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Postcard photograph by Histed, London, c.1906.

Elena GERHARDT (1883-1961)

February 2011

(b. Leipzig, 11 November 1883; d. London, 11 January 1961)

Elena Gerhardt was possibly the most successful lieder recitalist in history; she certainly did more than any other singer to popularise the form as we know it today.

Born and trained in Leipzig, she owed much of her early success to the coaching and accompanying of the conductor Arthur Nikisch, who had become Director of the Conservatorium while she was a student there. It was also during Nikisch’s one-year term as Director of the Leipzig Opera (1905-6) that she made her only appearances in opera – in the title-role of Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon and as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. (At this time Gerhardt was a soprano; later her voice matured into a rich and flexible mezzo-soprano.)

Gerhardt’s career as a recitalist developed quickly from a debut in Leipzig’s Städtisches Kaufhaus (with Nikisch) on her 20th birthday and the next three years saw her touring widely in Germany. Her first foreign engagement was in London in June, 1906 – in a Queen’s Hall concert with the London Symphony Orchestra and a recital at the Bechstein Hall – and this started an annual pattern of London recitals and provincial tours which was interrupted only by World War I. Her US debut in 1912 was also hugely successful and far-reaching. After a popular teaching course organised by her agent in London 1928, Gerhardt was invited to become Head of Singing at the Leipzig Conservatory the following year. In 1932 she married Dr. Fritz Kohl, Director of Leipzig Radio, who was arrested one year later in the Nazi purge of broadcasting officials but eventually released. The couple settled in England – always regarded by Gerhardt as her second home – in 1934.

Gerhardt continued to tour widely, selling out halls wherever she appeared, and to teach at the Guildhall School of Music and privately. During World War II she famously contributed to the National Gallery Concerts organised by her friend Myra Hess and at the Wigmore Hall in 1943 celebrated the 40th anniversary of her first recital. Her final public appearance was at Liverpool in March 1947.

Gerhardt’s many distinguished pupils included Derek Hammond-Stroud, Flora Nielsen, Sir Peter Pears, Winifred Radford, Meriel St.Clair and Esther Salaman. She published her autobiography Recital in 1953.