A Documentary Biography
By Beaumont Glass
(Bolded text is either reinstated, updated, or new text that did not appear in the original 1988 publication.)
A Look into the Mirror
On May 9, 1945, Germany surrendered, unconditionally; on August 14, 1945, V-J Day, World War II was over.
The devastation in much of Europe was indescribable. Block after block of what had been Berlin was nothing now but piles of rubble, roofless, windowless walls, full of gaping shell-holes. Many other once-proud cities were hideous, burned-out shells, nauseating, mind-numbing spectacles of desolation and despair.
Americans can be proud of the philosophy that gave birth to the Marshall Plan. How rarely, in the history of warfare, the victor helps the vanquished to rebuild! Whether inspired by altruism or enlightened self-interest or both, such aid to former enemies was unprecedented in its scale, and in the genuine spirit of good will with which most Americans accepted and applauded that nobly humanitarian policy.
Lotte had a one-woman Marshall Plan of her own.
As soon as the war was over, she began the work of establishing contact with old friends and colleagues. No sooner had she tracked down an address, than she sent off a package of food and clothing. Long before CARE had been organized, Frances was wrapping bundles and lugging them to the post office. Then, later, a large part of Lotte’s concert earnings went into CARE packages. Hers were the first to reach Vienna, according to the testimony of many grateful recipients.
Lotte was deeply moved by the heart-wrenching tales of personal loss and deprivation that poured into her mailbox. But one letter cheered her immensely. Alfred Muzzarelli, an old friend and colleague from Vienna Opera days, had finally found the head-tones he had been searching for during all the years they were singing together. The opera house was gutted. St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the symbol of Vienna, had been bombed. The old world was in ruins. But Muzzarelli had found heaven at last! Those elusive high notes were finally his.
Other letters were less gratifying. Some old colleagues seemed to have learned all too little from the lessons of the war. Although professionally Lotte had left them far behind on the road to a career, she had never forgotten Magda Lohse and Annemarie Birkenström, her fellow page boys in so many performances in Hamburg, back in 1910. Annemarie had emigrated to America, Magda had stayed behind. Lotte was overjoyed to re-establish contact with Magda after the war; but she was evidently not very reassured by something her old friend had said, and reproached her in the following words:
Dear, good Magda, I know that you were fervently anti-Nazi; I remember the foolhardy letters in which you always used to ridicule the régime, to the point where I was sometimes afraid that if they would read your letters carefully you might land in a concentration camp… so I know that you personally can never have approved of the atrocities that were committed “in the name of Germany.” But how is it possible that you can speak as though the German people were persecuted innocents? If I had lived in Germany during that time, I should know that no punishment could be hard enough after such inhumanities… Sometimes I thought: “Oh, it couldn’t be as bad as they say, everything is being painted blacker for propaganda purposes….” But the [Nürnberg] trials have proved that it was all true. Things have come out that could make one want to shoot oneself rather than live in an age in which such things are possible… It pierced me deeply, when you said that no other people could have accomplished what Germans have accomplished. Oh, dear Magda, that is the kind of attitude that gave birth to a Hitler!!! This eternal arrogant sense that “we are better than the others”—that has brought on everything… Oh, open your eyes! I am far removed from any politics—but I have lived in many lands, and I know what it means to be able to breathe in a free country….
I sound as if I’m on a soapbox; forgive me. But that you can talk like that, you with your high intelligence, that makes me really shudder.
I was born and bred a German. But I do not like to think that I come from a country where such cruelties were possible. I want to be a free American always. Amen.
Three months later, the subject came up for discussion again:
Everything you tell me about Germany naturally interests me very much; and I have to believe you, for I know that you always tell the truth. I cannot understand that people who lived in the vicinity of the concentration camps should not have heard or seen anything and spread the news about that reign of terror. It is all so inconceivable, that one really cannot understand the world any more.
Lotte was deeply depressed by conditions in the land of her birth and in Austria, her home for so many wonderful years. That depression naturally took its toll in physical terms. Her nerves were frayed; there were frequent hemorrhages of the vocal cords.
Nevertheless, she continued to force herself into concert trim; her art as a lieder singer was deepening every year, and her repertoire was constantly expanding. Now that she had closed the door on her opera career, she gave herself completely to the Lied. Lotte found joy in new discoveries. Her explorations along the byways turned up many unfamiliar masterpieces, which then enriched her programs. If she had earlier been mildly reproached for singing too many “chestnuts,” now her managers had to remind her to throw in a few, at least as encores. They asked for more sugar in her programs, to please the general public; the connoisseurs, however, were jubilant. She began to educate her audiences, who were becoming more and more sophisticated and knowing, thanks in part to her pioneering, to the interest she herself had helped to awaken.
Thanks also to her new book. That remarkable treatise on the interpretation of lieder, More Than Singing, was published in 1945 and soon ran to several printings. Although her views were not uncontroversial, that book helped to spread an awareness of the wonders one can find in a Lied. It opened a door to deeper understanding. It showed that there is infinitely more in a song by Schubert or Wolf than a more or less pleasing melody with words. And that the singer needs more than a voice. That the eyes, for instance, are indispensable tools of expression.
Lotte describes how an interpretation can be built up, based upon a thorough inner understanding of the story or picture that gave birth to the song, and suggests ways in which that interpretation can be communicated to the listeners. She analyzes eighty-one individual songs and five cycles from the point of view of expression. She demonstrates possible ways of externalizing inner feelings, so that they can be projected to the audience. Her interpretation is not imposed from the outside in, so to speak; the singer is urged to develop an interpretation from the inside out, through awareness of the hidden meanings and the possibilities for expressing them.
Here, as an example, is her interpretation of Schubert’s wonderful song, “Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”):
This Lied is for me one of the most beautiful treasures of our whole musical literature. The deep emotion that flows through it like a stream of warm gold, is overwhelming in its extreme simplicity. Sing it simply, sing it as you would a prayer. Sing it with folded hands.
Imagine that you are weary of life and wounded perhaps by a bitter disappointment. You are sitting by a window, your head buried in your hands. Looking up from out of a deep melancholy you suddenly see before you the beauty of the sunset and you awaken to its overwhelming loveliness.
This is the atmosphere of the prelude. As it begins raise your head which has been slightly bowed. Your eyes open. With an exquisite joy you realize that all your sorrows have been meaningless and insignificant. The glow of the setting sun is like a gateway opening upon heaven—and peace and eternal beauty flood your heart. You feel that God is very near you—so near, that you speak to Him, calling Him simply “Father”….
Begin with a soft voice—in a lovely legato—breathe after “Vater.” Make a warm crescendo at “wenn das Rot, das in der Wolke blinkt” [“when the red that gleams in the clouds”] and go back into the most subtle pianissimo “in mein stilles Fenster sinkt” [“falls through my quiet window”]. The short interlude of two bars is your expression of prayerful gratitude.
Begin the second verse with a slightly quickened tempo—but without disturbing the never-changing floating legato—: “Könnt’ ich klagen” [“Could I complain?”]…etc. The sorrows which had wounded you, the melancholy which had oppressed you, are now almost ununderstandable in the light of this mood of inner contentment. Sing crescendo “Könnt’ ich zagen” [“could I despair?”] and then again piano “irre sein an dir und mir?” [“be confused about Thee and me?”] This piano is the expression of a hesitant and almost shameful confession: yes, I doubted—I complained—I was afraid. But all that is now over. I am myself again—the child of God, who gave so much beauty to this world in showing the image of His heaven in the golden sunset there before my eyes….
Sing now with a warm and soft ecstasy, with a beautiful crescendo from “Nein, ich will” to “Himmel schon allhier” [“No, I want to hold in my heart Thy heaven which is already all around me here”]. It is like an oath, like a holy confirmation which shall bind your earthbound soul to Heaven: understanding the grace of God you take into your heart God’s Heaven.
Sing “und dies Herz, eh’ es zusammenbricht” [“and this heart, before I die”] with a warm piano. You are thinking: I shall fill my heart with heavenly beauty. May it be like a cup from which I may taste eternal glory. I shall drink the glow of its warmth—the clarity of its light….
Build up the beautiful words with love and care: make use of the consonants in “trinkt,” “Glut,” “schlürft,” and “Licht.” Paint this phrase with music and word…. Your expression should remain ecstatically elated throughout the postlude.
Frances remembers that often at Orplid, when late-afternoon sunlight was gilding the trees, Lotte would sit at a window, looking out at all the beauty, and softly sing that song.
The book was meant to be a guide, not a blueprint. It has made a major contribution to the understanding of the art of song interpretation in general, extending far beyond the special field of lieder.
Most of More Than Singing was written in trains while Lotte was on tour. Every day a progress report went back to Hope Ranch.
Dear Frances, this is a terrible train; it jiggles like crazy, I feel absolutely as if I am a medicine bottle….
Frances made the translation. No easy task. Lotte had a weakness for adjectives, especially for strings of them. Naturally, every one of them added its own nuance to what she wanted to say. Those clusters may have sounded normal enough to German ears, accustomed to Schlangenworte (“snake-words”), constructed by joining any number of words together to form a new concept; to Frances, however, it seemed less than stylistic to write in English a phrase like this: “in a tender, breathless, silvery, floating pianissimo….”
One day Frances forgot to pack the little book of words that Lotte had up until then always held in her hands for security. (She used to change the cover to match her concert gown.) Now, suddenly without it, she realized how expressive her hands could be, freed of that booklet. So much could be conveyed through the way she would hold them, whether lightly or tightly clasped, whether relaxed or tense, whether nearer to her breast or reaching forward. She never made a gesture, in the theatrical sense. Her fingers remained entwined. But she found infinitely subtle variations. She never used a booklet again.
In the first season after the war Lotte sang twenty-seven recitals, six of them in New York City.
The next season there was a falling-off. As the CARE packages flew eastward and more and more pathetic letters made their way to Santa Barbara, she found herself suffering vicariously with her friends in Europe.
It was a while before Lotte could even consider going back for a visit. She dreaded having to face the reality of so much destruction in places that once had been dear to her. Tears came so easily now. Besides, she would be expected to sing. Would her former fans overlook the ravages of time in a voice that was still beautiful and haunting but had lost some of its splendor at the top?
Lotte had developed a complex about her age. “It is easy to be wise on the stage as the Marschallin,” she said, “but in real life I feel rebellion, not wisdom.”
Bruno Walter asked her to sing in the Edinburgh Festival of 1947 and offered to be her accompanist on a European tour. After some soul-searching, she agreed and programs were discussed. Would Winterreise be too gloomy for a festive occasion?
No sooner were the contracts signed then panic took hold. As the summer drew nearer Lotte became more and more nervous. In April she wrote Walter that she must have been “an idiot” to accept a European engagement.
It soon became clear that her health was in jeopardy. Her nerves would not survive the strain. On the advice of her doctor, she canceled.
Her self-confidence was at its lowest ebb. Then, out of the blue, came an offer from MGM to make a motion picture. That was just what Lotte needed, a new interest, a new challenge. She had always dreamed of the chance to be an actress without having to worry about her voice. Little by little her old vitality began to return.
When Bruno Walter heard the news that Lotte had signed a contract to make a movie during the time they would have been performing together, he was shocked and hurt. He jumped to the conclusion that she had turned down Edinburgh for Hollywood.
Lotte was too upset at first to reply. Frances wrote to confirm her precarious condition. Finally Lotte was able to speak for herself:
Dear and honored Bruno — I was so unhappy about your letter and so near the verge of a nervous breakdown that I couldn’t answer you right away and Frances wrote for me…. You must believe me that I did not give up that tour frivolously. I had been very ill for months…. I know that you are a better, nobler human being than I am; but please do not believe that I bear lightly the burden of this very unhappy matter. On the contrary, I have been simply crushed by a chain of circumstances that has trapped me in a spiderweb…. I know that I am losing Europe right now. Although I feel at home in America, it hurts me, nevertheless, to have to give up my old homeland, perhaps never again to return there as a singer. But what can I do?
A few months later, after having made the movie, Lotte wrote him again:
I have heard from several sides that you aren’t angry with me any more for my European cancellation. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I canceled: I could not have survived the emotions…. To see horrible deprivation, constantly to meet old acquaintances and hear about their terrible experiences and not to be able to help!!! It would have been frightful. I admire you with all my heart that you are even going back to Vienna. It is a great and noble sacrifice that you are making.
Bruno Walter’s answer was charming:
Many thanks for your lovely letter. Of course I’m not angry with you. How could anyone be? In spite of all my talent for resentment and my inclination toward anger, you will always keep your place in the Californian Zone of my inner climate.
I am very eager to get to know you in your new capacity as a movie actress. I scarcely expect that you will reach the deep effectiveness of my speaking scene in the Carnegie Hall film, during which the cameraman was so moved that he dropped his equipment. But, seriously, I have full confidence in you and find it admirable and very gratifying that you could channel your overflowing talent in this new direction….
Your old friend
At MGM, Lotte was as excited as a child at the circus, as in this letter to her dear friend Edward Ziegler of the Met:
…And so I always dreamed about acting, dreams flavored with resignation, not with hope. Now comes a fulfillment! This role is really a very interesting one. The singing is very much a side issue. But the part is warm and human and quite effective…. I play a Jewish grandmother, not exactly a “glamour girl.” But my adopted grandchild is the charming little Margaret O’Brien…. We have rented a house in Beverly Hills because I have to be there for three months. Next week the “shooting” starts. I am as excited as if I were a beginner on the stage. By the way, first they wanted to give me a month of training—they treated me slightly like a feeble-minded prima donna. Thank heaven after my test (which was a great success) nobody talked any more about “training” me. The camera man said that I could not fool him. Now I have talked enough about me—but you must understand that I am so filled to the brim with this excitement about the movie that I just cannot talk about anything else. It will not surprise you when I tell you that they will hate me soon, because I have too many ideas….
The title of the film was Big City. Lotte played a character part opposite Margaret O’Brien, the famous child-star. Danny Thomas, the popular comedian, was given a straight dramatic role as Lotte’s son. George Murphy and Robert Preston were also starred. Every now and then the film shows up on late-night television.
Several opportunities to sing had been written into the script for Lotte, and the songs were later released in a record album. There was the Brahms “Lullaby” and a vocal version of Schumann’s piano piece, “Träumerei” (about as close to lieder as Hollywood was likely to come in those days), also “The Kerry Dance,” and, as part of a grand finale that was later partly cut, “God Bless America,” which Lotte sang with all her famous fervor.
Gwendolyn Koldofsky recalls having seen Big City in a Los Angeles movie theatre. It was just an ordinary showing, one of many “continuous performances.” She was astonished and delighted that the audience broke into applause after each of Lotte’s numbers.
Lotte described to Bruno Walter how she felt about her new experience:
A real acting role, without music, has always, always been my dream. I wanted to test myself, to see whether I am a true “actress” or whether I can only act when I am borne along by the music. All singers have failed—you remember that as an actress even Gutheil [Marie Gutheil-Schoder] was good only in opera. So the chance to play a real character role in the film was a temptation I couldn’t resist. The part was actually written for Ethel Barrymore—the singing was only added after Pasternak decided to give the part to a singer. I must say, I enjoyed the whole thing immensely. Every profession has its shadow side. The eternal waiting around is naturally dreadful—and the purely mechanical process of being photographed from various angles is not very enjoyable. But all the preliminary work with the director (Norman Taurog) was very satisfying artistically. He allowed me complete freedom. It is curious: not for a moment did I feel at all strange in front of the camera. And if the movie public will like me as well as the people at MGM seem to do, then I may have a career in front of me…. Not bad for a woman of sixty.
After seeing herself on the screen, Lotte was decidedly less enthusiastic:
I saw “my” film and found myself ghastly. I look so absolutely convincing as an old grandmother that I get nauseated when I see myself. Funny, that a woman finds it so hard to let go…. If I ever have to look at more movies of me (though I have every intention never to admire myself again), I will have to learn the art of resignation….
Among the children of her literary imagination, Lotte’s personal favorite, Heaven, Hell, and Hollywood, never found a publisher. It is a fantasy combining movieland satire and affectionate caricatures of famous colleagues—with mystical speculation about the afterlife.
She also wrote an article, My Hollywood Adventure, part of a loose collection of memoirs to which she made additions from time to time. Here are some excerpts:
I had always heard that in Hollywood there was money lying on the streets and all one had to do was simply sweep it up. It was my bad luck to come along just at the time the movie industry was beginning to tighten its belt. But they told me there were great possibilities in my role and a big dramatic scene for me at the end.
Like a little beginner, I had to go to a coach to study the dialogue.
Margaret O’Brien was such a sweet child that I sometimes wondered whether she was really so naïve, after having made so many films, or just acting as if she were….
She could cry on command. In one scene I heard her ask the director, in that bright child-voice of hers, which never quite convinced me of its genuineness: “Mr. Taurog, shall I be crying already when the scene begins, or shall I gradually start to cry?”
“You’re crying already.”
“Just a moment, please.”
She swallowed a couple of times and then two big tears rolled down her thin little cheeks and Taurog called out: “Camera!”
My special friend was Jack, the make-up man. I also had a tearful scene to play and was scared to death of it. But he comforted me and said he would be standing by with a tear-inducer; I would only have to sniff it to start the tears flowing. I found that a swindle, and decided that if that little Margaret could do it I could too. And I did!
Everyone showered me with praise. Mr. [Louis B.] Mayer, then still the president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, said I was the greatest screen mother in the world. Everyone prophesied a future for me in films that would make my entire singing career crawl off into a corner, ashamed. I must confess that it all went a bit to my head. For the first time in my life I had fits of megalomania. No wonder, when one is constantly hearing murmurs of deep admiration at every little insignificant scene….
Lotte bought a house near Hollywood, on a steep hill, 2,000 feet above the city, and began to make plans for other movies. Several scripts were discussed. One would co-star Kathryn Grayson. Another would be filmed in Tahiti. (That one was later reborn as an Esther Williams swimming extravaganza—without Lehmann.)
Naturally I thought I had Hollywood in my pocket, and was quite astonished when my contract was not renewed. The film was not a success. Therefore it was soon forgotten that I was “the greatest screen mother in the world.”
For years movies had been one of Lotte’s favorite forms of relaxation. In the 1930s, like almost everyone else she had been fascinated by Garbo. Now Bette Davis was the screen star who impressed her most deeply. On tour in Denver she happened to see Davis in Deception, and wrote her impressions to Frances:
You have to see it. Davis is wonderful. I have to add her to my manuscript, at the place where I talk about the expressive face of Katharine Cornell. There I would like to say: “And among movie actresses I most admire Bette Davis for her vivid expressiveness. Her face, which can be breathtakingly beautiful, is often quite contorted with emotion, almost inhuman in the grip of hysteria, but always full of life and fierce temperament.” Something like that.
Lotte was working on a new book at that time. More Than Singing had been devoted to the interpretation of lieder; My Many Lives now dealt with her understanding of the characters she had portrayed in opera. There are chapters on each of her favorite roles, interspersed with diverting digressions, anecdotes, reminiscences, advice. Her insights are illuminating, uncanny. It is as if she really had lived those “lives.” Some critics have dismissed the book as another retelling of opera stories; that is a totally superficial view. Lehmann gives us the thoughts and feelings, the psychology of the characters, explored in depth, seen from the inside out. What other singer has done that so eloquently? Here, for instance, are Elisabeths’s reactions to the Contest of Song, a scene in which she has not a note to sing, and then her defense of Tannhäuser:
Elisabeth listens to Wolfram with great interest. His song pleases her immensely. When his words, “I lift my eyes to only one of the stars” are clearly directed to her, when his eyes, filled with tenderness, are raised to her declaring his deep and reverent love, her glance is lowered. She has realized for a long time that Wolfram loves her. She respects him, she has the friendliest feeling for him—but her whole heart belongs to Tannhäuser. She is unhappy that she must hurt Wolfram, her wonderful noble-hearted friend. But she cannot help it. One must feel that Elisabeth is kind, that it hurts her to cause him unhappiness.
Elisabeth pays no attention to Tannhäuser while Wolfram is singing. Had she done so, his reaction to Wolfram’s words would have disquieted her: through this song extolling love, Tannhäuser, who has barely escaped from the sensual charms of a Venus, is again transported to the ecstasies which he had freely and gladly forsaken. While he is deeply touched by Elisabeth’s innocence he has lost the ability to love without desire. His whole being is pervaded by the fascination of Venus—her spell has not lost its hold over him, her wiles have for ever destroyed his purity. Looking up at Elisabeth, so lovely as she sits upon her throne with such dignity and radiant purity, he begins to feel a violent desire for her, a desire such as he had for Venus…. Venus and Elisabeth become one in his thoughts and desires.
Wolfram extols love as the source of pure joy; he extols renunciation…. But Tannhäuser finds this passion for renunciation quite ridiculous. He covets what he loves.
Elisabeth listens with increased agitation as he begins to sing. Her bearing and her radiant smile express the deepest concentration. She listens to his words without really taking in their meaning. His cynicism is so completely foreign to her being that she really has no idea what he is saying. She hears the sound of the words, she hears the enchanting quality of his voice and is enraptured.
When Tannhäuser finishes there is an embarrassing silence. Elisabeth who would like to applaud vigorously is restrained by a slight gesture from the Landgraf [her uncle]—and looking around she notices with surprise that the nobles seem wrapped in a gloomy silence, a silence indicative of a harsh judgment….
Walter’s song is a sharp reproof to Tannhäuser. Elisabeth, listening to him with horror, sees with increasing amazement that all the others seem in accord with him. Questioningly she turns towards Tannhäuser. From now on he is completely under the spell of his passion. An expression of scorn flashes from his eyes…. He waits impatiently for Walter to finish so that he may start a new song which is frivolous and cynical. Elisabeth begins to understand but is again reassured by his words—words which she misinterprets: “To praise God in unattainable sublimity, look up to Heaven, look up to His stars.” That is the language with which she is familiar! To speak of God, of the sublimity of the heavens…. So with a deep breath she straightens up — joy in his song again seems to fill her with rapture. But suddenly it dawns upon her that these words which had seemed so noble and good were only the introduction to the song which now pours in a flood of passion from her beloved’s disturbed mind. Certainly she does not entirely understand his words, but she feels their inherent impurity, she senses the strange world from which Tannhäuser speaks to her—a world which she cannot and will not enter….
As he says “enter the mountain of Venus” Elisabeth collapses upon the throne.
But this collapse should not be an indication of any inner weakness: a world falls in ruins before her, the world of her happiness, the world of her faith in him whom she loves and whom she has supposed to be pure and noble. In this moment she must seem to age years: she has learned the meaning of sin. Sin, which until now had been nothing more than a word, now stares at her from the eyes of her beloved. At the same time a torturing fear rises within her: she knows the harsh laws of her country…. With this realization Elisabeth awakens: with an effort she rises, fighting her weakness with superhuman strength. She must save him…. Consumed by anxiety she watches the action of the knights…. She plunges between their drawn swords and Tannhäuser, protecting him at the risk of her own life.
One must consider what it meant in this period for a woman, a virgin, to take the part of a sinful man so fearlessly. She, the child of a duke, defends an outcast…. The knights, unable to understand her, yield in horror.
It now must be another Elisabeth, an altered Elisabeth, who struggles to save Tannhäuser. She has lost all her shyness, her reticence is transformed into glowing action, her dreaminess into passionate challenge. Filled with the realization that it is not God’s will to punish in the way in which the world punishes, knowing that God has chosen her to speak for him, to plead for him, she bares her heart before these men, confessing her love. A love which is magnanimous enough to forgive, a love which rises above earthly grief, a love which has become an intercessor, a love which will not cease to hope and to believe…. Until the end of her plea Elisabeth seems apart from reality: she is love transfigured as prayer, she is sacrifice and passionate renunciation.
What a lesson! Not just for potential Elisabeths, but for any actor—singing or otherwise—who wants to dig more deeply into a role, or soar into higher regions of spiritual radiance. The historical Elisabeth was a saint. Wagner has captured the essence of her being in two resonant phrases: “Der Mut des Glaubens“—The courage of faith—and “Mein Leben sei Gebet!”—may prayer become my life!
Lawrence Gilman, once the leading music critic for The New York Herald-Tribune, wrote about Lehmann’s Elisabeth (and some of her other roles) in his book, Wagner’s Operas:
For many New Yorkers, the experience of a closer approach to the greatness of Tannhäuser will undoubtedly be associated for years with Lotte Lehmann’s incarnation of the character of Elisabeth…an embodiment of rare imaginative truth: the product, obviously, of a long and searching scrutiny of the character, and of a skillful synthesizing of its constituent factors, musical, dramatic, spiritual….
When first I witnessed this performance, I found the word “virginal” in my mind and on my tongue; when I turned afterward to Wagner’s own exposition of the character of his Elisabeth, I was not surprised to discover…that he not only used that word, but that he described this noblest of the women of his imaginative world in terms that might easily have been applied to Lotte Lehmann’s re-creation—had Wagner been so fortunate as to witness it.
“The difficulty in the role of Elisabeth,” he wrote, “is for an actress to give the impression of the most youthful and virginal unconstraint, without betraying how experienced, how delicate a womanly feeling it is that alone can fit her for the task.” And elsewhere he says: “That actress alone can satisfy my aim, who is able to comprehend Elisabeth’s piteous situation, from the first quick budding of her affection for Tannhäuser, through all the phases of its growth, to its final efflorescence as it unfolds itself in her Prayer—and to feel all this with a woman’s finest sensibility.”
…It is one thing to know what an author wants you to do with his creation, and it is quite another thing to be able to fulfill his wishes. Mme. Lehmann accomplishes this unusual feat. She is, for a few enchanted hours, Wagner’s Elisabeth….
The season of 1947-1948 offered twenty recitals, with five each in Chicago and New York. In 1948-1949 there were only ten. This time the reason lay in Lotte. More and more she preferred the calm beauty of Orplid to the racket and the slush of big Eastern cities during the concert season. Now that Lotte was a “movie star,” there were also some unexpected problems.
Movie fans, it seems, were less reticent than their opera-loving counterparts. Lotte describes to Frances a frightening example:
Thank heavens the first recital [Town Hall, February 20, 1949] is over and quite satisfactory…. I was in very good voice in spite of a totally sleepless night: two days before someone called me in the evening and asked if “fans of mine who had seen me in Big City” could visit me. You can imagine my answer. Next day—the day before the concert—at six o’clock in the evening the doorbell rang. I had double-locked the door, Marie [the maid] was not here. I went to the door and asked who it was. First silence. I repeated the question and a man said: “We are great fans of yours, we saw you in Big City and we would like to see you now.”
I said: “Write to me and I will send you autographs.”
But he said very urgently: “Oh no, please, we want to see you personally.”
“No, that is out of the question,” I said; “Please go away.”
I trembled like a leaf, as you can imagine, and went over to the telephone. Suddenly they tried to get in. They turned the doorknob violently and pushed against the door. I called for help through the telephone. I said that someone was trying to break in and they should send up somebody.
In the meantime, Marie came and tried the door…. The boys—three young men—said to her: “We only wanted an autograph”—but they ran away; and when the man from downstairs came (very quickly, I must say) they had disappeared. I was half fainting. I trembled so that I could scarcely stand on my feet. That sort of thing can be harmless; but then it may not be harmless at all.
Now Marie sleeps in the living room, on the sofa. I am too frightened to sleep alone. It may be very harmless—the young people nowadays have no consideration; and being “movie fans,” they are even fresher than generally.
A few days later, on February 24, after a recital in Boston, Lotte was feeling discouraged. Certain songs she had always loved to sing would have to be dropped from her repertoire. It was a hard goodbye.
I have to replace “Cäcilie” [“Cecilia”] with “Zueignung” [“Dedication,” both by Strauss]. “Cäcilie” is surprisingly tiring. I really am too old now. My programs are only good when the songs are floating and soft. But one cannot make programs interesting with soft songs only…. I am a finished story. Never, never shall I be able to sing the Marschallin. I know that….
Europe was trying to tempt her back for some performances of Der Rosenkavalier in 1949. For a while she had even toyed with the idea. But she knew herself too well.
For some months her voice had not felt quite right to her. Her laryngologist assured her that she had “the vocal cords of a young woman.” But she sensed a veil over her voice. Frances (who, as usual now, had stayed behind in Santa Barbara to look after the animals) ascribed the trouble to a too strict reducing diet of grapefruit juice and cottage cheese. Just before her second Town Hall recital, Lotte wrote back home:
My voice has a veil, but I’m not afraid. The vocal cords look all right to me.
She did her best to keep calm. She was relieved to find herself less nervous alone than she had expected to be, and stronger.
I sang well and without the veil today. I am quite unhysterical.
March 1 brought a new accomplishment into Lotte’s life. She felt quite triumphant. For the first time she had balanced her checkbook. She sat there with tears of frustration running down her cheeks, but she finally did it. She was happy to feel that little bit more capable, that little bit less dependent upon Frances.
The March 3 recital at Town Hall made her very happy:
The public went wilder than ever…. They absolutely shrieked. For the first time in my life I have seen Elisabeth [Schumann] excited. She said that she admires me boundlessly….
Before the tour, Lotte had dreaded having to cope with the strains of travel and the nervous excitement of recitals without the moral support of Frances at her side. She was encouraged and reassured to realize that she was doing very well alone. She wanted also to reassure Frances:
I would be much happier if you were with me here in the East. But it makes me feel better to think that I have not lost my independence…. I sometimes felt that I was losing my personality, of which the foremost characteristic has always been: independence, freedom. I always give in to what you say, I always do what you think is right to do. Generally you are right, without any question. But that is not the point. The point is that I had lost the ability to judge. And now I have it back. Don’t be afraid that I shall start being “difficult.” There is no reason for that, and I shall be quite the same. You have lost nothing, I have lost nothing; I have only gained an inner confidence.
Lotte was a bit afraid that Frances might be hurt, thinking she was perhaps less needed than before. But Frances’s answer shows exceptional understanding:
That you should be delighted to find that you can get along by yourself is very understandable. That fact delights me too. It has worried me increasingly how little you arranged for yourself, and I have been terrified as to what would happen if anything happened to me. That you should think you couldn’t make your own judgments without me is of course nonsense, though you are so easily influenced sometimes that I have been concerned as to what might happen if you fell into wrong hands. I don’t want to influence you ever. I want only to show you how I see things and then have you make up your own mind. Often your judgment is better than mine. I think it has been very good for you to be alone, for many reasons. You misunderstood me as much as I you in thinking I could ever be unhappy because you were happy. Let us now rejoice in that new-found independence.
After the third Town Hall recital, Lotte went to visit Toscanini.
Dearest Frances — that man is a miracle. I have no other word. How is it humanly possible that a man of eighty-three had more sex appeal than anybody I know? First, when I came in, he looked rather frail, a little stooped, and somehow so touchingly old in his red house jacket. Signora Carla [his wife] was always there, tripping on unsure feet like a ghost, talking (almost incomprehensibly) and listening and watching and always smiling very benevolently. Two good old people, you would say. Grown old together, belonging to each other, understanding each other. Moving. Touching. But then his eyes, looking at my face, slowly lost the kind and almost absent-minded expression, grew darker, and full of fire—and suddenly the touching old man is a rather dangerous-looking person who makes you feel: this is like old times, this is like Salzburg and Paris and Vienna…. Quite the same old devil, whispering to me: “For heaven’s sake, if only we could be alone….” Can you imagine??? Eighty-three!!!! I can’t get over this!!! On the whole: he is an adorable man and he really and honestly loves me…. He said to me softly again and again: “I love you and I shall love you always, always, as long as I live.” I feel rather silly….
Maestro said to me just now on the telephone that I am very beautiful…. What a pity that he cannot see quite clearly—or better: what a blessing!!!
The reaction of another old friend was less flattering; Lotte wrote Frances that Viola had reproached her with being cold. She was always hurt and surprised when people thought that of her. They were always looking for the same outpouring of love that they felt in her singing. But that side of Lotte belonged to her art. Here is what Frances wrote in reply:
Your letter about Viola distressed me in so far as you say that it makes you feel horrible to think that people think you are cold. In the first place that is nonsense. There is no person on earth who exudes warmth and radiance as you do. That is why everyone who once feels your personality loves you. When Viola or I or Lili [Petschnikoff] or anyone else says you are cold, we mean simply that you are rather impersonal in your reactions to other people. Personally I think that is wonderful, on the whole, even though in a weak moment I may once in a while have a twinge of regret. But those moments are few and far between; and I know that it is only because you are what you are, that companionship with you has become a constantly increasing joy for almost ten years. When one is “warm” as Viola and Lili mean it, there is something unhealthy which weakens one’s affection as time goes on. I am quite sure that Lili, Viola, and some others set themselves up as patterns of warmth. Yet you and I know that at bottom they are not warm but only insecure….
You always like to have your cake and eat it too. Sometimes the cake can be divided and part eaten, part kept. But some cakes aren’t divisible, and one can’t be a great and a petty person at the same time. You are a great person in the real sense of the word, and you shouldn’t waste a moment of regret on the fact that you can’t be little like the rest of us.
On March 9, 1949, Lehmann made her last commercial recordings. Since 1947 she had been back with Victor. On the last records were four French mélodies, her first in that language to be commercially released, and three songs by Richard Strauss. Paul Ulanowsky was again her accompanist. Although some discographies give different dates for some of those songs, Lotte’s letter of March 10 to Frances makes it clear that all seven songs were recorded at that one session. She had planned to do even more, but felt too tired..
There was again little touring in 1949-1950: Pasadena and Berkeley in October; in January and February five recitals in New York (including her 50th at Town Hall), one each in Boston and Chicago. A novelty in New York was Lotte’s exhibition of her ceramic tiles. Those of Der Rosenkavalier sold very well. She took in over a thousand dollars, before deducting expenses.
While in New York, Lotte went to see a matinée of South Pacific, the enormously successful Rogers and Hammerstein musical. She had been curious to see her former colleague, Ezio Pinza, on Broadway. (They had once sung together in Tannhäuser at the Met.) Unfortunately Pinza canceled that performance of South Pacific; but Lotte found Mary Martin “absolutely wonderful; such humor, such charm, so natural, so full of temperament!”
Lotte Lehmann’s last recital tour started on January 28, 1951, with the first of her usual series of programs at New York’s Town Hall, followed four days later with a recital in Washington, D.C.
As usual, Lotte sent Frances the reviews. One of those from Washington had upset her. Frances wrote the following reaction:
It is certainly typical of you that out of three reviews—two of which are ecstatic and rave about you—you only notice the one which was slightly carping. Considering that that one was written by Mr. Gunn, who many years ago said you should be hissed from the stage, or something to that effect, I think he was almost won over. He always loathed anything remotely connected with Germany. That he thought Hahn the only adequate music on the program was enough to make you think him an idiot even if you had forgotten your earlier experience with him. Perhaps his approach to a mild enthusiasm made you think it wasn’t the same man. It was.
After Washington came Hollins College, Virginia.
There was a Winterreise for the New Friends of Music at Town Hall on February 11. Frances sent a telegram:
WITH YOU IN SPIRIT STOP IF CONFIDENCE IN LEHMANN IMPOSSIBLE TRUST AT LEAST IN GOD AND SCHUBERT
The dogs used to send telegrams too, to cheer her up.
Then, on February 16, 1951, Lehmann sang her famous Farewell Recital, her last concert in New York. Although there were still a handful of other recitals to be sung on the West Coast during the months immediately following (and two in Wisconsin on her way back home), the last Town Hall recital was in effect her farewell to her career as a singer.
Three days before, Lotte had written to her friend Claudia Cassidy, the well-known critic in Chicago, explaining the reasons for her irrevocable decision:
…I hate to be one of those aging prima donnas who cannot let go, one of those people who don’t know what to do with their lives after the big, glamorous curtain closes. I want to leave a good memory in the minds and hearts of people who like my singing…. You will say: you have time. Yes, that may be true. But you see, dear Claudia, it has been for some years increasingly difficult to make up programs. I had always to consider which songs are suited to my voice as it is now. I had to be very careful, had to abandon so many lieder which I loved to sing. The nervous tension in me grew into absolute agonies. For weeks before going east I am really ill, shaken with fear, wishing even fervently to break a leg—just not to have to go and to prove to myself that that time approaches when I have to say: this is the finale.
My friends say that I am crazy. They say that I have sung the other day the “Winterreise” as never before. I know better. I never liked to betray. And when I sing nowadays I have the horrible feeling of cheating my public, taking advantage of their kindness and loyalty, which does not allow them to hear with critical ears what I am doing….
Don’t scold me for saying goodbye. Believe me, it is the right thing to do. It seems to me that I would be dreadfully conceited to think that I could go on and on, even if my voice deteriorates….. People say: “You could sing on and on—it is not the voice, it is your interpretation.” But the voice is the instrument on which I play. And this instrument sounds muted to me, dulled and without radiance.
No—oh no! What I do is right!
When Richard Pleasant, a friend and fan, got wind of Lotte’e decision, he persuaded her to let him record the recital. It is a deeply moving document of a landmark event in the Lehmann career.
There was no advance publicity. Only a very small circle of close friends had suspected that this recital might be the last. Even Frances did not know that.
The program started with five Schumann songs. The second group included Mendelssohn, Cornelius, and Wagner.
At the end of the first half, just after Wagner’s Träume, Lotte held up her hand to speak. There was a moment of breathless suspense. This is what she said:
I didn’t announce it before because I don’t like to celebrate my own funeral: but this is my farewell recital in New York.
A roar of “No, no!” rumbled through the hall.
Thank you. I hoped you would protest. But please don’t argue. You see, I started to sing in public in 1910 and after forty-one years of hard work, of anxiety and nervous strain, I think I deserve to take it easy and to relax. I think you know that the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier has always been one of my favorite parts. This Marschallin is a very wise woman. She looks into the mirror, and she says: “It is time!” So I as a singer look into the mirror and I say: “It is time!”
There was again an uproar in the audience. Someone shouted: “Oh no!”
“Oh yes!” said Lotte…
I have made up my mind. These have been very, very happy years which I have sung for you. The Town Hall has always been a kind of home to me, a home which I now reluctantly and sadly have to abandon. My managers have been very nice. Everything they did for me was for my good. They have been my friends and I hope they will remain my friends….
At this point, she thanked Marks Levine, Constance Hope, and Richard Pleasant. Then she turned to her accompanist…
And Paulchen, don’t think I would forget you!
Paul Ulanowsky has been the ideal accompanist for me…
We understood each other musically in perfect harmony, and always when I sang with him it was as if the hands of an angel have supported me—now don’t you get conceited!
[laughter from the audience]
I only mean, you know, you were an angel when you played. Otherwise you were not so angelic.
He has a very keen sense of humor, and you can believe me that that is a great asset on concert tours where many incidents happen, and where one gets hysterical and upset. But he smoothed out everything and always made me laugh and turned every tragedy into a joke—really he’s quite a wonderful guy!
I hope that my successors who will sing with him in future will be as happy as I have been with him musically and personally. Thank you, Paulchen.
Last but not least I come to you to thank you, my public; and there I am a little at a loss what to say. The colors on my palette are not glowing enough to paint you a picture, even if I flatter myself to be definitely a painter. You have always given to me more than I gave you….
[another roar, “no-o-o-o!”]
Let me explain what I mean. When I came home after a recital, I had always a feeling of deep dissatisfaction. I know so much better what perfection means, perfection which always was a goal for me and never attained. There were always so many limitations, vocal limitations, limitations in my technique, in my expressive power. So I have sometimes failed you. But you as a public have been perfect. You were kind and understanding. You gave me your enthusiasm, you gave me everything, and you gave me your heart.
Now I really think you like me as a person too, don’t you?
[an enthusiastic murmur of confirmation]
So when I say goodbye to you I say goodbye not to a public but I say goodbye as though to a very beloved person, and I will cherish the memory as long as I live. You have given me much inspiration, you were the wings on which I soared, and if sometimes it was possible for me to take you with me on my flight into beauty and into a better world, then perhaps I have achieved a fraction of what I wanted to give you.
After the intermission, Lotte sang five songs by Robert Franz. Her last group was six of the songs from Schubert’s Schöne Müllerin cycle. The audience, of course, demanded an encore. Lotte said: “I will try to sing `An die Musik.'” It is Schubert’s heartfelt hymn of gratitude to the art of music that saw him through so many grey hours by lifting him into a lovelier world. At the last words, “Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir!”—”Beloved art, I thank thee!”—Lotte choked up with emotion and could not sing. She covered her face with her hands as Ulanowsky played the final bars alone. Most of the audience were crying with her.
Louis Biancolli’s report appeared the next day in The New York World-Telegram & Sun:
…Then began a wild stampede backstage to bid Miss Lehmann farewell. At least two-thirds of the audience joined in the rush that soon jammed the entire stage. For three-quarters of an hour, hundreds kissed her hand, cried like children, and swirled around waiting for a parting glimpse of the singer…. As she entered her car, the vast crowd surged after her, cramming sidewalk and street till all forms of traffic were blocked…. As the car moved slowly toward Broadway, [the crowd] watched silently and wept….
Irving Kolodin had this to say in The Saturday Review:
…In a span of nearly twenty years, and more than fifty recital appearances in New York, Lotte Lehmann taught us something about the singer’s art almost every time she sang. In the latest and unfortunately the last appearance she taught us how a great artist says goodbye to a career…. As she approached the climax of [Schubert’s] hymn to the power of music…neither words nor tone would come…. If anything, these last seconds drew an exquisite line to underscore the joy Lehmann conveyed with her singing by revealing the agony it was for her to renounce it. Artists come and go; the memory of such a human being will remain.
Lotte expressed her own feelings about her farewell in a letter to Bruno Walter, written on February 22:
I kept my word. I never wanted to take my leave when people are saying: “It is high time.” I myself wanted to be the one to decide that time. I wanted to go when they would feel regret and not relief. And therefore I feel that what I did was right and good. All my friends were horrified that I had the intention of making this my last season. Frances also did not quite believe it—said, however, that the main thing would be what I wanted myself. They all warned me not to burn my bridges behind me; so I kept silent during the days before the recital, and informed no one that I would make an official farewell. That is why the announcement came as a surprise to almost everyone.
Believe me: it was a wonderful and unforgettable highlight of my life. One of those highlights which make one feel it was worthwhile to have lived. To feel the love of the audience—really love—was deeply moving.
On February 19 and 21 there were concerts in Madison, Wisconsin. On April 10 in Los Angeles. On June 28 and July 5 in Berkeley. On August 7, in Santa Barbara; a private recording, now available on CD, was first issued in 1977 by Aquitaine of Ontario, Canada (the record jacket carries the erroneous claim that this was “the last lieder recital of her long and distinguished career”).
On November 11, 1951, at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, Gwendolyn Williams Koldofsky accompanied the recital that was actually Lotte Lehmann’s very last. My wife, later one of Mme. Lehmann’s pupils, was in the audience, spellbound.