Amelia Roosevelt headshot

Amelia Roosevelt

Violinist, and Co-founder and Administrative Director, Repast Baroque Ensemble

Despite playing the violin since she was six-years-old, Amelia “Amie” Roosevelt, great granddaughter to Franklin D. Roosevelt, was adamant that ‘professional musician’ was not the career path she wanted for herself. At Swarthmore College, Amie majored in German literature and Religion with the intent to pursue a career in academia. But music continued to be a large part of her life, even during her study abroad experience in Freiburg where she was a member of the University of Freiburg’s Academic Orchestra. Eventually, she realized music was what she wanted to do. Now a professional violinist, Amie shares how her experience in Freiburg influenced her approach to music and paved the way for her return to Germany for work.

IES Abroad: How did you decide to study abroad and why did you choose Freiburg?

Amelia Roosevelt: I had gone to a music festival in Chautauqua, New York, and I immediately made friends with a young woman from Germany. We played in the orchestra together and lived in the same housing. She started making friends with all of the opera singers from around the world because they wanted to practice their German with her. So, I met all of these opera singers who were speaking all of these different languages. At that point, I had never been to Europe. I had taken some Spanish and French in school, but I had never really thought about languages as being fun and exciting. Through this atmosphere at Chautauqua, learning German was really fun, and I got the idea to study German in college. My new friend gave me advice on where to study in Germany and mentioned that Freiburg was a really nice place. In fact, she was going to study at the university there. I decided to enroll in the IES Abroad program because I wanted to transfer the credits back to my college, Swarthmore. The combination of my having a good friend in Freiburg and IES Abroad having a great program made Freiburg a good choice. 

IES Abroad: How did you grow during your time in Freiburg?

AR: I didn’t realize that I had a good ear for languages. I had not been particularly good at languages studying in high school. It makes a huge difference to be immersed in it. My housing was arranged by IES Abroad, and I had an American roommate, Christa, whose mother was German and only spoke German at home. She and I decided to only speak German to one another. I really didn’t speak English much during the whole time I was in Freiburg. We were in a Catholic dorm with other students and spoke only German with them, and I only spoke German with my musician friends. When I spoke with my parents later that spring, they commented that I had a German accent!

IES Abroad: What are some of your greatest memories from your time in Freiburg?

AR: One of them was living in the dorm with other German speakers. The dorm was divided between the women’s and the men’s section, but there wasn’t enough room on the women’s side, so Christa and I took an attic room on the men’s side. We ate in the kitchen with all of these guys. It was really fun sharing our meals with them. Many of them were theology students, Lutheran and Catholic. The other great memory was playing in the Academic Orchestra, which was the University of Freiburg’s orchestra. It wasn’t a music school orchestra, but it was all of these incredibly talented musicians who were studying mostly other things at the university, like me. It was a really great part of my experience there.

IES Abroad: You come from one of America’s most famous families. Especially given the critical role your great grandfather, Franklin D. Roosevelt played in WWII, upon hearing your name, how did the Europeans react to you?

AR: I tend to go through life playing that down. In a lot of cases, it really wasn’t noticed. My name is a valid Dutch name, so Europeans don’t assume that I’m part of a presidential family. They just assume that I am an American with Dutch heritage. In the couple of instances when I was asked, some people would express some disappointment that FDR wasn’t tougher in negotiations with Stalin. It was interesting hearing perspectives of FDR as a post-World War II, post Hitler negotiator. Most had much less perspective about what FDR did in the States, what he did after the Great Depression, or what the New Deal was. Their perspective was the post WWII map more than anything. Sometimes, I’d meet people whose parents or grandparents were active in the resistance. They had great respect for FDR and what he did to motivate Americans to try to do something about the War and end the Holocaust.

IES Abroad: You majored in German Literature and Religion at Swarthmore but also studied music. Tell us about your breadth of interests. Did the classes you took in Freiburg influence you?

AR: Yes, they did. When I was in Freiburg, I was playing a lot. I played in the Academic Orchestra, a string quartet, and in a festival. I didn’t take regular music lessons for that semester, which was really the first time since I was six years old when I didn’t have weekly lessons. This was good because I spent more time living there. And, of course, it took quite a bit of time to do the German homework and the theology work in German. It would have been a socially less fun time for me had I been taking music lessons. That was a good break from my trajectory that I really enjoyed.

The theology classes I took were very eye opening. When I choose my major of Religion, I was really interested in comparative religions and these different systems of beliefs. I was also interested in anthropology and philosophy. Religion became a way to deal with all of these questions and interesting cultural differences. The religion students at the University of Freiburg thought that I was an unusual phenomenon. In Germany, especially at that time, you didn’t study comparative religion from a distant standpoint – trying to understand it from an intellectual perspective. You studied religion because you were religious and you wanted to become a pastor or an important theologian. It was all about your belief. There was no other student in my classes who wasn’t a real believer. It was an interesting perspective coming from this East Coast, private, totally intellectual college where people ponder the different religions. That was completely new to me! 

IES Abroad: When you first arrived in Freiburg, did you have any career goals in mind?

AR: I played the violin since I was six years old, was very serious about it all through high school, and had some experiences at the conservatory level while in high school. I spent a lot of my youth thinking that this was tough and ultra-competitive. People were getting tendonitis and were not really having a good time because they were practicing too much. I tried not to go the professional musician route because I felt that it was more interesting and fulfilling to do more academic things. I was thinking that I would do graduate work in German literature or religion, so I kept trying to focus on those things. I finally realized, after trying very hard not to become a professional musician, that this is what I wanted to do with my life.

IES Abroad: In what ways did study abroad impact your career path and approach to music?

AR: Any experience that you have outside of being a musician helps your musicianship. It was really refreshing to be in a culture where classical music is part of the culture. I feel that Europeans approach music in a larger way. They consider music to be part of a bigger culture. They think it is related to painting. They think it is related to literature. They think it is related to language. This is probably the biggest thing that I got from studying there. The language that the composer speaks comes through in the composition. There are German groups who play a lot of German music, French groups playing a lot of French music, and Italians playing a lot of Italian music. Everyone will acknowledge, “We like Italian music and will play Italian music, but those Italians have something in their language that helps them play it better.” Especially French versus German where the languages are so different, they acknowledge that connection between the language and actual music making.

IES Abroad: You have played with several German ensembles. How did your improved German language skills and opportunities to explore music while in Freiburg impact these engagements?

AR: It was very important. I lived in Cologne from 1998 to 2001 and had studied Baroque violin in Amsterdam from 1997, traveling often to Cologne where I was part of a regular chamber orchestra and a string quartet. Just being quite fluent in German made a huge difference in my ability to feel like a real part of that group. Germans have a very strict code of who you address in the formal and who you address in the informal. For example, in my chamber orchestra, I learned that freelance musicians working together in a group like that you address them in the informal, by their first name. It is important to the bonding process. This is not true if you have a permanent position in an orchestra. Even if you sit next to them and they are the same age, you address them in the formal. My German was subtle enough to understand these differences and what that meant in German society. I was really happy for that.

IES Abroad: How did study abroad influence you personally?

AR: Studying abroad made me realize how great it is to go and live in a different city. I was open to more travel and gained an understanding of how you adjust, how you pick up language, and how you make connections with people in foreign countries. It gave me a lot of confidence. Up to that point, I had had one and a half years of college in a pretty protected environment. I developed confidence just living there and came to appreciate that German students my age were not living in dorms. Rather, they found a room in an apartment. They bought groceries, cooked, and cleaned up after themselves. So when I went the following semester to India, I felt more mature. While some things were scary, I thought that I could handle it. I had skills for handling unusual situations and how to maneuver.

IES Abroad: What is one thing you learned while abroad that remains a constant in your life?

AR: When I studied abroad, I was so enthusiastic about Germany and Europe, in general, and about going to a different culture with a strong music tradition where the people were necessarily deeper. People my age had all grown up with the aftermath of World War II and the consequences of what their country had done, what their leader had done. They were still largely hated by other Europeans. I was taken by how meaningful life was for them and how much they had had to deal with collective war guilt. Also at that time, in the 1980s before the economic boom had happened, there was less materialism, which I really appreciated. They were environmentally very aware. I still think about these issues. The habits and awareness that I got from that time, I still keep.

When I went back to Germany to work, I considered staying in Germany for a long, long time. I decided not to. For me, personally, I learned a lesson. Looking at the many good things as there are about other places, you tend to see your own country’s problems and systems that don’t work. It’s been interesting to me to have idealized the German culture and then realize that everything has its pros and cons. There is no ideal society. It is important to take from other societies what you want and to appreciate them, but for me, it is also important to appreciate here. You can make communities wherever you are and find people you have things in common with. It is important to also find people you DON’T have things in common with and live with them. When I studied in Freiburg, I was still in the idealizing phase. Now that I’m older, I appreciate the culture here despite the fact that I don’t love everything about it.