BOOK REVIEW / Silver voice, steely core: Elisabeth Schumann: A Biography - Gerd Perutz: Deutsch, pounds 25

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GERD PERUTZ's biography of his mother, the singer Elisabeth Schumann (1888-1952) is an act of homage. Using letters, diaries, cuttings and fragments of an autobiography which Schumann dictated late in life, he recounts a wholly admiring story of the gifted, charming girl from a provincial German background who became an international star.

Perutz's intimate, rather breathless tone sounds like an imitation of his mother's ('Once again she and Alwin would have to wait a little longer before seeing each other - oh how often it was like that]'), and he refers to himself oddly, in the third person. We get glimpses of little Gerd as a small boy, quarrelled over and left with nurses when Schumann and her first husband divorced. We don't learn much about his feelings, but when he recounts that Schumann was about to marry her third husband he says: 'Gerd was also very sorry about this turn of events and tried to change his mother's mind.'

The pretty, silvery-voiced opera singer excelled in romantic roles (the photographs in the book show her as a shepherd boy in Tannhauser, a goosegirl in Die Konigskinder, as Zerlina in Don Giovanni and, above all, as the nave Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, a part she made her own under Richard Strauss's direction). But she had a steely core. Her tour schedules show a stamina for success, and a ruthlessness: her letters to opera- house managers are always firm. She managed her love life cleverly, too, discarding Walter Perutz for a tempestuous affair with Otto von Klemperer, marrying Carl Alwin (who was extremely useful to her as a manager, repetiteur and accompanist) then moving on to Hans Kruger, a wealthy society doctor and art-collector who had kindly cured her Pekinese.

She left Germany in 1938 and had to build a new career for herself in America as a teacher, concert performer and recording artist. After the war, she talked her way into Ensa in order to get to Germany to see Gerd, and then supported him and his family in England. Until the end, she was someone who could cajole a purser or railway guard, or flatter a diplomat in order to get things done.

Perutz is not concerned with musicology, though he does give some interesting bits of information on Schumann's technique and the book comes with a 19-page discography. Nor does he provide a psychological portrait. It is a diva's life, and it can be mapped by the votive offerings she amassed: orders and decorations from around the world; a pink dressing-gown hand-sewn by a devoted woman fan in London; a tiny United States flag, made up of diamonds, rubies and sapphires, which she wore when she became an American citizen in 1944; and a glass case (given to her by Bernard Miles in 1951) which contained on a velvet cushion a brick taken from a house in Salzburg in which Mozart lived at the age of four.