Call Her MOTHER

A poor woman cannot live on flattering paragraphs, and neither could Ernestine Schumann-Heink.

Dissertation research is not without its sloughs, doldrums, and tediums. One of my regular tasks is the scouring of back issues of old English- and German-language magazines and periodicals in search of any and all relevant mentions of Strauss and his theatrical collaborators. Many times I get through thousands of pages without a single significant mention, while some days it’s a regular harvest of goodies. Regardless, the historiographic benefit is invaluable by seeing how musical and theatrical life was constituted, valued, and consumed in print culture. It’s an excellent way to find figurative warts.

This aspect often leads to glorious discoveries with no relation to the immediate project, but which are valuable for their own sake. This item I found from Musical Courier is one such instance. From November 1921, it tells of another adventure in the life of the esteemed singer Mme. Ernestine Schumann-Heink, America’s most patriotic and vocal (in every sense of the phrase) adopted Austrian. She was always careful to confirm that latter point. Hers is perhaps one of the best and succinct statements of 19th-century European nationalism: “An Austrian never forgets 1866.”

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A noted Wagnerian, E-SH was a regular presence in opera houses and concert halls in Europe and America before the turn of the last century. She is a legend in Strauss lore as the first Klytemnästra in Elektra, yet she found the part so strenuous that she only sang in the first performance before departing. The occasion remained vivid in her memory as she recounted to the Boston Evening Transcript later that year: “‘Nefer again! Es war furchtbar! We were a set of madwomen; truly we were. He had written us so, and so we became in very truth. I have said these things to Herr Strauss himself, so I say them now. The music itself is maddening. He writes a beautiful, beautiful melody, five measures;’ (she indicates it with poised and swaying arm), ‘then he is sorry for writing something lovely and breaks off with a dissonance that wracks you.'” That neatly sums Elektra up, I think.

What left me so tickled by the MC piece, however, was the epithet “Mother,” a term I frequently use in my daily Facebook history posts as a mark of my own queer reverence for individuals of stature like E-SH. I recalled then that the connotation was very different in 1921—even with the pantomime of the flag, which takes on a vaguely operatic quality. There was, however, no mugging for E-SH. After getting a bad wrap in the American press at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, at which point one of her sons returned to Germany to enlist for the Fatherland, she instead became a tireless performer for U.S. troops after the country entered the conflict in 1917. With all her remaining sons now enlisted in the American armed forces, the term “Mother” was all-encompassing. In doing so, she helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonds for the war effort, singing in American Legion halls, hospitals, and disabled veterans’ homes from sea to shining sea. Her yuletide radio broadcasts of “Stille Nacht” were a holiday tradition. In later years, she had a grueling tour schedule around the globe, singing popular staples in vaudeville. Hers was a bold life and career, summed up best in her final words: “I die without fear or regret.”

Author: Ryan M. Prendergast

Ph.D. Candidate @ the University of Illinois. Theater, opera, music, media, art, history, detritus. I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea.

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