Lotte Lehmann in Focus


          Lehmann is seen by many as a pre-eminent lied singer in the pre-war German style, and as such sets herself apart from post-war singers like Schwartzkopf and Dieskau. Her influenced affected musical life note only in Europe, but across the world. Lied singing became her main interest even after she retired from the opera stage. Her success in lied singing even surpassed her operatic triumph.

          Being a successful singer in lied performance did not bring her into an easier path before. Her interest in lied performance until 1920 was not that profound. Here are remarks she made to her brother about lieder: 

Many years ago, at a time when the world of opera was my very own, and lieder a rather foreign territory for me, I sang my lieder recitals in blessed innocence. I remember that one day I said to my brother, Fritz Lehmann, “Singing lieder doesn’t make me very happy. They are melodies and any instrument will do them better justice than the human voice.” He answered that in his opinion each Lied has its own story, is created out of a very personal experience. That remark opened a door for me. Slowly I grew into the perception that a Lied, in a subtle way, is born from an experience, from a “story”.1 

          It took some time for Lehmann to develop herself as a lied singer. She realized that she often sang too robustly and not intimately enough. It was often noted that she sang certain songs such as Der Doppegänger, Erkölnig, Ich grölle nicht, Frühlingsnacht, and Winterreise which were considered to be more suitable for a man than for a woman.2 She did not know still that she would become a master of singing whose performances would be loved the world over. “So, in singing Lieder, the word, the poem became the main thing for me, until I - much later - found and captured the balanced interweaving of word and music” she remarked.3

          Lehmann’s fanbase grew and became known as “Lehmaniacs”. Her popularity even captured Hitler’s attention. On 19 April 1934, Hermann Göring, Hitler’s Minister of Education invited Lehmann to come to Berlin, offered her the title of Primadona of Germany, as a permanent member of the Berlin Opera. Göring proposed an enormous fee that left Lehmann speechless.4 She was one of a select few musicians who were in direct contact with the Nazi Party. Although Lehmann was a fearless woman, her charisma also got her in trouble with the Third Reich.

I hate politics. I am an artist, nothing but an artist. I have the marvelous privilege of living in a land where there is only beauty. I like to sing everywhere, in all countries, before all audiences. I know the miraculous power of art to unite people, to lift them above themselves, to let them above themselves, to let them forget their shabby disputes. In the presence of art, there are no enemies, no borders, no political parties, there are human beings who suffer and look for the light.5

In 1934, German artists were forbidden from participating in the Salzburg Festival. The Second World War also broke German traditions in music making. However, Lehmann still managed to perform successfully in Salzburg with Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter. Due to the political situation, she was limited in her ability to perform in different countries in Europe. Lehmann emigrated to the United States in 1937 where she became a preeminent lied and opera singer. 

          After Germany surrendered unconditionally in May 1945, World War II in Europe was over. The ravages and devastation were immense. In the book of Lotte Lehmann, a Life in Opera and Song, Beaumont Glass described her situation after the World War II: 

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.6 

          In 1945, she published her book of More than Singing, a lieder interpretation treatise. This book was made as a guide for young singers to have a deeper understanding of lied singing. She wrote that her fundamental conception was to see lied as more than just melody. She challenged singers to search for the ideas, nuance, pictures, feelings which underlie the songs and to dig into the situation in which the poem was born. Singers she felt, must understand what kind of drama, dream, and experience inspired the poetic and musical conceptions of a work.7

          The farewell concert of Lotte Lehmann in 1951 marked the end of a pre-war German lied performance style generation of singers who knew this older singing style. The style became fossilized in historical recordings when she stepped off stage.8