Carl Schroeder's Sondershausen: Travel Log, Part 3
Updated: Sep 16, 2022
Exactly three years ago, as Petros and I circled the central streets of Sondershausen in search of a free parking spot, we noticed the banners with the cello-friendly logo and the slogan, “Muzik im herz” (Music at Heart). Sondershausen’s claim to being a “music city” (Musikstadt) is more than a ploy to increase tourism in this picturesque Thuringian city of (currently) about 21,000 inhabitants. While targeted efforts have been made over the last 20-odd years to strengthen the presence of music in Sondershausen’s public spaces, the city’s musical traditions run much longer and deeper, with local institutions such as the Loh Orchestra and the Carl Schroeder Conservatory standing out as traditional sources of civic pride. Alwin Schroeder's older brother Carl was himself decisively connected to both the orchestra and the music school, and is celebrated in Sondershausen as a local musical hero.
In 1881, when Alwin took over his brother’s cello positions in Leipzig, Carl Schroeder “exchanged the cello bow for a conductor’s baton” for the first of two extended stints as the Sondershausen court conductor, with one of the oldest orchestras still in existence today. The Loh Orchestra started out in the early 1600s as a municipal ensemble, achieving its organized status in 1617-19 under the guidance of one of the most important German musicians of the time, Michael Pretorius. Later in the 17th century, when Sondershausen became the seat of the Schwarzburg-Sondershausen principality, the orchestra was converted to a court ensemble. Its first public concerts date from the early 19th century, and its outdoor performances on the stage at the Loh, an oak grove near the palace, were a long-standing summer tradition.
The orchestra’s impressive lineage of conductors also includes the young Max Bruch, who wrote his famous G-minor violin concerto and first two symphonies while in Sondershausen (1867-70). Bruch was succeeded by Max Erdmannsdorfer. In 1871 Franz Liszt wrote that “the band that Erdmannsdorfer conducts is one of the most renowned in Germany, and rightly so, because nowhere are the orchestral works performed with more understanding, precision and verve. It’s a miracle, locked in a small town.” Carl Schroeder was Erdmannsdorfer’s successor as conductor of the 45-member court orchestra, leading the Loh and opera performances in Sondershausen from 1881 to 1886, and from 1890 to 1907.
Carl Schroeder later recalled that “the Prince and Princess were very well-disposed towards me. They didn’t have much understanding of music, which the Prince frankly admitted to me. The Princess, however, had a fine taste in matters of art, and could tell gold from tinsel perfectly well. I had also soon won over the public, so that I performed my duties with enthusiasm.”* While not neglecting the established classical composers, Schroeder says he “took the risk of performing symphonies by Berlioz as well as introducing a novelty now and then. The Prince and Princess indulged me in this.” He was also able to program Brahms’s works regularly, although “the public wasn’t overly fond of them.” And although he obeyed his patrons’ special request to avoid programming anything by Liszt, whose music had been a mainstay of Erdmannsdorfer’s programs, a highlight of Schroeder’s first stint as Sondershausen court conductor was his hosting of an important German music festival in July 1886, with Liszt as the guest of honor! A group photo commemorated the occasion; at first I thought Schroeder was to Liszt's left, but now I am thinking he is the far left figure in the detail below, above and to Liszt's right. I have included a portrait of Schroeder from 1885 for comparison.
After three years of opera conducting in Rotterdam, Berlin, and Hamburg, Schroeder was welcomed back to Sondershausen in 1890 with open arms. The prince doubled his salary, guaranteed him a pension, and awarded him the title of Royal Professor. During this period Schroeder was particularly active in the realm of opera. He led frequent performances of Wagner operas such as Lohengrin, The Flying Dutchman, Das Rheingold and Siegfried, with the finest singers in the leading roles. Schroeder also composed three operas of his own: Aspasia (1890), Der Asket (1892), and Die Palikaren (1905). Of these, Aspasia received the most performances, both in Sondershausen and in other German cities (Hamburg, Freiburg, Dessau, Mainz, Nuremberg, Halle, Eisenach). The Leipzig premiere of Der Asket, conducted by the composer, made a positive “overall impression,” and the music was said to be reminiscent of Wagner, Weber, and Bruch. (review in Leipziger Zeitung, cited in Sondershausen Schroeder bio).
Our Sondershausen guide, former city cultural director Helmut Kohler (see photo below), shared with us a popular anecdote about Carl Schroeder the conductor. Schroeder himself told it like this: "I conducted all concerts from memory. But in order not to give the impression that I wanted to brag about it, I had told the orchestra attendant to place some random score on my podium. I couldn’t help laughing, though, when at the first concert I found the second violin part for the overture of Suppé’s Poet and Peasant there. From now on this score always appeared on the podium and I soon became accustomed to seeing it there."
When Carl Schroeder retired in the spring of 1907 (at the same time that Alwin Schreoder was bidding farewell to the US), the prince awarded him the title of Hofrat (privy councilor). Years later, Carl would visit Sondershausen as the guest of honor for anniversary events connected with the orchestra and with the Carl Schroeder Conservatory. The conservatory, founded by Carl in 1881, will be the topic of my next Sondershausen post.
*Quotations from Carl Schroeder and other biographical details are from Personlichkeiten in Sondershausen: Carl Schroeder (1848-1935) (Sondershausen: Abteilung Kultur, 1998), English translation by Ilze Mueller.