Saturday, November 4, 2023

Werrenrath: or the perils of an obituary

 I found this nice portrait today, on e-bay, so it seemed a good moment to post this little biographical note from my larder of such things ...

WERRENRATH, [Daniel Gustav] Georg (b Copenhagen, Denmark 7 February 1838; d 375 State Street, Brooklyn 3 June 1898)


The Danish-born tenor Georg[e] Werrenrath lived, latterly, and died in the United States of America. As a consequence, he was farewelled with one of those super-laudatory (and in his case, super-long) obituaries which are the usually hugely exaggerated lot of the Ugo Talbos, the Arturo Salvinis and the Ernest Perrings. Only, Werrenrath died in Brooklyn, and his obituary was entrusted to a music journalist of the burg who evidently knew the man, and who had listened to and published the stories of his life many times. Take out the gush, and this obituary is (all facts checked!) remarkably correct in its details. As, indeed – apart from a sizeable exaggeration of his European career -- are the vast biographical notes (by the same writer?) which heralded the 38 year-old singer’s arrival in America in 1876.


But ‘for the last dozen years Mr Werrenrath has been known by the younger generation as a not particularly prominent choir singer and teacher. A quarter of a century ago he was blazoned in Vienna and through most of Europe as the noble Lohengrin, the passionate Tannhäuser, the handsome and dashing Faust ..’.  Yes, to the first sentence; but, alas, no to the rest. The story went like this.


Werrenrath was born in Denmark of a German father, Johann Peter Werrenrath of Elberfeld, a machinist, and his wife Kirsten née Christiansen. Originally intended to follow his father into trade, after an accident to a hand he switched his attention to music, and trained with local musicians August Cauthal and Carl Solbrugk in HamburgHe would later date his first public appearance, at a Cauthal concert in Hamburg, to 24 April 1867, but he seems to have made his first stage appearances in the following year. The American stories get fuzzy here, and place him at ‘minor theatres in the north’. In actual fact, they were not so very minor.  In 1868-9 he was lyric Tenor at the Stadttheater in Trier (‘from Hamburg’), where he played the role of Gaius Icilius in Die Fabier, Leopold in La Juive et al in the company’s enterprising programme. From Trier, he progressed to the Hamburg Stadttheater, and thence to Königsberg. In 1870, he was engaged for three years at the Königliches Theater, Wiesbaden. ‘Ein hoffnungvolle tenor’ commented the press. Not famous, just ‘promising’. I see him there liberally in concert (‘Adelaide’, Elijah, Judas Maccabeus, St Paul), but what operatic roles he played, I know not. The retrospective American press quotes a fistful. And a fistful of guest appearances. I can find just one, in L’Africaine.


During his time at Wiesbaden, he encountered the Patti sisters and Moritz Strakosch, who encouraged him to go to Paris, in 1871, to study. The young man ‘discovered by Strakosch’ (élevé à la brochette’) was introduced to Gounod, then in the thrall of Georgina Weldon, and just back from giving concerts with her, and another protégé, Nita Gaetano, in London. Werrenrath joined the team, and sang ‘Adelaide’ (‘irreproachable’) and ‘Salve dimora’ (‘without passion’) with them. ‘M de Werrenrath ne manque pas de moyens : sa voix demande à être assouplie et à prendre un timbre plus franc’, commented the Belgian press when the little troupe visited Spa’s Salons de Redoute.


The following season, when Gounod visited London (which can be read about in Mrs Weldon’s memoirs and biography), Werrenrath went too. He seems to have appeared first with Gounod’s new London choir (‘a German tenor who used to sing solo parts at M Gounod’s concerts’), and I spot him at the composer’s concert (31 May) singing ‘Ho messo nuove corde’ from the Biondina songs. He would repeat these songs at concerts throughout the season. At the Covent Garden proms, he ventured the Pilot’s Song (Flying Dutchman) and ‘gave it with so much vigour that it gained an encore’.  He appeared a number of times at the Crystal Palace (‘Diese Bildnis’, Jessonda duet, Schubert Serenade, Nonne sanglante, Choral Symphony) and guested for two performances as Max in Der Freischütz (‘from the Royal Opera at Wiesbaden’) with the resident opera company, opposite Florence Lancia. His last concert, in December, was at Croydon, after which – according to the biographies, he went off to Italy ‘at Gounod’s advice’ to study with Lamperti. ‘His vocal production was rather coarse…’


He surfaced in London again for the season of 1875, and appeared regularly at charity concerts, and at the concerts of such as Victoria Bunsen, Herbert Thorndike, Gustave Garcia, Madame Enequist, Fabio Campana, Edma Breton, Inez de Villette, Miss A M Edwards, Luise Liebhart and Emily Tate, as well as at the Alexandra Proms in a Wagner selection.  

‘Herr Werrenrath has a fine voice, though uneven in tone and quality and produced indifferently from throat and chest. His singing is as yet unfinished though he has evidently received very careful training, but his intonation is correct, most of his notes are free from that peculiar harshness of ring we find in German voices … and [he] may be destined to spread the knowledge of Wagner still further among our English Philistines’.


He gave his Danish songs … but now also ‘My Pretty Jane’. Mostly, in the concert reports, he was an ‘also sang’: and the provinces weren’t sure. One wrote: ‘fine dramatic effect, gives proof of a finished training, and possesses a remarkably sweet yet powerful voice..’ , Hull found him – as an appendage to Marie Roze, Trebelli and Behrens – ‘rather disappointing’.

Werrenrath would later call this season ’the worst in his life’. No Gounod, no Mrs Weldon, and no money.


1876 was much the same. His concert appearances were not infrequent, but scarcely of the highest class. When he visited Dublin, with his Gounod songs he was credited with ‘a very charming and cultivated voice though not of much range’. At the Westminster Aquarium he varied the Gounod with ‘La donna e mobile’ and ‘The Sands of Dee’, but most of his engagements were with German professors and charities, and what seems to have been his final English appearance (20 July 1876), came at a charity benefit for foreigners at St James’s Hall.


But Werrenrath’s luck was about to turn. A travelling American gentleman with connections to Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church heard him in concert during the season, and offered him a steady post as solo tenor in the church choir. Within a couple of months of that St James’s Hall concert, Werrenrath (with his ‘glamorous’ past now in place) was firmly fixed in Brooklyn. He would stay there for the rest of his life.


After his ‘first appearance’ (26 October 1876), he was engaged (‘a European celebrity’) for the Brooklyn Philharmonic concerts, beginning 28 October 1876, and in the variegated concerts that flourished in the city, he sang tenor in a Messiah at Christmas, and in 1877 made an appearance in opera. Mr J C Fryer staged what he called a Wagner Festival (12 March 1877), including performances of Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, The Flying Dutchman and Die Walküre, with Eugenie Pappenheim as headliner, and Werrenrath was one of the three tenors engaged (‘expressly imported‘). He sang Lohengrin in Brooklyn (but Alexander Bischoff did it in New York) and Walther to Bischoff’s Tannhäuser. Fryer took his company on tour, adding Der Freischütz (in which Werrenrath played Max) and Les Huguenots in which he played Bois-Rosé while Charles Adams – replacing Bischoff – played Raoul opposite Mme Pappenheim and Christian Fritsch took Erik in The Flying DutchmanIl Trovatore, Fidelio, Faust, Lucrezia Borgia were announced to follow. The Pappenheim-Adams troupe toured into 1878, with Werrenrath seconding Adams and occasionally, and in Brooklyn, giving his Lohengrin or his Max.


The main part of Werrenrath’s musical life resided in his church duties and in regular concert work – he staged series of folk music concerts and historical concerts of his own – mixed with occasional returns to Denmark, and professional visits to Chicago and other places. He even ventured as far as California in 1884 when he accompanied Madame Pappenheim on one more operatic tour.


In 1883, the once glorious Plymouth Church dissolved its professional choir, and Werrenrath moved to the Classon Avenue Presbyterian Church, as he turned more and more to teaching. He returned to Plymouth as director of its amateur choir in 1888, but by 1890 he was Precentor of Tompkins Street Congregational Church.


He died of heart disease in 1898. He left a wife, the former Aretta Raymond Camp (d Bronx, NY 6 April 1936) who had been second soprano in the Plymouth choir, and the daughter of its basso leader, Henry Camp, and a son, Reinald Werrenrath (b Brooklyn, 7 August 1883; d Plattsburgh, NY September 12, 1953).


George Werrenrath left behind tales of a cheery and much-liked fellow, but he also left sadly exaggerated reports of his prowess and success on both sides of the Atlantic: ‘[He] won fame in many roles, he particularly distinguished himself in Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Siegmund, and Faust, and earned what was considered exceptional praise from all of the American critics’. No, he didn’t.


But son Reinald would fill his father’s oversized reputation fully. As a baritone singer he found notable success in the opera house, on the radio, and on record, before retiring to an equally successful career with NBC and as a teacher.

1 comment:

Keith B. said...

Greetings Kurt, This is a fantastic photograph and tribute to George Werrenrath! My interest in George Werrenrath and his family evolved due to do with his working relationship with my grandparents Alcuin Blum and Alexandra Human. Alcuin was a German baritone and Alexandra was a Russian soprano. Their paths crossed many times likely starting at the Plymouth church where Alcuin and George spent a lot of time together and again at the Academy of Music and on tour with the Fryer and Adams/ Pappenheim troupes.