Her early years featured both a silver spoon and a golden voice that carried Anna Schoen-René from wealthy German roots to a successful singing career. As a late-1800s soprano, she graced European stages from Milan to Paris to London before winding up as a voice instructor on the faculty at the ballyhooed Juilliard School of Music in New York City.
But Schoen-René insisted she was most proud of the 16 years she spent in Minneapolis between Europe and Juilliard. Not yet 30, her health was deteriorating when she arrived in Minnesota in 1893. She regained her strength and became a force in the local music scene as a voice teacher, university choral creator and concert impresario at the turn of the 20th century.
“When I first reached Minneapolis — a skeleton weighing only 98 pounds — I was ill and tired,” Schoen-René wrote, at 77, in a 1941 memoir published a year before her death.
One doctor told her she had tuberculosis and wrote her off as a “hopeless consumptive.” She sought a second opinion, and another expert in Chicago “pronounced my lungs quite sound” — and determined she’d suffered a “complete severe nervous breakdown,” she wrote.
As her health improved in the “beautiful cold winters” of Minneapolis, she began her tireless work elevating the classical music sensibilities of a rough-hewed lumber and milling town in the 1890s.
Her poor health had scuttled her singing career — “a bitter blow … the crumbling of all my hopes and dreams,” she wrote. “… No doubt it was all for the best, however, for otherwise, I should never have gone to Minneapolis to become one of the ‘musical pioneers’ in America. I am more proud of my right to use this title than of almost anything else in my whole career.”
The youngest of eight children, Schoen-René was born into German aristocracy in 1864. Her father served as a royal court councilor and minister of agriculture and forestry for the king of Prussia, Wilhelm I.
With his help, and assistance from the queen of the Netherlands, Schoen-René attended a French boarding school before nailing her audition for entry into the Royal Academy of Music in Berlin. By 1893, the dazzling soprano was in New York City to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. That’s when her health bottomed out and she moved in with her older sister, Marie, who was teaching German at the University of Minnesota.
Once healthy, and receiving no pay, she launched university glee clubs for men and women, which morphed into a Choral Union and the school’s music department, “of which I can proudly say I sowed the first seed.”
When Schoen-René arrived, she was 29 and Minneapolis was her peer — still a frontier outpost 26 years into its city incorporation. She quickly attracted notice, first at the U, then organizing classical music festivals and luring world-class opera stars and orchestras to Minneapolis on her own dime.
“During her brief sojourn in Minneapolis, (she) has already gained a conspicuous place in musical circles,” the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune reported in 1894.
Three years later, a Minneapolis music critic called her “a potent factor in the musical life not only of this city, but of the whole state.”
Never married, Schoen-René wore “mannish jackets” and short hair and spoke with a thick, authoritative German accent, according to Janis White Dees’ 1983 profile in Minnesota History magazine, which noted that her Great Dane, Thieras, escorted her wherever she went.
Despite her pivotal role in the Minneapolis music scene, Schoen-René’s “achievements in Minnesota have gone largely unrecognized,” Dees wrote.
More recently, Twin Cities-area music blogger Emily Hogstad resurrected Schoen-René’s career in 2017 with two well-researched posts on her “Song of the Lark” website.
“Her legacy may be an unsung one, but it certainly still resonates,” writes Hogstad, who like Dees in 1983, scoured old newspaper clippings and leaned on Schoen-René’s memoir for her research.
In that autobiography, Schoen-René detailed how she lost plenty of her own money — once footing the bill for a new $500 heating plant, stage and dressing rooms for a venue she used for concerts she promoted in 1895.
Two years later, she brought in the Boston Festival Orchestra and 11 soloists on national tours for a festival that wound up costing her $2,000 when the average annual income was about $450, Hogstad wrote.
“Although my venture in Minneapolis meant a great financial loss to me,” she wrote, “I will always have a very warm feeling for that city. …
“The people of Minneapolis used to call me a fighter, and some said that I went around with a chip on my shoulder, but my fighting was all done in the interests of pioneering for the recognition of music in the highest sense in the cold Northwest of America.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.