Therese Behr Schnabel (1876-1959)

Born in Stuttgart, Germany, on September 14, 1876, the contralto Therese Behr Schnabel was one of the leading lieder and concert singers of her time. She performed with the most accomplished orchestras and accompanists and was instrumental in launching her husband Artur Schnabel’s career. Much admired by her peers, she was also a respected teacher. She died in Lugano, Switzerland, on January 30, 1959.

After studying with Julius Stockhausen in Frankfurt and Franz Wüllner in Cologne, Therese Behr moved to Berlin at the age of 22 so she could study with Etelka Gerster. After her debut in 1898, she experienced her first big successes in 1899 accompanied by a student of Franz Liszt named Alfred Reisenauer.

Striking for its richness and color, her dark alto voice inspired Richard Strauss to compose the song “Traum durch die Dämmerung” after a poem by  Otto Julius Bierbaum (1865-1910) for her. As her career progressed, she was accompanied by Richard Strauss, Fritz Kreisler, Alfred Reisenauer, and her husband, Artur Schnabel. Later in her life, her son Karl Ulrich Schnabel was her most frequent accompanist.

Beginning in 1903, Therese Behr became a member of a vocal quartet with Jeannette Grumbacher de Jong, Ludwig Hess (later Paul Reimers) and Arthur van Eweyck. However, she continued to perform on her own with prestigious orchestras and conductors, including Arthur Nikisch, Felix Weingartner and again, Richard Strauss.

In 1905 she married Artur Schnabel, and the couple continued to perform together regularly. She was instrumental in launching his career by allowing him to play solo pieces as part of her concerts, and Artur Schnabel dedicated the songs he composed in 1899-1902 to her. The 12-room apartment in Berlin she shared with her husband, two sons, and four Bechstein pianos quickly became a meeting point for the musical world. According to Edward Crankshaw:

“There are not many people who have the least idea either of the wonderful musicianship of Therese Behr Schnabel . . . or of the debt her husband owed to her. She was older than him by several years, and it was she who, after his infant prodigy days, forced him on the German public by insisting he appear as her accompanist. She had the most unerring musical tact of anyone I have ever known.”

Therese Behr began teaching in the early years of her career. She had many students, among who were the concert soprano Lotte Leonard, Gertrud Hindemith, the soprano Maria Stader and the tenor Peter Pears.

After leaving Berlin in 1933, Therese Behr and Artur Schnabel spent their summers giving master classes in Tremezzo, Lake Como, and winters in London. In 1937 they moved to New York where they were well known, having toured North America in the 20’s and early 30’s. Therese and Artur Schnabel had two sons, Karl Ulrich (1909) and Stefan (1912).

Therese Schnabel could not be recorded during the height of her career because recording equipment was not yet perfected, nor widely available. She nevertheless recorded a few lieder in November of 1932, at the age of 56 years. Although her voice lacked the power of her youth, her ability to use it was undiminished, as Sir William Glock attests:

“It was a memorable summer, in which one evening I heard Therese Behr singing Schubert, with her son Karl Ulrich Schnabel accompanying. Her voice was a shadow of what it had once been, but the simplicity and inner intensity of her singing I have not forgotten. Schnabel sat next to me and was sometimes in tears.”

Therese Behr Schnabel continued to teach in the United States until her husband’s death in 1951. She then moved back to Tremezzo, Lake Como, eventually passing in Lugano in 1959.