1907-8: Alwin's Gap Year, Part 1
“His technical command of his noble instrument is infallible, his tone full and pure and his style free and genial, like his personality. It is said that he has more friends than any other musician that has lived in the United States for any length of time, and he is affectionately known across the breadth of this country as “Papa” Schroeder. His loss to the Kneisel Quartet will be irreparable, but he will return again and again to this country for concert tours.” Indianapolis News, April 6, 1907, p. 9
Alwin Schroeder spent the 1907-8 season in Europe, then returned to the United States. This was not his original plan. What happened? Before getting to the reasons that he came back, I will explore the motivations for his decision to leave the US.
First, some context. The preceding season (1906-7) was Alwin’s 16th year as the cellist of the Kniesel Quartet. This ensemble was then at the apex of its powers and popularity, and was hailed in many quarters as the best quartet in the world. Season after season, Schroeder had been heard regularly in solo performances on the quartet’s concert tours throughout the US. But for the four transplanted European musicians, there had always been a longing to return to the old world, to be remembered and recognized on their old stomping grounds before their powers waned. They said as much in 1903, when they resigned their principal positions in the Boston Symphony Orchestra to devote themselves to quartet and, in the case of Kniesel and Schroeder, solo playing. Four years later, the quartet’s many admirers were “astonished” to learn that Schroeder was leaving the quartet and the country to settle in Frankfurt, Germany. Why would he want—or feel he needed—to go?
Professional development in Europe. As perhaps the most universally known name in American cello playing at the time, Schroeder enjoyed great popularity here, but his opportunities for concerto and other solo playing were limited by the quartet’s grueling tour schedule. Paradoxically, returning to Europe seemed to promise new outlets and audiences for his solo artistry. Time for solo playing was built into his Frankfurt positions, with a paid 2-month leave during the concert season.
Prestigious job offer. Schroeder had been tapped to replace Hugo Becker in Frankfurt. Since Schroeder’s move to the US back in 1891, Becker had vied with Klengel as Germany’s best cello soloist and teacher. The symbolism of being selected to take Becker’s place as Hoch Conservatory cello professor and Museum Quartet cellist did not escape Schroeder.
Less travel, fewer concerts. The Frankfurt positions were primarily “in residence,” without the extensive touring component. In an early 1907 Chicago interview, Schroeder mentions that the incessant touring with the Kniesel Quartet had gotten to be “too much” for him. The quartet was logging around 35,000 train travel miles per season, with long journeys between tour cities. It is sobering to realize that until 1903 the quartet members’ schedules had also included 100+ Boston Symphony concerts, and more than half of those were on tour.
Delicate health. Over the years Schroeder had been plagued by bouts of illness that had at times significantly affected the quartet’s activities. In 1903 the original impetus for the members to resign from the BSO had been Schroeder’s health. In the week’s leading to the group’s resignation, Schroeder had been considering taking a leave of absence from the orchestra to be able to cut back on his performance obligations.
Wanted to retire in his native country. The idea of setting his own less accelerated pace held great attraction for Schroeder. Living again in close proximity to relatives was no doubt a determining factor for both Alwin and his wife Paula. Alwin's impending return to Germany may also have influenced his older brother Carl’s decision to retire from his Sondershausen music directorship (effective April 1, 1907), or vice versa. Alwin, then in his 52nd year, had performed professionally for 40 years (he began his career at age 11, as a violinist and violist, then switched to cello at 19).
Hated New York. In 1905, probably on Kneisel’s insistence and against Schroeder’s own preferences, the Kneisel Quartet members relocated to New York to become founding faculty members at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School). It was apparently common knowledge that Schroeder was not fond of New York, and not only as a place to live. He is quoted as saying of the city and its music scene that “art does not sleep here. It has not yet been born.”
Tired of subjugating himself to Kniesel. In the Chicago interview, Schroeder mentions the necessity in string quartet for the members to acquiesce to the first violinist. He seems to be acknowledging (if not openly complaining about) a certain repression of individuality which he understood as an integral aspect of quartet playing. From the outset of his Kneisel years, Schroeder had been consistently praised for “knowing his proper place” in the quartet. Perhaps keeping to that “proper place” had also become too much for Schroeder. A Boston paper went further, suggesting that there was personal animosity between Kniesel and Schroder, but without providing specific evidence.
Daughters’ musical realization. One possible source of conflict between Schroeder and Kneisel was the Kneisel Quartet’s (lack of) support for the musical realization of Schroeder’s eldest daughter, Hedwig. Before his untimely death in 1904, Kneisel’s son had appeared as pianist on Kneisel Quartet concerts, and Schroeder had no doubt advocated for similar opportunities for Hedwig. Kneisel did allow Hedwig to perform with the quartet on at least one occasion, but on a more out-of-the-way, lower stakes concert series. In the Chicago interview, Schroeder discusses the problem of career development for young US musicians, who were compelled to study and prove themselves in Europe in order to gain professional legitimacy in their native country. He includes Hedwig and his younger daughter Elfriede, a soprano (see photo below), in this group.
Schroeder himself had been a US citizen since 1898, after declining an earlier offer to return to Germany (as solo cellist of the Berlin court opera). In Part 2, I will examine how Schroeder spent his Frankfurt “gap year” and comment on the debate in the US press on the relative merits of Schroeder and the Kneisel Quartet’s new cellist, Willem Willeke.
Image citation: Hale, Philip. "Elfrieda Schroeder." Photograph. [ca. 1890–1934]. Digital Commonwealth, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/vh53xn372 (accessed May 28, 2023).