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  • Writer's pictureGeoffrey Dean

On This Day in 1891: Schroeder Arrives in the US

130 years ago today, Alwin Schroeder and his family arrived in New York on the SS Aller from Bremen. In the passenger list, Schroeder is described as “artist of music.” The youngest of his three children was just 7 months old at the time. He and his family settled in at 8 Myrtle St. in Brookline, MA, renting a 600-square-foot house that still stands today.

One of the questions I was asked by his relatives when visiting Alwin-related places in Germany was why Alwin Schroeder left Germany at all. I don’t think he really wanted to leave. If there had been a suitable position in Dresden or Berlin at the time, I am convinced that he would have stayed. As it was, he was likely more enticed by the idea of where he was going, by the thought of expanded professional horizons. Pianist Jan Ignace Paderewski, who came to the US for the first time that same year (1891), put it like this: “America, then as now, was a “promised land” to all European artists, a land of fantastic and fabulous legend, with money and appreciation flowing out to meet the artist from the great and lively and generous American public.” (Paderewski, Memoirs, p. 188)

Any thought of home-sickness could be assuaged by the knowledge that there was a vibrant German-speaking community in Boston, starting with Schroeder's new orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where several of his Leipzig colleagues were already playing. One was Leo Schulz—in Boston he and Schroeder were reunited as stand partners after having played side by side in Leipzig in 1886-9. Other Leipzig musicians arrived around the same time as Schroeder, including new BSO principal violist Otto Novacek, who had sailed with his teacher Adolph Brodsky and later joined him in the New York Symphony.

The musical journals reported that Schroeder had been swayed by the “pecuniary inducements” of BSO conductor Arthur Nikisch, his exact contemporary and also a former colleague in Leipzig. Schroeder had accepted a salary much higher than what he made in Germany, and by a few seasons later, when Anton Hegner took over the New York Symphony principal cello position from Anton Hekking at $3,500 a season, Schroeder was reported to be making $10,000 a season (in 1890s dollars). But along with the salary, Schroeder was also accepting a grueling concert and tour schedule with 120 BSO concerts and about 50 Kneisel Quartet concerts per season. And, according to the custom of the time, but absolutely unheard of in more recent times, Schroeder played every note of every BSO concert, even when he appeared as concerto soloist on the program. Even when he gave the US premiere of the complete Dvorak cello concerto.

Schroeder’s predecessor in Boston had been Anton Hekking. Hekking had been lured to the New York Symphony by Walter Damrosch, who had also recruited Brodsky as concertmaster there. By hiring one of the BSO’s best players and a violinist who had both a stellar reputation as a soloist and a sterling record as a chamber musician, Damrosch wanted to project the image of an orchestra that could compete with the BSO AND have a string quartet in New York that would rival the Kneisels. As a new-comer to Boston, Schroeder would be debuting in places Hekking had already “conquered” and would inevitably be compared to Hekking. It was not a particularly comfortable position to be in, and critics in Boston and especially New York were by no means unanimous in their initial praise of Schroeder, although one paper did declare him “the world’s best cellist” (take that, Hekking!). So coming to the US also had a pronounced “challenge accepted” component.

The “why did Schroeder leave Germany” question becomes more interesting later on, when Schroeder first returns to Germany in 1907, then turns around and re-settles in the US the following year. But that’s a story for different post.

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