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  • Writer's pictureGeoffrey Dean

The Schroeder Brothers at Ballenstedt: Travel Log, Part 2

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

On Saturday, August 10, 2019, we drove into the northern Harz Mountain town of Ballenstedt, once the seat of the Duchy of Alhalt-Bernburg and very near to Brocken peak, of witch- and ghost-story fame. We reached the local Tourist Office at its specified opening hour, and found it…closed. Undeterred, we walked past a bear-themed fountain (bears are big in Ballenstedt thanks to a 12th-century member of the local count's family, nicknamed Albert the Bear) and made our way up the tree-lined Schlossallee (at top left beyond the bear in the first photo, below) to Ballenstedt Castle, where the Dowager Duchess Friederike (1811-1902, seen in the second photo as painted by 19th-century Ballenstedt artist Caroline Bardua) had once inhabited the south wing (visible beyond the castle courtyard gate in the third photo) and, from 1868 to 1871, listened to chamber music performed by her resident string quartet, the Schroeder Brothers: Hermann, Franz, Alwin, and Carl (see Friederike's music room in the fourth photo).

Alwin was the violist of quartet. Two years earlier, at just 11, he had taken over this role in the ensemble from his father when the family was still in Thuringia and his cellist brother Carl was on tour to Russia and France. In Ballenstedt, Alwin continued his piano and theory studies with the court pianist, J. B. Andre of the famous music-publishing family, who also performed with the Schroeder Brothers on occasion, including a “splendid rendition” of the Schumann piano quintet in 1870. It seems likely that the Schroeder parents were also in Ballenstedt during this period.

During their years in Ballenstedt, the Schroeder Brothers also toured to other parts of Germany, giving concerts in Quedlinburg, Magdeburg, Hamburg, and other cities. Reviews in leading German music journals described the quartet as a “hard-working and unpretentious artist foursome,” praising their “solid and conscientious endeavors” and excellent ensemble playing. The quartet’s repertoire included works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann. The newest work they performed was a string quartet by first violinist Hermann, the oldest brother; it “caused a sensation for its freshness and sterling craftmanship” when the brothers introduced it on an 1871 Hamburg concert. On some Schroeder Brothers programs Hermann and Carl also performed as soloists. On one occasion Hermann gave an brilliant rendition of a virtuoso sonata by Rust, and on another Carl gave the popular Reisenbilder by his composition teacher, Friedrich Kiel (who also taught famed Polish pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski).

A string quartet consisting of four brothers had notable precedents in Germany, including the Morault brothers of Munich, who had specialized in Haydn’s quartets, and the older Mueller brothers of Brunswick, who had gained international renown through their ground-breaking interpretations of Beethoven’s late quartets. When the Schroeder Brothers started out, the younger Mueller brothers quartet had only recently disbanded, with cellist Wilhelm Mueller (teacher of Joachim Quartet cellist Robert Hausmann and one of Alwin’s predecessors as first cellist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) becoming a leading figure in the burgeoning Berlin quartet scene of the early 1870s. The Schroeder Brothers joined that scene in early 1872.

The established quartets in Berlin at the time included the Berliner-Quartett led by Heinrich de Ahna (soon to be Alwin’s Berlin violin teacher) and the Joachim Quartet, both recently-formed ensembles. The standard-bearing quartet, to which all newcomers were compared, was the Florentine Quartet led by Jean Becker (father of cellist Hugo Becker). When the Schroeder Brothers performed at the Hotel de Rome on February 14, they became one of at least five quartets to make their Berlin debut during the 1871-72 season. Of this concert, the Neue Berliner Musikzeitung (NBM 1872, pp. 59-60) wrote

“… this new foursome, the Schröder Brothers…are not only the youngest such quartet as far as their public appearance [in Berlin] is concerned, but their youthful looks sufficiently justify their quartet being called the youngest. Nonetheless we have observed that the performance of these gentlemen shows remarkable maturity. We regard their ensemble playing as impeccable, since both their rhythmical and dynamic precision leaves as little to be desired as the way the individual players step back in favor of the greater whole. Nowhere does one of the four players dominate at the expense of the other three; on the other hand, none of them exaggerates discretion to the extent of having his voice vanish vis-à-vis those of his companions. We confess that this type of self-confidence, where every one of the four gentlemen represented his voice as being on an equal footing with those of the others, felt completely wholesome to us without even a trace of awkwardness.”

The hauptpunkt of the Schroeder Brothers’ Berlin debut was Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, a work that the Florentine Quartet had performed in Berlin just a few weeks earlier. The NBM reviewer regarded Beethoven's Op. 131 as “the surest touchstone for the skill of quartet ensemble” and gave the brothers high marks: “we have nothing but praise for the performance both as regards technical rendition and spiritual vitality. … The audience… enthusiastically applauded each movement…”

The Schroeder Brothers’ swan song as a quartet appears to have been their fall 1872 series of popular concerts with pianist Otto Schmidt at Sommer’s Salon in Berlin. Carl’s appointment as a conductor at the Kroll Opera precluded further quartet engagements, and the efforts of the Schroeder family were now oriented toward founding a music school in Berlin, with Hermann as the director. A prototype for this school was likely the Musik-Institut the four brothers had led during their Ballenstedt residency.

One of the surprises of our visit to Ballenstedt Castle was an exhibition of works carved or constructed in wood by Werner Mueller (1923-2006), including two violins. Another Mueller work on display is a group of wooden sculptures called Hausmusik (1999), each figure representing a member of the family quartet! Mueller (unrelated to the Mueller Quartet members mentioned above) was the cellist, and, like Alwin Schroeder, may have been self-taught. Here is Werner Mueller's self-portrait from Hausmusik:

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