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Schramm, Leo Paul (1892–1953)

by Ross Somerville

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Leo Paul Schramm (1892-1953), pianist and composer, was born on 22 September 1892 in Vienna, son of Marie Hofmann. His father was probably Gustav Schramm whom his mother subsequently married. After studying piano with Rudolf Kaiser, Paul made his concert début at the age of 8: his performance included some of his own compositions. At 10 he became a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky and at 15 moved to Berlin. His career as a soloist and accompanist was interrupted by World War I, during which he spent two years entertaining Austrian soldiers. In 1916 he married Marie Hahn, a cellist. Before their divorce in 1927, they and the violinist Stefan Frenkel formed a musical trio. Schramm travelled widely, giving more than seventy concerts each season in the 1920s.

Late that decade Schramm taught intermittently at German conservatoria and at Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where he met the Dutch pianist Bernardina (Diny) Adriana Soetermeer. They were married in a civil ceremony in Berlin on 31 October 1928. Performing light music in addition to a classical repertoire, the couple toured and broadcast as a piano duo. From 1933 they lived in Batavia (Jakarta) where Paul formed and conducted an orchestra, and composed for films. In 1937-38 he twice toured Australia (on the second occasion in company with Diny) for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, completed a Javanese suite for piano and arranged for the publication of two sets of teaching pieces, Seven Contrasts and Old Holland (Melbourne, c.1938).

The Schramms set up a teaching studio in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1938 and Paul continued to perform. In World War II he was banned from broadcasting and restrictions were placed on his movements, reducing him to doing menial work. He travelled alone to Sydney in March 1946 to revive his international career. Promoted as 'The Pianist of 1946', he gave a series of recitals which received generally favourable reviews. Later, he broadcast on radio. People filled halls in the State capitals to hear his innovative, informal lunch-hour concerts. His more serious programmes consisted mainly of classics by Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, with works (including his own) by modern composers after the interval.

The privations of wartime affected Schramm's technique as well as his morale. Critics soon complained of lightweight programming and of 'superficial rhetoric' in his playing. His performance of Beethoven's 'Emperor' concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in November 1946 was compared with a race for the Melbourne Cup—Schramm was the winner and Beethoven came last.

In August 1947 Schramm was naturalized. Working to create 'a new musical public', he continued his lunch-hour recitals. Next year he toured Western Australia for the Adult Education Board, taking his Bechstein upright piano. He resumed his evening concerts in March 1949 in Sydney, where one reviewer accused him of having 'debased the musical values of his playing to the point of bankruptcy'. His radio series, 'Presenting Paul Schramm', began in September on station 2GB; he played popular classics by request, performed some of his own jazz-influenced compositions and exchanged banter with the show's compere.

Appalled at the deterioration in his playing, Schramm put music behind him. By 1951 he was investing in property in Sydney to try to make ends meet. A milk-bar venture at Manly in 1952 failed disastrously and in January 1953 he headed north by motorcar. In Brisbane he contemplated a career as a bookmaker 'at the dogs' before obtaining a hawker's licence. He sold clothing from a caravan in south-eastern Queensland and sent money to Diny in New Zealand. Survived by his wife and their son, he died of myocardial infarction on 30 November 1953 at Woolloongabba, Brisbane, and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Schramm was a convivial man, 5 ft 8¾ ins (175 cm) tall and of medium build, with twinkling grey eyes and horn-rimmed spectacles. A chain-smoker, he liked to 'show off' by playing a piano without removing his cigarette from his fingers. Bridge was his favourite pastime. Recordings of his broadcasts demonstrate his powerful technique, his rushed performances and his dry wit. His compositions, mostly unpublished, include operatic, orchestral and chamber works, and a number of short piano-pieces that show the influence of Sergei Prokofiev and Billy Mayerl. A gifted artist, though not of the first rank, he worked hard to 'bring music to the people' of Australasia.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Thomson, Biographical Dictionary of New Zealand Composers (Wellington, 1990)
  • R. Somerville (compiler), Slightly Jazzed (Wellington, 1992)
  • Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4 (Auckland, NZ, 1998)
  • Fontes Artis Musicae, 39, nos 3-4, July-Dec 1992, p 226
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May 1937, 2, 18 July 1938, 16, 18, 22, 29 Mar, 1 Apr, 20 Aug, 26, 27 Sept, 6, 28 Nov 1946, 4 Mar 1947, 3, 5, 10 Mar 1949
  • Sun (Sydney), 2 Dec 1953
  • Schramm papers (National Library of New Zealand)
  • SP1011/2, box 91, SP1558/2, box 20, SP368/1, box 13 (ABC Archives, Sydney)
  • AAAC 489/13870, Paul Schramm, IA1, 115/966, Paul, Diny and Hans Schramm (Archives New Zealand).

Citation details

Ross Somerville, 'Schramm, Leo Paul (1892–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/schramm-leo-paul-11634/text20781, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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