Edward Joseph Collins: An American Composer
BY ERIK ERIKSSON
During his time abroad, Collins maintained an active correspondence beginning the very day of his ship’s departure from New York harbor (initial resistance to mal de mer had evaporated by the second day and he found himself joining other passengers at the rail). His frequent letters to family members included news of activities at the school, concert life in Berlin, and travels with Dr. Ganz. He and Ganz got along very well and on several occasions traveled to the Ganz home in Switzerland (as for a summer’s worth of study in 1907).
One of Collins’s piano instructors, José Viana Da Mota, proved a demanding pedagogue: “He is a fiery little fellow and I catch it if I do the same thing wrong twice [1 April 1907].” Da Mota, however, thought highly enough of his young American student to ask Ferruccio Busoni if he would take him on as a student that summer, but Busoni’s commitments in Vienna and Collins’s plans with Ganz made that impossible.
Collins’s Berlin debut in 1911, in which he performed Schumann’s C Major Fantasy and the Handel Variations by Brahms, drew this comment from the Tägeliche Rundschau critic: “He played... in such a spirit of natural romanticism and with such youthful exuberance that it was a joy to follow him.” The writer concluded by avowing that, “If this genuinely musical talent continues to develop, it will fill the most sanguine expectations.” The Lokal Anzeiger noted, “He impresses as a musician of feeling” and Der Reichsanzeiger ventured that “he goes about his work with a freshness and vigor that gives character to his performances, besides being at all times supported by his splendid technical equipment.”
Collins returned to the United States in the fall of 1912 and began to play in major Eastern cities, winning such comments as “appealed as a discovery” (Boston), “... he possesses the kind of ability that wins an audience” (Detroit) and “interpreted with much poetic charm” (Philadelphia).
After talking with his sister Catherine Hoffman (Ernestine Schumann-Heinck’s accompanist for thirty-five years) about the possibility of a joint tour, Collins found himself booked on a double bill with the celebrated contralto. Following their tour of Europe and America, Collins was appointed an assistant conductor of the Century Opera Company in New York (1912-1913).
Returning to Europe alone in 1914, Collins was engaged as an assistant conductor at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, where his duties included playing the timpani as well as conducting. Records at that bastion of Gesamtkunstwerk tell us only that Collins was a working assistant conductor, but, considering the cloistered and often xenophobic atmosphere there, the young American must have been regarded as a highly competent musician. While, in accordance with his title, he did not conduct public performances, his skills as a pianist proved of great value in working with singers and preparing productions.
Collins’s Bayreuth career coincided with a shock to German culture as Siegfried Wagner announced the placing of the entire Wagner legacy (including the Wagner home—Wahnfried, the archives, the Festspielhaus itself, and all the attendant funding) into a “Richard Wagner Foundation for the German People.” Richard Wagner’s son had taken this pre-emptive move in order to prevent the threat of a family lawsuit from jeopardizing the festival’s future. In 1914, the outbreak of hostilities in Europe necessitated Collins’s return to America.
On 1 August 1914 (he recalled fourteen years to the day later), he was visiting “in Franzenbad and late in the afternoon went back to Bayreuth to find that general mobilization has been ordered. What a day and what was to follow!”
On the evening of August 1, Karl Muck conducted a final performance of Parsifal after which the Festspielhaus was closed for the duration of the First World War.