Page 1: Biography
Schramm, Bernardina Adriana
Pianist, music teacher
Schramm, Leo Paul
Pianist, music teacher, composer
This biography, written by Ross Somerville, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Leo Paul Schramm was born in Vienna, Austria, on 22 September 1892, the son of Marie Hofmann; his father’s name is unknown. His mother subsequently married Gustav Schramm, a German, who adopted her son. He began musical studies at the age of four and made his first public appearance as a piano soloist, composer and conductor at eight. He then studied with the celebrated piano teacher Theodor Leschetizky for five years.
Based in Berlin from 1908, Schramm formed a piano trio in 1909 and taught pupils privately. One, Claudio Arrau, remembered him as ‘very intelligent and full of ideas, but a little crazy’. His compositions were published by reputable firms and he toured extensively as soloist and accompanist, performing concertos under the batons of notable European conductors.
Paul Schramm married in Germany in 1916. During the First World War he was attached to the Austrian army press headquarters for two years as a musical entertainer. In 1925 he took up a part-time teaching post, giving monthly master-classes at conservatories in Thuringia, Silesia and Rotterdam. He was divorced in 1927, probably some time after he met the Dutch pianist Diny Soetermeer.
Bernardina (Diny) Adriana Soetermeer had been born in Rotterdam on 12 October 1900, the daughter of a lawyer, Cornelis Martinus Soetermeer, and his wife, Apolonia de Rek. She received a musical education and from 1922 was a student, and later a teacher, at the Rotterdam music school, where she met Paul Schramm. They married in Berlin on 31 October 1928; a son, Hans, was born the following year.
Paul and Diny formed a successful piano duo which performed in concert and on radio. They had developed an interest in jazz styles, and mixed the classical repertoire with light music, often in Paul’s own arrangements. He toured throughout central Europe and Scandinavia, and visited South East Asia in 1928. He and Diny found the political situation in Germany increasingly uncomfortable, and on a second trip to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) in 1933 Paul decided to stay. He cabled Diny, who followed with Hans.
In Batavia (Jakarta) Paul Schramm broadcast frequently, founded and conducted an orchestra, and wrote music for films; Diny appeared as a soloist. However, they found the climate oppressive, and while touring Australasia in 1937 they were convinced that a better life was to be had in New Zealand. The following year they settled in Wellington, where they opened a downtown studio and taught piano, singing and chamber music. In 1939 they bought a large house in Abel Smith Street, where they installed their two Bechstein grand pianos; Diny was to live there for the rest of her life.
The Schramms were a lively addition to Wellington’s cultural life. The convivial Paul loved to smoke, drink and play cards, and had a penchant for large automobiles. He and his beautiful and talented wife were an attraction at social gatherings. Paul proved a resourceful musical entrepreneur, giving frequent concerts, broadcasting, and touring schools. He visited 60 schools between September and December 1938, charging pupils sixpence each to attend his entertaining illustrated recital. The minister of education, Peter Fraser, and his department supported this initiative, although they were reluctant to employ Schramm in any official capacity.
Paul Schramm composed advertising jingles and music for National Film Unit travelogues, and he and Diny toured smaller centres. His repertoire extended from Bach to Bartók; his recitals were eclectic, usually including Beethoven sonatas and his own compositions in a lighter vein. He continued to compose prolifically, but published only a series of teaching pieces, Music for home, and a simplified arrangement of the Valse sentimentale he performed himself in a concert version. His playing generally received glowing reviews, and even his critics admitted that he was 'not only a fine pianist, but a musician’.
With the outbreak of the Second World War the family’s economic position became difficult. As an alien, Paul Schramm was forbidden to broadcast for fear that he might send coded messages through his playing. Anonymous letters to the police denounced him as a fifth columnist, and threats were made to disrupt his concerts. He drove a taxi for a time, but his licence was revoked and he was obliged to work part time in a factory making hair-combs. In 1946 his application for naturalisation was turned down on the grounds that his failure to buy war bonds showed an insufficient commitment to his adopted country. Thoroughly demoralised, after a series of farewell recitals he left for Australia in February 1946 on the first leg of a planned world tour. Diny and Hans remained in New Zealand and were naturalised in 1948.
Paul Schramm never left Australia. He gave successful concerts in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, and broadcast a regular radio programme. But in 1953, after a series of financial setbacks through bad investments, and suspecting that a degenerative condition was affecting his playing, he travelled to northern New South Wales and Queensland, intending to put music behind him. In Brisbane he toyed with the idea of becoming a bookie at the dog races, and eventually took out a hawker’s licence, selling underwear and hosiery from a trailer towed behind his car. He died at the wheel in the Brisbane suburb of Woolloongabba on 30 November 1953.
Despite an attempt at reconciliation, Diny and Paul were still estranged, though in touch by correspondence, at the time of his death. She taught at her studio in Abel Smith Street, where Paul’s piano remained beside hers, not to be touched by importunate students. In 1959 a group of her friends and supporters formed the Leschetizky Association of New Zealand, under whose auspices Diny held sway at monthly concerts where her pupils and others performed in formal surroundings, and ‘in suitable dress’. She was employed by the music department at Victoria University of Wellington to audition intending students and to teach performance courses. Embittered by circumstances, she railed against those she thought had frustrated her and Paul in their ambitions. Her supporters were increasingly alienated, and her young pupils intimidated, by diatribes on the cultural wasteland in which she laboured.
Diny Schramm died at her Abel Smith Street home on 18 or 19 April 1987, survived by her son Hans. The collection of music and musicalia which she and Paul had amassed and carried with them across the world was bequeathed to the National Library of New Zealand. Paul’s unpublished compositions included two operas, concertos, chamber music, songs, and much music for piano solo and duo. In 1992 some of this music was performed at a concert in Wellington to mark the centenary of the composer’s birth.
Paul and Diny Schramm were both affected by historical events beyond their control. Diny claimed that they had never worked harder than in their first years in New Zealand, where they both tried to make an appropriate contribution. They stood out as exceptional figures in the musical landscape, but in different ways felt thwarted. Their greatest contribution to their adopted country was to make ‘serious’ music fun for a generation of New Zealand children.