Ingeborg von Bronsart (1840−1913)


Ingeborg von Bronsart (née Starck) was born in St Petersburg, Russia, on 24 August 1840, and died in Munich, Germany, on 17 June 1913. Both parents were Swedish. Highly regarded as a ‘Swedish-German’ composer. After studying with Liszt in 1858 she had a significant career in Germany, first as a concert pianist, then as a composer. She composed solo piano works, chamber music, and a large number of Lieder, but she is best known as the first lady of the German stage due to the success of three of her operas.


Musical upbringing and concert debuts

Ingeborg von Bronsart was born in St Petersburg, Russia, on 24 August 1840. Both parents were Swedish. Her father, Otto Wilhelm Starck, was a saddler, a member of the Merchants’ Guild and the Swedish Ecclesiastical Council in St Petersburg. Although the family resided in St Petersburg for more than 40 years, Starck never relinquished his Swedish citizenship.

Bronsart was raised in a musical household. Her mother, Elisabeth (née Åkerman) played the violin, her father played the flute. Music making in the home consisted largely of Swedish folk songs. Some of this musical inheritance would find its way into Bronsart’s compositions, particularly her operas which incorporate Swedish folk tunes. Bronsart’s formal musical education began with piano lessons with Nicolas von Martinoff, a friend of Liszt, and Sigismund Thalberg. In 1851, she began lessons in harmony and composition with Constantine Decker. By 1854, Bronsart was a confident and accomplished performer. Her first published compositions − primarily etudes and piano character pieces − appeared in 1855. From 1855−57, Bronsart’s musical education was entrusted to Adolph von Henselt (1814−1889), a German pianist, composer, and pedagogue who after studies with Hummel had settled in Russia.

By 1858, Ingeborg von Bronsart was ready to make her way into the larger musical world. Carrying a letter of recommendation from Henselt, Bronsart set out for Weimar. After a brief audition, Liszt accepted her as a pupil. Her time at Weimar was devoted to polishing her skills as a pianist, and although she studied with Liszt for only one year, the impact on her career and personal life was considerable. During the winter of 1858−59, she made concert debuts in Leipzig, Dresden and Paris. In Weimar, Bronsart met her future husband, Hans Bronsart von Schellendorf (1830−1913). He was also a pupil of Liszt and, along with Hans von Bülow and Joachim Raff, was one of the outspoken champions of the New German School. For Ingeborg von Bronsart, the next several years were devoted to performing and numerous tours. In Paris, she met Rossini, Auber and Wagner. A piano concerto from this period is unfortunately lost.

Family life and opera success

Ingeborg and Hans von Bronsart married on 14 September 1861 in Königsberg. In 1864, they moved to Berlin, where Hans von Bronsart was appointed Bülow’s successor as director of the Concerts of the Society of the Friends of Music. Their first child, a daughter named Clara, was born on 14 April 1864, followed by a son, Fritz, on 12 November 1868. Clara became an accomplished pianist, but suffered from health problems that cut her career short. Fritz followed the Bronsart family tradition by pursuing a career in the military. Like many women artists, Ingeborg von Bronsart found satisfaction in raising her children, but at the same time she acknowledged that balancing the dual role of artist and mother was difficult. She maintained a hectic concert schedule while moving the household from city to city as her husband pursued his own career as a conductor and theatre manager. Her performance career ended abruptly in April 1867, when her husband accepted an appointment as Intendant of the Royal Theatre in Hanover. State policy at the time prohibited the wives of Prussian officials from appearing publicly as artists. From that time on, Bronsart’s performances were restricted, for the most part, to the domestic sphere, primarily at weekly salons held in her own home.

Forced to retire from the concert stage, Bronsart turned to composition as an outlet for her artistic talents. Her first opera, Die Göttin von Saïs (libretto by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer), had its only performance at the Berlin court in 1867. Although the libretto was published in 1869, Bronsart’s music has been lost. She found greater success with her next stage work, choosing a proven libretto with plenty of dramatic action: Goethe’s one-act comic Singspiel, Jery und Bätely. The premiere took place at the Weimar Court Theatre on 26 April 1873, directed by Liszt’s associate Eduard Lassen, before making the rounds of the German repertory theatres. Buoyed by the success of Jery und Bätely, Bronsart set her sights on a much more ambitious project: a large-scale operatic work. The libretto, based on an old Danish saga, Hiarne, would be provided by her husband and the German poet and translator Friedrich von Bodenstedt. Hans von Bronsart had drafted a sketch of the libretto in the 1850s; Bodenstedt agreed to revise it. Although Bodenstedt’s work was completed in 1876, Hans von Bronsart continued to make emendations. Bronsart’s work on the music proceeded slowly. In 1878, she optimistically told Ida Marie Lipsius (musicologist and Liszt biographer, also known by her pen name La Mara) that she hoped to be finished in two years, but the music would not be finished for nearly fifteen years.

Together with running a household, caring for her family, and moving once again (this time from Hanover to Weimar) much of her time was taken up with other projects: she composed two chamber pieces for cello and piano, a Romanze for violin and piano, as well as nearly fifty Lieder during this period. The much-anticipated premiere of Hiarne finally took place at the Royal Opera House in Berlin on 14 February 1891, with the Emperor Wilhelm II in attendance. A significant feature of this large work (Vorspiel and 3 acts) is the act-one women’s chorus, ‘Schwedisches Volkslied’.

Final years

When Hans von Bronsart retired from his position in Weimar in 1895, the couple moved to Munich, where both could devote more time to composition. For some time, Ingeborg von Bronsart stepped back from composing operas and chamber music, returning once again to the more intimate world of the Lied. In 1903, the Neue Musik-Zeitung announced another important milestone in her career: the celebration of her 50th jubilee. She referred to the occasion affectionately as ‘my golden wedding anniversary with music’. The jubilee coincided with the undertaking of a new opera, Die Sühne (The Atonement), based on a one-act tragedy by Theodor Körner. Die Sühne was completed relatively quickly, premiering in Dessau on 11 April 1909. Reviews of the first performance were not encouraging, yet Bronsart envisioned having a performance of the opera in Stockholm to celebrate her 70th birthday. There is no evidence to confirm that a performance ever took place there.

After a lengthy illness, Bronsart died in Munich on 17 June 1913, at the age of 72. Following a lifetime of success, during her final years she reflected on past glories. Her last communications with La Mara, her friend and biographer, recount some of her most special moments, particularly performances with Liszt and the success of her stage works. She was well-aware of her reputation as the female pioneer of the German opera stage. In a letter to Lipsius in 1910, she wrote, ‘I am the first and up to now the only dramatic woman composer of Germany, and I am also the first woman who has had a major opera (Hiarne) produced on the stage’ (emphasis in the original).


Bronsart’s compositional output encompasses most of the standard genres of her time, ranging from smaller works intended for intimate performance settings to large-scale dramatic works. Many of the solo piano works − etudes, character pieces, fugues, and variations − stem from very early in her career and consist of a single movement. One piano concerto, composed probably before 1863, is sadly lost. All of her chamber music was composed and published in the 1870s and 1880s, written for one string instrument (violin or cello) and piano. The piano parts demonstrate the composer’s virtuosity on that instrument. Bronsart composed one large-scale orchestral work, the Kaiser Wilhelm March (1872). Her songs draw on the poetry from the golden age of German romanticism, that of Goethe, Rückert and Heine, as well as that of her contemporaries: Friedrich von Bodenstedt, Peter Cornelius and Ernst von Wildenbruch. Almost all were set for solo voice with piano accompaniment and were usually published in small collections. Bronsart’s style is defined by careful attention to declamation of the text, vocally derived melodies, detailed dynamic and expression marks, unusual modulations, and technically difficult piano parts.

Although Bronsart was closely associated with the New German School from the time of her studies with Liszt in Weimar, any direct influence on her music is difficult to assess. She did not compose symphonic poems in the manner of her teacher, Franz Liszt, nor programme symphonies in the manner of Hector Berlioz, while her operas draw on several different traditions or generic sub-types.

Jery und Bätely (1873), with its spoken dialogue between set pieces (arias and duets), belongs to the older Singspiel tradition. Die Sühne (1909) is a ‘literature opera’ in the manner of Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905). Like Salome, Bronsart’s opera is in one act, it employs a stage play for its libretto, it is sung throughout, and much of the musical and psychological action is carried by a complex system of leitmotifs.

Hiarne (1891) may be perceived as the most ‘Wagnerian’ of Bronsart’s operas. This work was composed and premiered at a time when interest in Wagner’s operas, especially the Ring cycle, was running high in Germany. For Hiarne, the librettists combined the Danish legend with elements from the Poetic Edda, an important source text for Wagner’s Ring cycle. Bronsart and her librettists even attended the inaugural Bayreuth Festival in 1876. Thus Hiarne contains many textual allusions to Wagner, notably in the lengthy dramatic ballad ‘Das Lied von der Götterdämmerung’, sung by the title character in Act 1, and the chorus of Valkyries that concludes the opera. The Wagnerian textual elements in Hiarne opened up space for critical reception and acceptance of the opera, especially in the German musical press. However, these Wagnerian textual elements are presented within the musical framework of the older German romantic opera tradition of Carl Maria von Weber, Heinrich Marschner, and early Wagner (The Flying Dutchman, for example). While some critics praised Bronsart’s ‘energetic, manly strength and daring in the treatment of the battle scenes’ (Paul Simon), others argued that ‘the lyrical places are the most appealing’, and that Bronsart’s extensive use of the chorus differentiated her work from that of the ‘advocates of the extreme Bayreuth school’ (George Crusen).

Although Bronsart’s operas disappeared from the repertory shortly after her death, they are interesting works worthy of revival. Piano-vocal scores for Jery und Bätely and Die Sühne were both published during her lifetime. The score for Hiarne was never published.

Melinda Boyd © 2015


Boyd, Melinda J.: Opera, or the Doing of Women: The Dramatic Works of Ingeborg von Bronsart (1840−1913), diss. Musicology, University of British Columbia, 2002.
−−−: 'New Repertoire from Old Sources: The Case of Ingeborg von Bronsart's Wildenbruch Lieder Op. 16', The Journal of Singing, vol. 70, no. 4, March/April 2014, pp. 419−427.
−−−: 'Among the Shadows: Ingeborg von Bronsart's Last Opera, Die Sühne', Music Research Forum, vol. 22, 2007, pp. 35−56. 
Crusen, Georg: 'Ingeborg von Bronsart's Hiarne im Königlichen Hoftheater zu Hannover', Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, vol. 88, no. 1, January 1892, pp. 85-86.
Deaville, James
: 'Ingeborg von Bronsart', in: The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, London, 1994.
−−−: 'Ingeborg von Bronsart', in: Women Composers: Music Through the Ages, vol. 7, eds Martha Furman Schleifer and Sylvia Glickman, New York: G.K. Hall, 2003, pp. 247−57.
Edler, Arnfried: 'Zur Rolle Weimars und Hannovers in der deutschen Musikgeschichte zwischen 1850 und 1890', in: 'Denn in jenen Tönen lebt es'. Wolfgang Marggraf zum 65. Weimar, 1999, pp. 451−491.
Hottman, Katharina
: 'Ingeborg von Bronsart', in: Musik und Gender im Internet.
La Mara: Die Frauen im Tonleben der Gegenwart [Musikalische Studienköpfe, vol. 5], Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1888.
Polko, Elise: 'Ingeborg von Bronsart: biographisches Skizzenblatt', Neue Musik-Zeitung, vol. 9, 1888, pp. 142−43.
Simon, Paul: 'Die erste Aufführung der Oper Hiarne von Frau Ingeborg von Bronsart im Königl. Opernhause zu Berlin', Neue Zeitschrift für Music, vol. 87, no. 1, 1891, p. 87.

Summary list of works

4 operas (Die Göttin von Sais, König Hiarne, Jery und Bätely, Die Sühne), orchestral works (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Marsch, piano concerto in F minor), chamber music (works for violin and piano, violoncello and piano), piano music (four Clavierstücke, Impromptu, Valse Caprice, etc.), songs with piano (Five songs to texts by Mirza Schafty op. 8, Neig, schöne Knospe op. 9:2, Könnt' ich die schönsten Sträusse winden op. 22:1, etc.), choral music.

Collected works

Stage music
Die Göttin von Sais oder Linas und Liane, idyllic opera in three acts, 1867. Score lost.
Jery und Bätely, Singspiel in one act, 1873.
Hiarne, prelude and three acts, 1891.
Die Sühne, tragedy in one act, 1909.

Chamber music

Romanze for violin and piano in A major, 1873.
Notturno for violoncello and piano in A minor op. 13, 1879. Breitkopf & Härtel.

Elegie for violoncello and piano in C major op. 14, 1879. Breitkopf & Härtel.
Romanze for violoncello and piano in B major op. 15, 1879. Breitkopf & Härtel.
Phantasie for violin and piano op. 21, 1891. Kahnt.


Trois études, 1855. St Petersburg, Bernard.
Nocturne, 1855. St Petersburg, Bernard.
Tarantella, 1855. St Petersburg, Bernard.
Fuge über die Namen Maria und Marthy (von Sabinin), 1859. Unpublished.
Fugen, 1859. Unpublished.
Variationen über Themen von Bach, 1859. Unpublished.
Variationen, 1859. Unpublished.
Toccaten, 1859. Unpublished.
Kaiser-Wilhelm-Marsch, Seiner Majestät dem deutschen Kaiser und Könige von Preussen Wilhelm I in tiefster Ehrfurcht gewidmet, 1871. Bote und Bock.
Vier Clavierstücke, componiert und ihrer Schwester Olivia Cronhielm gewidmet von Ingeborg von Bronsart, 1874. Schott.
Valse Caprice, 1891.
Impromptu, 1891.
Phantasie in G-sharp minor op. 18, 1891. Breitkopf & Härtel.


Piano concerto in F minor, before 1863. Lost.
Kaiser Wilhelm March, 1872. Bote und Bock.

Voice and piano

5 Lieder (Goethe, Platen, Rückert), 1878.
6 Lieder des Mirza Schaffy op. 8 (Friedrich von Bodenstedt), 1879.
3 Lieder op. 9 (Friedrich von Bodenstedt), 1879.
6 Gedichte op. 10 (Friedrich von Bodenstedt), 1879.
5 Weihnachslieder op. 11 (Jacobi), 1880.
5 Gedichte op. 12 (Friedrich von Bodenstedt), 1880.
5 Gedichte op. 16 (Ernst von Wildenbruch), 1882.
12 Kinderreime op. 17 (Groth), 1882.
6 Gedichte op. 20 (Michail Lermontov), 1891.


Hurrah Germania! fo male choir (Ferdinand Freiligrath), 1871. Hannover, Pinkvoss.
Kennst du die rothe Rose? fo mixed/male choir, voice and piano, 1873. Weimar, Kühn.
Osterlied fo mixed choir op. 27 (August von Platen), 1903. Leipzig, Schuberth.

Works by Ingeborg von Bronsart

This is not a complete list of works. The following works are those that have been inventoried so far.

Number of works: 10