The Great Lula Mysz-Gmeiner

Mysz-Gmeiner 3

SCHUBERT: Der Tod und das Mädchen. Die Forelle. Der Einsame. Frülingsglaube. Erlkönig. Litanei. Der Fischer. Der Zwerg. Nacht und Träume. Die junge nonne. Das Echo. Seligkeit. MOZART: Das Veilchen. MENDELSSOHN: Auf flügeln des Gesangen. SCHUMANN: Waldegespräch. Der Nuβbaum. LOWE: Herr Oluf. BRAHMS: Immer leiser wird mein schlummer. Schwesterlein. TCHAIKOVSKY: At the Ball. WOLF: Heimweh. MAHLER: Wer hat dies liedlein erdacht / Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, mezzo-soprano; Waldemar Lischowsky, Julius Dahlke, pianists / available for free streaming at Internet Archive

The austere-looking woman pictured above may not be on your musical radar; she wasn’t on mine until two days ago, when my friend Joe Pearce mentioned her in passing and I looked her up on YouTube. In fact, unless you are German or Austrian, you may never even have heard of her, let alone heard her. I certainly hadn’t.

Mysz-Gmeiner 1But there are reasons why I hadn’t heard her. Although she is listed in the Kutsch-Riemens A Concise Biographical Dictionary of Singers (Chilton, 1969), a book I’ve owned since 1970, their assessment of her is not nearly as enthusiastic as it was for her contemporaries Elena Gerhardt, Julia Culp or Lotte Lehmann. All Kutsch and Riemens have to say of her is that she was one of the most famous concert singers of her epoch, not that she was a great lied interpreter. Thus I had no real motivation to look her up. After all, she wasn’t mentioned even once on George Jellinek’s famous WQXR radio program devoted to historic singers, The Vocal Scene, nor was she featured on any of those many Everest-Scala cheapie LPs on which historic singers were reissued—the ones with the candy-cane-colored generic covers, which sold for $2 at Sam Goody’s ($1 when they were on sale). And because she recorded exclusively for Polydor, and didn’t make all that many records (roughly two dozen, both acoustic and electric, during the 1920s), there weren’t any other LP reissues by her except for one on Discophilia M3, a weird pirate label I never saw, and one on Preiser’s “Lebendige Vergangenheit” series, and those were fairly pricy LPs back in the day. (As it turns out, she also wasn’t featured on either Vols. 1 or 2 of Michael Scott’s massive The Record of Singing boxed sets in the 1980s; she did appear on Vol. 3, but those sets cost an arm and a leg and I didn’t have the money to buy Vol. 3.) So she flew under my radar, as I’m sure she has flown under most of yours.

Mysz-Gmeiner 2But she was truly one of the greatest lieder singers who ever recorded. The following biographical information is culled from K-R, Wikipedia (which is similar to K-R), and a few tidbits that Joe Pearce told me. Born in Kronstadt, then part of Transylvania, on August 16, 1876, Julie Sophie Gmeiner grew up in a highly musical family. Her sister Ellen and brother Rudolf also had successful career as concert singers, though they never recorded; another sister, Luise, was a pianist in Berlin. She first studied with Ludwig Lassel, then with Gustav Walter (1834-1910), one of the leading tenors of his day and the second-oldest singer known to have made commercial recordings (baritone Antonio Cotogni, born in 1831, made one issued recording in 1908). After 1896 she also studied with Emilie Herzog, Etelka Gerster and Lilli Lehmann. She made her concert debut in 1899 and garnered high praise for her singing, but in 1911-12 she underwent further vocal training with Raimund von zur Mühlen, another unrecorded singer.

Somewhere along the line she changed her first name to Lula, and in 1900 married the Transylvanian engineer Ernst Mysz in Kronstadt. They had three daughters, two of whom died young. The third, Suzanne, later fell in love with tenor Peter Anders when he studied with Lula in the 1930s. Lula’s other notable pupils were sopranos Maria Müller and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Lula made extensive concert tours of both Europe and the United States, was highly prized by such knowledgeable colleagues as conductor Artur Nikisch and composer Max Reger, who was crazy about her voice and wrote several songs dedicated to her including his Vier Gesänge, Op. 88, published in 1905.

From 1920 onward she was a voice teacher at the Staatlich akademische Hochschule für Musik zu Berlin, and it was during the 1920s that she made all her records for Polydor, both acoustically and electrically, with a few songs recorded in both formats, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of them, perhaps 26 or 28 titles in all. A few (see labels) were somehow reissued by British Decca in the 1930s, but for the most part they remained on Polydor 78s. Although nothing is known of her two accompanists, Waldemar Liachowsky during the acoustic period and Julius Dahlke on the electricals, they were both clearly above the usual norm of pianists on old lieder recordings. Dahlke, in fact, was identified on the labels as playing a Bechstein grand piano, clearly a luxury for a lieder singer on discs in those days.

Der Nussbaum labelDer Tod und das Madchen

Listening to Mysz-Gmeiner takes you back to not only an era of lost vocal art, when singers were expected to not only have firm, well-produced voices, not the squally, tremulous horrors that often pass for professional singers nowadays, but ones who were expected to throw themselves emotionally into the words of the songs, acting them out both dramatically and poetically. Mysz-Gmeiner often makes her effects through her complete absorption in the words she is singing, and this alternates between a dramatic reading, as one might expect from a great actor like Chaliapin, and a poetic reading of the text. Moreover, Mysz-Gmeiner often makes her points by means of coloring her tones, and in this respect she was truly a master painter. She could even change the color of a tone while holding a single note, something that is impossible for nearly any modern-day singer, no matter how vocally gifted, to bring off, and all of this comes from a woman who was near or over age 50 at the time of recording.

The other thing you will notice is something that is completely verboten today, and that is the use of rubato and rallentando effects in her songs. Very often this is subtle, but occasionally the effects are a bit broad. Most musicians nowadays will probably cringe at this, but there was a point in time when, if you did not introduce some rubato into classical music, you were considered an unfinished artist. Yes, there are some similar effects in Gerhardt’s recordings, but those moments are generally subtler than Mysz-Gmeiner’s. A good example is Schubert’s Der Einsame; no lieder singer on earth would even think of introducing such broad decelerando into this song as she does, but she gets away with it because it enhances the words and the mood. In short, she may have had her mannerisms, but she knew what she was doing. She is never, ever vulgar or cheap in her effects; nothing she does is to show off the voice. And oh, yes, she also occasionally used a somewhat broad portamento—listen to Schubert’s Frühlingsglaube, for instance—and this, too was a musical tradition going back to the late 18th century. But our musical academics, in their rush to force Straight Tone down everyone’s throat, have thrown out portamento and rallentando in performance practice, ignoring the fact that this is quite probably what Schubert’s, Schumann’s and Brahms’ songs sounded like during those composers’ lifetimes.

Of course I agree that these traits in her musical style could occasionally be excessive, but as I said, for the most part she is extremely tasteful. And what an interpreter she was! Her recording of Erlkönig is far and away the greatest I’ve ever heard in my life. She accurately portrays the father, son and Erl-king with exactly the right vocal tone and accents; you are never once in doubt as to which character is singing, and the terror she infuses into the young boy’s lines is almost horrific. You get so caught up that, at first listen, you may not even catch some of the slow-downs she tosses in here and there.

My impression of Mysz-Gmeiner’s voice is that it was of a good size but not really huge: more like Brigitte Fassbaender than Lilli Lehmann. Of course, this is good enough for a lieder singer, particularly one with such extraordinary skills as hers. Small wonder than listeners, even professional musicians, were bowled over by her singing.

Mysz-Gmeiner poured the same kind of emotion into Der Zwerg, one of Schubert’s strangest and darkest songs, yet she could also sing lightly and with great joy in Die Forelle, though she imparted more of a connection to the words in this song as well as in Mendelssohn’s generally flighty Auf flügeln des gesanges and even Mozart’s Das Veilchen, a song usually just tossed away by most lieder singers. As one might expect, Carl Loewe’s crazy dramatic ballad Herr Oluf is right up her alley with its almost over-the-top histrionics.

One of her more interesting performances is that of Tchaikovsky’s At the Ball. She doesn’t entirely reflect the mood that Pushkin intended, that of someone who is so numbed with grief that she can’t even show emotion; on the contrary, Mysz-Gmeiner’s grief comes out of her as if she is even beyond tears, it is so deeply felt. Thus I would place this in the category of an interesting outlier among recordings of this song.

My guess is that, in non-German countries, she was already forgotten by the time she died in August 1948, one week shy of her 72nd birthday. But an art as sincere, dramatic, and occasionally poetically subtle as hers should never be neglected or forgotten.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “The Great Lula Mysz-Gmeiner

  1. Joe Pearce says:

    A terrific piece on a forgotten singer. We 78 collectors revel in the fantastic number of good to great singers who have been forgotten by posterity, and Mysz-Gmeiner was one of the greatest of them..


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