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Else Brems (Contralto)

Born: July 16, 1908 - Copenhagen, Denmark
Died: October 4, 1995 - Copenhagen, Denmark

The Danish contralto, Else Brems, was born into a family of musicians. Her grandfather was an organist and composer, her uncle a French-horn player, her mother was a trained pianist. Her father, Anders Brems (1877-1974), originally a clarinettist, was gifted with a fine singing voice, and in 1913 he made his début as a romance singer. He became an ardent promoter of the compositions of the time (Nielsen, Laub, Niels Wilhelm Gade). He also was a highly respected teacher, and it was with him his daughter Else studied. When she was 17, her father brought her to Mattia Battistini and the baritone was enthusiastic in his praise for the young singer’s talent. Subsequently, she went to Paris for a four-month’s stay to study the French repertory (with Georges Cunelli in Paris and Povla Frijsh) and it was here that her lifelong love affair with French music started.

In 1928, at the age of 20, Else Brems made her concert debut in a small concert hall at Copenhagen. She went for further studies to Mme Charles Cahier (the American contralto and famous interpreter of Carmen taught in Berlin), and later Else Brems returned to Paris. In 1930, at 21, she made her first appearance at the Royal Theatre Copenhagen as Carmen. Her conductors in the piece included Leo Blech in the first year. It was with this role that she made tremendous progress. She appeared as Carmen in Vienna, Warsaw, Budapest, Stockholm and London (in English) within a short time. With few short breaks, Else Brems was concentrated to The Royal Theatre Copenhagen from her debut in 1930 until 1962. In 1933 she went on a tour in the USA and appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, singing arias by Gluck, Camille Saint-Saëns and Georges Bizet. Her performances were reviewed with enthusiasm. Her voice was even compared with the young Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Despite her success she was not given many parts back home in Copenhagen, and in 1937 she travelled to New York to study with Beniamino Gigli’s teacher, Enrico Rosati.

In 1938 Else Brems was engaged as Carmen for the Wiener Staatsoper by Bruno Walter and Carl Ebert. Her partners included Theodor Mazaroff and Jan Kiepura. From 1940 to 1949 she married the tenor Stefan Islandi (1907-1994), with whom she frequently appeared together in concerts. During the war she toured the Scandinavian countries (1942 in Stockholm) and after the war, in 1948, she reappeared as Carmen at Covent Garden. Her big roles, beside Carmen, were: Orpheus by Gluck, Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro, Concepcion in L'Heure espagnole by M. Ravel, Olga in Eugen Onegin, Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana, Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia by B. Britten and Bess in Porgy and Bess by Gershwin. In 1943 she participated at the Copenhagen Opera in the memorable European first performance of the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess, which was understood rightfully as a demonstration against German crew power. In the concert hall she had similar successes, particularly as an interpreter of the J.S. Bach. In 1948 she sang as a soloist with Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In 1946 Else Brems was appointed “Court Singer”, in 1950 “Honorary Artist”, among many other decorations. From 1967 to 1978 Else Brems was a highly respected singing coach (Elisabeth Meyer-Topsoe was among her students).

Recordings: on the labels Columbia, Fonoton, Parlophon, Polyphon (1935) and HMV (Bach Cantatas); Opera selections on Danish HMV- and Tono-Platten; on Koch / Schwann archive recordings from the Wiener Staatsoper (Fragments from Carmen).

Source: Operissimo Website, English translation by Aryeh Oron (July 2006); Cantabile-Subito Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (July 2006); Manfred Krugmann (Photo 04, June 2012)

Recordings of Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works




Mogens Wöldike


BWV 33, BWV 105; Recitative & Aria from BWV 244

Links to other Sites

Brems, Else (Cantabile-Subito)

Dansk Kvindebiografisk Leksikon - Else Brems [Danish]

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