Quintessential Austro-German lyric soprano Elisabeth Schumann brought a floating, silvery (no other term will do) voice to her heartfelt, uncalculating art, endearing herself to audiences in both Europe and America. The freshness that informed her singing never failed her, even as she entered her sixties. By then, she concentrated on lieder, a field in which she had few equals. Schubert's songs found in her an ideal interpreter for all of those written from a woman's perspective. Schumann recorded extensively, also preserving her definitive Sophie in a star-studded Rosenkavalier captured (in slightly abridged form) on disc in 1933 Vienna.
Born in the province of Thuringa, Schumann studied first in Dresden with Natalie Hänisch, later working with Marie Dietrich in Berlin before undergoing her final training with Alma Schadow in Hamburg. The soprano's debut took place in Hamburg in the small but exposed role of the Shepherd in Tannhäuser in 1909, and she soon became a valued member of the company. After a decade, Richard Strauss urged her to join the Vienna Staatsoper and she finally yielded to his importuning to become a treasured member of that house, remaining there until just before the Anschluss. In 1937, she was honored by being made an Ehrenmitglied of the Staatsoper, a recognition extended to only a favored few, though one she had already received from the Vienna Philharmonic. Although Schumann sang only one season at the Metropolitan Opera, her November 20, 1914, debut as Sophie was followed by 44 other performances, including such roles as Gerhilde, Gretel, Papagena, Marzelline, and — surprisingly — Musetta in La bohème. Not until 1924 did London hear Schumann, but her debut as Sophie met with unrestrained praise. Ernest Newman noted, "we had a Sophie who could be trusted as a singer to see the whole great business through and rise to the top of her form in the trio." Bruno Walter conducted and among her colleagues were Lotte Lehmann, singing her very first Marschallin, and bass Richard Mayr, supreme as Baron Ochs. Schumann sang with the company until 1931, being heard also as Adele, Blondchen, and Eva, the latter role regarded as too demanding for so light a voice. Salzburg also welcomed Schumann from 1924 to 1936 in three of her finest Mozart roles — Susanna, Zerlina, and Despina — as well as Serpina in a rare production of Pergolesi's La serva padrona. Equally at home on the recital stage, Schumann enchanted audiences with her lovely voice and interpretive insights, always direct, never interventionist. In 1921, the soprano was invited by Richard Strauss to tour the United States in a series of lieder concerts. On November 8, 1931, Schumann returned to America to sing a Town Hall recital that drew ecstatic reviews. Olin Downes, for one, praised her phrasing, diction, and ability to re-create the composer's spirit. When the Germans swept into Austria in 1938, Schumann left for the United States, residing there for the rest of her life and becoming a citizen in 1944. She became a teacher at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music while continuing to sing recitals. In 1947, she returned to England, venturing northward to participate in the first year of the Edinburgh Festival. Among Schumann's many recordings are excellent examples of her way with the songs of Schubert and her treasurable Sophie recorded in 1933 with Lehmann, Mayr, and Maria Olszewska.