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  • Writer's pictureGeoffrey Dean

Happy 166th Birthday, Alwin Schroeder!

On June 15, 1855, Alwin Schroeder was born in Neuhaldensleben, Germany, into “an atmosphere intensely musical.” He followed his father and brothers into music, then ventured further than any of them when he came to the US 130 years ago.

1891 was an “intensely musical” year in the United States. Tchaikovsky was in New York for the opening of Carnegie Hall, and Dvorak had accepted a new job at the National Conservatory in the same city. Pianists Paderewski were taking the country by storm on their first US tours, and several leading vocalists of American birth had just returned triumphantly from Europe. Among the Leipzig musicians recruited that year for the competing orchestras of New York and Boston were violinist Adolphe Brodsky (as concertmaster of the New York Symphony Society) and cellist Alwin Schroeder (as principal cellist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra).

While Schroeder may have lacked some of the qualities that had made previous BSO first cellists Giese and Hekking “instant favorites” with audiences, his undeniable ability and painstaking perseverance were eventually matched by his popularity as a cello soloist. Temperamental child prodigies Jean Gerardy and Elsa Ruegger and seasoned “emotional virtuoso” Joseph Hollman came and went, but for sixteen seasons the scholarly Schroder was the cellist most consistently before the US public, crossing the country with the BSO and Kneisel Quartet. His many solo appearances on these concerts (only Kneisel himself soloed more often) came to define the sound and character of the cello for the pre-Casals generation, in repertoire ranging from solo Bach to the then-new Dvorak concerto and including virtuoso fare by fellow-cellists Davidoff, Klengel, and Popper.

The prolific outpouring of music criticism that flowed during this period and helped it flourish as a Golden Age of music in the US contains a wealth of information about Schroeder, but also has large doses of hyperbole and conflicting or polemic opinion. The truth that emerges for me is that Schroeder’s celebrity rested on a combination of hard, unremitting work and uncompromising honesty as a musician. His personal modesty was an added asset, helping to convey that honesty through a self-effacing performance style. The absence of display in Schroeder’s performances was not equated with an absence of brilliance or emotion, but rather with a closer approach to the inner meaning of the music that was born of deep respect for the composer’s intentions. His was “that finer virtuosity, that draws from his instrument its individual voice and spirit, its peculiar and distinctive beauty. … the violoncello has its secrets that skill, no matter how high or adroit, may not alone draw from it. The true virtuoso searches and learns its heart and wins from it the grave beauty, the clear, dark depth, the songful richness, the stately flow, the eloquence of contemplation, of melancholy, of subdued passion that dwell in it waiting his summons. … Mr. Schroeder’s virtuosity has been such for years…” (Henry Taylor Parker in the Boston Evening Transcript, March 20, 1907)

Other absences make Schroeder’s legacy difficult to evaluate: he wasn’t a composing cellist, he left no (issued) recordings, and while he taught many cellists (including the ones listed on the Schroeder Students page), he did not have a long-term teaching position after his 1880s stint at the Leipzig Conservatory. Schroeder’s playing style can be roughly surmised through the study of the pieces he most often performed, his performing editions of 48 pieces from Alwin Schroeder’s Concert Repertoire, and, perhaps, through recordings of other cellists of his generation, from Klengel and Becker to Grunfeld, Hekking, and Hollman, or those of his “grand student” Hans Kronold.

Ultimately, what has spurred me on in my Schroeder thoughts and research is the very impossibility of arriving at a definitive portrait in prose or sound. This impossibility is also the birthplace of possibility, where the imagination takes over and creativity begins. It has also inspired me to broaden my explorations, to widen the lenses of time and repertoire as I learn about music in the US before and around Schroeder and the cellists who were there. A surprisingly panoramic picture has begun to develop, suggesting to me the idea of the “Alwinac” – a very loosely organized chronicle of the cello in America, told in both story and sound.

In upcoming Alwinac posts, I will be sharing the stories and sounds of several other Boston Symphony cellists from before and during Schroeder’s years in the orchestra, whose music is little-known but a delight to play and listen to. Check the Alwinac over the summer for new posts in my Boston Symphony Cellist-Composers series!

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Jun 15, 2021

What a glorious project! The penultimate paragraph might be your vision statement for the Alwinac. And, graced as I am by having had the opportunity to read your doctoral dissertation, I recognize in your sentence, “The absence of display in Schroeder’s performances was not equated with an absence of brilliance or emotion, but rather with a closer approach to the inner meaning of the music that was born of deep respect for the composer’s intentions,” one of the dissertation’s principal themes, collaboration among parties to the journey of music from a composer’s imagination to a listener’s ear. And now I wonder whether the opening sentences in that next-to-last paragraph – “Ultimately, what has spurred me on in my Schroeder thoughts…

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