Tag Archives: Anna Schoen-Rene

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.

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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.

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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.”

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