Who was Rita Tritter? 

Rita Shane in performance
Rita Shane in performance – photographer uncredited, unknown

As many readers will know, the late John Steane was one of the finest writers on the subject of vocal art, and his knowledge was encyclopedic. Seeking to catch him out one day, I asked him, “John, who was Rita Tritter?”. Back came the answer: “Ah yes, she recorded Schoenberg”. She did indeed, his cruelly difficult Herzgewächse, Op. 20, a German version of a French poem by Maeterlinck whose title translates into English as Foliage of the Heart. This atonal work, written in 1911, and set for high soprano, harp, celesta and harmonium, demands among other vocally athletic skills that the singer ascends to a top F. 

Tritter’s recording of the piece was understandably the first, and is rather buried in a two-LP CBS set entitled “The Music of Arnold Schoenberg, Vol 3” [S-72358/59] – a mid-1960s series masterminded and mainly conducted by Robert Craft. Other singers, including Christine Schäfer, have recorded the piece since, but Tritter’s singing has extraordinary clarity and beauty of tone, while the contrasting timbres of the three instruments provide a piquant, highly atmospheric accompaniment. 

Columbia Masterworks M2S 709 (2LP box set)
Columbia Masterworks M2S 709 (2LP box set) Schoenberg: Herzgewachse, Op. 20 Rita Tritter, soprano; with George Silfies (celeste), Paul Jacobs (harmonium) and Laura Newell (harp) recorded @ 1964

When I played the recording at a meeting of the august and highly conservative Vocal Arts Society, the then chair rather pointedly said that he would like to hear Tritter in other repertoire. As an omnivorous record collector he possibly had, since thanks now to boundless information on the Internet we now know that Rita Tritter was in fact Rita Shane (1936-2014). Shane had a very respectable career as a leading soprano in a wide variety of roles at the Met for ten seasons, as well as appearing at the Chicago Lyric, San Francisco, Santa Fe and other American operatic centres. In Europe she sang at the Vienna State Opera, Bavarian State Opera and at Glyndebourne, where her Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte was widely admired. 

She recorded Strauss’s Brentano Songs for Louisville’s First Edition label, excerpts from Handel’s Athalia and Rinaldo for RCA and her Marguerite in a live Austrian recording of Les huguenots has been widely admired. 

So why did Rita Shane record Herzgewächse under her married name? She was then at the beginning of her career, so making a contribution to quite a prestigious project could have enhanced her name. Did she think that to record Schoenberg might brand her as a specialist in repertoire she was not then keen to pursue? It would be interesting to know. 

See more in the Fall 2022 Issue (available in subscriber accounts) on Page 73!