Posts in Category: Artikler

Lyden af guldalderen – verdens ældste Mozart-optagelse

Verdens ældste optagelse af musik af Mozart er samtidig den ældste optagelse af en operasanger overhovedet – og den er endda dansk!

I den københavnske dagspresse kan man allerede i december 1889 se reklamer for en ny fonografoptagelse med Peter Schram – uddrag af rollen som Leporello i Mozarts Don Juan. Schram-valsen er et eksempel på en sangstil, som allerede er gået af mode i 1890’erne, og hvor man ikke holder sig for fin til at brodere en smule videre på Mozarts musik. Peter Schram synger uden akkompagnement, og han tager sig nogle gevaldige rytmiske friheder, som vi i dag nok mest trækker på smilebåndet af, men som sandsynligvis er en del af den tradition, Schram er vokset op med, og som først og fremmest tager udgangspunkt i at gøre teksten så tydelig som overhovedet muligt. Han udsmykker også musikken med forsiringer og tilføjer endda en lille kadence på ordene “Paa Gaden venter” i Leporellos første arie. Den stil har han fra syngemster Siboni, som han lærte at synge af som elev på landets første konservatorium tilbage i 1820’erne, og den stil er dybt forældet, da Schram indsynger fonografvalsen mange årtier senere.

På valsen – der i dag ligger på Det Kongelige Bibliotek i Aarhus – synger Peter Schram to uddrag fra Don Juan – Leporellos første entré og en bid fra listearien. Han synger uden akkompagnement, og han tager sig noglegevaldige rytmiske friheder, som vi i dag nok mest trækker på smilebåndet af, men som sandsynligvis er en del af den tradition, Schram er vokset op med, og som først og fremmest tager udgangspunkt i at gøre teksten så tydelig som overhovedet muligt. Han udsmykker også musikken med forsiringer og tilføjer endda en lille kadence på ordene “Paa Gaden venter” i Leporellos første arie.

Det er en smule nemmere at følge med, når man kender den lidt kringlede danske oversættelse:

Leporellos entré

Sjelden Penge, Prygl desfleer!
Staae om Natten udenfor
Medens herren inde leer,
Det var hidtil mine Kaar!
Hvorfor selv ei Herre være
Fanden være Tjener meer!
Det for galt er, paa min Ære
Mens han Elskovslykken henter
Jeg paa Gaden staaer og venter
Herre kan jeg gerne være
Fanden være Tjener meer!
Hvad er det? – Der kommer nogen
Det er bedst, jeg søger Krogen,
Ganske stille staaer jeg der!

Listearien

Hvis De, Donna,
behager at høre
Denne Liste,
som jeg har at føre
Paa de Skjønne,
hans Kunst monne røre,
Smukke Ting da
De skal faae at see!
Først i Italien ethundred’ og tyve!
En Snees Tydske,
for ikke at lyve.
Frankrigs Pigebørn
rundt om ham flyve;
Men ved Spanien,
staaer tusind og tre!

Lyden af guldalderen – den ældste danske stemme vi kan høre i dag

Ludvig Phister er født helt tilbage i 1807 – samme år som englænderne bomber København, og Don Juan har premiere på Det Kongelige Teater.

Ludvig Phister er suverænt den ældste dansker, vi stadig kan høre på lydoptagelser i dag.

Ludvig Phister begynder som balletelev ved teatret og debuterer i en barnerolle som 9-årig. Over 70 år senere indspiller han bl.a. to vers af sangen Og jeg vil ha’ en Hjertenskjær fra Hostrups vaudeville Eventyr på fodrejsen for Gottfried Ruben.

Lydkvaliteten er temmelig ringe, men man kan skelne både melodi og ordene i de to vers af sangen – og man kan høre, at Phister bruger en sjællandsk accent, som han også bruger som Holbergs Jeppe på en anden af de valser, han indspiller for Gottfried Ruben, Edisons agent i Skandinavien i årene omkring 1890. Rubens samling af efterladte fonografvalser er dansk kulturhistorie af høj karat – den ligger nu på Det Kongelige Bibliotek i Aarhus, og er heldigvis blevet digitaliseret.

Og jeg vil ha’ en Hjertenskjær

Og jeg vil ha’ en Hjertenskjær, det første som jeg kan,
men saadan én er ikke god at finde.
Hun skal have kinder som den røde Tulipan,
og Øjnestene, der kan rigtigt skinne.
Ja, hun skal være dejligst blandt de Piger her til Lands,
og lystig ved sit Arbejd’ og lystig i en Dans,
og hun skal ha’ de pæneste Manerer.

Ja, naar jeg blot kan finde En, ret saadan som jeg vil,
Da fejrer straks mit Bryllup jeg med Glæde;
Og Egnens Mænd og Kvinder de skal bydes ind dertil,
Og de skal faa saa meget, de kan æde.
Og der skal være Dans og Spil tre hele Dag’ i Rad;
Thi Kjærlighedens Lykke den gør dog Hjertet glad,
Saa kan man sagtens derpaa lidt spendere.

Læs mere om Ludvig Phister i min bog “Opera i guldalderens Købehavn”, som udkommer på Gyldendal 27. september. Bogen kan forudbestilles allerede nu, f.eks. her.

Oboist stjæler operastjernes smykker

Sopranen Jenny Lind kommer til København i september 1843. Hun er på vej mod en verdenskarriere, og bliver kendt under tilnavnet “den svenske nattergal”. Den kun 23-årige sanger har allerede været professionel i 13 år. Undervejs har hun flere gange haft seriøse stemmeproblemer, men nu har hun studeret i to år hos den berømte sangpædagog Manuel Garcia i Paris.

Jenny Lind  synger partiet som Alice i to opførelser af Meyerbeers Robert af Normandiet – en rolle, som Bournonville allerede har hørt hende synge i Stockholm – på Det Kongelige Teater. Hun synger på svensk – de øvrige medvirkende selvfølgelig på dansk. Publikum går amok i Jenny Lind-feber. Anmelderen fra Kjøbenhavnsposten svæver hjem efter forestillingen og skriver om “den fuldendte dramatiske Sangerinde; en klar, fyldig, velklingende og omfangsrig Stemme, en yndig og let Methode i Sangen, som hun aldrig overlæsser med upassende og uskjønne Coloraturer, et i høi Grad sjælfuldt og henrivende Foredrag og et overordentligt dramatisk Talent …”. Direktionens våde drømme om udsolgt hus går i opfyldelse; mange går forgæves, også til Jenny Linds koncert tre dage senere, som bliver en lige så stor succes.

For et af medlemmerne af Det Kongelige Kapel bliver Jenny Linds besøg en personlig katastrofe. Oboisten Conrad Ludvig Keck bliver fristet over evne, da han tilfældigt falder over Linds kostbare smykker i hendes omklædningsrum på Sorgenfri Slot. Kongen fejrer sin 67-års fødselsdag med en privat koncert, og både Jenny Lind, flere af sangerne fra teatret og Det Kongelige Kapel underholder. Keck stjæler de dyrebare armbånd, men når at fortryde, og sender dem tilbage pr. post via August Bournonville inden han bliver arresteret – han er blevet set, da han stjal dem og genkendt på postkontoret. Hans skæbne er nu i kongens hænder. Han slipper – sikkert også fordi Jenny Lind går i forbøn for ham – for tugthusstraf, men bliver landsforvist, og må samme dag, dommen bliver afsagt, forlade kone og børn i København. Keck tager til Tyskland – og Jenny Lind får sine armbånd igen.

(uddrag fra min bog “Opera i guldalderens København”, der udkommer på Gyldendal til oktober)

En sømand går amok i Det Kongelige Teater

I begyndelsen af 1800-tallet sælges en del af logerne i de højere etager på Det Kongelige Teater på særlige logeauktioner. Man køber ikke en enkelt plads i logen til en bestemt aften – man køber hele logen for en sæson. Der er ikke loft over, hvor mange billetter lejeren af en loge må udstede – der er gode muligheder for at tjene penge for mellemhandlerne. Høkerlogerne, som de bliver kaldt, bliver selvfølgelig fyldt til bristepunktet. Logehøkerne averterer helt åbenlyst for deres forretning i aviserne, og sælger deres billetter til aftenens forestilling fra kælderboder i Lille Kongensgade og på selve Kongens Nytorv. De sidste billetter bliver tilbudt billigt til forbipasserende, også når forestillingen er gået i gang. Priserne stiger og falder efter udbud og efterspørgsel, og man ved aldrig om en billet koster én rigsdaler eller kun otte skilling.

Mange sidder på pladser med ringe eller intet udsyn til scenen. De store, firkantede træpiller, der holder loftet oppe, spærrer for udsynet fra mange af pladserne i sidelogerne. På de bageste rækker i logerne må man stå op og læne sig frem for overhovedet at få et glimt af scenen. Det kræver, at man læner sig op ad ryggen på de, der sidder på rækken foran og samtidig holder fast i gesimsen for oven. Hvis man står i den stilling for længe, begynder arme og ben at sove eller gå i krampe, og så risikerer man at falde ud af logen. Ejerne af de rygge, der bliver brugt, er naturligt nok heller ikke altid udpræget forstående overfor de bagestes behov. Skænderier og slagsmål er hverdag. En aften styrter en ung mand ud fra én af gallerilogerne, men han redder livet, fordi han rammer logekanten i første etage på vej ned, og på den måde får afbødet faldet.

I alt kan man klemme omkring 1200 tilskuere ind i teatret, hvis man udnytter pladsen maksimalt. Det bliver atmosfæren i rummet ikke bedre af. I høkerlogerne er der bænke med plads til et sted mellem 10 og 15 personer alt efter købernes størrelse og høkerens grådighed. Her sidder bonden fra Amager på dagstur til byen ved siden af to veninder, som har en stor pose med æbler og kager med. Veninderne, en ældre frøken og en jordemoder, er faste kunder hos logehøkeren. De er kommet tidligt, og de har indtaget de midterste pladser på logens første række. De ser næsten alle forestillinger på teatret, og de kommenterer højlydt alt undervejs. Ved siden af de to veninder sidder en smuk ung pige med sin kavaler, en slagtersvend, der stadig lugter af knap så frisk oksekød.

Nu er musikerne i Det Kongelige Kapel kommet ind i orkesterområdet foran scenen. De sidder ikke i en orkestergrav, men på niveau med tilskuerne i parkettet, så de spærrer for udsynet fra de forreste rækker. Tællelysene på deres nodestativer bliver tændt. Orkestret stemmer, og imens begynder høkerlogen at blive fyldt. Et par håndværkssvende og en læredreng kommer til. Iltmanglen begynder allerede at være tydelig. De sidste kunder hos logehøkeren bliver presset på plads mens orkestret begynder på ouverturen. De senest ankomne er en ung, bleg student med briller og en høj, stærk sømand, der lader til at komme direkte fra en hel dags målrettet druk i knejperne i Nyhavn. Sømanden bliver henrykt, da han ser de unge piger fra balletkorpset sidde i logen ved siden af, og han byder gavmildt sin velvoksne brændevinsflaske rundt til de øvrige i logen. Hvis man takker nej, kan man nemt risikere et par øretæver.

Flere af kvinderne i logerne har spædbørn på skødet. De har ingen anden mulighed end at tage de små med, hvis de vil i teatret, og hver gang børnene skriger, er der masser af højlydte bud fra omgivelserne på, hvad man burde gøre ved dem. Ouverturen er nogle lyde i det fjerne. Mange lægger ikke engang mærke til, at den slutter.

Nu går tæppet op. Samtalerne og skænderierne rundt om i salen fortsætter, der deles madpakker og skåles. Sømanden får en lur under hele første akt, men i pausen liver han så meget op, at han får en ubændig trang til at kysse den smukkeste af balletpigerne i nabologen. Han forsøger den direkte, men noget farlige, vej udenom logernes skillerum. Pigerne hviner op, og etagens kontrollør bliver tilkaldt. Han har – som både sømanden og de fleste af sine kontrollørkolleger – også tilbragt en del af dagen med at slukke tørsten. Kontrolløren forsøger at overmande sømanden og trække ham tilbage i logen igen. Slagtersvenden holder med sømanden, kvinderne skriger på hjælp, og kontrolløren må råbe på forstærkning fra kollegerne på de øvrige etager. Sømanden bliver til sidst smidt ud af teatret. Der er blevet en smule bedre plads i logen da anden akt begynder.

Scenen med sømanden i høkerlogen er beskrevet af et øjenvidne mange år senere. Fortælleren hedder Hr. Davidsen, og han tilføjer for en ordens skyld, at der skam ikke er tale om overdrivelser på nogen måde.

(uddrag fra min bog “Opera i guldalderens København”, der udkommer på Gyldendal 27. september)

Beethovens Fidelio – og jodlende tyrolere

Jodlende tyrolere var et hit i 1800-tallet – her en lidt senere duo, Franzl und Frau.

I 1829 forsøger Det Kongelige Teater for første gang at spille Beethovens Fidelio. Det er ikke en premiere, som har høj prioritet hos ledelsen. Udgifterne til dekorationen er kun 1 rigsbankdaler og 3 mark – til sammenligning er budgettet for August Bournonvilles nye ballet Søvngjængersken, som har premiere ugen efter, på ikke mindre end 311 rigsbankdaler, 4 mark og 2 skilling. Fidelio må, som så mange andre forestillinger, klare sig med teatrets lager af eksisterende kulisser.

Begejstringen for Beethovens dystre og alvorlige opera kan ligge på et lille sted. Billetindtægten fra premieren er ikke mere end 297 rigsbankdaler, og det endda kun fordi mange af de mere konservative musikelskere i byen synes, at de har pligt til at møde op, når teatret spiller et værk af den store Beethoven, og råbe effektivt “bravo” efter hvert nummer. Beethoven-elskerne kommer kun til premieren. Ved næste forestilling falder indtægten falder til katastrofale 163 rigsbankdaler. Noget må gøres, og ledelsen beslutter at indlede den tredje opførelse med et lystigt lille fransk énakts-skuespil, Skillerummet, som har været på repertoiret siden 1806. Det hjælper overhovedet ikke på salget. Skrappere metoder må i brug, for billetter skal der sælges.

Nogen i ledelsen på Det Kongelige Teater får en lys idé. Én af de populære ting i tiden er tyrolersangere, der både kan danse og jodle. De har rigtige lederhosen og flotte hatte med fjer på, og teatret hyrer simpelthen tyrolerfamilien Leo til at optræde med fire “nationale sange” i en afdeling efter den fjerde opførelse af Fidelio. Blandt numrene er titler som Der Tiroler und sein Schatzerl og Gemsenjager-Lied. Der er næppe meget andet end den tysksprogede oprindelse, der forbinder Anton, Franzl og Berta Leos optræden med Beethovens opera, men folk strømmer til, da tyrolerne annonceres. Indtægten for aftenen bliver hele 324 rigsbankdaler.

Publikum er fuldstændig ligeglade med Fidelio, men modtager tyrolerne med stormende bifald – endda selv om de åbenbart ikke ligefrem tilhører A-holdet af sydtysk underholdning. Dagbladet Dagens anmelder har i hvert fald en del forbehold overfor familien Leo: “Uden at Nogen af dem synes at besidde noget overordentligt Naturtalent, klinger deres Sang dog ret behageligt; deres Jodlen er imidlertid næppe saa heldig som de tilforn hørte Tyroleres”.

(uddrag fra min bog “Opera i guldalderens København”, der udkommer på Gyldendal til oktober)

Måske har familien Leo alligevel ikke været helt så langt fremme i tyrolerskoene som mesteren Franzl Lang på videoen her. Men hattene har sikkert været lige så flotte som hans.

 

Sangere fra Det Kongelige Teater smidt i fængsel

I december 1800 pjækker sopranen Catharine Frydendahl fra en korprøve. Hendes mand forsvarer sin kones selvstændige fortolkning af mødepligten, og sagen kommer for kongen. Der er kontant afregning; han smider dem begge to i arresten.

Ægteparret Frydendahl er blandt de bærende kræfter, når der skal opføres syngespil på Det Kongelige Teater omkring år 1800, og Jørgen Frydendahl er desuden én af de bedste Holberg-skuespillere på teatret. Men selv stjernerne på Det Kongelige Teater risikerer at ryge i fængsel i nogle dage, hvis de ikke adlyder deres foresatte. Portrættet malet af David Monies hænger nu i foyeren til galleriet på Det Kongelige Teaters Gamle Scene

Omkring år 1800 er Catharine Frydendahl byens bedste sangerinde, og en ægte primadonna i ordets værste betydning. Hun er helt klar over sit eget værd som sanger, og hun fører an i intrigerne mod sine potentielle konkurrenter. Hun optræder udelukkende i syngespil, og ser det i øvrigt slet ikke som sin opgave at forsøge at illudere hverken forsmåede elskerinder, dronninger af eksotiske lande eller bondepiger fra Midtsjælland. Når hun synger en arie, stiller hun sig midt på scenen helt fremme, og der bliver hun stående uden at bevæge sig. På den sidste tone gør hun en fejende bevægelse med armene opad som tegn til, at arien er slut, og at det vil være passende, hvis publikum begynder at tiljuble hende nu.

Nu sidder hun så sammen med sin mand, basbarytonen Jørgen Peter Frydendahl, i Frederiksholms Arrest ved Langebro. Arresten kaldes også Blåtårn efter Leonore Christines fængselstårn på det gamle Københavns Slot. Her havner kongens embedsmænd og andre ansatte, når de har trådt ved siden af.

Frydendahl’ernes konflikt med ledelsen bunder faktisk i helt reelle problemer for de fastansatte i skuespillerensemblet. I 1795 er teatrets lille kor på kun 18 sangere i så ringe en forfatning, at man har indført en ny regel; alle fastansatte skuespillere skal fremover medvirke som korister i de syngespil, hvor de ikke selv har egentlige roller. Der følger ikke noget løntillæg med.

Mange af skuespillerne er i forvejen på randen af et stressrelateret sammenbrud. Teatret spiller omkring 100 forskellige titler om året omkring år 1800 – en aktivitet, der kulminerer i sæson 1811-12 med ikke færre end 158 forskellige komedier, skuespil, syngespil, operaer og balletter. Selv om der ofte er flere kortere værker på programmet på en aften, er arbejdspresset umenneskeligt. Det er ikke ualmindeligt at en skuespiller får tildelt mellem 40 og 50 roller på en sæson – store som små. Der skal læres ufattelige mængder af ord udenad, og en hel del af dem skal endda synges.

Alene i en tilfældig måned som september 1806 spiller teatret 14 forskellige skuespil og fem syngespil. Tre af skuespillene er nye titler, der aldrig er spillet før. Suffløren må ifølge reglementet kun hviske begyndelsen af hver replik under forestillingerne, og et enkelt ord midt i en sætning, hvis skuespilleren er ved at gå helt i stå. Resultatet har sandsynligvis omfattet en del improvisation undervejs.

Der er selvfølgelig så også en fysisk grænse for hvor meget prøvetid, man kan bruge på hver titel. Når man arbejder frem mod en premiere, er det helt normalt med bare en enkelt læseprøve og mellem tre og fem sceneprøver på et skuespil af f.eks. Iffland eller Kotzebue. Når det handler om syngespil som Mozarts Don Juan eller Weyses Sovedrikken, kan man komme op på syv sceneprøver foruden et par indledende klaverprøver.

Mange af titlerne bliver spillet år efter år. Det løbende repertoire er der som udgangspunkt kun prøve på samme dag som aftenens opførelse – med mindre det er mere et ét år siden stykket blev spillet sidst; så er der sandelig én ekstra prøve. Præcis som der er, hvis en ny skuespiller overtager en hovedrolle. Man kan altså risikere at gå på scenen i en stor rolle i et skuespil eller et syngestykke uden at få mere end en enkelt prøve samme dag, selv om det kan være mange måneder siden, det blev spillet sidst. Hvordan det nogensinde lykkes at få forestillingerne på benene med så få prøver er en gåde.

Kommer Frydendahl’erne mon ud af fængslet igen? Det kan du læse om til september …

(uddrag fra min bog “Opera i guldalderens København”, der udkommer på Gyldendal 27. september) 

Slagsmål om billetter til Det Kongelige Teater

Det er sin sag at gå i teatret i begyndelsen af 1800-tallet. Alene billetkøbet er et farligt og tidkrævende forhindringsløb. Får man endelig fingre i en billet til de overfyldte loger eller til ståpladserne i parterret, venter flere timer presset tæt sammen med andre, der heller ikke har været i bad for nylig.

Trusler og rå vold er hverdag, og mange kommer til skade under den daglige kamp for at komme først i køen til de eftertragtede billetter til aftenens forestilling. Anonym tegning, muligvis efter C.W. Eckersberg.

Man skal stå tidligt op for at få en billet til Det Kongelige Teater. Efterspørgslen er langt større end udbuddet, og allerede før det bliver lyst, begynder der at samle sig mørke skygger i lygteskæret foran teatret. Mange er karle, piger og læredrenge, der bliver sendt af sted for at skaffe billetter til deres herskab og mestre. Ingen har deres pæne tøj på, for de ved, hvad der skal ske i løbet af de næste timer.

Køkultur er ikke københavnernes spidskompetence, og der er allerede tidligt skubben og masen i gruppen for at komme tættest på døren. I frostvejr står der en damp op fra gruppen, der hele tiden ændrer form, og hvor de uheldigste råber højt om hjælp, når de bliver klemt og næsten kvalt. Det er ikke tilfældigt, at man kalder det daglige optrin for ‘myrderiet’.

Billethajerne

Ved daggry bliver det værre endnu. Nu kommer de professionelle billethajer til, granvoksne mænd, der specialiserer sig i at tromle og slå sig vej gennem mængden helt frem til trappen op til døren. Kampen fortsætter, men hajerne – eller ‘billetsjoverne’, som de bliver kaldt – holder skansen i front. Nu kommer politiet til og uddeler de obligatoriske stokkeslag helt tilfældigt i mængden for at få orden i køen. Billethajerne rører de stort set aldrig, for bestikkelse er hverdag, og hajerne er snu nok til at sørge for en klækkelig nytårsbonus til betjentene hvert år. De, der mødte tidligst op, er ofte dem, der ender bagest i køen.

Her kan de så stå, dryppende af sved efter kampen, totalt gennemblødte af regnen eller frysende helt ind i marven alt efter årstiden og vejret. Et par timer senere åbner billetsalget. Kundeservice og effektiv ekspedition er ukendte begreber, og billetsælgerne bag den lille luge tager det nærmest som en personlig fornærmelse, når man drister sig til at efterspørge deres produkt. Der går lang tid med hvert billetkøb. Hajerne køber mange billetter hver, og der er tit udsolgt efter kun 60-70 ekspeditioner. Så kommer en kontrollør frem og råber: “Alt er udsolgt”, og alle, der stadig står i køen, må gå slukørede hjem efter de mange timer foran teatret.

Der er naturligt nok mange, der klager over forholdene – ikke mindst over de professionelle billetopkøbere, som senere på dagen sælger morgenens fangst til ublu overpriser. Politimesteren og teaterledelsen forsøger at dæmme op for sortbørshandlen ved at indføre en regel om, at alle, der køber billetter på andres vegne, skal fremvise dokumentation. Hvis der er mistanke om, at seddelen er falsk, bliver den potentielle synder slæbt over torvet til forhør på politistationen på Charlottenborg. De eneste, der slipper for den ydmygende behandling, er naturligvis billethajerne, som igen blot bestikker sig til at kunne fortsætte deres indbringende forretning.

(uddrag fra min bog “Opera i guldalderens København”, der udkommer på Gyldendal til oktober) 

First Danish Brünnhilde made 9 mill. German Marks a week

johanne brunIt is with deep-felt emotion I write this. Mrs. Johanne Brun has alas been forced to beg for even the most scanty help through grants. What a fate for an artist of her standing! Who doesn’t remember her wonderful years at our opera and who can hear her today without the greatest astonishment? Mrs. Brun is still an artist in full bloom, and it is incomprehensible how the management of our opera can continue to reject her after she has returned from abroad – especially if they plan to stage any of Wagner’s operas. […] Her current position in life must astound any man, and I can only give her application for help my strongest sympathy as a human being in admiration for her open mind and honest striving.

(signed) Carl Nielsen, Copenhagen January 1, 1926

A letter of recommendation from the famous Danish composer, for many years himself violinist and later conductor at the Royal Danish Opera where he had been able to follow the career of Johanne Brun from the very outset more than 40 years earlier. Now, at the age of 49, the Danish Wagnerian soprano par excellence was facing severe poverty after a career that had ended in inflation-stricken Germany. Her fate could have been different if the management at the Royal Danish Opera at the time had heard what we today can hear through her extremely rare records; a full dramatic voice, an ideal Isolde but with remarkable agility in coloratura – a voice comparable to a Lilli Lehmann in versatility.

Listen to her incredibly rare recording of the final scene of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde made in 1915 (the article continues below):

She was born Johanne Marie Emilie Prieme on August 23, 1874 in Frederiksberg near Copenhagen. At the age of seven she was enrolled at the school of the Royal Danish Ballet at the Royal Theatre that served then, as now, as home for both acting, ballet and opera. The children at the ballet were often used as extras and even as singers when a children’s chorus was needed, and Brun was thus able to make her debut as a singer in Carmen at the age of 10.

She also heard and came to admire the local stars of the opera, one of them a tenor by the name of Frederik Brun. He had made his debut in 1876 as Rossini’s Almaviva, and later turned to the more dramatic repertoire culminating with Tannhäuser, Otello, Radamès and Siegmund. He was joined at the opera in 1889 by his younger brother Johan Nordal Brun, also a tenor. Frederik Brun was 41 when he in 1893 married the 18-year old Johanne Brun.

As was the costum then the young dancer gave up her career as she entered her new standing as a married woman. Frederik Brun soon discovered, however, that his young wife was gifted with a beautiful and wide ranging soprano, and he eagerly encouraged her to take lessons from the vocal coach Miss Fanny Gætje and the conductor Frederik Rung, with whom she studied for a year and a half. But what she was taught by Gætje and Rung was sometimes contradicted immediately by her husband, a dominant and pedantic tyrant, who was fanatical about singing technique. One of his friends portraits him in his memoirs:

”He could at times be very tiring for everyone, talking at length only about himself. Especially when he was trying to teach himself a new method of singing he was taxing company. If I met him on the mail street in Copenhagen he would drag me into a gateway and begin to demonstrate a new trill or a coloratura, thus soon assembling a curious crowd.”[1]

Judging from the few examples of his singing that survives on recordings today Frederik Brun did in fact not have a very good technique – the Miserere from Il trovatore recorded in 1904 reveals the ruins of a strained voice with a bleeding goat vibrato. Frederik Brun had at this time, in one of his fits of anger, left the Royal Danish Opera for good:

Frederik Brun had made a great singer of the little ballet girl, but he himself gradually faded from the public’s mind, and at the turn of the century he had – for God knows which time and with under many oaths and harsh words to the management – left the theatre, and for the rest of his life tried to make a living as a café pianist in Sweden. Initially a really decent tenor, Brun’s habit of making inexcusable insults to his superiors and fellow singers made him unwanted at the opera – where younger tenors as Vilhelm Herold took over.[2]

Johanne Brun quickly made sufficient progress to be granted a debut at the Royal Opera. Her phenomenal ease at the very top of her voice made the choice of The Queen of the Night obvious. Despite a few prior concert appearances, it was the performance of Die Zauberflöte on May 8, 1896 she considered her real debut. Despite a few remarks on Bruns nerves not being quite under control during the first aria, all the critics agreed that here was a singer to expect more from in the future:

The voice itself is uncommonly pure and beautiful. Mrs. Brun is made of the stuff that can create a coloratura singer of the very first class, a full, flexible, wide ranged and impressive soprano. The public’s reception was indeed positive; after her first aria a storming applause broke out from the near full house.[3]

Johanne BrunDespite the overall positive reception from both critics and audience, two years should pass before Johanne Brun was given another chance at the Copenhagen opera. This “second debut” on May 14, 1898 was to prove her able to sing more dramatic pieces and not only purely coloratura roles. Frederik Brun described his wife’s voice in these terms:

”Her real force is in Wagner, but she will undoubtedly also be able to continue her development as a coloratura singer. What is still lacking is routine. She has to get used to singing in large halls. Mrs. Ellen Gulbransen has taught her how high to sing in chest voice, and I myself has taught her a few tricks I have seen Patti use abroad. My wife is an excellent pianist, by the way, and I am sure she will become a dramatic singer of the first rate.”[4]

It was as Aïda that Brun made her second appearance at the Royal Opera, and this time the newspapers were even more enthusiastic, stressing the natural production and the beauty of her tone, as well as her unmannered and tasteful acting. And this time the opera management gave her a contract as soloist with the opera for the following season, where she added Margarethe in Faust and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni to her repertory.

At the end of the season 1898-99 her contract was renewed, as it was to become each year from now on. The following seasons she sang Leonora in Il trovatore, Desdemona in Otello, Elsa in Lohengrin, Ingeborg in Heise’s Drot og Marsk, and she also sang in the premières of two Danish operas; Lamia by August Enna and Helgensværdet by Axel Grandjean.

The Norwegian composer and conductor Johan Svendsen had been house conductor of the Royal Danish Opera since 1883. He had played as a violinist in the Bayreuth orchestra and knew Wagner personally. Since the Danish première of Die Walküre in 1891 Svendsen had had a vision of a Danish performance of the complete Ring cycle, and on January 8, 1902 Brun sang her first Wagnerian part, Sieglinde. Her twin and lover Siegmund was Peter Cornelius, who had changed his voice from baritone to heldentenor, and who later was to sing in Bayreuth and at Covent Garden.

The critics agreed that Brun was ideal for Wagner, even though a few complained that her middle and lower range was slightly less focused than her brilliant height. With these two singers available Johan Svendsen knew that he could now slowly begin realise his dream of a complete Ring in Copenhagen.

Even though Brun was now considered essentially a dramatic soprano, she added Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia to her repertory that very same year. In the singing lesson Brun sang Benedict’s variations on Carneval de Venise, and the public responded with ecstatic applause. But some of the critics noted problems:

Mrs. Brun has a fine coloratura throat, but it is unkempt. A Wagnerian soprano does not easily perform this delicate music. […] The thing is that she has never studied properly, and if these things are not corrected it will soon be too late, and she will have to lead a life as an unpolished artist. Last night her performance was further marred by abrupt changes of register, especially in the Cavatina […][5]

Weather this critic was right we can actually hear for ourselves today. Johanne Brun quickly became a favourite with the Danish audience – both for her singing and her beauty! She appears as one of six actresses and singers on a postcard made at this time with the title “Copenhagen’s most ravishing women”. It was obvious that a completely new industry kept an eye out for her to help marketing the new wonders of the age. In April 1903 Brun recorded her first batch of six sides for Skandinavisk Grammophon Aktieselskab, the Danish branch of G&T.

Around the same time she also recorded twelve cylinders – including a duet with her husband – for the local rival Dansk Fonograf Magasin, associated with the Pathé company. One of the cylinders contains excerpts from the Carneval de Venise variations Brun sang as Rosina, and here one hears the combination of a full dramatic voice, but retaining the abilities of precise coloratura and trills – all done with impeccable secure intonation. It is hard to judge her singing as harshly as Mr. Rosenfeld does above.

Besides singing at the Royal Opera, she was now in general demand in the Copenhagen musical life – especially in the Wagnerian fach. She regularly sang at concerts in the Concert Palais and in the Tivoli Gardens, often joined by her husband, now trying his luck as a baritone – but with little success. His appearances caused a mixture of amusement and pity with the critics, but Johanne Brun was invariably hailed as the supreme Danish interpreter of Wagner’s heroines. And in the years to come she was to create the most demanding of them on the Danish national stage.

Johan Svendsen continued his quest for the complete Ring with Siegfried in 1903, with the star cast of Helge Nissen as Der Wanderer, Peter Cornelius as Siegfried and Johanne Brun as Brünnhilde – a great success both for the performers and for Wagner’s music in Denmark. But Brun also added more lyrical and even bel canto roles to her repertory; Bellini’s Norma and Philine in Mignon.

On February 23, 1905 the Royal Opera added Götterdämmerung to their repertory, naturally with Brun and Cornelius as Brünnhilde and Siegfried – another triumph for both. The critics were very positive, but their level of general knowledge of Wagner’s works is reflected in the fact that none of them seems to have noticed that the scene with the three nornes had been omitted. Johan Svendsen was nearer his dream of a Ring cycle, but his health forced him to retire. On May 31, 1908 he conducted a farewell gala culminating with the third act of Die Walküre, with Brun as Sieglinde. Frederik Rung had earlier that month conducted the last of the Ring operas, Das Rheingold. Brun sang Freja at the première, and later that year added both Ortrud in Lohengrin and Woglinde in Rheingold to her impressive list of roles. It was Rung, the former teacher of Brun, who took over as house conductor from Svendsen, and as assistant conductor was employed a young talented violinist and composer; Carl Nielsen.

But even though she was now recognised as one of the leading singers of the opera, Johanne Brun was still not endorsed with a permanent contract. Where most of the singers after a few seasons were normally employed on a regular basis with pension, Brun never achieved this. One can only speculate as to the reasons, but it is certain that she was a self-conscious and open-mouthed rebel who on more than one occasion stood up against the management of the opera. It is easy to imagine her life with the pompous and frustrated Frederik Brun, and their marriage was dissolved in 1906. Johanne Brun was now alone with their 12-year old daughter Gertrud.

Meanwhile she continued her career both on stage and in the recording studios. It seems that it was a must for the companies to have Johanne Brun in their catalogues, and she is invariably among the very first female singers to record for both major and minor labels active in Denmark. In this period she recorded not only for G&T but also made records for Lyrophon and cylinders for Elektra and Edison.

At the Royal Opera the next seasons saw Johanne Brun in the six performances of the Ring between 1909 and 1912 – the only complete cycles to be given at the theatre to this day – as well as appearances as Venus in Tannhaüser. But in the following seasons Brun found herself in less demand than earlier, and sometimes there were up to eight months between her singing at the Royal Opera. It seems that there were several reasons for this. Her increasing weight problem further inhibited what was apparently never a great dramatic talent on stage, and her voice was reported to be loosing its former flexibility – not surprisingly for a Brünnhilde and Isolde. This meant that she was more or less confined to the Wagnerian repertoire and a couple of dramatic Verdi roles. But soon she was not even considered more than a second choice for even these parts. During the following seasons Brun appeared more and more irregularly at the Royal Opera.

She had to fight hard to be given the opportunity to create Isolde in Danish at the long awaited première in 1914 – even threatening to never sing at the Royal Danish Opera again if her wish was not granted.

“I have waited for this role for 10 years, now. Season after season I have had only minor things to do at the opera here, and I started to work on Isolde three years ago. In the beginning I worked in German, as I have nearly always done with Wagner, and I was astounded with the difficulty I had learning the translation. A lot of what falls quite natural in German seems almost incomprehensible in Danish. We had 60 rehearsals before the première – not many considering the length and difficulty of Tristan; for Don Giovanni we had 90!”[6]

Frederik Rung was originally to have conducted Tristan, but he had been unwell for quite some time and was consequently replaced by Georg Høeberg who turned out to be a very gifted conductor. The performance was again a triumph for Brun, and in 1915 she recorded part of the Liebestod for Odeon. Here we can witness the truly international class of singing, with broad lines and no signs of weariness of tone. If this is a documentation of the general standard of Brun’s singing at this time, it is utterly incomprehensible that she was not regarded higher by the theatre management.

The atmosphere at the rehearsals for Tristan had been tense between Brun and the house stage director Julius Lehmann, and when Parsifal was premièred in 1915 it was not Johanne Brun who sang Kundry. Later she revealed in an interview[7] that Lehmann was one of her fiercest enemies; when Tannhäuser was staged for the first time in Denmark in 1910 he had simply told her straight to her face that she would perhaps be able to sing Venus but that she was too fat to portrait Elisabeth. She was nevertheless given the chance, though, on November 5, 1915.

Brun now began to seriously consider leaving Denmark. She had always been a keen traveller; apart from trips to German cities like Berlin and Dresden to hear her beloved Wagner in international performances, she had also taken a 9-week holiday in the Algerian desert with a lady friend, bringing home live souvenirs in the form of turtles and chameleons!

For a Wagnerian soprano wishing to try her luck at a career abroad Germany seemed the obvious choice. In 1916 war-time Germany was perhaps not the ideal place, and most Danish artists working there actually returned home at this time. But Johanne Brun insisted. Germany it was to be. Her last performance at the Royal Danish Opera was Aida on May 10, and the newspapers all lamented the loss:

Few people has been treated so shabby as Johanne Brun has been by our Royal Opera. While she sang one Wagner heroine after the other, it was other singers who were given titles and honour. She was not even permanently employed here. Now she is leaving at the height of her powers to go to Nuremberg. One could wish that she had done so ten years ago, so that she could now have made a name for herself abroad by now. Lets us hope that she soon will![8]  

Even though the performance was not officially a farewell gala (as Johanne Brun was not permanently employed at the opera), the King and Queen were present, and before the performance Brun was finally appointed the title of Kammersanger. But were she not sad to leave the stage where she had sung for 20 years? A Copenhagen ladies magazine interviewed the newly appointed Kammersanger:

”Absolutely not! The last couple of years at the Royal Opera has only been too painful. The conditions are much to complicated and deplorable. If I wanted a certain role I had to beg and plea everyone, and that is not my way, even though I do love my work. For several years I have been neglected – and nothing can be more devastating. I almost lost faith in myself completely. I have thought about going abroad for quite some time, but I have always resisted in the end; perhaps things here would become better. But when I had to fight to sing Isolde at the opening night – and had to threaten to resign if I was refused – I promised myself that I would go to Germany. I am sad to leave my home, but I look forward so much to getting to sing again. I have been so desperate for lack of work that I even started to sew my own clothes – something I never enjoyed. And my furniture has been repainted several times; right now it is white…”

Another reason for leaving the Royal Danish Opera was financial. Brun was not any longer receiving a fixed salary for each season, but was paid for each performance – and sometimes there would be months between her appearances. In a German house she would not only be able to sing her beloved Wagner roles, but could also easily earn much more than in Copenhagen.

Brun had a few years earlier heard the German heldentenor Alois Pennarini, and she admired his Tristan very much. He was now the artistic director at the Stadttheater in Nuremberg, and Brun wanted to try her luck at a house where Wagner was the core of the repertory. But in Copenhagen she had for years sung everything in Danish, so ahead was more hard work re-learning her roles in German. She spent eight months with a coach in Copenhagen and a further two in Berlin. Here Brun could also get a first hand impression of the conditions in Germany – and she was surprised that they were as good as they seemed, and that prices were reasonable:

“In my experience it is cheaper to dine in restaurants in Berlin than in Copenhagen. My daily dinner – consisting of soup, then fish or another side dish, then roast beef with several kinds of vegetables and finally a dessert or cheese and bread – cost, with a glass of beer and tips, only two mark.”[9]

No wonder that Brun had gained a considerable weight since her days with the ballet. After the intensive studies in Berlin she finally felt ready to go to Nuremberg to audition for Pennarini. She sang from Götterdämmerung, and did it so well, that she was offered a ”trial-evening” as Isolde at the theatre on March 3, 1916. Pennarini sang Tristan himself, and in spite of this being her first performance in a foreign language (and the fact that Brun was not granted a rehearsal!) she convinced both audience, Pennarini and the critics; she was offered a two-year contract from August that year – earning more than four times the amount she could expect in Copenhagen. But in Nuremberg Brun found quite a different picture of Germany than the one she had seen in Berlin:

“I will never forget what I saw there. The casualties of the war is brought to a large home for cripples, where they try to mend the most horribly mutilated soldiers. With endless patience they are trained to use the remains of their limbs, supported by iron splints. Imagine rows of men without arms or legs doing gymnastics to train their muscles. After lots of hard work they are given artificial limbs, and the endless training continues in their strive to master the new devices. All over Nuremberg you meet these cripples with their molested faces; deform, swollen faces where new skin has been attached to an otherwise torn cheek. I have talked to mothers and wives who, when they came from a visit to their dear one, only wished them death as the future was unbearable to think of.”[10]

Life at the Stadttheater also proved taxing compared to what Brun had been used to in Copenhagen. A working day started at 9 AM even if she had sung a performance that ended at 11 PM the night before. On Sundays there were performances both in the afternoon and evening, and even if Brun was not appearing in a performance she was still expected to attend an evening rehearsal, often lasting until midnight. She several times sang major parts such as Leonore in Fidelio at short notice and without rehearsal. In addition she was also in demand from neighbouring houses in Augsburg, Köln and Würzburg – and in 1917 she sang in a Ring cycle in Regensburg. Quite a contrast to the idle life in Denmark, but with many artistic rewards for Brun. She sang all the Wagnerian heroines as well as the dramatic parts in operas as Fidelio, Un ballo in maschera, La Juive, Aida and Il trovatore.

Johanne Brun, or Johanna as she was known in Germany, quickly became a favourite with the Nuremberg audience. In November 1917 Brun sang in the first Nuremberg-performance of Eugen d’Albert’s opera Die toten Augen, premièred only a year earlier.

When the performance came to an end the applause would never end. Large flower arrangements were brought on stage, and insisting shouts of “Die Brun, Die Brun” where heard everywhere. Outside the theatre people, mostly young girls, gathered to greet the Diva as she left the building. […] The following day the mayor of Nuremberg sent a letter of congratulation to Johanne Brun on behalf of the city.[11]

This was not the only example of operas new to Johanne Brun as well as to everyone else; two years later she took part in the first performance of Ein Fest zu Haderslev, an opera by the Nuremberg house conductor Robert Heger, and during her years in Nuremberg she also sang in Korngold’s Violanta as well as the title role in Salome – an opera composed only a decade earlier. In 1920 she was hailed as a genius, no less, by the Nordbayerischer Zeitung for her Brünnhilde in another complete Ring performance, and her time in Nuremberg seems to have been a host of successes.

It is not clear why her contract then came to an end, but in April 1922 Brun sang Kundry as guest at the Stadttheater in Aachen, and in September that year she moved from Nuremberg to this town near the Belgian border. Here she again sang the dramatic soprano she had learned in Nuremberg, adding Herodias in Salome. But again her timing was bad. On January 11, 1923 France and Belgium occupied the Ruhr district, and Johanne Brun now more than ever wanted to return to her native country. Ever since she immigrated she had often sung at concerts in Copenhagen during the summer periods, and when she later that year visited Denmark she spoke to her old colleague Vilhelm Herold, with whom she had often sung in her early years in Copenhagen, and who was now artistic director at the Royal Danish Opera. On June 13, 1923 he wrote to Brun:

At the meeting we had a few days ago I spoke your case, but the Ministry has not yet decided next seasons amount concerning guest artists, and consequently no decision was made as to you. The old dragging-things-out-style! But next time you are in town please come and see me in my office. I still hope that we shall be able to find something for you to do. Receive the heartiest greeting from

              your old friend

                          Vilh. Herold

This must have been discouraging for Johanne Brun to read. The conditions in Aachen were hopeless, as she told a Danish journalist:

The Belgians are not very nice at all; if one passes the house of a general it is not allowed to use the pavement – I was literally thrown out into street by a Belgian guard on one occasion! Everyone are of course nervous, and have only one thought – money, money, money. As soon as we get our wages we hurry to spend it all, otherwise the money could be worth only half in a day or two! One day a pound of margarine went from 40.000 Mark to 80.000 in just half an hour. I am now receiving 9 million Mark a week! Everything is more expensive in Aachen than in the rest of Germany, and food is scarce. There are no train connections, and the mail is very unreliable. Parcels are not delivered at all. The shops are open one hour in the morning and one in the afternoon. Cars and bikes can only be used by foreigners, and the curfew dictates that you can not go out after 9 PM. One Sunday afternoon we had a performance at 4 PM, and just before the curtain went up we got a message that the curfew was changed to 8 PM that particular evening. We had to cut the opera in the last moment, and we were all frightened to death with the thought of not being able to finish on time.

With the beginning of 1924 Johanne Brun finally escaped Aachen, and was to begin a new life in Danzig (now Gdansk), then a free city under the sovereignty of the League of Nations. Here she signed a contract that would again allow her to sing her best roles; Senta, Ortrud, Isolde, Ariadne, Leonora in Fidelio and Brünnhilde in Siegfried. When news of this new contract came to the Danish press, one critic managed not only to declare Johanne Brun his devotion and love – but also to insult both her and the entire population in the former Polish city:

It is nerve-wracking to think that Mrs. Johanne is going to spent weeks, maybe even months in a city like Danzig. The city is run by the English, but that might even be; they are all cleanly people who use the I.P. Muller system [of home gymnastics!]. But who are the attendants at the opera there? The majority are dirty and verminous Poles with sausage sandwiches and bananas in their pockets to eat during the intervals, oozing garlic and illicitly distilled liqueur. […] Johanne Brun still has an astonishingly fresh, youthful, rounded and soft voice. Lovely is the word! The madam is not quite young any longer; she also has her obesity to cope with. She weighs approx. 230 pounds now – she is no speck, no particle, no molecule. […] But what is obesity and age when on the other hand there is beauty, stateliness, the sweetest face and the appearance of a true queen.    

In the spring of 1924 Johanne Brun finally returned to the Royal Danish Opera if only for a single appearance as Philine in Mignon, a part that one could easily suppose would hardly show off the best qualities of a Wagnerian soprano at the age of 50. And it is indeed hard to see why the management not chose to give her an Isolde instead – Tristan was in the repertory for that season. Nevertheless the critics marvelled at the ease and beauty of the voice that seemed only firmer and more controlled than when she was last heard on the stage here. On April 2 she finally was given the chance to show once more her real powers at the Royal Danish Opera as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre. And that was it. Johanne Brun was never to appear on the opera stage of her native city again.

In 1925 she returned to live in Copenhagen. But with no regular income something had to be done. She had lost all her savings during the German inflation, and she had no pension from the Royal Opera to rely on. But she was not forgotten by the Danish public and her friends. It was arranged that she could work from home selling lottery tickets for the National Lottery, and she was also given a yearly sum from the State.

In 1936 Brun was drawn from retirement by the Danish record collector Knud Hegermann-Lindencrone, who had initiated the recording of a 7-record set to capture on record the performances of the Danish singers who created Wagner’s operas at the Royal Danish Opera. Johanne Brun sang from Das Rheingold, Götterdämmerung and Tristan und Isolde. Here her voice is well past its prime, but with a bit of imagination it is quite obvious that it is the voice of a major Wagnerian soprano.

Brun lived quietly in Copenhagen, hugely enjoying her grandchildren and great-grandchildren for the next couple of decades. She died on February 3, 1954, nearly 80 years of age, and the critic Axel Kjærulf wrote in her obituary:

Her mind was clear to the very end of her life, full of wit. She closely followed the development at the Royal Opera, and if one met her there, one was met with the sweetest of smiles, the biting sarcasm that she still possessed, and above all with the love she felt for the art she had so gloriously served.[12]

ACKNOWLEGDEMENTS:
I would like to thank the following persons for invaluable help: Jens Hansen, Copenhagen; Erik Kajstrup, Frederiksberg: Emil Marott, Højby; Niels Ravn, Gentofte; Henning Thorbjørnsen, Charlottenlund; Henning Trab, Statens Mediearkiv, Århus; Julius Wedege, Copenhagen; Lisbeth Grandjean and Ida Poulsen, Teatermuseet, Copenhagen.

This article was previously published in The Record Collector magazine.

Notes:

[1] Charles Kjerulf: Gift og Hjemfaren, 1917
[2] Politiken, February 4, 1954
[3] Dannebrog, March 9, 1896
[4] unidentified newspaper interview made ca. 1903
[5] Leopold Rosenfeld in Dannebrog, October 7, 1902
[6] this probably includes individual piano rehearsals with coaches of the house. From an interview in Masken, 1914.
[7] Berlingske Tidende, August 22, 1944
[8] Folkets Avis, May 11, 1916
[9] Interview in Berligske Tidende, summer 1916
[10] Interview in Berligske Tidende, summer 1916
[11] Ekstra Bladet, November 20, 1917
[12] Politiken, February 4, 1954

Danmarks første Brünnhilde tjente ni millioner mark om ugen

Johanne Brun”Det er med bevægelse og virkelig grebethed jeg skriver på denne ansøgning. Fru Johanne Brun er altså virkelig bleven således stillet at hun nu må anmode om selv den mest nødtørftige hjælp gennem legater og stipendier! Hvilken skæbne for en sådan kunstnerinde! Hvem husker ikke hendes pragtfulde virksomhed i vor opera og hvem kan uden den største undren høre på hendes sang den dag i dag? Fru Brun står endnu bestandig som kunstnerinde i fuld blomst, og man forstår ikke hvorledes det er muligt at vor operas ledelse kan afvise hende efter hende hjemkomst fra udlandet – ifald man overhovedet har i sinde at opføre Wagners værker og stor opera i det hele taget. Jeg vil antage, at Fru Brun selv vil oplyse den Rong’ske legatbestyrelse nærmere om hele sin stilling, som må forbavse ethvert menneske, og skal derfor kun indskrænke mig til at give hendes ansøgning, ikke blot min anbefaling, men min hele, fulde indsats som kunstner og min største sympati som menneske i beundring for hendes åbne karakter og ærlige stræben.”

Sådan skrev ingen ringere end Carl Nielsen i 1926. Han havde fulgt sopranen Johanne Bruns karriere i alle de år han først spillede violin og senere dirigerede i orkestergraven på Det Kongelige Teater. Johanne Brun havde debuteret som balletbarn på Gamle Scene mere end 40 år tidligere, hun havde sunget Brünnhilde i den første danske opførelse af Wagners Nibelungens ring, og nu var hun – i en alder af 49 år – i en både kunstnerisk og økonomisk desperat situation. Hun havde mistet hele sin opsparing under inflationen i Tyskland, og var ikke længere ønsket på sit gamle teater på Kongens Nytorv.

Hør her, hvordan Johanne Brun sang Wagner i 1915 – slutscenen fra Tristan og Isolde, sunget på dansk. Artiklen fortsætter under klippet:

Historien begynder på Frederiksberg. Her blev Johanne født i 1874, og som 7-årig blev hun elev på Det Kongelige Teaters balletskole. Dengang var det helt almindeligt, at balletbørnene også gjorde tjeneste som sangere i de operaer, der krævede børnekor, og Johanne debuterede faktisk som operasanger allerede som 10-årig i børnekoret i Bizets Carmen.

Den lille balletpige havde masser af muligheder for at opleve de lokale stjerner i Den Kongelige Opera. Især én person lagde hun mærke til – tenoren Frederik Brun. Efterhånden som Johanne blev ældre blev han også interesseret i hende, og i 1893 giftede den 41-årige tenor sig med den kun 18-årige balletdanser. Dengang var det normalt, at en danserinde opgav sin karriere i det øjeblik hun blev gift, men Frederik Brun havde allerede opdaget, at hans unge kone havde helt usædvanligt talent for en anden af teatrets kunstarter – nemlig hans egen:

”Hendes egentlige felt er som Wagnersangerinde. Men ved siden af vil hun sikkert med tiden blive en ypperlig koloratursangerinde…”

Johanne Brun fik sangundervisning hos de bedste lærere i byen, Fanny Gætje og dirigenten Frederik Rung. Men når hun kom hjem efter en sangtime blev lærernes råd tit fejet af banen med det samme; Frederik Brun var en dominerende og pedantisk tyran, og han var fanatisk med hensyn til sangteknik. En af hans venner beskriver ham malende i sine erindringer; at han ofte gjorde ”et affekteret, naragtigt indtryk”, og at det var noget af en prøvelse, hvis man stødte ind i ham på gaden:

”Navnlig i de perioder, da han ”lagde stemmen om” og evig og altid gik og eksperimenterede med nye metoder…Så trak han mig ugenert ind i en eller anden port på strøget, der var nogenlunde lukket. Og derinde begyndte han så at slå sine triller eller lade koloraturerne rulle. Men jeg sørgede naturligvis bare for snarest muligt at komme ud af porten igen…”

I årene omkring 1900 så Frederik Brun sin kone ændre sig fra en ung balletdanser til byens førende sopran. Samtidig havde han en fantastisk evne til at løbe direkte ind i alle tænkelige problemer og konflikter; hans stemme var slidt op, han sagde (endnu en gang!) op i vrede på Det Kongelige Teater, og til sidst blev han også skilt fra Johanne. Han emigrerede til Sverige, hvor han arbejdede som barpianist resten af sit liv.

Imens var Johanne Brun blevet én af publikums favoritter på Det Kongelige Teater. Hendes debut i 1896 var som Nattens Dronning i Tryllefløjten, og anmelderne var begejstrede fra begyndelsen. To år senere sang hun Verdis Aida, og hun fortsatte i sæsonerne efter med en utrolig blanding af store, dramatiske partier som Leonora i Verdis Trubaduren og Sieglinde i Wagners Valkyrien – og lyriske koloraturpartier som Rosina i Barberen i Sevilla. På papiret en ret umulig kombination, og ifølge anmelderne var det klart de dramatiske partier, der var Johanne Bruns force.

SvendsenDet var vand på dirigenten Johan Svendsens mølle. Han havde været fast tilknyttet Det Kongelige Teater siden 1883, og han havde en stor drøm; den første danske opførelse af hele Wagners Nibelungens ring. En drøm, som pludselig kom inden for rækkevidde, da teatret nu pludselig rådede over to sangere, som kunne synge Brünnhilde og Siegfried; Johanne Brun og tenoren Peter Cornelius. Siegfried havde premiere i 1903 og Ragnarok fulgte efter i 1905 – begge operaer blev store triumfer for Johanne Brun. Anmelderne var begejstrede, men deres kendskab til Ringen kunne ligge på et lille sted; ikke én af dem omtaler, at hele første scene af Ragnarok – scenen med de tre norner – var blevet strøget. Rhinguldet kom op på teatret i 1908 – med Johanne Brun som Freja – og nu kunne man opføre alle fire operaer samlet for første gang i Danmark.

I ti år var Johanne Bruns kontrakt med Det Kongelige Teater blevet fornyet efter hver sæson. Hun sang flere Wagner-partier, både Elsa i Lohengrin, og Venus i Tannhäuser. Det var ellers normalt, at en sanger efter en vis årrække blev fastansat – men noget tyder på, at Johanne Brun havde lært mere end sangteknik af sin mand; hun havde udviklet en sund selvsikkerhed, og hun holdt sig ikke tilbage for at sige sin mening om ledelsen på teatret. I årene efter den sidste samlede opførelse af Ringen i 1912 blev der længere og længere mellem hendes optrædener på teatret. Hendes stemme var ikke længere ung og frisk – hvad der vel ikke er noget at sige til efter en god portion Brünnhilde og Isolde – og hun var efterhånden nået op i en vægtklasse, som forhindrede en stor del af de fysiske udfoldelser på scenen. Da Tristan og Isolde skulle op på teatret for første gang i 1914 måtte Johanne Brun slås ihærdigt for muligheden for at få lov til at synge den sidste af de store Wagner-partier hun manglede i sit repertoire – hun truede endda med aldrig at synge på teateret igen hvis de valgte en anden sopran. Det lykkedes for hende at gennemtrumfe sin medvirken, på trods af modstand fra især instruktøren Julius Lehmann, og både publikum og anmeldere var ellevilde med hendes indsats.

I 1916 havde Johanne Brun fået nok af atmosfæren på Det Kongelige Teater. Tyskland var det åbenlyse sted at forsøge sig, også selvom krigen hærgede Europa. Hendes sidste forestilling efter 33 år på Det Kongelige Teater var Aida i maj 1916. Efter forestillingen kunne teaterchefen meddele, at Johanne Brun var blevet udnævnt til kongelig kammersangerinde.

Nu gik turen først til Berlin, hvor Johanne Brun knoklede med at lære den tyske tekst til de roller, hun altid havde sunget på dansk. Her fik hun også et indblik i fordelene ved at bo i Tyskland:

”Efter min erfaring spiser man billigere på restauranterne her i Berlin end i København. Min daglige middag med suppe, fisk eller en anden mellemret, steg med flere slags gemyse og dessert eller ost og brød, kostede mig med et lille glas øl og drikkepenge, kun to mark”

johanne brunIkke så underligt, at Johanne Brun havde svært ved at holde vægten nede. Men det skulle sig, at virkeligheden længere sydpå i Tyskland var langtfra så rosenrød som i Berlin. Johanne Brun havde fået en toårig kontrakt med operaen i Nürnberg, og her mødte der hende en ganske anden hverdag. Gaderne var fyldt med krigsinvalider:

”Aldrig vil jeg kunne glemme hvad jeg der så….overalt i Nürnberg møder man disse krøblinge med deres interimistiske hjælpeben og -arme. Med ansigter, hvis bortrevne stykker er erstattede med påsyede dele – forvrængede, opsvulmede menneskemasker, uudholdelige at se på…”

Arbejdet på teatret var også en brat opvågnen. Hendes debut i marts 1916 som Isolde var samtidig hendes første optræden overhovedet på tysk – men alligevel fik hun ikke så meget som én eneste prøve…det var jo en opera, som teatret havde fast på repertoiret, så den slags var sandelig ikke nødvendigt. Arbejdsdagen begyndte normalt med prøver kl. 9 om morgenen – også selv om en sanger havde optrådt aftenen før og måske først havde fået fri ved midnat. Man kunne sagtens komme ud for at skulle synge forestillinger flere aftener i træk, og om søndagen var der hele to forestillinger – og selv hvis man kun sang ved eftermiddagens forestilling, så kunne man alligevel nemt risikere at skulle møde op til aftenprøve senere samme dag.

I årene i Nürnberg sang Johanne Brun flere gange store, krævende hovedpartier som f.eks. Leonore i Beethovens Fidelio med ultrakort varsel og uden prøve. Alligevel havde hun kræfter til at synge som regelmæssig gæst ved operaerne i Augsburg, Köln og Würzburg – og i 1917 sang hun i en komplet opførelse af Ringen i Regensburg.

I september 1922 skrev Johanne Brun kontrakt med operaen i Aachen i Ruhr-distriktet, tæt på den belgiske grænse. Hendes timing ikke alt for heldig, for fire måneder senere invaderede Frankrig og Belgien Ruhr-distriktet. Inflationen galoperede helt ukontrolleret, og der var mangel på stort set alt. I et interview i en dansk avis fortalte Brun om situationen i Aachen:

”Man føler sig meget utryg og uhyggelig til mode. Der er overalt strenge bestemmelser om, på hvilken side af gaden man må gå, og i reglen er det helt forbudt at komme uden for huset efter kl. 8 eller 9 om aftenen. Vi må begynde forestillingen kl. 5 eller 6 om eftermiddagen…Priserne er vanvittige og stiger time for time. Margarine, for eksempel, steg en dag fra 40.000 til 80.000 mark for et pund fra kl. elleve til kl. halv tolv om formiddagen. Min gage er nu 9 millioner mark om ugen!…”

I begyndelsen af 1924 slap Johanne Brun væk fra Aachen. Nu skulle hun begynde på en frisk i Danzig (det nuværende Gdansk), som efter Versailles-freden i 1919 var blevet en fristad under tilsyn af Folkeforbundet. Hun skrev kontrakt med det lokale operahus, og nyheden kom også i de danske aviser. Det lykkes for en enkelt journalist ikke blot at erklære Johanne Brun sin uforbeholdne kærlighed og beundring, men også at fornærme ikke blot hende, men hele den samlede befolkning i den tidligere polske by, en stakkels middelmådig balletdanser fra Charlottenlund og samtlige sangere på Det Kongelige Teater i København:

”Det er til at blive idiot og teosof af at tænke på, at Fru Johanne skal henslæbe uger, måske måneder i en by som Danzig. Byen er i englændernes vold, men dette kunne endda være – englænderne er renlige mennesker…men hvem er tilhørerne i den derværende opera? Flertallet er beskidte polakker, fulde af utøj og med pølsemad og bananer i lommerne, som de æder i mellemakterne og udbreder en forfærdelig stank af hvidløg og hjemmebrændt snaps…Hvorfor, spørger man, står Fru Johanne Brun ikke i stedet for og synger i Det kgl. Teater for et elegant klædt og velopdragent publikum med Hans Majestæt Kongen i spidsen på de aftener, hvor forestillingen sluttes med et balletdivertissement med Fru Elna Jørgen Jensen i hovedrollen?…Kan tænkende mennesker med sans for musik lade være med at sammenligne Fru Johanne Brun med de pjathøns, der synger på vores opera?…”

Efter flere linjer af samme skuffe beskriver journalisten i rosende vendinger Johanne Bruns velkonserverede stemmepragt. Men han er ikke færdig med injurierne, og fortsætter i bedste stil:

”Fruen er ikke helt ung længere. Hun har tilmed sin fedme at kæmpe med. Fru Johanne Brun vejer vel nok 230 pund nu, man kan ikke kalde hende et fnug, et støvgran, et molekyle – den slags kælenavne forbyder sig af sig selv…men hvad betyder tykkelse og fedme, når der i den anden vægtskål er skønhed, statelighed, det sødeste ansigt, det elskeligste smil…Fru Johanne Brun! Lad mig sige det rent ud: Jeg tilbeder Dem!”

Den danke journalist var ikke ene om at tiljuble Johanne Brun. Gennem alle årene i Tyskland havde hun hver sommer været i Danmark for at synge for sit trofaste hjemmepublikum i Tivoli, og hver gang kom spørgsmålet om en tilbagevenden til Kongens Nytorv op. Det lykkedes først i 1924 – og kun for en enkelt opførelse af Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon. Den lyriske rolle som Philine var næppe egnet til at vise styrkerne hos en 50-årig Wagnersopran, men anmelderne og publikum var begejstrede. Det blev til endnu én optræden samme år på Det Kongelige Teater, som Sieglinde…en forestilling, som skulle blive hendes sidste optræden på teatret nogensinde.

I 1925 vendte Johanne Brun tilbage til København, naturligvis med håbet om at vende tilbage til sin gamle scene. Teatret var ikke interesseret. Situationen var alvorlig; Johanne Brun havde intet arbejde, ingen pension – hun havde jo aldrig været fastansat – og hele hendes opsparing var forsvundet i den tyske inflationsperiode. Derfor var hun nødt til at bede sine gamle venner – heriblandt Carl Nielsen – om hjælp. Det lykkedes at skaffe hende en årlig sum penge fra staten, og hun fik tildelt en lotterikollektion af kongen som en slags trøstpension. Hun døde i februar 1954, næsten 80 år gammel. De sidste 25 år af sit liv gik hun lige så meget op i det ærefulde hverv med at sælge lotterisedler som i udviklingen på Det Kongelige Teater.

Inden sin død oplevede Danmarks første Brünnhilde én gang selv at vinde i klasselotteriet; hun vandt 600 kroner, og købte et nyt gulvtæppe.

Who is the greatest German tenor ever?

FritzI have no doubt. And even though he didn’t live to see his own 36th birthday he left a recorded legacy of hundreds of recordings, most still unsurpassed by any other tenor since.

His name is Fritz Wunderlich. He was the reason I became hooked on opera at the age if 11, and I have spent countless hours listening to his recordings again and again. Recordings that span a period of only a rough decade, terminating in 1966.

On September 5th that year Fritz Wunderlich appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in a performance of Die Zauberflöte, and once more he was hailed as the outstanding Mozart tenor of the day. Wunderlich had sung Tamino hundreds of times before, but after the Edinburgh performances he asked Ferdinand Leitner, who was conducting, to go through the score with him. Wunderlich was not satisfied with his Tamino anymore – he knew that he could do better, and he wanted to bring new life to his interpretation. Leitner agreed to help, and invited him to his house. A date was settled for; Sunday September 18th.

Fritz Wunderlich never met Leitner that Sunday. Wunderlich died tragically the day before after falling down the stairs in a friend’s hunting lodge. The banister made of rope was not securely fastened to the wall and when Wunderlich tripped on the staircase he tore it out, falling head first onto the stone floor below. Afterwards it was noticed that Wunderlich had forgotten to tighten one of his shoe laces. He was taken unconscious to hospital, where he died a few hours later – little more than a week before his 36th birthday. The Edinburgh Zauberflöte was his last appearance on stage.

One of the most remarkable tenors in recording history was granted a career of only slightly more than a decade. All the more remarkable is the amazing number of recordings he made, many of which have remained in the catalogue continually to this date. Even in his very first sessions we hear some of the qualities that made Wunderlich the most celebrated German tenor after the War: The natural freshness of his voice, the expressive musicality, and above all his boundless enthusiasm. Wunderlich always sounds as if he is completely convinced of the music he is singing, be it Wozzeck or Der Bettelstudent.

Fritz youngFriedrich Karl Otto Wunderlich was born on September 26th, 1930 in the small village of Kusel in south-western Germany, close to the French border. Besides running a local inn with a small movie theatre both his parents were part-time musicians, and before his teens Fritz learned to play both the accordion and the trumpet. He often played dance music in his youth, and sometimes he would also croon a refrain. His voice turned out to be a natural tenor, and at the age of 19 he took his first singing lessons from a professional coach; once a week Wunderlich would bike the 40 kilometres to Kaiserslautern – and back again.

In 1950 he was accepted at the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, where he studied with Margarethe von Winterfeld. She taught him the technical basis of singing, devoting much time to intonation and breathing. Wunderlich made progress, and in 1954 he was chosen as Tamino in the Hochschule’s staging of Die Zauberflöte. He was now on his way towards a career that would soon give him his first contract with an opera house; a five-year beginner’s contract with the Württemberg State Opera in Stuttgart. Again, his first major role was Tamino. On February 18th, 1955 Wunderlich stepped in for an indisposed Josef Traxel, and was immediately recognised by both the audience and the critics as the new young lyric tenor of the theatre.

Others had their eyes and ears on Wunderlich too. Until recently it was believed that Wunderlich’s first experience in a recording studio was in late July 1955, recording Monteverdi’s Orfeo with August Wenzinger for Deutsche Grammophon’s Archiv label, but now it has been determined that Wunderlich’s recording debut took place a few days before in Stuttgart on July 17th, when the 24-year old singer recorded the tenor solo in Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 with the Stuttgart Philharmonic conducted by Isaie Diesenhaus. Later in 1955 Wunderlich recorded, also in Stuttgart, a Bach cantata with the conductor Marcel Couraud for the French label Les Discophiles Francais.

Soon after Wunderlich was contacted by the Stuttgart-based record club Europäische Phonoklub. They wanted him as an exclusive artist, and the newly-wed Wunderlich was only happy to accept a monthly fee for a fixed number of recordings each year – a well needed supplement to his salary at the Stuttgart Opera. The Phonoklub recordings were intended for sale through the club only, and were not distributed to regular shops. The masters, however, were later bought by Eurodisc, who did not hesitate to issue them on a broader scale – much to the annoyance of Wunderlich, who tried persistently but fruitlessly to prevent the reissue of this material.

The first session for Europäische Phonoklub took place in September 1956. Wunderlich was to record highlights from La Bohème, Rodolfo being a part he had not studied in any detail. He turned up to the session at the Hotel Esplanade having prepared the first act aria and the following duet with Mimi only, and much to his surprise learned that he was also required to sing several ensembles scheduled for recording that same day. Fortunately, Wunderlich was phenomenal at sight-reading, thanks to his early experiences playing dance music, and indeed many of the popular songs and operetta arias Wunderlich later recorded were items that he saw more or less for the first time at the recording sessions.

During the following four years Wunderlich recorded extensively for EPK, mostly highlights from popular operas and operettas such as Cavalleria Rusticana, Madame Butterfly, Die Fledermaus and Raymond’s Maske in Blau, as well as several 7 and 10 inch records mainly consisting of single opera and operetta arias, all sung in German. The original Europäische Phonoklub records are not easy to find on the second hand market today, but a small selection from these recordings are now available on CD.

In 1956 Les Discophiles Francais again approached Wunderlich regarding a recording of three further Bach cantatas. Wunderlich, being tied to his contract with EPK, solved the problem; he used the assumed name of Werner S. Braun for the recordings, pressed in only 200 copies each, and numbered by hand in Roman numerals. When Philips later reissued the cantatas Wunderlich was still listed as Werner S. Braun on the cover.

Friz FrauWunderlich was a frequent guest in the studios of the German radio stations, and a still increasing number of live recordings and broadcast productions of repertoire Wunderlich never recorded commercially are becoming available from companies such as Orfeo, Bella Voce and Myto. One of the most outstanding is the 1959 Salzburg recording of Richard Strauss’ Die schweigsame Frau. The part of Henry Morosus was Wunderlich’s debut at the Salzburg Festival, and the cast included Hans Hotter and Hermann Prey, the latter to become one of Wunderlich’s closest friends. Karl Böhm conducted the performances, and after the first performance Herbert von Karajan came backstage with a contract for the Vienna State Opera. But Wunderlich had to decline; he had just signed up with the opera in Munich, and he was determined to honour his obligations towards this contract.

In 1959 Wunderlich was offered a new recording contract, this time by Electrola, the German branch of EMI. Now, at the age of 29, he was recording for one of the leading companies. This also meant that he was competing with the other leading tenors on this label, mainly Nicolai Gedda and Rudolf Schock. During his time with Electrola Wunderlich was not allowed to record anything already in the company catalogue featuring other singers. Wunderlich consequently could not record his core repertoire, and this explains the absence of a complete Die Zauberflöte, Don Giovanni or Cosi fan tutte from Wunderlich’s Electrola period. Instead he recorded two German operas in the popular area; Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor and Lorzing’s Der Wildschütz, two minor Wagnerian roles as well as numerous opera and operetta exerpts. Perhaps the most successful of the Electrola recordings is Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, a recording that reveals Wunderlich’s great comic talent, and shows how much fun and sparkling joy he is able to get across to the listener.

At the other end of the scale a couple of the Electrola recordings never seizes to amaze. Why, for instance, are the accompaniments for the two arias from L’elisir d’amore tampered with both harmonically and regarding the instrumentation? Surely, no one today would dream of exchanging the bassoon in ‘Una furtina lagrima’ with a cor anglaise! Or add a diminished chord and some romantic sounding chromatics to the few bars of the orchestral introduction to ‘Quanto é bella’.

In 1964 Wunderlich signed a new recording contract, this time with Deutsche Grammophon. His career now finally centred around the Vienna State Opera, and Wunderlich was in demand from opera houses all over Europe. Although the had to turn down more than 90 per cent of all the offers he received, a day with a morning rehearsal, an afternoon recording session and an evening performance was not unusual to Wunderlich.

One of the first recording projects for Wunderlich under his new contract was a very special event. His legendary Tamino was to be recorded in Berlin in June 1964, with Karl Böhm conducting, and among his partners were Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Roberta Peters, Franz Crass, Evelyn Lear and Hans Hotter, in a set that is still one of the great Mozart recordings of all time. It is interesting to compare Wunderlich’s three commercial recordings of the ‘Bildnis’ aria from Die Zauberflöte. Going back to the 1958 recording for EPK we hear a nice, youthful voice, but throughout Wunderlich has a tendency to break the legato. He often separates repeated vowels with a ‘ha’ or ‘he’ sound; ‘und ewig wäre Sie dann mein’ becomes ‘un e-he-wi-hig wä-hä-re Sie dann mein’. This, combined with a habit of often starting a note softly and then make a crescendo on it, does not help the legato much.

In his next studio recording of this aria in 1960 with Berislav Klobucar Wunderlich’s voice has matured into the timbre of his peak. He still has not quite got rid of some of his earlier habits, but this is certainly a much more convincing interpretation.

Finally the complete recording from 1964, captivated in superb sound by the DG engineers. This performance has never been equalled on record for beauty, style and elegance. Here we have the ideal Tamino, a part that has matured with countless performances all over Europe with the world’s leading conductors. Just listen to the way Wunderlich builds up to the climax at the end of the aria. A truly great performance, one that I seriously doubt will ever be surpassed.

Besides his opera repertoire Wunderlich throughout his career sang in countless performances of the Bach passions and cantatas, and he was especially praised for his dramatic and yet deeply profound Evangelist in Bach’s Matthäus Passion. Unfortunately Decca for their only Wunderlich recording in 1964 chose to let him sing the arias only, leaving the Evangelist to Peter Pears. But happily Wunderlich’s Evangelist has been preserved in a 1962 live recording from Vienna conducted by Karl Böhm, recently unearthed and issued by Myto. Wunderlich is in superb voice, as is Christa Ludwig, but the set is marred by an inadequate choir and performances by Wilma Lipp and Otto Wiener that were better kept in eternal darkness. Listen with your finger on the CD-player’s skip button!

In November 1964 Wunderlich was in London for the only EMI recording still to come – one that goes right to the top of my desert island list; Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with Otto Klemperer conducting. Often sung by strained and stiff heldentenors, it is a relief to hear the three songs with the perfect mixture of a forward, beautifully lyric sound combined with a powerful, flexible and full scaled interpretation. Wunderlich is in complete control of the dynamic demands made by Mahler ranging from the electrifying vision of the howling ape in the first song to the solemn description of the little pond with the green pavilion made of porcelain in the third.

The following year Wunderlich recorded the part of Andres in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck with Karl Böhm conducting. Wunderlich not only sang the fiendishly difficult music with complete ease, but also contributed the whistling required by Andres in the score, normally done by one of the flautists in the orchestra. Later that year he recorded Bach’s Weinachts Oratorium with Karl Richter in Munich, as well as another Mozart opera, Die Entführung with Eugen Jochum conducting. Here Wunderlich includes a glorious account of the virtuoso Baumeister aria, often cut in both performances and recordings.

In February 1966 Wunderlich was in Berlin, recording both Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and the choral parts of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, both with the same team of soloists and with Herbert von Karajan conducting. The rest of Die Schöpfung was recorded in 1968 and ’69 – after Wunderlich’s death, and with Werner Krenn taking over the remaining tenor solos. Fortunately Wunderlich recorded Uriel’s most important solos, including a ravishing account of the aria ‘Mit Würd’ und Hoheit angetan’.

Two of the most important of Wunderlich’s DG recordings are the lieder issues, Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, the latter being Wunderlich’s second studio recording of the song cycle, made only two months before his death. This recording was one of my first LPs, a gift from a music teacher who had a duplicate to spare, and it was my favourite record for a long time. I was around 13 years of age, and I must have driven my parents crazy playing the same record over and over. Still today, when I play this recording on CD, I await the awful moment in the eighth song ‘Morgengruss’ where a series of loud clicks anticipated a repeated grove, continuing the words ‘blauen Morgen’ again and again until I got up and moved the pick-up.

Comparing Wunderlich’s two commercial recordings of Die Schöne Müllerin there is not only a development of the voice, but also a striking difference in the interpretations. In the early recording for Europäische Phonoklub Wunderlich is clearly a little afraid of the task. The youthful, fresh voice is in itself a pleasure to listen to, but as an interpretation the 1957 recording has far to go. Wunderlich is cautious, he is slightly out of tune in several songs, and he often breathes in awkward places, breaking a phrase into several smaller – and he is not helped much by the heavy and not very inspired accompaniment by Kurt Heinz Stolze.

MullerinWhen he recorded the cycle again almost ten years later he had had a tremendous experience as a lieder singer on stage, having sung Die schöne Müllerin countless times in public – mostly with Hubert Giesen, who is also his accompanist on the DG recording. Giesen gives solid support without bringing much magic to the accompaniment, but he is nevertheless an improvement from Stolze. As an example of the difference between the two versions listen to the sixth song – ‘Der Neugierige’. In the phrase ‘Ein Wörtchen um und um’ one can on the DG recording enjoy the superb cantilena that Wunderlich did not posses in 1957. The second recording is a landmark in lieder singing on record, with beautiful phrasing and secure breathing as just the foundation of a truly great interpretation. It is not a Fischer-Dieskauian psychologically complex reading, but simply a straightforward and sincerely musical performance. Wunderlich now gives much more meaning to the words without any loss of the freshness, and it is a delight to hear the cycle sung by a mature tenor in full command of the music.

By only singing lyrical parts until his mid-thirties, Wunderlich left himself the choice of his future repertory: From where he stood at the time of his death he could have gone in several directions. Wunderlich cleverly rejected all the tempting offers he received from Wieland Wagner, who wanted him to sing Lohengrin in Bayreuth as early as 1958. Wunderlich was firm: No Wagner until after his 40th year. It has often been stated that Wunderlich would have been a sensational Lohengrin, von Stolzing or Siegmund, or even Tristan. But perhaps he would have preferred to sing the Italian lirico spinto repertoire, with parts like Radamès in Aïda and Cavaradossi in Tosca – both certainly to have been within his grasp in just a few more years.

Listen for instance to the live-recordings of La Traviata and to the Verdi Requiem – here he sounds every bit as ‘Italian’ as most native Italians. Thanks to Herbert von Karajan, a strong advocate for singing operas in their original language, we can also hear a live recording from the Vienna State Opera of Wunderlich’s Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni in Italian. And what a difference from the studio recording of his two arias in German. Suddenly the music flows easily, and it is as if the Italian language presses a button in Wunderlich, almost transforming him to another singer, seemingly born in Milan or Rome. At the time of his tragic death he was planning to add both The Duke in Rigoletto and Rodolfo in La Bohème to his repertoire.

Wunderlich often sang the small but tricky part of the Italian singer in Der Rosenkavalier, and one of these performances has been preserved; a gala performance at the Munich Opera in May 1965. Here Wunderlich surpasses himself singing with an almost diabolical ringing force right through to the point where he is interrupted by Baron Ochs. This aria is well worth the price of the three CDs altogether!

Whether his voice would have coped with this treatment in the long run is of course purely speculation today, but the Finnish bass Kim Borg, who sang with Wunderlich on several occasions, recalls the way that Wunderlich always gave his most in every single performance: “Even though it sounds like the sort of thing one would only say looking back, I was already then suspicious that Wunderlich’s career would perhaps be a short one. He simply gave everything he had, he never spared his voice – and I think he would have had problems later if his career had been longer”.

Wunderlich never lived to experience problems like these. In September 1966 he was due for rehearsals at The Metropolitan in New York for his house debut as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. But the air ticket across the Atlantic had to be cancelled. The death notice in the newspapers read only one line: ‘Fate has taken everything from us’.

 

 

 

Else Brems – The Danish Gypsy

BremsIn 1942 The Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra did a concert with Ernest Ansermet conducting Ravel’s Shéhérazade. Ansermet was very unhappy and anxious with the choice of soloist; he wanted a native French mezzo soprano in the delicate work, and did not imagine that a Danish singer would be able to do justice to his – and Ravel’s – language. But after the first rehearsal the conductor’s second thoughts vanished – for two reasons. The reason – Else Brems always emphasised this herself – was that she was able to produce a few packets of much-needed cigarettes for Ansermet – not easy to come by in German-occupied Copenhagen. But the modest soloist surely had more assets than this to win Ansermet over – her beautiful velvet tone, her dignified phrasing and her perfect French must have removed the last bit of doubt; here was not just a mediocre local mezzo, but a singer with the potential to sing repertoire like this anywhere in the world.

Else Brems’ career was nevertheless basically a local one, singing at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen for three decades. She also toured Denmark with lieder and song recitals, she was a regular solist with conductor Mogens Wøldike, with whom she performed the Bach passions and Handel oratorios, and she was often required for song recitals and operetta productions at the Danish Radio, as well as appearances at the prestigiuos Thursday evening concerts with the Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra. During the War she became a household name in her native country, and if the tenor Aksel Schiøtz was the most loved Danish male singer at that time, Brems was surely his female equivalent.

Else Brems was born on 16th July 1908 in Copenhagen into a very musical family. Her mother Gerda was a pianist and her father Anders Brems a clarinettist turned singer, concentrating on songs. He even made a few 78’s, as well as a singing manual. It was Anders Brems who first taught the young Else, and at the age of 17 she went with him to Italy and sang for no less than the ‘glory of Italy’, the baritone Mattia Battistini, who was now living in retirement outside Rome. He was very encouraging, and Else went back home with confidence in a future career as a singer. Her interest in the French repertoire was soon kindled in Paris, where she studied for four months with Charles Cunelli. On 3rd December 1928 she gave her debut recital in Copenhagen, and both public and critics were enthusiastic with the 20-year old mezzo with the sonorous voice and the secure musicianship.

else-brems-the-danish-mezzo-soprano-of-the-20th-centuryNext step on the career-ladder was a debut at the Royal Danish Opera, and a year later this became a reality. Else Brems started her operatic career with the part that would become hers like no other; Carmen. She had prepared well for it, and again she was recognised as the young Danish mezzo of the future. Bizet’s gypsy would later bring her to Vienna, Warszaw, Budapest and Stockholm, as well as to Covent Garden in London – where she in 1948 sang the part in English. In Copenhagen alone she sang Carmen at more than 100 performances. She fought hard against the traditional vulgar image of the character emphasising her more refined and delicate aspects, much helped by Leo Blech who conducted a number of performances of the opera in Copenhagen in 1930. Brems was able to seduce without rolling her eyes wildly or making large gestures.

A very interesting live recording was made in December 1937, when Else Brems was appearing as guest at the Vienna Opera with Bruno Walter conducting. He had waited a long time to do Carmen: “I have put it off until now, because I need a strong personality for the title role, a singer with real temperament. I believe that I have now found this in a Danish mezzo. Now I will be able to stage the opera as I think Bizet would have wanted it.” The few recorded excerpts from these performances (in German) have been reissued in the Wiener Staatsoper Live series, but unfortunately they devote more attention to the Michaëla of Esther Réthy and the Don José of Todor Mazaroff than to the Carmen of Brems. In 1944, however, she recorded both the Habanera and the Seguidilla commercially (in Danish) for the Tono company:

Here, as well as on the live recording from Vienna, one clearly hears the international class of the voice; her ravishing sound and thoroughly musical phrasing – a dignified Carmen, but not without sex appeal in the voice.

Sten Høgel

The recordings reveal a singer with a wonderful sonorous middle register, but also with a slight problem with high notes. “Brems was a wonderful singer within her rather limited range,” says Sten Høgel, lecturer at the University of Copenhagen, where he for several years taught alongside Else Brems. “She was uncomfortable with the high register, probably because she did not get the proper technical training early on. She should have been able to sing for instance the high B in the Seguidilla on Carmen, but the recording shows that it was not really within her range. G sharp seems to have been her upper limit.”

Sten Høgel is also the man behind the first major Brems-reissue; a double CD devoted to the most important Danish mezzo of this century. The set has been issued by Danacord, following the success of their much-acclaimed and prize-winning Aksel Schiøtz Edition – more details can be found on the Danacord home page here.

Else Brems recorded rather few operatic 78s considering her popularity, but among the finest are two arias from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, recorded in 1945. Especially her account of ‘Printemps qui commence’ stands up against all competitors on record; she apparently has all the time (and air-supply) in the world, and her complete mastery of the French language is demonstrated fully.

In addition to these her most important commercial recordings, the Danacord CDs also contains a considerable amount of archive material from the Danish Radio as well as private acetates and tape recordings. The dentist Nanna Kallenbach had a number of off-air acetates made in the 1940’s, and these unique recordings gives us a glimpse of some more of Brems’ French repertoire, mainly music by Ravel and Debussy. Some of the acetates were in such a bad shape that they have probably been played for the last time during the work with the transfers for the Danacord CDs. Engineers Clemens Johansen and Niels Flensted from the Danish Radio has devoted countless hours of work to restoring the delicate originals, removing as much background noise as possible without changing or distorting the timbre of Brems’ voice.

It was not just an easy task to select the recordings, and the inclusion of the 1953-recording of Brahms’ Alto rhapsody was made after much consideration. A certain decline in the steadiness of her voice is apparent from the early 1950’s onwards. “I honestly don’t think that the recording of the Brahms is very flattering for Brems,” Sten Høgel admits. “Here you clearly hear the technical decline of the only 45-year old singer and I feel uncomfortable hearing how she has to do little tricks just to get through the piece; some of the glissandi she makes simply to survive to the top notes. It is a live recording from the archives of the Danish Radio, and when it first came out on LP Brems herself gave the permission. Later she told me that she regretted her decision, but many people wanted this famous performance included, and in the end I surrendered.”

Another interesting recording is of two exerpts from Gershwins Porgy and Bess. In 1943 the opera was heard for the first time in Europe at the Royal Danish Opera – in spite of threads of bombing by the occupying Nazi forces – with Else Brems as Bess, transposing some of the music down to suit her range.

Else Brems sang at the Royal Danish Opera for 32 years, singing parts like Lola in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Orfeus in Gluck’s Orfeus et Euridice, Conception in Ravel’s L’heure espagnol and Siebel in Gounod’s Faust. Several Danish composers wrote operas especially for Else Brems, among them Knudåge Riisager and Ebbe Hamerik. An exerpt from the latters Marie Grubbe is included in the Danacord set, and on a Naxos reissue of live material from the Royal Danish Opera she can be heard in snippets from Kirke og Orgel by Johan Hye-Knudsen and Susanne by Knudåge Riisager – all works that have now (perhaps with good reason) fallen out of the repertory, but it is nevertheless well worth a listen if you are interested in hearing Danish opera of the post-Nielsen period.

Even though Else Brems later admitted that vocal technique never really had interested her much, she never lost interest in renewing the interpretations of her repertoire. In 1937, as a well-established artist of 31 with almost a decade of professional work behind her, she went to New York to study with Enrico Rosati, one-time teacher of Beniamino Gigli.

In 1940 Else Brems married the Icelandic tenor Stefan Islandi, a regular guest at the Royal Danish Opera. Together they got a son, but the marriage was not a success, and a divorce came through in 1949. The son, Eyvind Brems-Islandi, had inherited his father’s tenor voice, but he tragically committed suicide in 1974 at the age of 34.

By this time Else Brems was teaching a new generation of singers at the University of Copenhagen, and generally lead a quiet life away from the public scene. She was unwilling to talk about her artistic life, she never listened to her recordings, and was totally incapable of understanding that anyone could be even remotely interested in her career.

This shyness and modesty is perhaps also the reason why Else Brems is not a name that appears more often in the annals of the international opera houses. It was certainly not any language barriers that kept her away; she sang Carmen on stage not only in French and Danish, but also in German and English. Of course the War prohibited her work outside Denmark at a crucial time in her career, but more than anything is was probably Brems own modesty that in the end kept her away from a large-scale career. Within her rather limited repertory she was certainly in the international league, but she was just too nice a person to push herself forward.

Else Brems died in Copenhagen in 1995, and it was only after her death that Sten Høgel began research for the reissues on CD: “Time and time again I have wanted to ask Else for advice during my work, but all I can do is hope that she would have approved of my choices.” He is, however, proud and happy that the best of Else Brems is now available on CD. “She was a great artist and a wonderful person. We all loved her, colleagues and students alike,” says Sten Høgel. “She was a queen here at the University, and I feel a great joy that her finest recordings will now finally be available to collectors of beautiful voices and fine interpreters.”

© Henrik Engelbrecht 2016.
This article is a revised version of one that originally appeared in Gramophone’s special magazine International Opera Collector in 1999. 

Kim Borg – war photographer turned operatic bass

220px-Borg-kim-1965He composed a trombone concerto and two symphonies, he had a degree in chemical engineering as well as being a front-line wartime photographer. Add to this a singing career that took him to more than 30 opera houses, including The Met, Bolshoi and The Vienna State Opera, and almost 100 recordings – and you still have a fairly inaccurate picture of the versatile and multitalented Finnish bass baritone Kim Borg.

Kim Borg celebrated his 80th birthday in 1999 and the British magazine Gramophone wanted an interview. I went to see Kim Borg in his 230 square metres flat in the north of Copenhagen, and I soon sensed that this is the home of a very special singer. All the rooms were covered with bookshelves – with even more books lying on tables and on the floor. Not only scores and books on music, but books on practically any subject you could ask for. Both Borg and his wife, Ebon, were avid readers. “I read a lot. Right now I’m studying the life of Carl Linné, the Swedish botanist – a manic genius. I myself am not exactly manic, but like Linné I have always been hard working”.

The son of an architect father and a music teaching mother, Kim Borg was born in Helsinki on August 7th, 1919. His mother gave him the first singing lessons, and it was obvious that young Kim had an unusual material. “Low voices is a kind of family tradition. As a boy my voice was too deep even for singing alto parts in the local boys choir.” At first there was nothing, though, to indicate that Borg would end up singing professionally. “I wanted to be an architect like my father, but he advised me strongly against it. It was an insecure profession, and very little was built in Finland then. So I turned to chemical engineering for the safety in it.”

But all along Borg continued to sing in local choirs, and he began to discover the repertoire for his voice. “I was a quick learner. At sixteen I sang King Philips monologue from Verdis Don Carlos – apart from the high E. That single note eluded me completely. But I sang a lot of music early on – mostly in male choirs while studying at the University of Technology in Helsinki.”

“My first real teacher was a friend of the family, Heikki Teittinen. He was not the right teacher for me, and his method consisted of almost violent exercises that in the end made me lose my voice completely. That was actually the idea of his method; you have to destroy the voice as it is, and then rebuild it. It was awful. In the end I lost interest in singing altogether, and it took years for my voice to recover”

But the Continuation War, following the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1941, changed the 22 year old Borgs life completely. He was by now an avid photographer, and was enlisted as such. This meant front line work in very difficult circumstances, and Borg considers it a miracle that he survived. “Of course I was scared, but not as much as I should have been, if I had known just how dangerous the whole thing was.” says Borg today. After the war he graduated as a chemical engineer in 1946, and two years later he found himself studying musical theory and composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. All along Borg continued his voice lessons with Adelaide von Skilondz in Stockholm and Magnus Andersen in Copenhagen.

His official recital debut in 1947 did not lead to engagement at the Finnish National Opera, but through a job as Colline in La bohème with a Danish provincial company Borg eventually ended up in Copenhagen. “Gremin in Eugen Onegin is a very important part even though it lasts is only 7 minutes all together. And my succes was almost frighteningly colossal.” That was in 1952, and Kim Borg was now offered a contract as a member of the Royal Opera in Copenhagen. “The salary was more than generous, but it was very difficult to sing elsewhere. You were required to be at the disposal of the theatre at all times, and this was not helpful if you wanted to try your luck at the international scenes.”

Nevertheless Borg did get permission to sing abroad, and at 33 years of age his international career began taking him all over the opera-producing world. Now Borg was required not only to sing, but also to act. “At that time directors generally did not demand all those stupid things of a singer that are now common – singing lying down or with your back to the audience, for instance. I learned early on to act as little as possible, and I think I was helped a lot by my natural stage presence. I did not have to do spectacular things to get the attention of the audience, but then again it robbed me of the possibility to sing minor roles. As the 2nd Armoured Man in The Magic Flute I would simply be too imposing on stage.”

In 1959 Borg made his debut at the Met singing the Count in Le nozze di Figaro – not the only role in Borg’s repertoire often sung by baritones. “Don Giovanni is certainly better suited to a bass than to a baritone. Nowadays, unfortunately, baritones often sing the part – but it suited my voice perfectly.” The repertoire for bass is crowded with villains and angry fathers – but Kim Borg always tried to find the human side of any character. As the demonic Baron Scarpia in Tosca he was one of the few singers to emphasise the beauty of the lines in Puccinis music. This he did with a natural phrasing that can be sampled in the complete recording he made of the opera for Deutsche Grammophon in 1961 with Horst Stein conducting a cast including Stefania Woytowicz as Tosca and Sandor Konya as Cavaradossi.

Borg is superb in blending the dark sides of Scarpia with the elegance and craftsmanship of a real seducer, but, alas, the whole thing is sung in German. This reflects the state of the German record industry in the sixties. Kim Borg signed up with Deutsche Grammophon at a time when they would issue operatic exerpts in two versions; one in the original language and one in German. “A completely silly idea altogether”, says Borg today, “but I had to sing Verdi and Puccini in German if I wanted to make records at all. DG head me in Berlin and they signed me up immediately. I had the great fortune to record lieder with the eminent accompanist Michael Raucheisen. He was amazing in pieces like Schuberts “Erlkönig” – a great inspiration.”

Borg LPUnlike many famous colleagues Kim Borg never took much interest in his own recordings. “I never listen to them, and I do not own an even remotely complete collection of them. They simply don’t interest me.” One of the gems in the Borg discography is King Marke’s monologue “Tatest du’s wirklich?” from Tristan and Isolde recorded in 1954. Here Borg’s both dignified and heartbreaking portrait of the anguished King gives as much pleasure as anyone on record. One hears how well suited Wagner is to the dark and yet flexible voice. “I have sung everything Wagner wrote within my range. He was a bastard as a person, but he really knew how to write music”.

Mussorgsky is an essential composer for a bass like Kim Borg. Many will remember his superb contributions to EMI’s acclaimed 1952 recording of Boris Godunov conducted by Issay Dobrowen – not in the title role but as Rangoni and Shchelkalov, two minor characters. Around the same time Borg recorded Pimen’s narrative for DG, and a decade later he added Boris’ monologue and the death scene for a recital LP conducted by Horst Stein. “Mussorgsky is music made for my voice,” says Borg.. “I head Ezio Pinza sing some of his music in Italian, and I knew that this was something for me. He was a very musical man, but his lack of theoretical education is evident in the music. It is often said that he was an alcoholic – and he was, but then again; everyone was in Russia then! Nowadays it is common to perform Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky’s original instrumentation, but I quite disagree with this. The Rhimsky-Korsakoff version is much better – and I have sung all of them, including Schostakovich’, which is of course made by a genius instrumentator, but I think it is too dry – and lacking in warmth.” This is clearly a favourite subject with Borg, who himself has made an instrumentation of Mussorgsky’s “Songs and dances of Death”, a version often performed in concert halls today.

Here’s a rare clip of Kim Borg performing on TV in 1961 with Gerald Moore at the piano:

In 1965 Borg sang in Haydn’s The Creation in Salzburg under Karajan. “Karajan was a unique conductor. He was so easy to work with, and although he sang terribly himself he certainly knew exactly what to expect from each individual singer. And he was never afraid of taking liberties with the music – he didn’t just perform the notes, he always made music!” Listening to the live recording of the Salzburg Creation of 1965, it is obvious that Borg felt at ease with Karajan, daring to sing the parts of Raphael and Adam with all the nuances in his voice. It is interesting to compare this recording with the later patch-work studio-recording made with almost the same team (although Borg is replaced by Walter Berry as Rafael and by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Adam, and Fritz Wunderlich, due to his untimely death before the sessions were completed, is sharing the tenor part with Werner Krenn). I much prefer the live version with Borg to both the Karajan studio-version without Borg or to Borg’s earlier Markevitch recording, most of all because of the way Borg clearly enjoys the event of a live concert. I much prefer his no-nonsense approach to the music of Adam to that of Fischer-Dieskau, and most of all I appreciate the fact that Borg has infinitely more power in reserve for use at crucial moments than either of his two colleagues on the DG recording. In addition the live recording has Wunderlich all the way through – enough for me to listen through the rather dimly recorded sound from Salzburg.

Kim Borg is Finnish, and he never forgot his home, although he spent most of his life far from its lakes and woods. And wherever he sang in recital he brought not only the songs of Sibelius with him, he was also a strong advocate for lesser known contemporary Finnish composers like Oskar Merikanto and Yrjö Kilpinen. “Sibelius’ songs are not really for my voice – they are a bit too high. The same can be said about the songs of Kilpinen, but I sang them just the same. Kilpinen was a manic worker – almost like Schubert. He wrote 600 songs, and I have done all of them. I guess I did too much Kilpinen in the end. They are nice songs, but now I’m a bit fed up with them.” Borg recorded a selection of Kilpinen songs in 1959 with the pianist Pentti Koskimies. As a sample of Borgs eminent gift for acting through the microphone try out the sinister meeting between Death and the lonely drunkard in Kilpinen’s “Der Tod und der einsame Trinker”, or listen to the simple beauty of “Minnen”. Also included on the CD are some Borgs own songs; they are more complimentary of the composer Kim Borg than of the singer, being recorded in 1979 by the 60-year old Borg in rather uneven voice.

In 1972 he had accepted a position as professor in Copenhagen. “Voice teaching really is bogus! I was appointed professor at the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen, and then I of course had to teach. But basically I think that singing can’t be taught. The best thing a teacher can do for a student is to stay away from the voice and leave it to develop naturally. It is only possible to teach singers who themselves are bright enough to do it properly.” Kim Borg admits that he himself had not only a good material in his throat but also a certain talent for music. “The musicality lies in the phrasing of the lines – not just in having an accurate ear for intonation or facility in reading music.”

The interview was coming to an end and Kim Borg summed it all up: “Perhaps I was not a real singer – more of a musician” he says. “I had a quite good basic voice, but not more than that. It was the talent that made the difference. As I said before I don’t think singing can be taught; you have to have it inside of you, you have to do it naturally, otherwise you can just as well forget it.”

© Henrik Engelbrecht 2016.
This article is a revised version of one that originally appeared in Gramophone’s special magazine International Classical Record Collector in 2000. 

Aksel Schiøtz – a Danish tenor with a tragic fate

Aksel-SchiotzHe was almost synonymous with the Danish national song heritage as well as being one of the 20th century’s truly remarkable lyric tenors. His career spanned over little more than a decade. It was crudely interrupted in 1946, when he barely survived a tumor acusticus operation that changed his voice forever. The recordings he made after the operation – as a baritone – does not in any way compare with the ones he before his illness.

I can’t remember when I first heard the voice of Aksel Schiøtz. I don’t think many Danes can. Just like Edith Piaf in France or Frank Sinatra in the United States he just seems to have always been there. But I am quite sure that whenever I heard Schiøtz first it must have been on the radio, probably during the popular Sunday afternoon request-hour. Not many Sundays went by without Aksel Schiøtz singing one of the popular songs from Emil Reesen’s operetta Farinelli and it is indeed difficult to grow up in Denmark without ever hearing the Danish songs by Nielsen or Weyse sung with the velvety sound, the clarity of diction and the pure musicianship of Aksel Schiøtz.

Just what makes a singer stand out from the crowd is not always easy to tell, but with Aksel Schiøtz I am certain that it is his youthful, almost boyish open sound. The voice we hear on the records is a well-focused, truly lyric tenor with a perfectly placed vibrato. It sounds so natural and effortless, and still has a very personal ring to it.

Few Danes are aware that the man who still today is almost synonymous with our national song heritage is also one of this century’s truly remarkable lyric tenors. His career spanned over little more than a decade, until it was crudely interrupted in 1946, when he barely survived a tumor acusticus operation that changed his voice forever. The recordings he later made as a baritone does not in any way compare with the ones he before his illness.

451-460boxDuring the years from 1933 to 1946 Aksel Schiøtz recorded more than 200 sides for HMV. In the autumn of 1996 the Danish Danacord label launched the first of ten volumes in a complete edition of the recordings made by Schiøtz as a tenor, now available in an 11-CD box at bargain price. The sound restoration was done by Andrew Walter at EMI’s Abbey Road studios, and Danacord all along collaborated with Gerd Schiøtz, widow of Aksel and at that time still living in Copenhagen. ‘I have never heard Aksel’s voice sound so natural on record as they do now’ said Gerd Schiøtz, then aged 89. ‘These new transfers are superior to all previous attempts that I have heard.’

Aksel Schiøtz was born in 1906 in Roskilde, just 30 kilometres from Copenhagen. After language studies at the University of Copenhagen he became a schoolteacher, but his interest in singing took all his spare time. Two persons would soon encourage the young teacher to make a career of his voice. In 1931 Schiøtz married Gerd Haugsted, who came out of a musical family, and who was soon acting as a combination of wife and agent for Aksel. And she was not the only one to guide his career. ‘I had a competitor whose influence on my dear husband was to last for many years, and would sometimes closely resemble tyranny’ says Gerd Schiøtz. This competitor was Mogens Wöldike, whom Schiøtz met at the age of 24. Wöldike, himself then only 32, was already a man of considerable power in the musical life of Denmark. He was not only working as organist at one of the foremost churches in Copenhagen, but was also examiner at the Royal Conservatory and the University of Copenhagen, conductor of the famed Palestrina choir, and was continuing the work of Thomas Laub in restoring the Danish church singing traditions.

Aksel Schiøtz became a member of the Palestrina Choir, and when Mogens Wöldike in 1931 formed the Copenhagen Boys and Male Choir, Schiøtz was chosen as one of the tenors. The foundation of this choir was a school for boys with special emphasis on music in the curriculum, and the fact that he convinced the Danish authorities to support this idea tells us much about the energy, boldness and authority of Mogens Wöldike. But he was a man not to be contradicted. Gerd Schiøtz: ‘We nicknamed him ‘The Wöldike’ and the term was used in our home like ‘The Lord’ and ‘The devil’.’

Wöldike soon gave Schiøtz solo parts in the oratorio concerts given by the boys choir. Schiøtz himself has described the rehearsals with Wöldike: ‘Wöldike’s rehearsals with soloists had, with all their relaxed mood, a feeling of examination. It went without saying that you had done your utmost and that you had learnt your lesson, so that he could put his artistic stamp on your performance.’ Volume one of the Schiøtz edition contains 10 minutes of a previously unissued rehearsal where Wöldike conducts two Handel arias, and the brief spoken dialogue between Schiøtz and Wöldike clearly shows their teacher/pupil relationship.

Schiøtz did his first recording in 1933 on the Polyphon label as an anonymous member of a jazz-inspired ensemble (Polyphon X50 190). In spite of this and other early attempts in the studios his serious recording career only began a couple of years later. Someone heard Schiøtz around Christmas 1937 – someone important. On 17th January 1938 Aksel Schiøtz wrote to his wife:

‘Telephone call from Hartkopp, head of Skandinavisk Grammofon (Danish HMV). He said, ‘Take hold of yourself, Schiøtz. Yesterday I was told by our London Office to find the singer A.S., presumed to live in Copenhagen, and to make some test records, a concert aria by Mozart and an aria from Die Entführung, paid for by the London Office, and without obligation on either side.’ Hartkopp was quite dumbfounded, he did not know anything about me…’

And so, on 1st March 1938, Schiøtz recorded the requested tests for London. Only one side of three has survived, the first part of ‘Per pietà, non ricercate’, KV 420. Apparently the London HMV office liked what they heard, and they suggested that the Danish branch should record Schiøtz in a series of Danish songs. But Hartkopp had already done so himself, knowing that if London was interested in a young Danish artist then he was worth serious attention.

Whenever Schiøtz made important decisions Wöldike was consulted. And one decision had to be taken sooner rather than later; until now Schiøtz had divided his life between teaching at several schools and singing as a semi-professional tenor, but now time was simply inadequate. Schiøtz finally gave up teaching.

HMV in London wanted Schiøtz to come over at the specific request of Fritz Busch who had heard Schiøtz and was considering him for Glyndebourne. On the 4th July 1938 at 11 am Schiøtz sang for a distinguished panel at HMV, among them Fred Gaisberg, Rex Palmer and Lawrence Collingwood, and they all agreed that HMV would take Schiøtz under their wings.

The very next day Schiøtz travelled to Glyndebourne where the panel was no less frightening; Fritz Busch, Carl Ebert, Rudolf Bing and the owner of the estate, John Christie. After hearing Schiøtz, Busch gave him the advise to choose between the oratorio- and concert repertory or the opera. Busch tended to believe that the voice did not have enough ‘bite’ for opera, but that if Schiøtz chose the oratorio all the Mozart operas would of course be within his grasp.

This was just what Schiøtz himself felt; he now wanted to educate his voice further in this direction, and again Mogens Wöldike was consulted. Schiøtz was until then primarily self-taught and he needed a good voice teacher. Valdemar Lincke was chosen, a highly respected teacher in Copenhagen, and later Schiøtz also studied in Sweden with the famous baritone and former director of the Stockholm Opera, John Forsell.

Schiøtz also kept up his work in the recording studio. By the end of 1939 the HMV catalogue could boast more than 50 song recordings by Schiøtz as well as several popular records with Schiøtz appearing under cover as ‘The Masked Tenor’. When hearing these recordings with dance bands and cinema organ it is easy to understand why Schiøtz was immediately recognised by the public as the mysterious tenor; his pure voice, the phrasing and diction gives him away at once.

This recognisable voice, together with his special feeling for the Danish repertory soon made Aksel Schiøtz a popular recording artist in his home country. Most recordings were done in Copenhagen, but in May 1939 Schiøtz recorded his first attempts at a couple of songs from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, in London with accompanist Gerald Moore. It would be five years until Schiøtz could return to London to record the complete cycle.

On April 9th 1940 the War reached Denmark, and all thoughts of an international career had to be abandoned. Aksel Schiøtz now became a symbol of the Danish struggle for liberty, singing at open-air concerts for thousands of people wanting to sing along to the patriotic songs. He even wanted to become an active member of the Danish resistance, but they couldn’t use him. His face was to well-known, and he would be much more useful to the nation’s morale by continuing to sing.

It was not without danger for himself or his family that Schiøtz in this way supported the Danish nationalism. Gerd Schiøtz has her own theory on why Aksel Schiøtz never had really serious trouble with the occupants: ‘I saw the German officers at Aksel’s recitals. They had tears in their eyes when they heard him sing the songs they knew – especially Schubert.’

But Schiøtz fought the Germans in his own ways – for instance by insisting to sing at the funeral of the writer and vicar Kaj Munk, who openly supported the resistance and was assassinated by the Germans in 1944.

When he was on tour in Sweden he was frequently asked by Jewish refugees to bring back messages to their relatives in Denmark. Schiøtz knew, however, that all his luggage would be thoroughly searched by the German police when he returned to Denmark and that it would be impossible to conceal any letters. He then wrote the messages in his music, below the original words, and he hoped that the Germans would take the Danish words in pencil for his own translation of the text. He was never exposed.

Many of the recordings made by Schiøtz during the years from 1940 to 1945 were repeats of Danish songs. The reason for this is the fact that all matrixes had been shipped to London for pressing, and now the War prevented all import from the allied countries. For Aksel Schiøtz the War may have been a boost for his local recording career in Denmark – but it also was a serious blow to his dream of an international career.

After the liberation of Denmark on 5th May 1945, Schiøtz had to fight a new struggle. He had been labelled ‘singer of Danish songs’, everybody wanted him to sing the same repertoire that he had done during the dark years, but he also wanted to be recognised for singing Bach, Handel, Mozart and Schubert.

In November 1945 he joined Gerald Moore in London and together they recorded one of the most consistently successful versions of Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin. In January they recorded lieder by Grieg and Brahms (only Grieg’s A Poet’s last Song was issued on 78 as X 7203, the remaining 5 songs were not issued until the fifties on a 7 inch EP) as well as Schumann’s Dichterliebe.  It is these recordings together with the Mozart arias conducted by Egisto Tango and the Bach, Handel and Haydn recordings with Mogens Wöldike that form the true legacy of the international tenor Aksel Schiøtz.

My own particular favourites in the Schiøtz discography are spread out pretty evenly over his recording career. I am not ashamed to admit that I thoroughly enjoy the recordings made by “the masked tenor” with cinema organ; especially the wonderfully sentimental Solens vuggevise. What I admire so much is the sincerity and enthusiasm ever present in the recordings, whether Schiøtz sings a Schubert lied or croons a popular refrain. Of the lieder recordings I have a special soft point for the 1940-recording of eight songs from Die Schöne Müllerin. It may not have the insight that the later complete recording has, but the voice is fresher, and I can almost hear the excitement of Schiøtz as he records these songs for the first time. His recording of Lenski’s aria from Eugen Onegin, although sung in Danish, is also a real gem – a glimpse of the operatic side of Schiøtz.

Of the many Danish songs Schiøtz recorded I am especially fond of the purity and beauty of line in his second recording of Underlige aftenlufte – one of the many Carl Nielsen songs he recorded during the War. In this song about longing for home Schiøtz together with the accompanist Herman D. Koppel finds a perfect intimate atmosphere without a touch of sentimentality.

In 1946 the future seemed prosperous for the 40-year old Schiøtz. Walter Legge was the producer at many of the London sessions and he had great recording plans for Schiøtz, and at Glyndebourne he sang the role of the Male Chorus in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia alongside Kathleen Ferrier. But Schiøtz had not been feeling well for some time and knew that something was seriously wrong. The doctor’s verdict came in November; a tumour on the acoustic nerve. Operating was risky but essential, and even though Schiøtz survived, half his face was permanently paralysed. Although the doctors predicted that he would never sing again, he did fight himself back to the concert stage in 1948. But the golden tenor voice was gone forever.

In Denmark Aksel Schiøtz was still the personification of the Danish song to the public. Not many people at home recognised Schiøtz as a man who had been one of the world’s leading tenors in his field. The Royal Conservatory in Copenhagen would have nothing to do with him as a singing teacher since he did not have any formal education as a singer. The Schiøtz family could not make a living from record royalties – especially since the industry was still suffering very much from post-war restrictions – and some decision had to be taken.

The solution was immigration. In 1955 Schiøtz and his family moved across the Atlantic, where he taught at universities in Minnesota, Toronto and Colorado, as well as giving masterclasses and recitals. Finally, in 1968 he was offered a professorship at The Royal Danish School of Educational Studies in Copenhagen, a position that turned out to be a disappointment. Aksel Schiøtz died in Copenhagen in 1975 of cancer caused by the radioactive contrast fluid injected in his body in connection with the operation in 1946.

The complete 11 CD Aksel Schiøtz Edition is available directly from Danacord and can be ordered here.

© Henrik Engelbrecht 2016.
This article is a revised version of one that originally appeared in Gramophone’s special magazine International Classical Record Collector in 1997. 

 

The earliest Mozart recording in the world – by a Danish baritone

 

Skærmbillede 2016-01-26 kl. 14.00.57

Peter Schram

The Danish bassbaritone Peter Schram made his operatic debut at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen in 1841, two years before Patti was even born, and he sang Leporello for the first time 1846. He was by then a regular soloist at the Royal Opera, but wanted to continue his studies in Paris. Garcia was enthusiastic about his Danish pupil, and he suggested Schram for the Paris Opera. But Schram was homesick, he declined and returned to Copenhagen. His only appearance outside Denmark was in Stockholm where he sang alongside Jenny Lind. After his retirement as a singer in 1889 he continued to perform as an actor until a few months before his death.

The fact that we today can hear the voice of a singer born in 1841 we owe to Gottfried Moses Ruben, himself born in 1837 into a Jewish family in Copenhagen. As a young man he was employed in his father’s gentlemen’s outfitting shop, and after living in London for eight years he married the daughter of a wealthy Copenhagen merchant in 1872 and now moved to Lisbon. His wife’s bad health forced them to return to Copenhagen after three years, and Ruben was now named Portuguese consul-general. He set up a business of importing wine and cork from Portugal, and this apparently was a lucrative business; his yearly income was now more than 8.000 kroner – in comparison a girl servant around 1890 received from 100 to 120 kroner a year.

Precisely where and when Ruben first heard Edison’s perfected phonograph of 1888 we do not know, but it might well have been at the Paris exhibition during the summer of 1889, where Edison himself also was present, or it could have been in Germany or England. At any rate it was from London that he imported his first Edison phonograph – from Colonel Gouraud’s Edison Phonograph Company.

The Edison stand at the exhibition in Paris in 1889

The Edison stand at the exhibition in Paris in 1889

Ruben became Edison’s agent not only in Denmark, but in all the Nordic countries; Sweden, Norway and Finland (Iceland was at that time a part of Denmark). He teamed up with the firm Cornelius Knudsen, specialising in optical and mechanical devices, and one of the first companies in Europe to import one of Edison’s original tin-foil phonographs more than 10 years earlier. Ruben made Cornelius Knudsen sole retailer of Edison phonographs in Copenhagen, and in late September 1889 the first machine arrived – along with a technician from London.

All Summer the Danes had been reading about Edison’s new invention. In August the newspapers had enthused about Edison’s visit to London, and only two weeks earlier Edison had demonstrated the machine to the German Emperor. The Danish public was eager to experience the wonder for themselves, and Ruben knew just how to get the public even more interested; he offered a demonstration of his phonograph at the Danish court.

The first notice of Ruben’s new phonograph in the Copenhagen newspapers appeared in Dagens Nyheder on September 29th:

jukebox_630px“An Edison phonograph has now arrived in Copenhagen. The machine, owned by a consortium, was yesterday sent to Fredensborg [Summer residence of the Royal family]….The invention received thundering applause from the royalty”.

The royalty on this occasion was not only the Danish King Christian IX and Queen but also included czar Alexander of Russia and his Danish born czarina.

The official journal of the court gives us a glimpse of the demonstration: “The demonstration, given by consul-general Ruben and the head of the company Cornelius Knudsen, assisted by a technician employed by The Phonographic Company [sic] in London, took place in the Conservatory and began around 10 [P.M.]. His Majesty the King first received a greeting from the Danish colony in London, and it was apparently with equal amounts of surprise and joy that His Majesty this way was greeted with the warmest wishes of happiness and blessings for himself and his family. Later was heard several musical compositions, among them Wörishöffer March played by a large band…The performances went on for about two hours. The three gentlemen who demonstrated the phonograph were fed in a room in the eastern wing.”

The newspaper Politiken stated on October 1st that the Edison phonograph had been imported to Copenhagen by Ruben and Knudsen “some days ago”. They have already received numerous orders for machines, in part by businessmen here in town who wants its services, in part from estate owners around the country who wants it to amuse themselves and their guests. Consul-general Ruben has during the last couple of days received dozens of requests from aspiring agents for the speaking wonder.”

This was not all quite true. It actually took Ruben some time and effort to get just a few agents around Denmark – the fact that a machine had a retail price of 700 kroner was undoubtedly discouraging for anyone interested. But the notice in Politiken was nevertheless clever marketing by Ruben: The phonograph had triumphed even before the public had had a chance to hear it!

Ruben was fully aware of the power of the press in a venture like his, so he invited them to a special demonstration on October 3rd at 1 P.M. in his home apartment.

The Phonograph was an Edison “class M” model driven by an electric motor powered by two wet cells. The machine had six pairs of rubber hearing tubes, and the gentlemen of the press had to wait their turn to hear the wonders of the novelty. “First the apparatus brought out a salute to the press. Every word was clearly heard, every nuance in the voice, and even a faint involuntary cough was audible” wrote Berlingske Tidende.

Everybody in Copenhagen wanted to hear the phonograph, and a temporary showroom was rented. Anyone willing to pay 1 krone could put the rubber tubes to his ears and for himself experience the wonderful novelty.

Ruben now ordered 50 phonographs directly from the Edison Phonograph Works in West Orange, along with 1500 blank cylinders and “supplies for three months” as the invoice states – recorders, diaphragms, belts and other spare parts. All this was shipped in 36 cases and 10 barrels on board the S/S Island sailing from America to Denmark on November 2nd.

With their new equipment, The Danish Edison Phonograph Company, as Ruben and Knudsen named it, opened their new premises in Copenhagen on February 23rd, 1890. It was a large room on the first floor of a house near the Tivoli Gardens, and besides being used for demonstrating the phonograph to the public, the room was also used as a recording studio. It was equipped with both an upright and a grand piano, and over the grand piano a large recording horn was lowered. It was probably here that the main part of the Ruben collection were recorded. Recordings by well-known singers and actors were essential to attract an audience now that the phonograph was yesterday’s news, and Ruben constantly needed new artists and repertoire.

In July 1891 an interesting advertisement appeared in Politiken: “Other new items on the Edison phonograph:…P. Schram: The Leporello aria…”. The phonograph was now on display in the waxworks housed in the same building where Ruben had his private apartment, and it was here one could hear the recording by the baritone Peter Schram (1819-1895) who had retired from the Royal Danish Opera in 1889. The aria, “Notte e giorno” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, is preserved in the Ruben collection, and this cylinder is in fact a world record: It contains the oldest singer (in terms of date of birth) that we can still hear today.

It is strange to listen to the voice of a man who was born at a time when Beethoven, Schubert, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti were still active composers. Peter Schram made his operatic debut at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen in 1841, two years before Patti was even born, and he sang Leporello for the first time 1846. He was by then a regular soloist at the Royal Opera, but wanted to continue his studies in Paris. Garcia was enthusiastic about his Danish pupil, and he suggested Schram for the Paris Opera. But Schram was homesick, he declined and returned to Copenhagen. His only appearance outside Denmark was in Stockholm where he sang alongside Jenny Lind. After his retirement as a singer in 1889 he continued to perform as an actor until a few months before his death.

The Peter Schram cylinder contains not just the complete opening aria from Don Giovanni, but also the first verse of “Madamina! Il catalogo è questo”. Schram sings unaccompanied and with great rhythmical freedom. It is clearly a voice of an elderly baritone, and the style is not what we normally hear today. Schram sings in Danish, and he adds little embellishments to the music and even a cadenza to the fermata in the middle of the first aria. The style is very similar to the one Sir Charles Santley demonstrates in his recording of “Non più andrai” from Le Nozze di Figaro. No wonder, since both singers studied in Paris with Manuel Garcia, brother of Maria Malibran and son of the other Manuel Garcia, the famous creator of Rossini’s Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia.

In theory the cylinder could well have been be recorded before July 1891, when it was first advertised, but Ruben had no way of duplicating a cylinder, and only a limited number of phonographs could record the same performance. In case of an especially popular recording the artist may have recorded the same piece many times over a period of time, and Schram could well have repeated the aria several times for Ruben. It could consequently have been recorded as late as June 1895. But it would still be the earliest recording of music by Mozart.

In the Ruben collection are recordings by several other Danish singers of importance; The baritone Cornelius Petersen, who later changed his name to Peter Cornelius and his voice to tenor, is represented by two songs. He later recorded extensively for both the phonograph and the gramophone, and sang both at Covent Garden and in Bayreuth.

All the cylinders in the Ruben collection are preserved and has been transferred by the State and University Library in Aarhus, Denmark. More here (in Danish).

Gottfried Ruben died following brain surgery in 1897, at the early age of sixty and was buried from the mosaic mortuary in Copenhagen. Among the many flowers that decorated the room was a wreath with a banner from the staff of the Edison Works.

 

Verdens første Mozart-indspilning … var med en dansk baryton!

Skærmbillede 2016-01-26 kl. 14.00.57

Peter Schram

I oktober 1889 talte hele København om én eneste ting; den nye, mærkelige talemaskine, som Edison havde opfundet, var kommet til byen – takket være generalkonsul Gottfried Ruben, der havde tæft for at udnytte opfindelsens nyhedsværdi. Han optog i de kommende år de ældste, danske lydoptagelser, bl.a. med tidens stjerner fra Det Kongelige Teater – også basbarytonen Peter Schram, der inden sin død i 1895 blev den allerførste i verden, der indspillede musik af Mozart. Hør optagelsen i bunden af artiklen – men jeg advarer; lydkvaliteten er ikke for sarte sjæle.

Gottfried Moses Ruben blev født 19. juni 1837 ind i velhavende jødisk københavnerfamilie. Faderen var herreekviperingshandler, og efter end skolegang var det naturligt nok faderens forretning, den unge Ruben blev ansat i. Da denne lukkede, drog Ruben først til London, hvor han arbejdede med international handel, bl.a. med Portugal. Senere flyttede han sammen med sin danske hustru Betty Heyman – datter af grosserer W.P. Heyman – til Portugal.

Bettys helbred gjorde det nødvendigt at flytte tilbage til Danmark efter få år, og nu blev Ruben udnævnt til portugisisk generalkonsul, og slog sig på import af bl.a. portvin og kork. Det var åbenbart en lukrativ forretning, for hans årlige indkomst var i 1889 på kr. 8000, på et tidspunkt hvor en tjenestepige tjente ca. kr. 100-120 om året.

EdisonSamtidig sad opfinderen Thomas Alva Edison i USA og arbejdede på at forbedre en opfindelse, han havde gjort ti år tidligere, men som nu var blevet så god, at tiden var inde til at sætte den i produktion. En maskine, som kunne optage og gengive lyd – i dag en helt dagligdags tanke, men dengang næsten udenfor almindelige menneskers fatteevne; tanken om at høre sin egen stemme gengivet var en idé, som for de fleste kunne sammenlignes med at flyve til månen eller at kunne få 10.000 bøger ned på en harddisk. Helt utænkeligt.

Edison havde allerede præsenteret sin første, meget primitive, fonograf i 1877. Dengang bestod apparatet af en valse, som var omviklet med et stykke tinfolie, hvori en spids nål monteret på en mambran kunne registrere og gengive lydtryk mod membranen. Resultatet var svært at opfatte, men princippet var rigtigt, vidste Edison. Han mistede interessen for fonografen i de følgende år, og kastede sig over andre projekter – og først da en konkurrent begyndte at forbedre den oprindelige fonograf tog han fat igen; igen andre end Edison selv skulle fremstille en brugbar fonograf.

Edison forestillede sig ganske visionært hvordan opfindelsen ville revolutionere verden på flere måder – ikke blot som underholdningsmaskine, men absolut også som nyttegenstand; han forudså blandt andet, at den kunne bruges som diktafon på kontoret, som utrættelig sproglærer i skolen og som en kærkommen mulighed for nybyggerne, når de ville sende en lydhilsen hjem til forældrene langt væk.

Den nye udgave af fonografen brugte ikke tinfolie, men valser af voks. Nu var lydkvaliteten markant forbedret, og Edison gjorde sig klar til en verdensomspændende reklameindsats for sit nye produkt. Aviser i hele verden var fyldt med nyheden om den nye, talende maskine i 1888.

Edisons stand ved verdensudstillingen i Paris i sommeren 1889, hvor Gottfried Ruben sandsynligvis oplevede den nye fonograf for første gang.

Edisons stand ved verdensudstillingen i Paris i sommeren 1889, hvor Gottfried Ruben sandsynligvis oplevede den nye fonograf for første gang.

Vi ved ikke præcis hvor og hvornår Ruben først oplevede Edisons fonograf, men det var sandsynligvis i sommeren 1889 i Paris under den store verdensudstilling. Her var Edison selv til stede for at præsentere sin nye forbedrede udgave af fonografen, og mange velstillede danskere tog den sommer turen til Paris for med egne øjne at se udstillingen – ikke mindst det nye, flotte tårn af Monsieur Eiffel.

Gottfried Rubens navn dukkede under alle omstændigheder op i de københavnske aviser i slutningen af september 1889. Han var nemlig blevet generalagent for Edison i hele Norden, og var nu, sammen med sin nye kompagnon, taget til Fredensborg. Ruben vidste nemlig udmærket, hvordan man får maksimal opmærksomhed fra pressen. Han havde slået sig sammen med optikeren Cornelius Knudsen, som havde forretning i Købmagergade, og som ti år tidligere havde importeret Edisons allertidligste fonograf til landet. De to skulle nu, sammen med en tekniker fra London, præsentere den nye opfindelse for kongehuset – og derefter skulle alle andres interesse nok følge efter. Ganske heldigt var der fint familiebesøg på Fredensborg, bl.a. af tsar Alexander og hans danskfødte tsarina. Det blev en aften, som Ruben kun kunne have håbet på, og som hele Danmark læser om i aviserne. Berlingske Tidende skriver udførligt om aftenen:

”Edisons Phonograph blev Løverdag aften forevist for Hs. Maj. Kongen og Dronningen med høie Gæster paa Fredensborg Slot. Præsentationen, der fandt sted ved Generalkonsul Ruben og Chefen for Firmaet Cornelius Knudsen, bistaaet af en under det phonographiske Compagni i London ferierende Fagmand, foregik i Havesalen og tog sin begyndelse henmod kl. 10, til hvilken Tid de mange for Tiden paa Slottet værende fyrstelige Herskaber med Damer og Cavalerer havde indfundet sig der. Med stor Interesse gjorde Selskabet sig bekjendt med det sindrige Apparat og lod sig meget omstændeligt forklare den tilsyneladende simple, men dog meget combinerede og sindrige Mechanisme, der sættes i Bevægelse ved Hjælp af en elektrisk Strøm. Hs. Maj. Kongen modtog først igjennem Apparatet en Hilsen fra den danske Coloni i London ved Generalkonsul Delcomyn[1], og det var øiensynlig med ligesaa stor Overraskelse som Glæde, at Kongen ad denne Vei blev hilset med de varmeste Ønsker om Lykke og Velsignelse for sig og det kongelige Huus. Tydelig og bestemt lød hvert Ord, og Forundringen voxede endmere, da Phonographen spillede Wörishöffer Marsche, udført af et stort Orchester. Det var i høi Grad skuffende, idet hvert Instrument kom til sin Ret, kun Dirigenten, Musikdirecteur Balduin Dahl[2], der havde spillet til Phonographen, savnedes. Men ikke nok dermed; Skridt for Skridt steg Interessen for dette Edisons nyeste Kunstværk og dets vidtrækkende Ævne til Reproduction. En Hilsen fra Gladstone til Edison, “Gurre” udført af kgl. Kammersanger Simonsen[3], “the last rose of summer”, en Hilsen fra Edison til Oberst Gouraud[4] i England, en af Offenbachs meest populære Melodier af “Den skjønne Helene”, osv. osv. fængslede de kongelige og keiserlige Herskaber i henved to Timer, og det var ene og alene paa Grund af den fremrykkede tid, at Præsentationen afbrødes.”[5]

Første trin af makedsføringsstrategien var fuldført. Nu gjaldt det så pressen, som ikke længere måtte nøjes med at referere fra hoffets protokoller, men fik en invitation til at møde op hjemme hos Ruben selv i lejligheden på Vesterbrogade med udsigten over Tivoli. Alle aviserne mødte frem, og Politikens reporter er én af de mest begejstrede:

”Paa et med grønt Klæde betrykket Bord af ca. en Alens Længde findes hele den vidunderlige Opfindelse. Der er Nøddetræskassen med den elektriske Motor, den lille Regulator, Valsen, som bærer den præparerede Vokscylinder, den uendeligt fint afpassede Skrue, ved Hjælp af hvilken Valsen forskydes, og Glaspladen, hvis Svingninger forplanter Talens Lyd til den lille Stift, som atter sætter sine nærmest usynlige Mærker i Vokset. Endelig Gummislangen, der er sat i Forbindelse med Glaspladen, og som forgrener sig i mange arme, der Par og Par er forsynet med Glasrør af en saadan Form, at de kan hænge løst i Ørene paa dem, der skal høre, hvad Fonografen har at fortælle. Paa den anden Side Bordet staar to elektriske Elementer, som er sat i Forbindelse med Motoren, og en fint poleret Kasse, knap en Alen høj, som staar foran, indeholder “Repertoiret”. Her ligger Gladstone[6] Side om Side med Kammersanger Simonsen, og hele Balduin Dahls Orkester fylder ikke mere end en lille beskeden Fløjtenist fra de forenede Stater. I en rummelig Frakkelommekunde man for den Sags skyld godt have dem allesammen. Med de vilde ganske vist efter en saadan Behandling blive en smule utydelige i Mælet, ligesom der ogsaa grumme let kunde gaa en af de Baldiun Dahl’ske Violinister med i Løbet. Hvert “Numer”, enten det nu er Tale eller Musik eller Sang, findes jo nemlig paa sin Vokscylinder, og bliver Stiftens smaabitte Prikker i Vokset presset ud, gaar hele Foredraget i Skuddermudder … Tonerne lød ret fyldigt, og de kom ganske tydeligt hver for sig, men i det hele maa man naturligvis ikke vente nogen kunstnerisk Nydelse af Musik pr. Fonograf. Det lyder blot overmaade kuriøst.”[7]

Alle havde nu læst om fonografen – nu ville de høre den med egne øren. Københavnerne valfartede til Industriforeningens Foredragssal, hvor Ruben 8. oktober slog dørene op for den første offentlige fremvisning. Mange havde dog ikke råd til at betale en krone for at opleve fonografen på tæt hold hos Ruben, men så er der heldigvis andre måder at få maskinen at se, hvis man holder øje med underholdningsetablissementernes annoncer:

”Circus Variété. Hver Aften fra Kl. 7¼ – 11¼ : Stor Forestilling og Koncert. Iaften Optræden af Star og Lydia, sidstnævnte kaldet Luftens Venus, Damesextetten André samt det øvrige store Kunstnerpersonale. N.B. Fonografen forevises kun nogle faa Dage.”[8]

Ruben forsøgete naturligvis også at sælge fonografer, men med en pris på hele kr. 700, som nogenlunde svarer til prisen på en mellemstor familiebil i nutidskroner, var kundekredsen naturligt nok meget begrænset. Det er faktisk slet ikke sikkert, at Ruben fik solgt én eneste maskine overhovedet.

Efterhånden som nyhedens interesse blandt det bedre borgerskab dalede, fandt Ruben på nye måder at få præsenteret vidunderet for nye målgrupper, og snart kunne fonografen opleves i provinsen, både i ved forevisninger i borgerforeningerne i byerne og på markeder landet over. Samtidig åbnede Ruben i februar et nyt lokale til både indspilning og fremvisning af fonografen i Stormgade, og han forstod også at holde pressejernet varmt med nye historier.

I de næste år arbejdede Ruben videre med at indspille fonografvalser med tidens store navne i det københavnske musik- og teaterliv, men fonografen var ikke længere en nyhed, og selv om prisen faldt drastisk i løbet af 1890’erne, var det stadig de få, der har råd til overhovedet at overveje at investere i én.

Der bliver længere og længere mellem avisannoncerne, og redaktionel omtale var det endnu sværere at komme igennem med. Ikke før han dør i 1897, skriver pressen mere om Ruben. Nekrologen i Berlingske Tidende er den eneste beskrivelse, vi har af personen Gottfried Ruben:

”I Formiddags fandt portugisisk Generalkonsul, Grosserer G.M. Rubens Jordefærd under megen Højtidelighed Sted fra det mosaiske Kapel paa Vestre Kirkegaard. I det festligt belyste og med mange stedsegrønne Planter dekorerede Kapel var Kisten hensat. Den var dækket med et rigt og skjønt Blomsterflor, og der saas signerede Kranse fra herværende portugisiske Konsulat og fra Personalet ved Eddysons Fonografer. I det talrige Følge bemærkedes den portugisiske Vicekonsul, Grosserer Arntzen, hollandsk Vicekonsul v. Haarst, andre herværende Konsuler, mange Medlemmer af den kjøbenhavnske Handelsstand m. fl.Efterat Salmer vare sungne, talte Præst ved den mosaiske Menighed Simonsen: Guds Velsignelse var over ham, og han stræbte at vandre i Guds Naade – ud fra denne Hovedbetragtning gav Taleren i form af en Bøn en smuk og sympatisk Skildring af den Afdøde, der bestandig havde bevaret et lyst, ungdommeligt Sind, baade i Medgang og i Modgang – der havde ejet et godt og kjærligt Hjerte, et blidt og venligt Sind – der havde været trofast imod og lykkelig ved at tilhøre Israels Menighed – og som altid havde stræbt at bevare sit Navn rent og uplettet, og derfor ogsaa vundet Menneskenes Anerkendelse. Efterat Slutningssalmen var sungen, bares Kisten af den Afdødes Nærmeste ud paa Kirkegaarden hvor Jordfæstelsen fandt Sted.”[10]

Ruben nåede – måske meget nådigt – ikke at opleve sin elskede fonograf blive totalt udkonkurreret af den langt mere praktiske grammofon med sine flade plader, bredere og bedre repertoire og meget aggressive markedsføring. I løbet af de første årtier af det nye århundrede blev stort set alle fonografer og deres voksvalser smidt på lossepladsen.

Helt mirakuløst overlevede ca. 150 af Gottfried Rubens uerstattelige lyddokumenter fra 1890’erne – bl.a. med skuespillerbrødrene Emil og Olaf Poulsen og operasangeren Peder Schram, født i 1819, og dermed den tidligst fødte operasanger, man kan høre den dag i dag. Hans voksvalse med uddrag fra Mozarts Don Juan er altså tilmed verdens ældste Mozart-indspilning.

Peter Schram synger to uddrag fra Don Juan – Leporellos første entré og en bid fra listearien – uden akkompagnement. Det er en smule nemmere at følge med, når man kender den lidt kringlede danske oversættelse:

Sjelden Penge, Prygl desfleer!
Staae om Natten udenfor
Medens herren inde leer,
Det var hidtil mine Kaar!
Hvorfor selv ei Herre være
Fanden være Tjener meer!
Det for galt er, paa min Ære
Mens han Elskovslykken henter
Jeg paa Gaden staaer og venter
Herre kan jeg gerne være
Fanden være Tjener meer!
Hvad er det? – Der kommer nogen
Det er bedst, jeg søger Krogen,
Ganske stille staaer jeg der!

Hvis De, Donna,
behager at høre
Denne Liste,
som jeg har at føre
Paa de Skjønne,
hans Kunst monne røre,
Smukke Ting da
De skal faae at see!
Først i Italien ethundred’ og tyve!
En Snees Tydske,
for ikke at lyve.
Frankrigs Pigebørn
rundt om ham flyve;
Men ved Spanien,
staaer tusind og tre!

 

Denne valse ligger sammen med de øvrige i Rubens samling på Statsbiblioteket i Århus, som i 2007 digitaliserede de skrøbelige valser. Takket være Rubens indsats kan vi i dag høre lyden af 1890’erne – bl.a. altså Peder Schram, en mand, der lærte at synge i Paris af den tenor, der var Rossinis første Grev Almaviva i Barberen i Sevilla ved uropførelsen i 1816. Takket være en driftig og visionær københavnsk forretningsmand, der heldigvis syntes, at fonografer var sjovere end kork og portvin.

Hør et udvalg af Rubens valser og læs mere om samlingen i Århus på www.rubensamlingen.worldpress.com

NOTER:

[1] Ernst Adolf Joseph Delcomyn (2.1.1828-9.3.1913), købmand, generalkonsul.

[2] Christian Florus Balduin Dahl (6.10.18343.6.1891), musiker og dirigent, Lumbyes efterfølger som musikchef i Tivoli.

[3] Niels Juel Simonsen (16.5.1846-25.5.1906), baryton ved Det Kongelige Teater.

[4] Charles Gouraud, Edisons agent i London

[5] Berlingske Tidende, 30. september 1889

[6] William Evart Gladstone (29.12.1809-19.5.1898), britisk politiker, premierminister i fire perioder. Optagelsen af Gladstone fra 1888 findes stadig, ligesom indtil flere senere forfalskninger. Den ægte optagelse kan høre på www.youtube.com/watch?v=0F957zdE3m8

[7] Politiken, 4. oktober 1889

[8] Politiken, 8. december 1889

[9] Politiken, 24. februar 1890

[10] Berlingske Tidende, 7. oktober 1897

 

A Danish world class baritone with a tragic fate

RabinowitzA Danish world class baritone named Frantz Rabinowitz? If you have never heard his name it’s not surprising.

As a jew he had to flee to Sweden during the nazi occupation of Denmark by jumping off the ferry to Bornholm and swimming ashore – and after the war he continued his career in Hollywood and did a screen test for a film featuring Deanna Durbin. But Frantz Rabinowitz died at the outrageously early age of thirty, and what would certainly have been a major international career was cut tragically short.

Listen to his recording of Germont’s aria from Verdi’s La Traviata and judge for yourself. And below the clip you can read the dramatic and fascinating story of his short life:

On Monday 30th August, 1948 a meeting was scheduled by Dansk Discophil Forening, the Danish record collector’s society in Copenhagen[1]. One of the society’s longest standing members was to play his latest acquisitions and talk about his adventures in America. This was something that many members had been looking especially forward to, as the speaker was a very special member. Not only was he the owner of a splendid collection of early acoustic vocal records – he was also an outstanding baritone, who had just embarked on a career in the USA. But Frantz Rabinowitz never did give the talk to the society. He died nine days before the meeting – only thirty years of age.

The story of the Rabinowitz family in Denmark took its beginning in 1910, when Max Rabinowitz emigrated from Königsberg to Copenhagen to establish himself in the hide and skin trade. He married Ebba Wennerholm-Petersen and they had three children; Harry, Frantz and Mirjam. Frantz, the youngest, was born on 22nd January, 1918, and he and his brother Harry were both very musical; already before their teens they founded a mutual record collection[2]. They preferred singers of the acoustic period, and they were also fond of singing themselves.

After elementary school Frantz was sent off to the country. Here he was trained in farming, and later in his career the glossy magazines were only too happy to arrange photo sessions with Rabinowitz dressed as a farmer singing to the cows. Farming, however, was not what Frantz wanted to do for the rest of his life. He was now sixteen years old, and he told his father that he wanted to be a singer – no matter what. So, Max Rabinowitz took his son to Egisto Tango, at that time conductor at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen. Tango listened, and he liked what he heard. He recommended a teacher for the young boy; the baritone Holger Bruusgaard of the Royal Opera (who himself made quite a number of recordings), and this turned out to be an excellent choice. Frantz Rabinowitz studied with Bruusgaard for three years, developing a rich, dark voice, quite unlike the typical Nordic light baritones.

In 1937 one of Rabinowitz’ great heroes, Lawrence Tibbett, came to Copenhagen. Rabinowitz asked Tibbett for an audition, and it was settled that Rabinowitz should come to the Hotel d’Angleterre, where Tibbett was staying. After hearing his young colleague, Tibbett was obviously pleased, and he presented Rabinowitz with a photo with the inscription: “To Frantz Rabinowitz with sincere belief in a splendid career and with best wishes”. A year later Rabinowitz had reached the age of eighteen, and for two years he was now enlisted as a soldier. He still kept up his singing, though, and being himself extremely interested in records and recordings, he was eager to record his own voice. The result was two acetates recorded in in February 1938 in the home of pianist Erwin Berg, who also accompanied the two items recorded that day. Both the recordings show an inexperienced baritone, not always in pitch. The overall impression is of rather crude interpretations, but still one hears the potential qualities of his voice.

Rabinowitz was responding well to Verdi and the Italian repertoire, and it was natural that he would want to continue his studies in Italy. He had spent many evenings in front of the radio at home listening to broadcasts from Milan and Rome, and after leaving the army he could not wait to see the country for himself. In March 1938 Frantz Rabinowitz left Copenhagen to study with the soprano Giuseppina Finzi-Magrini in Turin. The first thing he did after arriving in Turin was to go to the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele; he wanted to hear Italian opera in natura. During the three-week stagione here, he heard La Bohéme with Angelo Minghetti as Rodolfo and Rosetta Pampanini as Mimi Cleopatra by Armando la Rosa Parodi with the tenor Alessandro Granda, Boris Gudonov with the bass Tancredi Pasero, and Die Walküre in Italian with Giuseppina Cobelli as Sieglinde, Fiorenzo Tasso as Siegmund and Andrea Mongelli as Wotan. But the highlight of it all was the last performance, Otello with Aureliano Pertile. Rabinowitz later wrote about this experience in Discophilen, the journal of Dansk Discophil Forening,:

That particular performance still stand out in my mind as my greatest experience during my one and a half years in Italy. I had last heard Pertile on the radio when he created Nerone by Mascagni at La Scala. It was a wonderful part, but it was said to have ruined his voice. He did not sing for two years, and then he suddenly appeared as Otello in Bergamo. It was the first time in his career he had taken on this part, and now it was time for him to present it in Turin. The excitement was enormous. I clinged to the arms of my chair during the opening scene. Then he appeared in a splendid armour, and the “Esultate” trumpeted out in the theatre like a fanfare. The voice was fantastic, quite different from what I had expected. […] The second act was an experience of the highest achievable art. The duet “Si pel ciel” was sung with a power and feeling that I do not think even Tamagno would have been able to top. In the third act Pertile reached the divine. I shall never forget how he threw Desdemona to the floor with the words “Aterra a piangi!”. One was shattered in the soul. In “Dio mi potevi” Pertile revealed the soul of Otello as if he tore the heart out of everyone in the audience. When he fell to the floor at the end, I was almost certain that he really was done for, at that we would not hear the last act. Finzi-Magrini, who was with me, knew Pertile and I asked her if we could go and see Pertile during the interval. He sat in an armchair, breathing heavily. Otello’s torments were obviously still in his mind, and it was quite a while before he collected himself and he greeted us. We only stayed a moment, but long enough to convince me that we would certainly get the final act. This was dominated by the death of Otello, and after the performance the applause would take no end. I staggered out of the theatre with the memory of a singer who is no less than a genius. […] A year later I heard him on the radio as Canio. It was pathetic. Pertile was now definitely finished, and he did not sing again. I’m happy to have experienced his Indian summer.[3]

Rabinowitz was thrilled to be in Italy, not only because of the opportunity to hear the singers of the day, but also because this was where many of the singers he knew from the Fonotipias and G&Ts in his record collection were still living. He knew that his teacher herself had made some black G&Ts:

I found some of her records at the flea market in Turin, and the next day I showed them to her. She refused ever having made the recordings, and stated that they had to be “dreadful in their antiquity”. However, I convinced her of the the records’ excellence by playing them to her. She did admit that the voice was hers, but she still could not remember the recording sessions.[4]

Rabinowitz met many others of the early Italian singers he knew from his record collection; Guerrina Fabbri, Giuseppe Borgatti, Alice Cucini – and also Rosina Storchio, the creator of Madama Butterfly, whom he met visiting Verdi’s Casa di riposo in Milan.

Rabinowitz studied with Finzi-Magrini for more than a year, and his voice developed both regarding timbre, volume and range. He was of course hoping for a chance to perform while he was in Italy, but a Jewish name did not make things easier, so he used the name Francesco Dammarchi. In the spring of 1939 it happened: He was offered to sing Amonasro with an Italian touring company. The performances were to take place in Nice, alongside no other than Francesco Merli and Gina Cigna. But nothing ever came of it because of the political problems between Italy and France. It must have been a great disappointment to Rabinowitz, but another offer soon arrived; this time regarding a complete recording of Orfeo by Monteverdi.

For three months Rabinowitz lived at the Lago di Garda and worked on the part of Orfeo in the home of Giacomo Benvenuti who was in charge of the preparations for the forthcoming recording sessions. Everything was ready for the recording scheduled for October, but again Rabinowitz was unlucky. The War broke out, and the English recording team had to return home. Nothing ever came out of the project, and again Rabinowitz was disappointed. Italy now seemed hermetically closed for a foreign, Jewish baritone looking for work, as it was impossible to obtain a working permit. It was time for Rabinowitz to return to Denmark.

He returned to Copenhagen in the autumn of 1939, to a Denmark still not occupied by Germany. In November Rabinowitz entered a recording studio for the first time. The two private recordings made for him by Scandinavian HMV are among his best recordings. Made just after his return from Italy, they are evidence of the astonishing improvements Rabinowitz made in those one and a half years. Here is a singer full of confidence, ready to conquer the operatic world. Especially his rendition of Posa’s death is outstanding, with wonderful line, and all previous difficulty with pitch has now vanished.

Here is the death of Posa from Don Carlo from this session:

He was, of course, hoping to get a contract with the Royal Opera as soon as possible, but again things did not work as well as he had hoped for. Not until March 1940 was he granted an audition, where he sang exerpts from Don Carlos and Das Rheingold. Rabinowitz was accepted for a debut performance at the Royal Opera, but nothing was mentioned as to when that could take place.

Anyway, Rabinowitz had plans of his own; his father agreed to pay for a concert debut with the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra and the conductor Emil Reesen. Two supporting singers from the Royal Opera were also engaged; the soprano Margherita Flor and her husband, the tenor Thyge Thygesen. Rabinowitz was only twenty-two, and the press wrote all about the young baritone and his unusual debut. This was all or nothing for Rabinowitz. The debut was first scheduled for 14th February, but Rabinowitz caught the flu, and the concert had to be postponed to 1st April. Every critic in Copenhagen was there.

After the Tancredi overture Rabinowitz sang “Vi ravviso” from La Sonnambula. And from then on all the music was by Verdi:. “Cortigiani” from Rigoletto, “Invano Alvaro” from La Forza del Destino (with Thyge Thygesen), “Ciel! mio padre” from Aida (with Margherita Flor), “Di provenza il mar” from La Traviata, and finally all three singers joined together in the trio from act one of Il Trovatore. This programme was a huge gamble, but the next day the critics all agreed that the programme had been selected wisely to show off the italianate dark baritone voice of Frantz Rabinowitz:

…his voice can be like black velvet, but he is more than just a lyric baritone; he is also a musical-dramatic talent. There can be no doubt that Rabinowitz will reach the highest […] he is the greatest talent to show itself in a long time, and he has a demon inside him. It is safe to bet that he will be a real star in a couple of years…[5]

Even the critic most feared by all Danish singers and musicians, Hugo Seligmann, was pleased:

…He was beautiful. The female expert on these matters who was sitting next to me declared that his hair was dark like the jungle, he had eyes that saw, a sensitive mouth and a rather weak chin, but what can be expected of one only twenty-two years of age. And he was tall too, handsome, elegant and slim […] Bellini was not very good, rather sad actually. Noted only to tease. Because after that came Rigoletto, and what a performance! Impudently brilliant. What a voice […] if one should sing Verdi, one should sing him with a voice like the one Frantz Rabinowitz possesses. His voice could love, it could hate, it could revenge and threaten…everything done very Verdian, that is in a grand and masculine way…[6]

It had obviously paid off to spend around 3000 kroner (a small fortune in those days) on a debut. But eight days later the War came to Copenhagen – Denmark was now occupied by Germany. This was of course a setback for a young, promising Jewish singer, but even so it did not take long before the next engagement came along. The tenor Stefan Islandi cancelled a concert performance on 17th May at the Tivoli Concert Hall, and Rabinowitz was called in as a replacement. Again, the press was very favourable. But there were still no sign of a debut at the Royal Opera, and while waiting for more serious engagements, Rabinowitz appeared in various variety-shows who could use a good-looking baritone singing popular arias and songs.

In 1941 Rabinowitz recorded 6 sides at two sessions for Polyphon in Copenhagen. Sadly, only two sides is of opera – the remaining four are songs. The Traviata-aria is an example of Rabinowitz’ inclination towards slow tempi. He is in wonderful voice, though, and gives a fully matured interpretation of the aria. “Nemico della patria” from Andrea Chenier is marred by an orchestra who clearly is sight-reading the score, but in spite of this Rabinowitz gives a powerful and dramatic account. The reason for Rabinowitz to record four sides of songs is perhaps the popularity of the song-recordings the tenor Aksel Schiøtz recorded for HMV. Polyphon was surely looking for a singer to compete with Schiøtz in the more popular field. A shame that Polyphon did not record Rabinowitz in arias from Faust, Rigoletto, Ernani or Un ballo in maschera – all music in the repertoire of Rabinowitz at the time. Here is the Nemico della patria from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier:

In February and March 1941 Rabinowiz and Stefan Islandi toured Denmark with a staging of La Bohéme by the Hermann Florent Touring Company – forty-two performances in all. This gave the young singer his first experiences on stage, and now the Royal Opera felt it safe to offer Rabinowitz the part of Marcello for a debut on 17th April.

That evening he sang with Stefan Islandi (who at this time was not a regular member of the ensemble but still appearing as guest), Edith Oldrup, Einar Nørby and Poul Wiedemann, with Johan Hye-Knudsen conducting. The part of Marcello was not ideal for Rabinowitz to show the audience and the critics what he could achieve on stage, and the newspapers wrote again of his wonderful voice, but wanted to hear him in parts like Wolfram, Escamillo or Germont pére before judging his talents for the stage. Sadly, they never got a chance to hear him in any of those parts. During the next year Rabinowitz sang in several broadcasts by the Danish Radio and gave recitals in various cities in Denmark. But the times were turning against Rabinowitz. In February 1941 both conductor Johan Hye-Knudsen and soloist Stefan Islandi cancelled a concert performance with The Copenhagen Concert Society, and Emil Reesen took over the conducting and Rabinowitz replaced the tenor. Two days after the performance the Danish pro-nazi newspaper National-Socialisten wrote about the “communist conductor Reesen” and his choice of a replacement for Islandi:

…Reesen had a good opportunity to engage a promising, young Danish or Nordic singer, but […] loving the Jews he chose Mr. Frantz Rabinowitz (what a Danish, what a Nordic name!) to perform at the Concert Society. Mr. Rabinowitz (his name reminds one of Jews in the former [sic] Poland) is certainly a tasteful replacement for the great Icelandic singer…[7]

Fortunately, the Danish pro-nazis were not in any way forming the public opinion – a reverse effect is more likely to have been the outcome of an article like this. Rabinowitz was still engaged for broadcasts and concerts – and in March 1942 he sang on Swedish Radio for the first time. But he had to wait until 24th November, 1942 to sing at the Royal Opera again, this time as Count Luna in Il Trovatore, opposite Niels Hansen, Else Schiøtt, Ingeborg Steffensen and Magnus Andersen. The conductor was Egisto Tango, the same who some eight years earlier had heard the possibilities in the voice of the young man. The critics were once more enthusiastic about the voice – but they were not too keen on his acting. Rabinowitz obviously still lacked experience on stage. However, the Royal Opera did not give him an opportunity to earn that experience; apart from two more last-minute performances of La Bohéme in November 1945 (where he sang instead of the indisposed Henry Skjær) he never sang at the Royal Opera again.

In October 1943 Jews all over Denmark were warned that they would soon be arrested and deported to concentration camps abroad. Most managed to escape to Sweden, including Frantz Rabinowitz. He was hidden by friends on the ferry from Copenhagen to the Danish island Bornholm, sailing close to the Swedish coast. Rabinowitz jumped overboard and swam ashore. Already on 27th October, 1943 he sang on Swedish radio, and a couple of weeks later he sang at a concert at the Konserthuset in Stockholm. The rumour of the young brilliant Danish baritone had already whetted the appetite of the Swedish press:

One did not have to listen for long to tell that the rumours about his successes in Copenhagen were true. He can chisel out a phrase with convincing power and he has an intensive fire in the renditions…[8]

In December 1943 Rabinowitz appeared in concerts both in Göteborg and in Stockholm; and it was probably during this time he took lessons from the Scottish tenor Joseph Hislop, at that time living in Sweden. In March 1944 he joined the Danish Brigade in Sweden, where he got to the rank of corporal. On 29th May, 1945 Frantz Rabinowitz returned with the Brigade to Denmark. He was overjoyed to be back in the liberated Denmark, and on 19th August he again sang on Danish Radio, a concert with the tenor Niels Hansen. Two months later he appeared on radio again, this time singing a medley of American songs with the alto Else Brems – music that had been banned during the German occupation. His popularity grew; on 12th October Rabinowitz’s picture was on the front cover of Det ny Radioblad – the Danish Radio Magazine. During the winter 1945-46 Rabinowitz was busy singing not only more concerts at the Danish Radio and the two performances of La Bohéme at the Royal Opera, but also singing in concerts all over Denmark. Together with the pianist Elvi Henriksen and two cabaret-artists he toured the province in February and March 1946, giving forty performances in forty-two days.

In March Rabinowitz was in all the Danish newspapers; he had been suggested as partner for Deanna Durbin in Hollywood, and he even made a screen test that was sent to Hollywood. The man behind this was his brother, Harry. He was now living in America, and he had played a couple of Frantz’s records for Deanna Durbin’s husband who was also her manager. It seemed that Frantz Rabinowitz was just what Hollywood needed; he was good-looking, he had a wonderful voice, and he was a bit exotic coming from an obscure country far away. On 29th March Rabinowitz embarked on M/S Uruguay from Copenhagen to New York, where he arrived two weeks later. He planned to stay in America for a while; he brought his beloved collection of about 3000 vocal records with him. Rabinowitz and his brother immediately travelled to California, and another test for Universal Pictures was made. But things did not go as fast as Rabinowitz might have thought. For months he heard nothing from Universal, and he had to take a job sweeping floors to make a living. He also met an American model, whom he soon married. On 10th September, 1946 Rabinowitz had his American debut in the Redlands Bowl in California. He had now changed his name to Frank Wennerholm – this was obviously easier to pronounce, and it also had a more Nordic ring to it. Frantz was very proud when he could write home about his American debut, and he quoted the local critics:

… He came, he sang and he conquered. He has what it takes – a rich vibrant voice, commanding musicianship, a stunning physique, and sincerity of character. The spontaneous ovation after his first group showed more enthusiasm than has been demonstrated before during the whole summer season. Frank Wennerholms future career with the Metropolitan Opera Company will be watched with interest.[9]

Well, the career with the Met was not exactly secured yet; Rabinowitz had probably tried to get an audition, but either it did not turn out well or it never actually took place. No signs of Frantz Rabinowitz or Frank Wennerholm exists in the archives of The Metropolitan Opera.

In April 1947 Rabinowitz signed a contract with the manager W. Colston Leigh. He managed a number of the not quite first-rank singers from the Met; Marjorie Lawrence, Marita Farell, Lucielle Browning, Bruno Landi, Richard Bonelli and John Brownlee. Colston Leigh knew the tricks of the trade, and he soon produced press material on the young Danish singer for the use of local newspapers who only needed to fill in the date and place of the performance:

Frank Wennerholm, famous young Danish baritone of the Copenhagen Royal Opera who will sing here on ___________________, at _______________ would have been a farmer if he hadn’t made singing his career. When he was fifteen years old he went to work on a farm 30 miles outside of Copenhagen. For the two years he stayed there, one of his duties was to tend the animals. He knew many arias learned from recordings, and it is doubtful whether any other herd in the Scandinavian countries ever heard so much of the music of Verdi and Puccini during the course of a farm day.

This and other equally relevant stories was now distributed to the press, and Rabinowitz and his wife appeared in the society magazines posing with two cups of coffee with the text: “Coffee hour for Mr. and Mrs. Frank Wennerholm.” American publicity methods were probably not easy to get accustomed to.

But concert engagements now began to materialise. On 15th May, 1947 Rabinowitz sang with The Toronto Philharmonic Orchestra at a promenade concert in Varsity Arena, and the reviews were just what Colston Leigh needed for new publicity material: Under the headline “Wennerholm singing pleases prom group” the Toronto Daily Star wrote:

Promenaders at last night’s Varsity Arena concert took favourably to tall, dark, handsome Frank Wennerholm, baritone. Giving a truly dynamic performance, the young Danish singer was recalled for several encores […] Wennerholm captured his audience first with the prologue from I Pagliacci, giving the selection the richness it deserves…followed with “A Dream” by Grieg, and the melodic Neopolitan [sic] folk song “Torna a Sorriento”. He brought the house down with “Figaro” and “Ah, sweet mystery of life”…[10]

On 12th June Rabinowitz could wire home to his parents in Denmark:

Beautiful daughter arrived this afternoon – mother extremely well after easy delivery – baby weighs 6 pounds – love from the three of us – Frank.

Frantz Rabinowitz now had both his wife, Barbara, and a daughter to support. And his career was not moving as fast as he had hoped for. He still had not sung on the stage of an American opera house, and he had now been abroad more than a year. On 26th June he sang Scarpia in a performance at Carnegie Hall given by a company named “International Opera Company”. The performance was, as was stated in the advertisements, “complete with lavish scenery and costumes”. That performance was repeated on 8th July, and a month later Rabinowitz sang Amonasro in another semi-staged performance in Indianapolis. During the winter Rabinowitz sang concerts, many of them with the soprano Marita Farell. He sang only in minor cities, at music schools, colleges, music clubs and with amateur orchestras. Rabinowitz sang more than forty concerts all over USA that season.

But Rabinowitz wanted to go to Denmark for the following summer – an idea his mother of course was very keen on. She contacted a Danish concert agent, who during the first months of 1948 tried to persuade the Royal Opera in Copenhagen to engage Rabinowitz. But the answer was negative; the Royal Opera had no time for rehearsals with a guest. But when Rabinowitz and his family arrived in Copenhagen in July he could at least look forward to a concert performance at the Tivoli Concert Hall. The press was eager to write about the home-coming son, and Rabinowitz answered all questions about his American career with modesty – he did not try to improve upon the facts of his struggles in the second league of the American music scene.

The Tivoli Concert was scheduled for 30th July. The programme consisted of material Rabinowitz had sung many times before; Verdi, Berlioz and Giordano. And the critics now expected not just a talented singer – but an international baritone.

His voice still has its strength in the middle range, where he lavishes his soft and rich sound on the audience. He loves to open up his voice to full power, and this indeed is impressive. But it can be rather tiring in the long run, and one felt the lack of serious artistic absorption – both regarding sound and dramatic expression […] and yet he showed in the serenade from La Damnation de Faust that he possesses the abilities to deliver much more refined singing based on dramatic temperament.[11]

This concert would be his last. A couple of weeks later Rabinowitz with his wife and daughter travelled to Sweden to visit friends and family there. While in Sweden he got ill and was brought to the hospital in Ljungby, where he died on 22nd August, 1948 from complications following an appendicitis operation.

Frantz Rabinowitz died at the outrageously early age of thirty. We now have to content ourselves with only three commercial records made by the only Danish baritone of the shellac era who could have made an international recording career.

© Henrik Engelbrecht 2016

Notes: 

[1] Dansk Discophil Forening was active in the forties and fifties, a society with about a hundred members devoted to both vocal and instrumental music on record.

[2] Harry Rabinowitz is mentioned as one of the fourteen collaborators of the 1937-edition of Bauer’s Historical Records.

[3] Discophilen, June 1948

[4] Discophilen, January 1946

[5] Socialdemokraten, 2nd April, 1940

[6] Politiken, 2nd April, 1940

[7] National-Socialisten, 19th February, 1942

[8] Dagens Nyheter, 9th November, 1943.

[9] quoted from a letter by Frantz Rabinowitz to his parents, dated 23rd September, 1946.

[10] Toronto Daily Star, 16th May, 1947

[11] Berlingske Tidende, 31st July, 1948

This article was originally published in The Record Collector.