When Harold Schonberg of the New York Times chose the greatest singers of all time in the 1980s, the contralto he chose was Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Over Marian Anderson, Clara Butt, and other marvelous singers.
Schumann-Heink (1861-1936) was a remarkable woman. Whereas many opera singers don’t have families because they concentrate on their careers, she had seven children and three husbands. Born in Austria, she had grown up in poverty — cold and hungry. She had some success in Europe, especially when a famous contralto declined to sing in Hamburg — and Schumann-Heink quickly took over her roles in Carmen, Le prophete, and Lohengrin.
Traveling alone in Europe wasn’t that dangerous, she recalled in her biography "Schumann-Heink The Last of the Titans": “I had one big protection: I was homely. I had nice hair and black eyes, but a yellow complexion, always. Yes, I was homely – and I knew it.”
She came into her own in the United States, where she sang at the Met regularly, beginning in 1898.
She also performed in concerts, in movies, and on the radio, where she sang “Silent Night” annually at Christmas. Although she was a practicing Roman Catholic, some consider her Jewish because her mother was Jewish. For a time, she lived in North Caldwell, N.J.
During World War I, she had children fighting on both sides. However, she supported the American effort, singing untiringly for servicemen.
Schumann-Heink has not had a biography written about her since 1928, but here is an memorable excerpt from one that appeared then. The book, “When I was a Girl,” by Helen Ferris, is available at the library in Ridgewood, N.J.
It was the “starvation time,” she called it. She had four young children then….
“I was so desperate after Heink [her first husband] left that I made up my mind to kill myself and the children. You know, if you are desperate, you are blind – you see only one thing. At this time I was blind with suffering. It was in November. To the end of my life I shall remember the day – cold and damp, with a bitter wind. I started with my children. I had no proper clothing for them, and we were all shivering with the cold. I took them out, the baby in my arms, the rest running by my side. I had it in my mind to throw them and then myself in front of the train. The poor children didn’t know what I was going to do; they only knew that they must go with their mother. I had only one thought then—to make an end of us all. I planned it all out. I knew the time the train would pass—the tracks were already in sight. I didn’t even answer the children when they called me. I was like a crazy woman. They were crying and clinging to me, stumbling along at my side.
“Then I heard the whistle. I plunged forward to the tracks. We were already close upon them—only another step. I bent down to pull the children close together and ready. At that moment it must have been my little Lotta saw my face. My agony—it was all written there, for right away she threw herself in front of me and caught my hand in her little freezing ones, screaming:
“‘Mama! Mama! I love you. I love you. Take me home!’”
“Her little, pinched blue face—her tiny child’s voice screaming, ‘I love you, I love you!’ Ach!—I tell you, it was as if the train had already struck me! I believe to this day that the dear Madonna I had always prayed to must have put into this child’s mouth those very words—and the way she said them!
“I turned back. I never again thought to kill myself.”
Songs sung by Schumann-Heink
"Old Folks at Home"
"My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice"
Warren Boroson teaches music courses at Bergen Community College in Paramus.