Ines Leuwen, voice teacher — and mystery woman

Recently I found some photos and information about my undergraduate voice teacher, Ines Leuwen-Beck, known to me as Frau Leuwen (pronounced LOY-ven). She was a singer and later professor at the Music Academy (now the University of the Arts) in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, where I studied with her as a voice major in the 1970’s. I have always been curious about her life. Her story has large gaps, but also brings into focus the extremes of the Nazi period in Germany. Together with her husband, the translator and poet Enrique Beck, she spent her final years in Riehen (near Basel), Switzerland. The town has added her biography to its records, and what I write in this post is largely from that source, with a few of my own memories as well as background from other sources.

Ines (originally Agnes) Löwenstein was born Dec. 3, 1902 in Dusseldorf. She was the only daughter of the Jewish attorney Arthur Löwenstein (1873-1954) and his Catholic wife Thea (1883-1971), who had married him against her parents’ wishes. Ines was their only daughter. Thea had a daughter Dorothea in 1905 with the Jewish playwright and essayist Carl Sternheim (1879-1942); Thea’s father died in 1906, leaving her a fortune. The Löwensteins divorced, and Thea married Sternheim in 1907. Ines was then raised by her father who, despite the divorce, retained control of the two girls’ inheritances. I mention their religions only because this became important later.

Ines studied voice in Berlin, Vienna, Nice, and Basel. We do not know anything about her studies or her life during these years. Thinking she must have sung in opera, I have looked over some opera programs from these cities during the late 20’s and early 30’s, and find no mention of her under any of the several names she used. However, those cast in smaller roles or chorus were not generally listed by name, and the programs were not complete for any season. I found no listing for her under any of the names she used in Kürchner’s Biographical Handbook of Theater, Opera, Film, and Radio in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. For comparison, I looked up Horst Günter, a baritone who was also a professor in Freiburg at the time, and came up with listings of what roles he performed and where. So, why is she missing?

Ines’ half-sister, Dorothea, worked as a set and costume designer and was a resistance fighter in France during the Second World War. She was imprisoned by the Nazis in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, but survived to return to Paris after the war. She died in 1954 of cancer and her diaries were published posthumously.

The Nazi party came to power in 1933 and in 1935, the German Racial Purity Laws took effect. To be a citizen, one had to prove oneself German according to bloodlines. Frau Leuwen mentioned this only once to me in my two years of twice-weekly individual lessons; she said she was raised as a Protestant. I admit as a nineteen-year-old American, I had only a vague notion of what that might have meant; in any case, she did not self-identify as Jewish.

   From the US Holocaust Museum Encyclopedia: The Nazis had long sought a legal definition that identified Jews not by religious affiliation but according to racial antisemitism. Jews in Germany were not easy to identify by sight. Many had given up traditional practices and appearances and had integrated into the mainstream of society. Some no longer practiced Judaism and had even begun celebrating Christian holidays, especially Christmas, with their non-Jewish neighbors. Many more had married Christians or converted to Christianity.
According to the Reich Citizenship Law and many ancillary decrees on its implementation, only people of “German or kindred blood” could be citizens of Germany. A supplementary decree published on November 14,[1935], the day the law went into force, defined who was and was not a Jew. The Nazis rejected the traditional view of Jews as members of a religious or cultural community. They claimed instead that Jews were a race defined by birth and by blood. Despite the persistent claims of Nazi ideology, there was no scientifically valid basis to define Jews as a race. Nazi legislators looked therefore to family genealogy to define race. People with three or more grandparents born into the Jewish religious community were Jews by law. Grandparents born into a Jewish religious community were considered “racially” Jewish. Their “racial” status passed to their children and grandchildren. Under the law, Jews in Germany were not citizens but “subjects” of the state.
This legal definition of a Jew in Germany covered tens of thousands of people who did not think of themselves as Jews or who had neither religious nor cultural ties to the Jewish community. For example, it defined people who had converted to Christianity from Judaism as Jews. It also defined as Jews people born to parents or grandparents who had converted to Christianity. The law stripped them all of their German citizenship and deprived them of basic rights.

   To further complicate the definitions, there were also people living in Germany who were defined under the Nuremberg Laws as neither German nor Jew, that is, people having only one or two grandparents born into the Jewish religious community. These “mixed-raced” individuals were known as “Mischlinge”. They enjoyed the same rights as “racial” Germans, but these rights were continuously curtailed through subsequent legislation.

   In, Viktoria Hertling describes the treatment of musicians in Nazi Germany thus:
What the Nazis meant… became clear on April 1, 1933, when Nazis boycotted Jewish stores, defaced the storefronts of Jewish-owned businesses, and publicly blackmailed those who continued to shop in stores owned by Germans of the Jewish faith.
From that point on, every week brought further governmental decrees that robbed Jews of their livelihood and their right to German citizenship. Between 1933 and 1939, more than 2,000 conductors, soloists, concert masters, singers, members of orchestras, and musicologists were banned or expelled from stages and teaching positions throughout Germany, Austria, and Poland because they were Jewish.

Back to our subject, Ines Leuwen: in March 1938, after the annexation of Austria into Germany, Ines left Vienna to join her father, who was living in Switzerland. (I believe that in Germany her father would have been considered a Jew, and Ines as “mixed-race,” neither German nor Jew). Ines lost her German citizenship once she left. In September 1938 she applied for residency in Basel and was given a temporary residence permit that had to be renewed regularly, and twelve years later, in 1950, she finally received a permanent residence permit. It is reported that in 1938 she sang the role of Amneris in Verdi’s Aida in Basel. This is the only information I can find about her performing career, and I have not found documentation of these performances. Reportedly, Ines sang under the names Leuwen, Seidl, and Seidler. Other students in Freiburg told me she had known Richard Strauss in Berlin, and when I told her I was going to attend a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, she asked me to “send my greetings to Mr. Bing” (Rudolph Bing, originally Austrian, had until 1972 been the general manager at the Met). Did she know them socially? Professionally? Had she really worked as a singer? I would love to find the evidence.

In 1938 she also met the poet and translator Heinrich (Enrique) Beck (1924-1974), known for his translations of the poems and plays of the Spanish author Federico Garcia Lorca, and for his left-leaning political activism in Germany before the war and during four years in Spain. Like Ines, he was of Jewish heritage and without citizenship, and had difficulty getting permission to live In Switzerland. A controversial character both professionally and politically, he evaded deportation for several years in various locations in Switzerland, and was arrested several times during his years in Spain for leftist political activity. Ines was an important facilitator in Beck’s long struggle for residency; she sought support from the authors Hermann Hesse and Andre Gide (both of whom, I believe, were friends of her mother), and from immigration officers Franz Merz and Heinrich Rothmund. At some point Beck was granted the legal rights to translate all of Garcia Lorca’s works into German, and in the 1950’s these sold well, allowing the couple a comfortable existence. Later these translations came under criticism as inadequate and awkward.
At the end of the 1950’s Ines joined the faculty of the Music Academy Freiburg im Breisgau (now the University of the Arts Freiburg) and started a private studio in Basel. She continued in this work until her death (1976). In the 70’s she had the reputation of being one of the best teachers at the Conservatory. How did she get this position at one of the best conservatories in Germany?

I studied with Frau Leuwen from 1974-76 at the Freiburg Academy; her most famous student, some time before, had been soprano Hildegarde Behrens. It is often repeated that Frau Leuwen discouraged the soprano from following a musical career, despite her beautiful voice. But she continued to teach her for four years, so one wonders if this was just an offhand or one-time remark. Never one to mince words, Frau Leuwen told me to expect to study at least six years to develop my voice, and not to let myself be underpaid for any performances, especially those I took in the meantime. I remember that she took the train to and from Basel (about an hour each way) every day she taught in Freiburg, and heard other students say she had vowed never to sleep another night in Germany. At the beginning my lessons consisted mostly of several months’ work perfecting the German vowels! She was kind and patient, but didn’t explain much; she sometimes demonstrated, but she really could not sing any more, and often took things an octave lower. When I did something well, she would ask, “did you take note of that?”

Beck and Leuwen married in 1960, a year after Beck got Swiss citizenship. Through their marriage, Ines also gained Swiss citizenship. They lived in the Basel suburb of Riehen from the 1960’s on, eventually taking in Ines’ mother, Thea Sternheim. Thea had divorced the author Carl Sternheim in 1927 and left Germany in 1932 for Paris; though she inherited a fortune from her industrialist father, her funds were confiscated at some point by the Nazis and she lived in reduced circumstances in Paris with Ines’ half-sister Dorothea after Dorothea’s release from Ravensbrück concentration camp. Later, five volumes of Thea’s diaries were published, and she has been described as a “chronicler of the Modern Age.” In 1963 Thea went to live with Ines and Enrique until her death in 1971.

Frau Leuwen was a great supporter of her husband and his work. I remember that she sometimes showed up to lessons in one of her husband’s suits, with some artsy scarf or fur at the neck to add a more feminine touch. I believe this was during and after his final illness. Her hair was dyed bright red and somehow she seemed to have come from some distant Bohemian world. After her husband’s death in 1974, she started a foundation, the Heinrich Enrique Beck Stiftung, hoping to publish his original poetry and maintaining control over the Garcia Lorca translations. Several volumes of Beck’s poetry were eventually published.

Frau Leuwen invited me to lunch at her home one day in the early summer of 1976; she had been ill in the spring. I took the train down to Basel and was directed to a nice but not luxurious neighborhood. It surprised me that in her apartment everything was sleek and modern, with birch furniture and fabrics in pastel blue and white. Somehow I had failed to realize that as a refugee, she would have had to leave all the furnishings and mementos of her earlier life in Germany and Vienna behind when she left. We prepared the meal together and chatted about this and that. She seemed quite well that day, as I recall, but it must have been a great effort; it was to be the last time I would see her. She died a few months later of cancer, on Sept. 7, 1976.  So very many years later, with the benefits of the internet, I had thought it would be rather simple to find out about this unique personality who was part of my artistic training and journey. I am left with more questions than answers!

One thought on “Ines Leuwen, voice teacher — and mystery woman

  1. Fascinating story… …well-researched and
    written. It’s curious how the people that shaped our lives have histories of which we are, at the time, usually entirely unaware.

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