Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient was a very popular operatic soprano from the mid-19th century. She had a long association with composer Richard Wagner and her voice was described as having a rich, dramatic quality that is rarely heard. Madame Schroder-Devrient is now remembered only for her connection with erotic literature.
She was born in Hamburg on December 6, 1804. Her father was a tenor and her mother was the successful actress Sophie Schroder. Wilhelmine made her debut at the age of fifteen and gained international attention in 1821 after performing Pamina in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
During the 1830s, she came to the attention of Richard Wagner and created the roles of Adriano in Rienzi, Venus in Tannhauser, and Senta in The Flying Dutchman.
Schroder-Devrient was lauded not only for her vocal capabilities but also for her acting skills. She was once called the “Queen of Tears” because of her ability sing and cry at the same time and, in turn, make the audience weep. William Makepeace Thackeray mentions, and misspells, Schroder-Devrient’s name in his novel Vanity Fair. He tells of her fabulous performance as Leonora in Fidelio and states that she made every woman in the house, most particularly the widowed Amelia Osborne, weep.
In Chapter LXIV, Thackeray glosses over the decadent life of Becky Thorpe-Crawley by simply stating: “We must pass over a part of Mrs. Rebecca Crawley’s biography with that lightness and delicacy which the world demands. If we were to give a full account of her proceedings during a couple of years…there might be some reason for people to say this book was improper.” It is quite likely that Thackeray would not have even mentioned Schroder-Devrient in his “proper” novel if he had had any idea about the singer’s private life.
Twenty-one years after Vanity Fair and eight years after the death of Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient, an extremely graphic piece of erotica titled Aus den Memoiren einer Saengerin (The Memoirs of a Singer) was published. Although the work was, and still is, billed as being anonymous, it is largely thought that Schroder-Devrient wrote the first volume as a sort of autobiography. It is unknown who or what inspired/wrote the work’s second volume which tells tales of group sex, bestiality, sadomasochism, and even necrophilia.
At this point, there is no knowing exactly what Schroder-Devrient’s private life was like. She did have two short-lived, unhappy marriages. Also, her voice started decaying while she was still in her thirties. This certainly leads one to wonder if she was engaging in activities that are not healthy for a singing voice.
The work has been published in English and is known as Pauline the Prima Donna. It is the most famous piece of German erotic literature in history.
William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”