Born: March 31, 1911 - Niederjeutz, near Diedenhofen, Alsace-Lorraine (later Yutz-Basse; now Thionville, Lorraine)
Died: November 6, 1986 - Warendorf, Westphalia (accortding to Cantabile-Subito) or Berlin (according to Baker), Germany
The distinguished German soprano, Elisabeth Grümmer (neé Schilz), was born in Lorraine (Niederjeutz, later Yutz-Basse) as the child of German parents. In 1918 the family was evicted from Lorraine and moved to the theatre town of Meiningen. She attended the drama school and appeared in the school’s scenic performances in classical roles like Klärchen in Goethe’s Egmont.
All her artistic goals seemed to come to an end when Elisabeth Grümmer married the violinist Detlev Grümmer (a concert-master at the Landestheater Meiningen) and eventually became a mother. When her husband obtained an engagement at the Stadttheater in Aachen, this represented an important change of centre for the family. The young Herbert von Karajan was General Music Director of this opera house and she was very much impressed by him. She decided to take singing lessons, among others with the renowned vocal coach Franziska Martienssen-Lohmann and with Schlender.
Herbert von Karajan was interested in working with Elisabeth Grümmer right from the beginning. He gave her the chance to appear in a Parsifal performance in 1940 as the First Flower maiden. Then she sang her first major role there in 1941 as Octavian. In 1942 to 1944 she was engaged at that Duisberg Opera as the primary soprano for lyrical roles. Eventually she went to Prague. During the war, her husband was tragically killed in an air raid, in the basement of their home, holding his violin. She said he was her only love, and never remarried.
After World War II, Elisabeth Grümmer became in 1946 a regular member of the Städtische Oper Berlin (now the Deutsche Oper), which was her primary professional association throughout her career, remaining with that major company through 1972. Berlin always remained the centre of her activities. She sang with greatest success in all the world’s leading opera-houses, at Covent Garden, the Grand Opéra, La Scala, the Met, the Teatro Colón, and the State Operas of Munich, Vienna and Hamburg. In June 1951 she made her first appearance at London’s Covent Garden as Eva in Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg. She then made debut at the Vienna State Opera.
Elisabeth Grümmer made her debuts at the Salzburg Festival in 1953, at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1956, and at the Bayreuth Festival in 1957, where she was to be heard every year until 1961. In February 1967 she made her debut at the New York City Opera as the Marchallin, followed by her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York as Elsa in Lohengrin in April 1967. That year she sang this role seven times the company. The first six of these were on tour; the seventh was her only appearance in the Metropolitan Opera House itself. By that time critics had been noticing some deterioration of her voice on and off for a few years, but, as she said at the time of the tour, "Granny can still do it." She then continued her career in Europe until retiring in 1972.
Elisabeth Grümmer’s exquisite voice and admirable dramastic gifts made her an exemplary interpreter of the music of Mozart and Richard Strauss. She restricted herself to a rather small repertoire she made very much her own: Pamina, Donna Anna, Ilia, the Countess Almaviva, Agathe, Hänsel, Oktavian, the Marschallin, Countess Madeleine, Eva, Elsa, Elisabeth, Gutrune, Freia and Desdemona. She made it her practise to sing everything in her own language. She sang Ellen Orford in the first German production of Britten's Peter Grimes. By all accounts, her dramatic training served her well, helping to make her portrayals more convincing.
It has been suggested that the vocal decline of the 1960’s was caused by an ill-advised turn to the dramatic soprano repertory. Elisabeth Grümmer sang Electra in Idomeneo in 1961 and 1962 at Salzburg, and Dona Anna in Don Giovanni shortly afterward. Her farewell stage performance was at the Deutsche Opera in 1972 (as the Marshallin).
In addition to opera, Elisabeth Grümmer toured extensively as a concert artist. Her art is unforgettable on the concert platform. Her song recitals were always great artistic events as her performances of Bach’s Passions and her unsurpassed Ihr habt nur Traurigkeit in Brahms’ German Requiem.
As a recording artist, Elisabeth Grümmer made several notable discs, although the surplus of her voice type (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lisa della Casa, Irmgard Seefried, and Sena Jurinac were all close contemporaries) meant that she never recorded her leading Strauss roles in their entirety. She was a noted recitalist, but was surprisingly stiff in that style of singing on recordings.
In 1965 (Cantabile-Subito) or 1959 (Baker) Elisabeth Grümmer became professor at the Berlin Musikhochschule. She actively taught in Lucerne and Paris after her stage retirement. In 1986 she was nominated an honorary member of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. She died the same year in Warendorf (Westphalia).