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 Door to Wonderland
Berlin was exciting. Mama was happy to be among her relatives. Papa was able to add Ober (chief) to the string of words that made up his title. Fritz formed a secret society with the lofty name, Justice. Mostly the members drank a lot of beer. Lotte felt at first like a country mouse among big city cats. But soon she had many good friends. There were some disappointments however. The Tiergarten—the name implies a zoo—turned out to be autos instead of animals; and the linden trees of Unter den Linden—a famous boulevard—seemed “miserable, stunted, and insignificant” compared to those in Perleberg.
Lotte was enrolled in the Ulrich Lyceum. It was a school for girls and every one of them—including Lotte—was madly in love with “Ulli,” as they called Headmaster Ulrich. He gave them advice that she never forgot: “Go your own way, don’t run with the herd. Be a personality. Become what you are, that is the best thing in life.” The girls also had a crush on their classroom teacher, who encouraged Lotte’s very evident talent as a writer. The check for ten marks she received when one of her poems was accepted by a Berlin paper, Der Tag, meant more to Lotte than many a splendid fee she later earned from her singing.
Lotte loved that school, especially play-reading and declamation. “To be able strangely to transform oneself, suddenly to be able to express what someone else had felt and to make it one’s own, so that it seemed to come out of one’s very self—how fascinating! To be an actress was my quiet, secret dream…” Mathematics, however, remained a thorn in her side. She never did learn how to balance a checkbook.
A triple romance began to blossom. The neighbors had two girls and a boy. The Lehmanns had one girl and—temporarily—two boys, for Erich, a friend of Fritz’s, was boarding with them. For some time six young people were finding excuses to pose near a window. All sorts of signals were intended or imagined—and sometimes intercepted by an irritated mother. Finally the two families got together for a Sunday outing at a suburban concert-garden where the bandmaster was celebrated for a particularly choice rendition of “Glow, Little Glowworm.” The customers consumed coffee and cake, danced, or talked politics. Since in this case both fathers were staunchly conservative, their conversations were more a mutual ratification than a stimulating exchange of ideas. There was a series of such outings. On the way home from one of them Lotte received her first kiss and a proposal of marriage. Willi Hilke asked if Lotte would wait five years for him. First there would be his year of military service—in the “Cockchafers,” a guards regiment with a particularly dashing uniform—and then four years at the university, studying philology. Lotte said yes.
Willi was handsome and blonde. Reams of poems flew his way from Lotte’s pen.
Maybe it would be best to get married, to marry the handsome son of our neighbors, who was in love with me but found much about me to criticize. He was a student of philology and wanted to become a teacher. He was horrified at my lack of knowledge. We had many a quarrel when, for instance, I couldn’t tell him the date Napoleon was born or when the Battle of Waterloo took place. I sat there, rebellious and mocking. “It’s all the same to me,” I said with my nose in the air. “Why is it important to you and me when that old Napoleon came into the world? I don’t live in the past, I live now, and shall always live for the moment.”
Willi stared at me with a look of helpless incomprehension. “But don’t you want to expand your general education? Do you want to live only for your own limited interests? Don’t you want to participate in those things that are important to me?” I said that it was important that we loved each other and would get married in five years, when he would have his degree and could get a job.
Five years! What are five years when we are young? One throws them away—and one races through them, laughing, as if in a dance. Or does that only seem so to me today? Does it seem so today, when every day is a precious gift, when every hour must be used to the fullest, and when I look back with a shudder at the extravagant wastefulness of my earlier years. Maybe life was just as full of problems then and I have only forgotten. Perhaps the fact that I trembled at the thought of having to hand in my homework was just as much a torment to me then as my later fear of failure. Could be. Today I recall my school days as one long rosy dream.
Marriage with Willi seemed infinitely preferable to the lot of a secretary at the Ritterschaft, pension or no, that Papa was planning for her. First Papa had hoped that Lotte might become a schoolteacher. Her dismal marks in math soon burst that bubble. But a “practical” profession would in any case be necessary. Sometimes Lotte struggled against Papa’s principles; sometimes she submitted. Her relationship with her father was often adversarial. Papa, the sensible one, generally found himself outnumbered, three to one. Fritz always sided with Lotte, and Mama always sided with Fritz. It was only in later years that Lotte came to understand and to appreciate her father’s special ways of showing his deep love for her.
About the time Lotte graduated from school, the Lehmanns moved to Gross-Lichterfelde, a pretty garden suburb of Berlin, where the air was better for Mama, whose health, always precarious, was on one of its downward curves. With their new apartment came the right to use the garden, a special blessing for Papa. Lotte, freed from schoolwork, helped with the household chores. To pass the time she would sing folk songs and the latest hits while she dusted or swept (cooking was ruled out; she would be too extravagant in the kitchen).
One day the lady in the apartment upstairs, Frau Kühnen, who had often complimented Lotte on her singing, decided that Lotte’s lovely natural voice deserved to be properly trained. She was shocked to learn that Papa had already enrolled Lotte in a commercial school. She prophesied a glamorous operatic career, maybe even marriage to a prince. Frau Kühnen had a “contact.” Her uncle ran the canteen at the Royal High School of Music. That uncle of hers turned out to be very helpful. He arranged for one of the advanced singing students, Fräulein Erna Tiedke, to prepare Lotte for the entrance examinations which, as luck would have it, were only a week away.
Lotte had been twice to the opera, standing in the top gallery with Willi and Fritz. Her first opera was Lohengrin, a work that was later to be a major milestone in her career. Then came Mignon with Emmy Destinn, who became, with Geraldine Farrar, one of Lotte’s early idols.
But still she had absolutely no repertoire of classical music, nothing at all to sing at an audition.
With Mama’s blessing, but behind Papa’s back (for the lessons cost two marks each), Lotte worked with Fräulein Tiedke on “Jerusalem” from Mendelssohn’s St. Paul. They also took a fleeting look at Siebel’s aria from Faust. Here is Lotte’s impression of her mentor:
Erna Tiedke was a very superior-looking girl…She loved behaving like a prima donna, wore a whole shopwindowful of imitation jewelry on her person and a shawl with long fringes decorated with ostrich feathers… To me she appeared as a higher being… a door to wonderland had opened to me in which shone the glorified form of Erna Tiedke, singing her brilliant trills and bewildering coloraturas and relating her dizzying conquests on her path to fame… It seemed to me that every other coloratura-singer in the world was done for, and when I shyly asked Fräulein Tiedke who sang her parts in the Royal Opera House, she would answer with proud modesty: “As yet, Frau Herzog…”
It was a frantic attempt to pack a year or two of vocal lessons and musical training into six days; but it worked.
At the audition, her very first ever, Lotte offered to sing “Jerusalem.” The judges groaned. They had just survived renditions of that same piece by the last two contestants. Somehow Lotte managed to find her way through Siebel’s aria. She was accepted. But there could be no scholarship for the first term. That was a fixed policy.
Papa had accompanied her to the audition, presumably unaware of the cram-course that had preceded it. To his ears none of the contestants sang as beautifully as his Lotte. He saw the necessity of raising the tuition money and somehow he managed it. As long as he lived no one else ever sang like his Lotte.
She was now a Student of Music. That was at least a minor distinction in title-loving Germany. And an inner transformation went along with it. When Willi wrote to congratulate her but expressed the hope that her future professional activities would not conflict with her duties to house and home, she was deeply offended. “Does he mean me to beat carpets in the morning and give concerts at night?” She thought of Erna’s high-minded maxims: “I must dedicate my life to Art. Nothing must divert me from my lofty goal!” There was a farewell letter. It cost a few hot tears. A turning point had been reached.
At the Royal High School of Music Lotte studied with Helene Jordan, one of the voice teachers. Progress seemed painfully slow. Lotte was impatient for results and all too aware that she was just a rank beginner. When a bass from the opera class called out: “Well, little lamb, can you say baa yet?” she burst into tears. There were classes in theory—there she felt quite hopeless!—as well as in Italian and piano. Her favorite was elocution and she gives to her teacher, Elise Bartels, the credit for the clear enunciation that was consistently praised throughout her career. Every vowel, every consonant was carefully and consciously shaped and drilled and polished. At the end of the term Lotte won a scholarship.
Unfortunately Mama became seriously ill with a severe gastric hemorrhage. Lotte had to take leave from school and take care of her. She also had to do the cooking. No matter how conscientiously she tried to stick to the recipe, there were long faces at the table; but everyone was kind enough to pretend to Mama that Lotte’s concoctions had been delicious. Her friend of later years, Frances Holden, claimed that when Lotte took it into her head to cook, it was as if there had been an explosion in the kitchen. She had—as the whole world knows—other, compensating talents!
One summer the family discovered the enchanting island of Hiddensee, in the Baltic, north of Stralsund. In those days the island—from then on one of Lotte’s favorite haunts—was inhabited mostly by artists. It was cheaper to live there than in Berlin and the family had wonderful, healthy vacations in the invigorating sea-air.
During Lotte’s second year at the Royal High School of Music, Helene Jordan became seriously ill. Lotte was given to another teacher with whom all progress soon came to a standstill. The school director kept urging Lotte in the direction of oratorio; but the ambition for opera had begun to take hold of her, heart and soul. Her old scrapbooks from that period are full of penciled comments on the clippings of newspaper reviews. She must have managed to see quite a few performances of opera in Berlin, and her scribbled criticisms show considerable discernment. She became discouraged at the Royal High School and decided to make a change.
After an audition,Lotte was accepted into the Etelka Gerster School of Singing. Mme. Gerster had studied with the legendary Mathilde Marchesi and was for a while Adelina Patti’s principal rival. Her school was packed with rich young ladies from all over the world.
The world-renowned soprano Lilli Lehmann, who had sung in the first Bayreuth Festival and introduced several of Richard Wagner’s music dramas to New York, was a guest of the school at the audition. Lotte had not been told in advance, to spare her nerves the extra strain. Frau Lehmann invited her to tea at her home. And there Lotte felt the full, delayed shock of stage fright that had not yet hit her while she was actually singing. The diva graciously gave the young beginner—who had obviously made a very favorable impression on her—a little gold medallion. For many years, until the 1930s, Lotte wore it on a chain around her neck whenever she gave a performance.
Presumably as a result of Lilli Lehmann’s enthusiasm at the audition, Lotte received free tuition, a great exception, and was assigned for voice training to Frl. Eva Reinhold (who had been singing in the chorus at the leading opera house in Berlin).
The Gerster School method was disastrously unsuited to Lotte’s voice. The students were made to hold small wooden sticks between their jaws to keep the mouth opening always the same for every tone, for every vowel, at every pitch. Vocalizes were specially printed in three colors, to emphasize the various registers. Such methods went counter to Lotte’s healthy vocal instincts, as well as to her musical sense. The little stick kept the jaw muscles rigid; the emphasis on different registers impeded the development of an even scale. Woe to the poor unfortunate whose stick slipped out! The rest of the class would break up with the giggles and Eva Reinhold was not noted for a sense of humor. For a few months, however, Lotte’s relationship with her teacher was a reasonably positive one. In the summer of 1908—Lotte was now twenty years old—Frl. Reinhold arranged for her to stay with aristocratic friends of hers at their beautiful estate. They called Lotte their nightingale and were very kind to her. She began to feel less awkward in society. The future Marschallin kept her eyes open.
Meanwhile, in Perleberg, another contact was working for her good, with the help of highly-placed connections. The wife of the director of the Ritterschaft there, Frau von Saldern, had heard of Lotte’s beautiful voice and arranged, through Baron Konrad zu Putlitz, the president of an agricultural society that often had dealings with the Ritterschaft, to sing for his brother, the Intendant of the Stuttgart Court Theatre, another Baron Putlitz.
The exciting news reached Lotte while she was still on vacation and she was quick to share it with her teacher, who happened to be taking a cure at Bad Kissingen. Frl. Reinhold—who was swathed in wet compresses as she wrote—took a very chilly view of such an audition, feeling that Lotte was far from ready, but giving a grudging consent. She referred Lotte to Professor Otto Bake, a well-known concert accompanist, for coaching. The good professor sweat a bit of blood over Lotte’s rhythmical insecurity; but with his help she prepared “Elsa’s Dream” and Agathe’s aria from Der Freischütz. The audition took place at the Excelsior Hotel in Berlin, where Baron Putlitz happened to be staying, on September 28, 1908; he was very favorably impressed with her voice and agreed to hear her again when she felt ready to accept an engagement.
When she returned to the Gerster School, however, things took a discouraging turn. Lotte was having difficulties with the Countess’s second aria from The Marriage of Figaro. Eva Reinhold was determined that Lotte would get it right. Week after week, at every lesson, she insisted upon hammering away at that same aria. Lotte grew more and more tense and more and more frustrated. It would not come. For years afterward her knees would shake at the mere mention of the opening words, “Und Susanna kommt nicht…” It became a complex, a paralysis. She never really enjoyed the role of the Countess, even though her singing of that very aria was highly praised, later, in Hamburg, Vienna, and London.
Frl. Reinhold was convinced that Lotte was not working hard enough. Instead of trying any other approach, she kept forcing Lotte to struggle through the Countess’s aria. Her attitude toward her pupil seemed to have changed drastically ever since the audition with the Intendant from Stuttgart.
One day—it was New Year’s Eve—Lotte was summoned before Etelka Gerster herself. The great lady listened with ice in her eyes. Once again it had to be the Countess’s aria. Her verdict was a harsh one and there was no appeal: she was most dissatisfied; Lotte had sung very badly and done her no credit. Lotte’s studies at the Gerster School were at an end.
It was the blackest day in Lotte’s life. She went home numb and silent. A package was delivered with a cushion she had made for Frl. Reinhold as a Christmas gift. It was accompanied by the following letter:
Dear Fräulein Lehmann:
I shall speak to your father today on behalf of Frau Gerster, but I should like to write you a few lines. I am sorry that your singing instruction at the Gerster School has come to an end in this way, but alas! I have seen this coming for months. I can only say that none of my pupils has ever been such a disappointment as you have, and this has given me many a dark hour. I believe that, if you want to and have to achieve something in the future, you should take up a practical career. Only then will you come to know the real meaning of hard work, and perhaps you will realize later that you weren’t doing your duty with all your might. Whether you were considered a hard worker at the Hochschule you will know best yourself. Finally, I have one request to make. It is very painful for me to keep this cushion you gave me, now that you are no longer my pupil. You have taken great trouble over it and I am sure you will be able to make use of it elsewhere. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Fräulein Lehmann, but I really cannot keep it. The feeling that you had made any sacrifice for me would be painful to me. Now I know that the only sacrifice that you and your parents made during your year’s study at Frau Gerster’s School of Singing was only a matter of ten or twelve marks, and that you were unfortunately unable to appreciate the value of your tuition—for which others pay sixty marks a month—its true worth. Frau Gerster requests me to tell you that your progress is not even that of a mediocre pupil, and that even as a paying pupil you would have been expelled. Free tuition in her school is only for girls of exceptional attainments; moreover Frau Gerster was extremely surprised at the tone of your letter to me. She says that I have done more with you by my great patience in teaching you than she could have expected, for otherwise you would have been dismissed from her School of Singing several months ago. How could you expect me to recommend you to any other member of the staff in the school when Herr Bake found your industry unsatisfactory.?
With all good wishes for your future, Fräulein Lehmann, and kindest regards
I am, yours sincerely,