ingeborg.
Perhaps to supplement the unconventional instruction she was receiving under Martinoff, in 1851 Ingeborg also began studying with pianist and composer Constantin Decker. In 1852, when she was twelve, one of her short pieces (potentially orchestrated by Decker) was premiered at a salon performance. By 1855, her compositions were actually beginning to appear in print.
That year, Martinoff left to fight in the Crimean War. He passed his promising student on to his friend, pianist and composer Adolf Henselt. Henselt isn’t well-remembered today, but in the nineteenth century, he was frequently mentioned in the same breath as Schumann and Chopin. He taught Ingeborg until 1857.
A salon performance in the late 1850s changed the course of Ingeborg’s life, personally and professionally. She sang and played piano the same night that a twentysomething Prussian piano virtuoso named Hans von Bronsart performed Chopin. The two pianists spoke, and von Bronsart raved to Ingeborg about his teacher, Franz Liszt, who was at that time based in Weimar. Liszt and von Bronsart were close; von Bronsart had actually given the Weimar premiere of Liszt’s second concerto, with the composer on the podium. In the words of Polko:
From that hour on Ingeborg dreamed of distant lands and people, and prayed her father and musical friend, Martinoff, with tearful eyes, “Let me go; I must go to Liszt in the ‘city of violets.'” And as, till then, all of her wishes had been granted, so it was with this. In the spring of the year, 1858, the young artist really spread her wings and flew to the German city, which was once the home of the greatest of German poets. Mother and sister accompanied her, but the former, who was an invalid, remained in Carlsbad for a course of medical treatment, and left her beloved daughters to go on their way alone.
So it was that an eighteen-year-old Ingeborg, accompanied by no one but her twenty-year-old sister, arrived in Weimar, knocked on Liszt’s door, passed an audition, and joined the storied Weimar circle.
Evidently she was composing a great deal at this time, because Liszt wrote in an 1859 letter:
I have grown very much attached to Fraulein Stark, as hers is a very particularly gifted artistic nature. The same will happen to you if you hear her striking Sonata. Ingeborg composes all sorts of Fugues, Toccatas, etc., into the bargain. I remarked to her lately that she did not look a bit like that. “Well, I am quite satisfied not to have a fugue countenance,” was her striking answer.
Liszt guessed that this quick-witted young woman would become “die George Sand der Musik!”
In 1859, Hans von Bronsart returned to his teacher’s side. There he reconnected with Ingeborg. They fell in love and got engaged. But their careers intervened, and it was two years before they were actually married in September 1861. After her marriage, Ingeborg took the name Ingeborg Bronsart von Schellendorf.
During the first years of their marriage, the Bronsarts were glamorous globetrotters, performing on stages across Europe, often with Hans conducting and Ingeborg soloing. They met and in many instances befriended the great musicians of the day, including Berlioz, Rossini, Wagner, von Bülow, Joachim, and Brahms, among others. (Wagner wrote a line or two in his memoirs extolling Ingeborg’s beauty.)
In 1863, Ingeborg composed a piano concerto and premiered it under Joachim’s baton in Hanover. Music journalist La Mara reports that the critics were skeptical of its Wagnerian “futuristic coloring.” Tragically, the score to this concerto appears to be lost. (However, her husband’s gorgeous 1872 concerto – dedicated to her – has survived and even been recorded.)
Two major developments transformed the couple’s lives in the 1860s. First, children: in April 1864, Ingeborg had a daughter named Clara, then in November 1868, a son named Fritz. (Clara was extremely musically gifted and would have become a pianist herself, save for “a nervous condition” that prevented a career. Fritz, like his paternal relatives, pursued a career in the military.)
But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, in 1867, Hans was appointed Intendant at the court theater in Hanover. It was a promotion for Hans, but it was a clear demotion for Ingeborg. A Prussian civil service law forbid the wives of officials from earning money, unless they gave it all to charity. Her performing career was forced to come to a sudden halt.
Polko writes of this transition:
When Frau von Bronsart was obliged, by existing circumstances, to put the virtuoso in the background, the picture of composer shone in a clearer light. The new home afforded a most restful place for quiet, earnest work, but next to this, she enjoyed writing cradle songs and duets for children, compositions, which later the mother sang with her daughter.
Lacking the professional outlets that her husband enjoyed, she turned her still-considerable creative energies to composition.
When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, Hans, who had come from a military family, joined the army. Ingeborg, too, contributed to the war effort, penning a march in honor of Kaiser Wilhelm. When the troops returned in 1871, her march was actually played in the Berlin Opera House. (Later, her March was performed in Chicago at the landmark 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition alongside works by Augusta Holmès and Amy Beach.)
The biggest works that resulted from the abandonment of her performing career were undoubtedly her four operas.
Her first was written in 1868 and called Die Göttin von Sais. It was performed only once, and privately.
Next, in 1873, came a Singspiel called Jery und Bätely, which employed a libretto by Goethe. In 1877, she actually wrote Liszt and asked if he would consider programming it at an upcoming festival in Hanover…and if he could keep the request a secret. “My husband can scarcely recommend one of his wife’s works…and would, perhaps rightly, scold me for proposing it,” she fretted in a letter. Whether Liszt intervened or not, Jery und Bätely was produced on May 21st. Ultimately, according to Melinda Boyd’s thesis on Ingeborg’s dramatic works, the piece was performed “at Ilm-Athen, Carlsruhe, Baden-Baden, Schwerin, Kassel, Wiesbaden, Braunschweig, Hanover, Königserg and Mannheim,” indicating a widespread positive reception.
The next decade and a half was taken up by the composition of a large-scale opera called Hiarne, based on an old Danish legend. She used a libretto that had originally been prepared by her husband in the 1850s, but which had never been set to finished music. Family friend and poet Friedrich von Bodenstedt edited a final version of the libretto. In between fulfilling her duties as wife, mother, and mistress of her household, Ingeborg worked hard on composing the music. The work was premiered in 1891, after her children were in their twenties and her husband was settled in a new career as a Kappellmeister in Weimar. (There Hans became a colleague to none other than a young Richard Strauss, who as second Kappellmeister premiered his tone poems Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration.) The premiere of Ingeborg’s opera Hiarne occurred in Berlin on 14 February 1891. In the following years, additional productions were mounted in Hanover, Hamburg, and even Weimar. With this work, Ingeborg von Bronsart became the first woman in Germany to write a grand opera and have it produced.
Disappointingly, her fourth opera, Die Sühne, was a critical failure in 1909. Composer and critic August Spanuth specifically critiqued its libretto and leitmotifs. There was speculation that Die Sühne would be revived in Stockholm in 1910 to celebrate the composer’s seventieth birthday, but ultimately no performance was ever mounted there.
Despite this late-career letdown, Ingeborg continued to take her identity as composer very seriously. She was especially looking forward to being profiled further by her friend La Mara, but La Mara wasn’t able to follow through with the planned project. It is tempting to imagine what our modern knowledge of Ingeborg might be, had a longer biography (or even autobiography!) been written.
After a long illness, Ingeborg von Bronsart died on 17 June 1913 in Munich. Hans died in November. Since their deaths, both husband and wife have passed into almost complete obscurity.
Today we hear few performances of Ingeborg’s music and even fewer recordings…despite the fact that her IMSLP page contains the scores to several of her works (including the 172 page score to Jery und Bätely). Until we hear more, and until additional advances in scholarship along the lines of Melinda Boyd’s thesis occur, the portrait of this pathbreaking composer will remain frustratingly incomplete.
Here is a charming Valse-Caprice by Ingeborg from Rosario Marciano’s recording of piano works by women.
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