MY LEHMANN CONNECTION
by Gary Hickling
Founder and Past President of the Lotte Lehmann Foundation
I have often been asked about my connection to, or obsession with Lotte Lehmann. She directly affected my life in two significant ways: through her supreme artistry and communicative powers as revealed through her teaching, writings and recordings, and as a person who, though revered 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 Fall 1962, 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. 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 old lady, 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 newfound respect for all singers.
And how well I remember the impressive house in Hope Ranch (named Orplid, after the country named in Hugo Wolf's "Gesang Weylas"), 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, 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 special 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 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 the Academy's founder; 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 her 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 1938 until her farewell appearance at Town Hall in 1951, participated as accompanist for the class. (I met him the following 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 was 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, 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 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, signing 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 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.
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 always wrote her in that language, she answered in English. I wrote to her in 1974 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 which 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 her 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 which were used on an RCA CD produced by John Pfeiffer.
In 1989 when Judy Sutcliffe and I began publishing the Lotte Lehmann League Newsletter, 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.
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 through the Lotte Lehmann Foundation. By virtue of her writings and recordings, her supreme example will shine forth for generations to come.