Inés Leuwen, Part 2: Some Mysteries Solved

Those who read my blogpost in January of 2023 know that when it was posted, there were still a lot of unanswered questions about my teacher Inés Leuwen.  I put the topic aside for a while, but my curiosity kept bubbling up, and I just had to pick it up again!  Here is the latest……

Thea Sternheim, Inés Leuwen’s mother, was one of the 20th century’s most famous diarists in the German language, keeping a diary from 1903 until 1971.  A wealthy heiress, she pursued the glitterati of her time, and each day she tried to eat dinner with some famous personage.  She married Carl Sternheim, a playwright, after her divorce from Inés’ father, the attorney Arthur Löwenstein, in 1906.  As the Nazis came into power in Germany, she fled to Paris; both her husbands were Jewish and her children were not considered to be Aryans.  She ended her life living in Basel near Inés, who by that time was her only living close relative.

My project for the month of September 2023 was to borrow the five thick volumes of Thea’s diaries and find out what Thea wrote about her daughter. Luckily this huge undertaking was made vastly easier by excellent indexing.  There were hundreds of mentions of “Agnes” or “Nucky” (her nickname) and I was able to go to each one with ease.  Nonetheless, the project took the better part of a month!

It turns out that the relationship between Thea and Agnes was difficult and somewhat distant, but I did find out some more about Inés’ training and young adulthood.  Let’s just back up and start again from the beginning, filling in some of the gaps as we go.

Inés Leuwen (originally Agnes Löwenstein) was a German singer and heiress born in 1902 in Berlin.  Agnes’ 750,000 Goldmark inheritance upon her grandfather’s death in 1906 would be worth about $5.7 million today. It is not clear what kind of access she and her sister had to their inheritance which, although from her mother’s family, was controlled by her father, an attorney.  Thea refers to her daughter as Agnes or Nucky throughout their lives, even though Agnes used several names.

Agnes’ childhood and family life were turbulent; her parents divorced when she was four; her mother, Thea, immediately married the father of her second child.  Thea was a socialite, interested in the theater, celebrities, writers, and society, being seen at the right restaurants, etc., and she didn’t show much affection or give much attention to her children. Nearly every year after young Agnes had gone to live with her father, Thea would write in her diary that she had forgotten Agnes’ birthday, or realized it was that day, and tried to call. Agnes’ father remarried, and Agnes was sent to live with him, therefore separated from her two half-siblings, sister Dorothea and brother Klaus.  Both Agnes’ siblings were drug addicts as adults, and died in their 40’s.  None of the three had children.  In later years, Thea writes with regret about her lack of mothering ability.

Agnes became very interested in music in her teens and studied with two of the most famous singing teachers of the time in Germany:  Frederick Husler in Berlin and Paul Lohmann in Berlin, and later in festival courses in Salzburg and Lucerne.  Husler taught at a private conservatory and led the apprentice program at the Komische Oper under Otto Klemperor.  Lohmann was an active performer all over Europe and he and his wife Franziska Martiennsen-Lohmann (also a famous singing pedagogue) taught at various conservatories in Germany after the war.   Agnes seems to have been a private student, never pursuing a degree; we have evidence that she asked Thea for money to pay Husler.

Agnes went on several audition tours both before and after the war,  but nothing seems to have come from them.  In letters to her mother, she reported auditioning for Georg Solti in Munich (who told her she was a “B” Singer and Munich was an “A” opera house), for Rudolph Bing in Vienna, for Paris Opera, Hamburg Opera, and Sydney Opera, and that Francis Poulenc tried to get her auditions with French conductors.   We have her mother’s reports that Agnes sang in solo recitals in Paris and Hamburg in the years after the war, and she included quotations from the press review of the latter, which was very positive.  In letters to Thea, Agnes’ descriptions of post-war Hamburg and Munich were vivid, demonstrating the depth of destruction of Germany at the end of the war.  Thea reports that there was one unspecified job offer in the U.S., but Agnes couldn’t get travel papers. We read in the letter from a family friend that Inés sang in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde several times in Switzerland, but I have not been able to verify any details.  From around the mid-1950’s Inés was teaching privately in Basel and serving on the faculty of the Freiburg Conservatory in southern Germany, where I studied with her in the 70’s.  I still wondered how, with such a slim resume, she managed to be hired at one of the premier conservatories in Germany.

Agnes was single most of her adult life and had numerous romantic relationships.  We read about them in Thea’s diaries, mostly with her disapproval.  In the 1920’s, Agnes had a several-year-long relationship with the composer and conductor Berthold Goldschmidt, living with him when he was conducting in Darmstadt and Berlin.  Her mother did not approve of this arrangement.  When the Nazis came to power, he emigrated to England and their relationship ended, but he remained in contact with Thea over the years.  In the April 2, 1935 diary entry, Agnes was (according to Thea) thinking of going to Russia with her Communist boyfriend.  We don’t know if she did, or which boyfriend this was.  Thea was politically conservative and didn’t like Agnes’ left-leaning friends and boyfriends.  Around this time  Agnes is reported by her mother as “living with Haenel in Hamburg” (Günther Haenel, 1898-1996) a theater/opera director who worked in Darmstadt, Hamburg, and Vienna.  Haenel had communist leanings, but was not persecuted by the Nazis because of his medaled military service in WWI. In the November 25, 1935 entry, Thea reports Agnes is thinking of going to Vienna.  We don’t know if she followed Haenel, who located to Vienna around this time, but in 1936 she was in Salzburg, perhaps for lessons with Lohmann.  Haenel had married in Vienna by 1938.  We don’t know more.

In the March 14, 1938 diary entry, we read in a letter from Agnes that she has left Vienna on the “last train for Switzerland” with boyfriend Erik Seidler (I found no other information about him, but for a short time she used Seidler as a professional name).  She wrote again to her mother on  March 19th about her experience in Austria, reporting that many Austrians (non-Jewish) were against the annexation of Austria into Germany.  However, she writes, in the last 10 days there were Nazi flags and four-meter-high posters of Hitler everywhere. Agnes and Erik Seidler decided to leave; she quickly packed a suitcase. They were going to drive, but felt it too dangerous, and decided to take the train to Milan because the Italian Axis “friendship” with Germany would make it less dangerous for them.  As they bought the tickets, the agent said “Go with God.” Agnes ended up in Bern, Switzerland but we don’t know the details.  There is no more mention of Seidler.

There followed nearly a year without mention of Agnes in Thea’s diary entries.  On June 12, 1939, Agnes and her new boyfriend Heinrich (Enrique) Beck arrived in Paris from Switzerland to visit Agnes’ mother Thea, who had moved there earlier and was living in a hotel. Agnes and Enrique had been staying in Nice, France; Thea had visited them there with disparaging accounts of their living conditions in her diary.

I originally reported that Inés sang in Aida in 1938 in Basel but that I had found no evidence.  Agnes had difficulties finding work because she lost her German citizenship in 1938 and did not get Swiss citizenship until 1960, and therefore had no right to work during what would have been the prime years of her vocal career.

Beck, who was also part Jewish by heritage and a communist in philosophy, had spent some of the Nazi years in Spain, and managed to get the sole rights to translate the works of Garcia Lorca into German.  This gave him some income and some recognition as the works were published.  (Later his translations were highly criticized.)  He published one book of his own work but it was not well-received.  He got Swiss citizenship and they married in 1960; by this time Agnes was secure in her professorship in Freiburg.

In 1963 as her health failed, Thea moved to an apartment near Agnes in Basel; Agnes was her only living relative and wanted Thea to be nearby.  Thea was accustomed to life in Paris and didn’t like Basel very much. She travelled some, and despite efforts to get along, relations were strained.  Thea died in 1971, Beck in 1974, and Agnes in 1976.

December 2023.  A couple of months have passed, and I still want to know more about Inés’ performances and how she got the professorship in Freiburg despite her very slim resume.   I decided to do a little more searching.

Going back to the website where I got my original information, I requested sources for the listing of her  1938 performances of Aida in Basel.  I had searched for reviews in the local newspaper, and had found none.  I had looked up the opera productions in all of Switzerland, but records did not go back that far for all the opera houses.   From the webmaster, I was referred to the work of Sibylle Rudin Bühlemann, the author of a biography of Enrique Beck (Inés’ husband) and, thanks to Interlibrary Loan, managed to borrow a copy of her small volume, Enrique Beck: Ein Leben für Garcia Lorca. There was no index, alas, so I learned a lot about “him” while searching for “her.”  What I learned from this endeavor follows.

In 1938-9, Inés sang the roles of Amneris in Verdi’s Aida in Basel and Herodias in Strauss’ Salome in Zurich.  She got a very positive review in Basel.  There just weren’t many job offers, or if there were, the paperwork couldn’t be worked out.  Approaching 40, Inés continued to study and practice, taking yoga instruction to improve her breath, but suffered from many colds.

Beck was impoverished and generally not well-liked (Thea, for one, couldn’t stand him); from 1938 he lived on aid from various refugee organizations.  His association with communists in Spain and Germany hindered his efforts to get Swiss citizenship.  Inés really loved him, but they didn’t live together; if she was still living off her inheritance, it would have put his situation as an impoverished refugee in question. Over the years, family money matters had often been fraught with conflict. Many of Thea’s diary entries refer to requests for money from Inés or her two half-siblings.  Thea often took trips to meet with lawyers about her finances, and at one point personally smuggled money from Germany to Paris.  As the Nazis concentrated their power, they changed banking and investment regulations and limited an individual’s control of wealth.   Thea spent most of her substantial fortune, about $16 million in today’s dollars.  After the war, both Thea and Inés’ half-sister Dorothea were living in very reduced circumstances in Paris.  When Inés’ father died, she sued for his very valuable violin, which was left to her stepmother.

Through publication and performances of Beck’s translations of Garcia Lorca’s plays, Beck’s situation improved in the 1950’s.  He was able to get the exclusive rights from the Lorca family to do all the German translations.  At Thea’s bidding, he also negotiated the rights to publish Inés’ stepfather Carl Sternheim’s plays, which had gone out of print when Sternheim died; however, Thea felt he was taking more than his share of the profit, which was to go primarily to her. This didn’t help their already strained relationship!  After Beck’s death, negative critiques of his translations appeared; it turns out that Beck learned Spanish during his years in Spain, but never studied the language or the literature formally.  It was generally felt that his translations were poor.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned from Rudin-Bühlmann’s book is how Inés came to teach in Freiburg.  The composer Wolfgang Fortner decided to compose an opera using Beck’s German translation of Lorca’s 1933 play Bodas de Sangre (Die Bluthochzeit  or Blood Wedding.)  Fortner had worked throughout the Nazi era as an esteemed conductor of, among other groups, the Hitler Youth Orchestra, and after the war he resumed civilian life without much difficulty, teaching composition in Heidelberg.  The opera premiered in Cologne in 1957, with Beck and Leuwen in attendance.  Beck and Leuwen became close lifelong friends with Fortner. He doesn’t seem the type they would like; they had refused the chance to even attend the Bayreuth Festival, presumably because the Nazis favored it.

In the late 1950’s, Wolfgang Fortner joined the faculty of the Freiburg Conservatory and soon became its director.  In this capacity, he hired Inés Leuwen to join the conservatory faculty first as adjunct faculty, and then as professor of voice.  Both Fortner’s parents had been singers, and one can imagine he recognized Inés’ abilities despite her extremely small performance resume.  Thea, on one of her visits, sat in on some lessons and took note of how involved and happy Inés seemed to be with teaching. Thea realized with regret that among herself and her children, Inés was the only one with any kind of calling or work ethic. Inés remained a successful teacher both in her private studio in Basel and as professor at the conservatory in Freiburg until her death in 1976.

One thought on “Inés Leuwen, Part 2: Some Mysteries Solved

  1. I enjoyed reading this. You are a talented writer. I wish you had talked about “lessons” with Agnus.

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