Opera singers in concert in 1907

The end of two prominent opera singers

In April the tenor Hans Buff-Giessen gave two concerts in Berlin. On 13 September Musical America reported that Buff-Giessen, “who was a great-grandson of Charlotte Buff, the friend Goethe immortalized as Lotte in his ‘Werther,’ and who, by an earlier coincidence, was the first German interpreter of the Massenet Werther, committed suicide by shooting himself in a second-class compartment of the train in which he was traveling from Berlin to Dresden.”1Musical America Oct 12, 1907. The paper also pointed out that in the novel Werther also died by shooting himself, although not in the Berlin-Dresden express. Born Hans Buff on 13.2.1862, he took the stage name of his home town of Giessen, and then, after the Werther role, became Hans Buff-Giessen.2Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung (1907): 619. According to the Großes Sängerlexikon, Charlotte Buff was his great-aunt, not great-grandmother. See Karl-Josef Kutsch and Leo Riemens, Großes Sängerlexikon, 4th ed., vol. 1 (München: K.G. Saur, 2012): 639. He studied law at Giessen and Leipzig Universities, then spent 1884-1887 studying voice in Dresden. His first engagement was at Weimar, where he played the suicidal lover of his real-life ancestor in the 1892 German premiere of Massenet’s Werther. While at Weimar he also appeared in the 1894 premiere of Strauss’s Guntram. In 1901 he sang in Berlin at both the Königliche Oper and the Theater des Westens. After four years at the Dresden Hofoper, he retired from the stage in 1903. A highlight of his subsequent specialization in contemporary lieder was his concertizing with Richard Strauss.3Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung (1907): 619.There was no obvious reason for the 45-year-old’s suicide, although reviews indicated his singing was suffering. For instance, in June one exasperated reviewer asked: “Can’t any of his many friends tell him how ugly it sounds when he forces it? Precisely because he is one of our most beloved and intelligent lieder singers they should consider it their duty to point it out, even if the uncritical public call him back ten times.”4Musikalisches Wochenblatt (1907) no. 23, dated 6 June. The Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung reported mysteriously on the cause of death that “in the version that surfaced in the Berlin papers, it had to do with a disordered mental state that arose as the consequence of an unhappy pathological tendency that most often accounts for this sad kind of end of life.”5“…in Berliner Blättern aufgetauchte Version, es handle sich um die, durch einen zerrütteten seelischen Zustand hervorrgerufenen Folge einer unglücklichen pathologischen Neigung, die meisten Anhaltspunkte für diesen traurigen Lebensabschluß zu bieten.” Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung (1907): 619.

The baritone Theodor Bertram (12.2.1869-24.11.1907)

Two months later the Musical Courier reported:

Theodor Bertram committed suicide by hanging himself at the Station Hotel at Bayreuth, the scene of his greatest artistic triumphs. His Wotan last year was one of the chief features of the Wagner festival. Since the death of his wife, who was drowned in the Berlin catastrophe at the Hook of Holland last winter, Bertram had been very despondent. The sad ending of his first wife, Fanny Moran-Olden, who died in an insane asylum, had long since deeply affected him, and the tragic loss of his spouse was too much for him. Although a successful singer, Bertram had always been a very unhappy man.

Musical Courier, report dated Nov 23, p.10; more details in report dated Nov. 30, p.11.

Both of Bertram’s parents were opera singers. He made his debut at age 20 and subsequently sang at almost every major opera house. He became famous for his Hans Sachs and Wotan during his years at the Münchner Hofoper (1893-99). Gustav Mahler thought he had both a beautiful upper and lower range and hired him at Vienna, but after an unsuccessful debut, he left after only 19 days with the company.6See Henry-Louis de La Grange, Gustav Mahler, Vol. 2, rev. ed. (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press): 377-78. It seems that Bertram’s restless nature led him to frequent travel and guest engagements.7See Carlos Droste, “Theodor Bertram,” Bühne und Welt 5 (1903): 161-62. He went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York for one season in 1900, and was a favorite at Bayreuth from 1901-06: Cosima Wagner reportedly admired his Wotan very much and had a wreath sent to his funeral.
In 1897 he married one of the most famous sopranos of the day, Fanny Moran-Olden (1855-1905), when he was 28 and she was 42 years old. Bertram began to drink heavily from the time of her death from a mental illness. Two years later he married another singer, Lotte Wetterling, but she also died tragically, as part of the opera company returning from London on the steamer that sank off the coast of Holland in February. His last wish was to be buried next to her near the site of the wreck. The Musical Courier reported that Bertram was so financially distressed that he had been living at the Bayreuth train station hotel because the proprietor was a fan and allowed him to stay on without paying. According to that paper, Bertram also had such serious ear trouble that he had undergone an operation during the Bayreuth Festival the previous year. He was 38 years old.
There are many recordings of Bertram, including this distinctive interpretation of one of his most famous roles, the Holländer:


In 1907, several other singers who were veterans of Bayreuth gave concerts in Berlin. The baritone Karl Scheidemantel (1859-1923) made his debut at Bayreuth in 1886. His sold-out lieder concert was on December 12th. Another baritone, Richard Koennecke (1874-?), had sung at Bayreuth in 1901. He performed Dichterliebe in January, Winterreise in February and gave another concert on November 11th. Lilli Lehmann (1848-1929) sang Die Schöne Müllerin on November 22nd.

A few more waxing and waning opera stars

The Austrian lyric tenor Franz Naval (1865-1939) had also sung under Mahler at the Hofoper. He tried branching out into early music on his concert on the 1st of November. The Portuguese baritone and mainstay at the Königliche Oper, Francisco d’Andrade, (1856-1921) gave a lieder recital on November 27th. The coloratura Frances Alda (1879-1952) was from New Zealand and had studied with Mathilde Marchesi. She went on to be famous for her appearances with Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera. However, reviews were unanimous that her debut in Berlin on November 1st did not go well at all. The young soprano Elisabeth Schumann (1885-1952) similarly got off to a rough start. She gave three concerts in 1907, and was criticized after each one for having faulty technique. She would go on to the Hamburg opera, then specialize in Mozart and Strauss roles at the Met, Vienna, and the Salzburg Festival.

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2 comments

  1. Wow, the Werther suicide connection is more than creepy. It’s surely very sad that Bertram’s second wife perished in that shipwreck, but I just love how your various blogs have begun to intersect. This is a very unusual study because the “thick description” on offer is beginning to bring a moment in time into a kind of 3-D perspective. Maybe this makes up for that thing a blog cannot offer (as opposed to a well-written book) and that is the arc. But maybe you can solve that problem as well?

  2. I wish there was a “heart” function for these posts. I love reading about little known opera singers, especially Wagnerian ones. While biography has fallen out of fashion in research, I think here these vignettes help, as Nicholas says, create a 3-D perspective of the world around 1900.

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