Violoncello Without a Master: Alwin the Auto-Didact
Updated: May 28
Alwin Schroeder’s status as a self-taught cellist gained widespread notoriety from at least as early as 1885. That year the Leipzig Musicalisches Wochenblatt (LMW) published a biographical sketch of the then 30-year-old Gewandhaus solo cellist emphasizing the unusual nature of Schroeder’s cellistic beginnings:
Those who hear Alwin Schröder play without knowing about his studies will assume
that he has been playing his instrument since early childhood. … And yet that is not
the case: Alwin Schröder did not discover his love for what is now his main instrument
until very late in life, and the level he has reached at present is clear evidence of his
great talent, since as a cellist he is completely self-taught, i.e., had no teacher.
With certain variations and embellishments, the 1885 account of Alwin’s switch to cello would be repeated throughout Schroeder’s career, in sources including the Riemann and Baker biographical dictionaries of musicians and the Wasielewski and Van der Straeten histories of the violoncello and its players. The LMW profile tells it like this:
During this period, as chance would have it, he found a cello left behind by his brother
Carl at their parents’ house and felt the urge to learn the familiar solo from Rossini’s
William Tell Overture. As a joke, the next time his brother Carl visited their parents, he
played it for him, but Carl took the successful attempt very seriously, and told Alwin to
continue his studies of the cello in earnest. Alwin took his brother’s advice and used the
free time he had – he had meanwhile taken a post with the Fliege Orchestra as a
violinist, which took him to St. Petersburg – to continue studying the cello. He worked so
hard that only a few months later he was able to exchange the violin for a cello. In
autumn 1875 he became the first cellist in the Liebig Concert Orchestra…
This narrative raises a number of questions that I will now explore.
When did Alwin Schroeder start playing the cello? In 1872 the Schroeder Brothers string quartet took up residence in Berlin, then disbanded when Carl, the cellist of the quartet, started working for the local Kroll opera during the 1872-3 season. In 1873 Carl left Berlin as first cellist at Brunswick, and in 1874 he went to Leipzig as Gewandhaus Orchestra first cellist. Meanwhile Alwin stayed in Berlin, studying music theory with Tappert, violin with De Ahna, and working as first violist in local orchestras. He also appears to have taught violin and piano at his brother Hermann’s new music school. It is clear that Alwin started cello after Carl left Berlin, but a source that directly links the start to Carl’s 1874 arrival in Leipzig wrongly dates that arrival to 1872. If Alwin was 19 when he began learning the cello, as another source states, his cello studies would have commenced on or after June 15, 1874.
How quickly did Alwin master the cello? The claim that Alwin mastered the instrument within “a few months” supports the assumption that he started no earlier than 1874. Later sources state the “positive fact that his familiarity with this instrument had been acquired in two months' [unaided] practice,” implying that the summer of 1875 would have been Schroeder’s time of most intense cello study. The overlap between his continuing violin/viola career and the start of his cello studies highlights how challenged Schroeder must have been to find free time to devote to the larger instrument. Later accounts don’t mention the St. Petersburg tour, manufacturing a smoother transition from viola to cello, with Schroeder simply trading one for the other in the same orchestra (the Liebig orchestra, later known as the Berlin Symphony Orchestra).
How did Schroeder’s violin background impact his cello approach? The violin career/cello studies overlap also points to the influence that his knowledge and experience playing violin and viola must have had on his approach to and understanding of cello playing. Later clues of this appear in Schroeder’s edition of the Bach cello suites, where his preference for second position fingerings (with fourth finger on the notes corresponding to the open strings, as is the case in violin/viola first position) is clearly in evidence. Schroeder indirectly compares violin and cello technique in the preface to his volume of left-hand cello exercises when he speaks of the difficulty of playing in tune on the cello due to of the “unnatural position of the fingers” in extended first position, and proposes starting the study of extended position in third position, where the extension is easier to achieve.
What repertoire did Schroeder study? We know that the opening cello solo from Rossini’s William Tell overture was one of the first things he learned. When he made his solo debut with the Liebig orchestra in December 1875, he played the E-minor cello concerto by August Lindner. From reports on Schroeder programs celebrating (in 1900 and 1925 respectively) the 25th and 50th anniversaries of his Berlin cello debut, we learn that other early Schroeder cello performances featured Romberg’s B-minor cello concerto (No. 9) and the Servais fantasy on Donizetti’s opera The Daughter of the Regiment. By 1877 Alwin had also debuted in Leipzig, playing his brother Carl’s first cello concerto with “pretty tone and solid technique” on March 13 with the composer at the piano. It is an interesting parallel that Alwin’s cello performance career started at the same time (fall 1875) as did Carl’s teaching tenure at the Leipzig Conservatory, a six-year period during which Carl composed numerous concert pieces and many of the etudes that Alwin later included in the 170 Foundation Studies. If Alwin did use a method book, it would likely have been the Dotzauer method, which he later edited for a new edition during his own years on the Leipzig Conservatory faculty.
What was Carl’s role in Alwin’s cello studies and career? The detail, omitted in later versions, that it was Carl who left behind the cello that Alwin started out on, seems to symbolize Carl’s central importance in the narrative. If Carl had not left that cello behind, would Alwin still have become a cellist? In the LMW profile and in most of the retellings, Carl emerges as the crucial first encourager who recognized his brother’s potential and pressed him to study the cello seriously. It was one of many times that Carl endorsed his younger brother, whom he called to Leipzig to take over the Gewandhaus orchestra first cellist position in 1880 and featured often as soloist in Sondershausen, leading to Alwin’s royal Kammermusicus title. It is even possible that Carl also encouraged Alwin to seek greater fortune in the US, perhaps based on reports from Baltimore-born cellist Louis Blumenberg, who performed with Carl at Sondershausen in February 1890. On Alwin’s part, his cello origin story offers a specific example of his willingness to take his older brother’s advice.
What was Alwin’s real motivation to take up the cello? As in later accounts, the LMW profile highlights the accidental, carefree beginning of Alwin’s cello studies: he found the cello “by chance,” “felt the urge” to try it, and played the Rossini solo for Carl “as a joke.” But years later, Schroeder himself gave a different explanation. At a Boston dinner party around 1910, he told hostess Mabel Dolmetsch that he took it up because his wife Paula, while studying violin or piano with him in Berlin before their engagement, had confided to him that she loved the sound of the cello.