My Lotte Lehmann Connection

by Gary Hickling

I have often been asked about my connection to and obsession with Lotte Lehmann.

She directly affected my life in two significant ways: first, through her supreme artistry and communicative powers as revealed through her recordings, teaching, and writings and, second, as a person who, though revered in the world, became a kind of grandmother figure to me.

I studied music (with an emphasis on double bass) at UCLA from 1959 – 63 and Manhattan School of Music from 1963 – 1966. I also spent three summers at the Music Academy of the West (1962, 63, 64). When I first met Mme. Lehmann in 1961, she had already retired from her official teaching duties at the Music Academy of the West. I held an unspoken prejudice, common to many instrumentalists, that singers were our inferiors as musicians.

Katsuumi Niwa with Mme. Lehmann at her home “Orplid” in Santa Barbara

So when I drove Katsuumi Niwa, a baritone friend of mine, from UCLA to Santa Barbara for his lessons with “an old German lady,” I anticipated being bored. During that first lesson I napped on her sofa, in preparation for the long drive back to Los Angeles. But in subsequent visits, as I observed this venerable artist, I felt as if I were entering a new musical world, where words existed on an equal plane with music. Through her I found myself gaining a new found respect for all singers.

And how well I remember the impressive house (named Orplid, after the land invented by the poet Mörike in Hugo Wolf’s Gesang Weylas) in Hope Ranch, which is now part of Santa Barbara, and in particular its wild garden. Listening to Katsuumi’s lessons, I felt compelled to further acquaint myself with the repertoire he was studying, including opera arias and, even more significantly for me, Lieder such as Schumann’s Dichterliebe.

As I followed along in my score, I discovered the depth of Lehmann’s approach to teaching and music-making. No longer did I hear merely a string of notes, at best a display of vocal prowess. Instead, under her tutelage, a wealth of meaning revealed itself to me in each word, each phrase. Mme. Lehmann (and we did call her that) was the first genius I had met. Though, as an instrumentalist, I just observed Katsuumi’s lessons, Mme. Lehmann always treated me with kindness.

Inspired by Lehmann’s teaching, I sought out her recordings. She impressed in both opera and art song by the directness and spontaneity of her utterance, as well as her instinctive musicality. But surely her greatest impact on me as a musician came from observing her in lessons and master classes. Indeed, her insights into song literature had an immediate and lasting effect on me as an instrumentalist. Not only did her ideas of musical phrasing inform my playing, but I always included a Lied or two on my solo double bass recitals.

There are a few vignettes of Lehmann as teacher that remain in my memory. When Katsuumi studied Pizarro from Beethoven’s Fidelio, I was amazed that Lehmann knew every note, word and inflection of the role, along with ingenious insights into the character. In Pizarro’s aria, ‘Ha, welch ein Augenblick’ she demanded venom in his delivery. Even more to my surprise, she was equally well-versed in the subtleties of Ravel’s Chansons madécasses. When Katsuumi sang Brahms’ Sonntag with great religious fervor, Lehmann disabused him of the notion that this was a pious song. She had him sing over and over the words “das tausend schöne Jungfräulein” in order to get him to express the ardor and longing of the words, which, though impossible to translate exactly, she conveyed as “uncountably beautiful girl.”

On one occasion, Katsuumi sang Ungeduld from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin for Martial Singher’s master class at the MAW. Katsuumi and Lehmann had decided that he would sing three of the four verses of the song. Being less than fluent in German, Katsuumi mixed up the words, sampling randomly from various verses, resulting in real goulash. Though most of the audience didn’t know the difference, and Singher made light of it, Lehmann came onstage at the conclusion of the master class and, meeting Katsuumi and me out of view of the audience said, half in anger, half in jest, “You do that again and I keel you!”

One of the great joys for me in attending the Music Academy of the West was its proximity to a breathtakingly beautiful beach. One day, most likely in the summer of 1963, I was swimming at this very beach when I realized with alarm that I was missing Singher’s regularly scheduled art song master class. Brushing the sand off my feet, I ran up the cliffs and directly into the lobby of what is now called Lehmann Hall. The Academy’s stern director stopped me at the entrance: “You can’t go in there without shoes!” Lehmann, seated in the back of the audience and overhearing the exchange came to my rescue. “Gary,” she said, “come sit with me.” The director could hardly object to the invitation of one of the Academy’s founders; I took my seat next to Lehmann.

It was in the same class of Singher’s, if memory serves, that a soprano sang the Richard Strauss song, Ständchen. At the song’s climax on the words “hoch glühn” she held the high note for twice the notated length. After making his remarks, Singher noted the alteration, and said, “I think that was all right with the composer. What about that Mme. Lehmann?” She rose and with conviction and pride in her voice said, “Ja, Strauss told me…,” at which point laughter and applause rang out in the audience as she stood, beaming.

Katsuumi and I arrived in New York in the fall of 1963, he studying with Jennie Tourel at Juilliard, and I at the Manhattan School of Music. Lehmann wrote that she was concerned that Katsuumi didn’t have enough warm clothes. Soon afterward, a large package arrived from her containing a beautiful overcoat, which was put to good use.

Later in my years at Manhattan School of Music, Lehmann gave a benefit master class for the school on 21 April 1965 at Town Hall.

We had continued our friendly correspondence. Paul Ulanowsky, her favorite pianist from 1937 until her farewell appearance at Town Hall in 1951, participated as accompanist for the class. (I had met him during the summer at the Yale Summer School of Music and Art, where he was teaching and I was a student. I later turned pages for him when the Bach Aria Group performed in Town Hall. Each time he shared Lehmann stories with me.)

At the end of the 1965 Town Hall master class, Lehmann coached a soprano on Cäcilie by Richard Strauss. After repeated attempts to achieve the right expression, neither Lehmann nor the student were satisfied. Lehmann suddenly stood up for the first time that evening and went to the bend in the piano, as if to perform. Ulanowsky, able to transpose to any key, and in eager anticipation of once again accompanying this icon of his past, whispered in a voice that I heard in the balcony, “Madame, what key?” Lehmann replied, “Original key! I’m not going to sing, I just speak it through.” And she demonstrated the song, with such passion—even though she barely sang it, in a breathy baritonal whisper—that I fully understood for the first time true vocal artistry. By virtue of this example alone, Lehmann could have transformed my life and proved why she was ranked as one of the greatest Lieder interpreters of the century. No wonder that, at the beginning of the evening, the entire sold out audience had stood as one in her honor.

After the master class I went backstage to say hello. Mme. Lehmann sat behind a desk, autographing programs for a long line of admirers. As I approached, she greeted me warmly and complained that I had not yet looked her up at her hotel. I was always amused at Lehmann’s double nature, which I had witnessed frequently: while she didn’t enjoy fawning attention, she wanted to be sure she wasn’t forgotten, even by a double bassist!

Upon graduation from the Manhattan School of Music in June 1966, I went to the Philippines for my first professional engagement, playing in the Manila Symphony. Shortly after my arrival, the orchestra’s conductor, Dr. Herbert Zipper, brought me an envelope addressed to me with Lehmann’s flowing signature on the back. Dr. Zipper, who had lived and worked in Vienna was awestruck that this youngster should receive a letter from the great Lotte Lehmann. “Do you know Mme. Lehmann?” he asked. “Oh, yeah, she’s a friend of mine,” I replied casually. “Please give her my best wishes and let her know that I am a great fan,” Dr. Zipper gallantly countered.

As Lehmann’s 85th birthday approached, I found myself back in the US, by this time well acquainted with her recordings and writings. I had the idea of producing a tribute program for WBAI, then a public radio classical music station in New York City. Lehmann agreed to a telephone interview and we arranged everything through the post in the fall of 1972. The two hour special was a great success and Lehmann later agreed to a second interview which we recorded in August 1973 as a memorial tribute to Lauritz Melchior. Here’s a link to letters that Lehmann wrote to me.

The next month, I moved to Germany, where I played as a part-time bassist in an orchestra in Munich. As a young, unknown American, I found myself unable to secure auditions for full-time orchestral posts. Lehmann kindly wrote a letter of recommendation which led to many auditions and an eventual post with the Symphony Orchestra of Berlin.

Lehmann was pleased that I learned German; though I wrote her in that language, she answered in English. I wrote to her in 1974 my impressions upon seeing Strauss’ Frau öhne Schatten in Munich. In response, she sent me a letter detailing her insights into the Dyer’s Wife, a role that she created.

Each year on her birthday I sent a gift, no matter where I was at the time and we continued to correspond until her death in the summer of 1976.

After her death, I maintained close contact with many of Lehmann’s friends and associates. Chief among these was Frances Holden, the woman who was Lehmann’s companion at Orplid from 1938 until Lehmann’s death. I came to greatly treasure my visits with her. We worked together on a committee preparing for the Lehmann centennial in 1988. Frances allowed me access to Lehmann’s private record collection, where I discovered unique test pressings that were used on an RCA CD produced by John Pfeiffer.

During 1989 – 1994 Judy Sutcliffe and I wrote and publishing the Lotte Lehmann League Newsletter (which is how this web site is named) and Holden continued to provide information to both of us, as well as to the Lehmann Archive at UCSB. She lived at Orplid until her death in 1996.

Working with Rita Nasser on her Lehmann video documentary Stimme des Herzens (The Heart’s Voice) was yet another chance to be a part of Lehmann history.

I began the Lotte Lehmann Foundation 1997 and I served as its president for the first six years of its existence. In January of 2003, I determined to move the Foundation from its birthplace in Hawaii to New York City and retired from active service in 2005.

Even after leaving the Foundation I enjoyed working on Lehmann tributes: two CD-length recordings of spoken and sung tributes by Lehmann students, colleagues and friends; in 2006, I worked with Jon Tolansky and WFMT Radio Network to help produce a two hour radio documentary on the life and music of Lotte Lehmann on the 30th anniversary of her death.

Besides compiling the Lehmann discography for Beaumont Glass’ Lotte Lehmann, a Life in Opera and Song, I have worked for years in assembling the elements of her chronology. This has taken some detective work that has been fascinating.

For years I assisted author Dr. Michael Kater in his 2008 Lehmann biography Never Sang for Hitler. Reference to my discography and chronology proved the title, which had been disputed by a previous biography. It was a pleasure to meet Dr. Kater during his research at UCSB. The depth of his efforts uncovered many hitherto unknown aspects of Lehmann’s life.

My past “Lehmann” years had seen a huge accumulation of Lehmann-related material in my office and so in 2010 I began to disburse this treasure. The Lehmann Archives at UCSB, the Lehmann Collection at Stanford University, the Marr Sound Archive at the University of Missouri, Kansas City and the Historic Record Archive at Yale University have all been the recipients of my years of collecting. In each case it was determined what of my collection did not duplicate their holdings.

While preparing the above disbursement I discovered to my delight that there was a considerable amount of recorded Lehmann performances that have never been commercially released. This inspired me to contact Fred Morath at the Music and Arts label in California to release a new Lehmann CD set, that I call Lehmann Rarities. The excellent restoration engineer Lani Spahr worked on the project and the whole four CD set is now available. There is a fifth CD (CD-rom) that has the late Beaumont Glass’ Lehmann remembrance, notes from me for each track and the translations.

In 2011 I began this new Lotte Lehmann League web site.

During 2013 I began linking every recording in the Lehmann discography with its actual sound. Every recording she made is not available, YET, but it’s a fun project. I call it the Lehmann Recordings. Though the sound is only mp3, I believe it gives some idea of her unique vocal quality, the Lehmann interpretation. And because she re-recorded so many titles, one may follow her development.

I will always be grateful to Lotte Lehmann for the many personal kindnesses she showed me, but mostly for the humanity that shone through her artistry and continues to reach millions. I am honored to have helped disseminate her legacy. By virtue of her writings and recordings, her supreme example will shine forth for generations to come.

My Personal Response

Since 1962 I’ve had the intense Lotte Lehmann experience; what has it brought to me personally?

Knowing a person who didn’t believe in boundaries: Lehmann sang “men’s” songs including the cycles Die schöne Müllerin, Dichterliebe, Winterreise, An die ferne Geliebte with complete conviction and at a time when it must have seemed extremely weird. Women had not been liberated. But Lotte Lehmann was! She had sex with young men when she was in her 70s! She lived with a lesbian most of her life. Lehmann said and did what she wanted, her provincial and conservative upbringing be damned! She admitted that her own novel Orplid, mein Land was trash, yet she wrote it while busy with US tours and enjoyed writing it. At the same time she was writing her autobiography On Wings of Song.

Lehmann knew that her painting and other artistic endeavors were hardly of a world-class artist, but she did it as a means of self-expression and delighted when a few of her paintings were stolen from a show.

Lotte Lehmann had heart. That can sound corny, but let me illustrate: if you wrote her a letter, she answered, not a secretary, but Lehmann, with her wild typing and corrections. And she usually included a signed postcard-size photo. Lotte Lehmann had heart: when my Japanese friend, Katsuumi Niwa, left warm California and found himself in frigid New York City, she sent him an overcoat. Her basic instinct was one of kindness. Of course she gloried in the world’s adulation, but when there was an awkward moment between us, when the guests had left us alone while they examined Stokowsky’s former mansion, she suggested, in the kindest way possible, that I could leave her alone and join the others.

There are those that say that when Lehmann taught, she wanted her students to imitate her interpretation. Though she often said that each singer should discover their own way, why in HELL would someone study with the great Lotte Lehmann and NOT want to learn of her interpretations, leavened as they were with the input of her own experience, (with the works as well as the world), the influence of other great interpreters, (conductors, singers, composers, pianist/collaborators), and the insight of a truly original mind?

It seems that people love to criticize someone of great genius, experience and power. And yes! Lehmann had power: over her critics, lovers, audience, students and now, her CD-listeners. I once was trying to describe what Lehmann could bring to a song, but my friend knew nothing of classical music. I put on the 1947 recording that Lehmann sang of God Bless America and he instantly understood what I meant. He heard that the words were given interpretation. The word “god” is infused with a reverence and awe at the very thought that she was allowed to sing the word!

During the Lehmann Centennial a panel of people with Lehmann credentials spoke of her. At one point her final pianist, Gwendolyn Koldofsky was asked to comment on Lehmann’s apparent lack of breath control. She stated categorically and without apology that she felt that Lehmann just gave too much at the beginning of a phrase and was constantly running out. I add: Just look at the way Lehmann signed her name: she almost always ran out of space and had to make the final letters small or curved to fit the page. This in singing came across as a great generosity of spirit, flowing out without a care as to what would happen when the breath ran out. And as she often said, she made a virtue out of this “necessity” by infusing the quick intake of breath (in her own lifetime this became known as the Lehmann “catch breath”) with the intent of the poem: Tragedy. Wonder. Love. Exaltation.

One could hear this in the intake of breath and it heightened the word that followed.

Further criticism focused on Lehmann’s rhythmic inaccuracies. I counter that anyone can be precise, but few can be so free and musical at the same time. Her pianists quickly learned what she might do, even before she did it. And this is what the opera conductors also experienced. If they wanted a full-blown Lehmann aria, they certainly weren’t going to restrict her to a metronomic reading of the notes!

Dr. A. F. R. Lawrence, the in-house recording archivist for Columbia records, told me that Lehmann must have insisted that the microphone be placed before her, because he noted that the piano parts always sounded too weak in comparison. Though I greatly respected his knowledge, I know of NO singer of the time who had the microphone placed elsewhere! Dr. William Moran was a young man at the time, but it was he who placed the microphone to catch Lehmann in her final Santa Barbara recital in 1951. Though we hear the pianist, it is Lehmann that brought the people to the Lobero Theatre and it was her singing that he recorded. Speaking of experts, let me note the important names in the history of classical recording who spoke with great reverence when discussing Lehmann: John Pfeiffer of RCA, Goddard Lieberson of Columbia and John Coveny of Angel; in England, Keith Hardwick chief sound engineer for EMI, and in Austria, Jürgen E. Schmidt, who has worked since 1959 as director of arts and repertoire at Preiser Records.

And why not. Just browse quickly through the Chronology and witness the level of activity of this woman! Because I felt that no one would believe it, I inserted “sic” when Lehmann sang twice in the same day. And I should have written “sic” when she sang operas day after day with no break. I believe people forget that the Chronology only documents the performances, not the many rehearsals. When they are also considered, it seems truly superhuman to have sung as much as Lehmann did. Some of the total numbers of performances can be found in the Roles page.

When you look at the Discography, you’ll be able to notice how often the released or published recording is the first or second take. Notice also how many recordings Lehmann made on the same day. Not that this was unusual in the recording industry of the time; what is special is the quality of Lehmann’s singing. Look around, other than Callas, Caruso and a few others, there is no other singer that has been so constantly “re-released.”

P.S. There are many wonderful people I’ve met as spin-offs of my Lehmann association. When I was working on the radio specials in NYC, I worked with the late Philip Miller, a song expert, in researching performances of the past. As I mentioned above the RCA producer, (again, the late) John Pfeiffer, helped me with a Melchior memorial program that I produced for WBAI. He introduced me to (yet another, “late”) Gustl Breuer, an Elizabeth Schumann friend/expert, for help with her radio tribute program. When I heard that the late Beaumont Glass was writing Lotte Lehmann’s biography, I called him to ask if he had considered including a discography. I had developed a working Lehmann-recordings card file, and with the help of the discography expert, (the late) Bill Moran, you can now find my work at the back of Glass’ book and on this web site. Two people who worked diligently to edit that book were the late Roger Levenson and the person who was the co-editor of the Lotte Lehmann League Newsletter, Judy Sutcliffe. She and I went to Europe together in 1989 seeking Lehmann-related sound documents, photos etc. All of these people became more than working colleagues, they became friends and greatly enriched my life.

While working on the Lotte Lehmann discography, I had need for research support and wrote to and met many dedicated people at such institutions as Yale, Northwestern and Stanford universities; the Library of Congress; the Rodgers & Hammerstein Library at Lincoln Center, NYC; the New York Philharmonic and opera houses: the Metropolitan, Covent Garden, Vienna, Hamburg, and the archives of the BBC….

After I was asked to give a talk on Lehmann’s recordings for the Centennial Symposium at UCSB, Judy and I decided that the enthusiasm for this great artist should be kept alive and shared with a newsletter. I became involved with the Lehmann Archives at UCSB and tried to supply missing Lehmann rarities to achieve a “complete” Lehmann collection. It was my wish that the Archive provide access to tapes of Lehmann’s recordings for any interested party. I was able to get grants to pay for this. It was in part to fulfill the dream of a complete Lotte Lehmann collection that Judy and I went to Europe to find rare Lehmann material. We were very successful and along the way met many fascinating people, including the late Horst Wahl, one of Lotte Lehmann’s recording technicians from the acoustic days.

One of my most memorable Lotte Lehmann moments was hearing for the first time the 16″ long playing Columbia radio transcriptions which Lotte Lehmann sang in 1941. They were stored away and given to the Lotte Lehmann Archives where they were discovered by the Centennial Symposium director and then UCSB instructor, Dan Jacobson. We couldn’t play them on normal equipment, so we took them to Bill Moran’s and heard this “find.” These recordings, in excellent shape on vinyl surfaces that turned at about 33 rpms, were to become the Centennial LP set and now a set of CDs.

I mentioned earlier the professional contacts that I established through Lotte Lehmann, but I shouldn’t forget the memorable (sometimes rocky) association I had for many years with her companion at Orplid from 1938 until Lotte Lehmann’s death, the late Frances Holden. She continued to provide information for the Lehmann Archive and lived at Orplid until her death in 1996. Another personal friend of Lotte Lehmann is the late Hertha Schuch neé Stodolowsky (1908 – 2010), who began as a Lehmann fan. She became a valued friend of Lehmann, and became a friend of Judy and myself. As one of her staunchest admirers she tended Lotte Lehmann’s grave, until shortly before her death at 102.

With the Lehmann Foundation web site I had a new way to spread Lehmann’s legacy. At the same time I’ve learned new technology and worked closely with my webmeisters, Ryan Hunt and after he left the Islands, Sivan Leoni. They also became personal friends. I worked with Alex Bennett on this latest web site and am now working with Joaquin Villarreal.

There is no doubt that Lehmann was and is a seminal element in my life. At the end of our first telephone interview I was able to thank her for all the joy she had given me, and she modestly responded, “That’s very nice of you. …and thank you for this whole program.”