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Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya

Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya

by Ethan Mordden

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Noted historian of the Broadway musical chronicles the braided lives of two of the twentieth century's most influential artists

For the first time, Ethan Mordden chronicles the romance of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya in Love Song, a dual biography that unfolds against the background of the tumultuous twentieth century, scored to music from Weil's


Noted historian of the Broadway musical chronicles the braided lives of two of the twentieth century's most influential artists

For the first time, Ethan Mordden chronicles the romance of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya in Love Song, a dual biography that unfolds against the background of the tumultuous twentieth century, scored to music from Weil's greatest triumphs: Knickerbocker Holiday, Lost in the Stars, Lady in the Dark, Happy End, One Touch of Venus and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The romance of Weill, the Jewish cantor's son, and Lenya, the Viennese coachman's daughter, changed the history of Western music. With Bertolt Brecht, they created one of the definitive works of the twentieth century, The Threepenny Opera, a smash that would live on in musical theatre history. Weill, the jazz Mozart, was the creator whose work is backstage, unseen. Lenya, his epic-theatre femme fatale, was the performer who put the work into view. They heard the same unique music, but he gave it form while she gave it life. Love Song is ultimately the story of a great romance scored to some of the twentieth century's greatest music.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Mordden, your go-to guy about anything having to do with the musical theater, here offers what must inevitably be a dual biography of the cantor's son and the coachman's daughter who joined forces to give us some of the greatest musical theater of the 20th century. Worth a lot more than three pennies.
Publishers Weekly
One of the 20th-century’s greatest composers, Weill, a Jewish cantor’s son in Germany, whose only interest was music and who wrote an adaptation of a Rilke poem when he was 19, changed when he met the attractive and pleasing daughter of a Viennese coachman, Lotte Lenya, in Berlin. Lenya’s mother had told the young girl that though she was not pretty, men would be crazy about her all her life, and indeed she wrapped Weill and numerous other musicians, artists, actors, dancers, and audiences around her little finger. In this dual biography that is more Weill than Lenya, music historian Mordden monotonously marches through the lives and times of each individual, tracing in detail their childhood and young adulthood, the paths that took them to Berlin and their first meeting, their tumultuous marriage and brief divorce, their successes in Germany in the theater and in film, and their move to America where each established lasting reputations. Although Weill’s successful collaboration with Bertolt Brecht on The Threepenny Opera followed him throughout his life, he also went on to some measure of triumph with his Broadway shows, Street Scene (1947), and Knickerbocker Holiday (1938). After Weill’s death, Lenya gained considerable notice in films, first as Rosa Klebb in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and then as James Bond’s nemesis in From Russia with Love. Mordden follows ground well-trod by previous biographies of Weill (The Days Grow Short ; Kurt Weill ) and Lenya (Lenya: A Life ), offering little new or compelling information about the pair. Agent: Joe Spieler. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

"With smart, chatty and occasionally hilarious prose...Mordden ably captures both artists and their ever-changing geographical and professional locales."—Kirkus Reviews
Kirkus Reviews
They were some couple: artist and muse, Jewish and Catholic, owlish composer and flighty songbird. She was unfaithful to him, he was only faithful to his music, and neither could live without the other. As Mordden (The Guest List: How Manhattan Defined American Sophistication, 2010) puts it, Kurt Weill (1900–1950) and Lotte Lenya (1898–1981) were "an odd couple, she so outgoing and curious and he so taciturn, as if he already knew everything worth knowing." They would marry, divorce and remarry, and Lenya slept around as Weill studied his sheet music. ("But, Lenya," he once told her, "you know you come right after my music!") They met in Weimar Berlin at its inflationary, artistic, criminal and pre-Nazi peak--"the Wild West without a sheriff"--which Weill and a smelly, hectoring blowhard named Bertolt Brecht would brutally satirize in The Threepenny Opera. The reaction was mixed: Most people loved it, but the Nazis hated it. The thugs didn't like his later shows either--one reviewer was shocked at how Weill, "a Jew, makes use of the German opera stage for his anti-German goals." Weill and Lenya fled to Paris in 1933 (bad idea) and then America. Weill, who "could put on a musical style like socks," flourished in the melting pot; Lenya, in between air pilots and choir boys, was his constant anchor. With smart, chatty and occasionally hilarious prose ("Richard Rodgers was the only composer with whom Weill was holding a hard-on contest"), Mordden ably captures both artists and their ever-changing geographical and professional locales. The title cheats a little--it's more about him than her--but this is a lively, baroque account of two very cool cats, these opposites who attracted.

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Kurt And Linnerl



She was born first, about a year and a half before him, in Vienna, on October 18, 1898. Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer was the daughter of a coachman, Franz Blamauer, and a laundress, the former Johanna Teuschl. If young Linnerl—a standard nickname for Karoline—was to captivate men, as her mother predicted, it may have been one of those traits acquired by imitation, for her mother was a pet of the local lads. “Frau Blamauer sees pants on a clothesline,” the neighbors would carol, “and she’s pregnant.” But of her many gestations only five children were born alive, three girls and two boys.

The firstborn, Karoline, died at the age of four, and the future Lotte Lenya was named after her. There were as well her older brother, Franz; her younger brother, Max; and her younger sister, Maria. It was Linnerl who attracted their father’s particular attention, for he had loved his dead Karoline and hated the one who replaced her. Young Linnerl lived in terror in the Blamauers’ small apartment, in a five-storey block of masonry way out to the southwest of Vienna’s “inner city,” on the southern edge of the district of Penzing, where it borders Hietzing. The area was so distant from Vienna’s core area around St. Stephen’s Cathedral that from the window of the Blamauers’ kitchen one could see Schönbrunn, the summer palace of Austria’s royal house, the Hapsburgs.

It is an odd trick of the abusive parent to select one child in particular to destroy. The others are ignored or even favored, and Franz singled out the surviving Linnerl for intimidation with the constant and very real threat of violence. If he wanted a stein of beer from the corner tavern, it was always Linnerl who was sent to collect it and slapped if he suspected that she had spilled any of it. When he barged into the apartment after a night of carousing and demanded a song, it was Linnerl who was pulled out of bed—a wooden box with a removable cover for use as an ironing board or in preparing dough for noodles—and forced to sing for him.

It was a hard life for the family in general, for despite the impressive look of the apartment building, at 38 Ameisgasse, the Blamauers were poor. One of the souvenirs that Linnerl took with her on her global journey from Vienna to dwellings in Switzerland, Germany, France, and finally America is her photograph with neighborhood children and their mothers when she was three or four. Some forty-five souls pose, from infants in arms to a few grandmothers, the little girls in pinafores or Sunday dresses and the boys dolled up in jacket, high collar, and flowing tie. Scarcely anyone smiles; most look worried, Linnerl especially. Her mother seems to have been unwilling to protect her daughter (or herself) from her husband’s rages, but Lotte never blamed her mother as an enabler. On the contrary, many years later, when, as Lotte Lenya, she received her mother and sister on a visit to the Weill place in Rockland County, north of Manhattan, Lenya seemed genuinely touched—and amused—by her mother’s absolute lack of character growth. She had remained the same withdrawn, incurious, and blunt being she had been when raising her children, taking life’s jests and jostles with a kind of Penzing fatalism. She was even living in the same old two-room flat.

Franz Blamauer, for all his paternal cruelty, was a neighborhood celebrity, as coachmen often were. A fixture of Viennese life, the cabmen drove horse-drawn vehicles ranging from bumpy, roofless one-seaters to carriages fit for a regal suite, and like the taxidrivers of New York in the 1950s and 1960s they were official City Characters. No other European town seems to have celebrated its hackney drivers the way Vienna did, although their vehicle, the Fiaker, was of Parisian derivation, introduced by the Hôtel St. Fiacre and nicknamed after it.

Vienna’s coachmen were truculent but helpful, eccentric yet bound to custom and the old ways of doing things. They would invoke a bygone age as if intimately connected to its day-to-day life and speak of the great Metternich as if they had driven him to Mass at St. Stephen’s just the other day. Blamauer was not a freelance driver for hire, however. He held a steady post in the household of a well-off industrialist. For a working-class fellow of unsteady habits with a drinking problem, this was what Penzing called—to use modern lingo—a “good job.”

One of the most famous of Viennese songs of old, Gustav Pick’s “Wiener Fiakerlied,” in the softened German of Viennese dialect, tenderizes the coachman figure with “I hab’ zwa harpe Rappen…” (I drive two strong black horses…). The verse, in 4/4, catalogues his doings, which includes the exercise of utmost discretion when taking a certain Count Lamezan, a pair of lovers, and even Grandpa to dodgy rendezvous. And the chorus, in a melting waltz, assures us with poetry fit for his gravestone: “My blood is easy and light on the wind, for I am a true Wienerkind” (Vienna boy).

The reality of the Viennese coachman was a good deal less demure; it was said that when police work did not involve surveillance of political adventurers, it almost always involved a coachman. Yet the Fiakermann stands for the thing Vienna most loved: tradition. The city’s attitudes were frankly ultra-conservative—as befits the cultural capital of Prince Klemens von Metternich. This is the name that historians—and, indeed, every intellectual of the early-middle nineteenth century, Metternich’s own era—have pasted onto political absolutism and reaction. Perhaps the most reviled figure of his century, Metternich inspired a book’s worth of false tales delineating a fatuous popinjay. This was the most powerful figure short of warlord or monarch? When the Russian ambassador suddenly dies just before a diplomatic conference, Metternich becomes entranced with suspicion, his favorite mode. “I wonder why he did that,” Metternich exclaims.

And yet Metternich, as Austria’s Foreign Minister and then Chancellor, was the diplomat with the tact—at least, the cunning—to lay out a blueprint for the power structures of post-Napoleonic Europe even while Napoleon was still in business. After all, Napoleon was France: and France was contagious. “When Paris sneezes,” Metternich observed, “Europe catches cold.” Metternich’s sway outlasted that of Napoleon by more than thirty years, till it was ended in the cascade of continental revolutions in 1848. Still, Metternich left his repressive sociopolitical system as an example to governments throughout the continent—especially in Central Europe, dominated in the north by the Kingdom of Prussia and, in the south, what in 1867 became the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

This was the nation, or agglomeration of nations, that Karoline Blamauer grew up in. Besides Austria and Hungary themselves it included Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, and Sudetenland of later Czechoslovakia; sections of Poland, Romania, and Ukrainia; Bosnia and Croatia; and the Italian Tyrol. Because the dual monarchy recognized two thrones but was governed from Vienna, representatives of the empire’s constituent peoples flooded Vienna, making it the most cosmopolitan city in Europe. Adolf Hitler, who spent his youth there trying to launch a career as an artist, hated its lack of nationalist values. Vienna was not a melting pot, exactly. It laced a multi-ethnic stew with exotic chunks of music and costume and language from afar: a chowder of Babel. Other great cities were filled with tourists; Vienna was filled with foreigners, and they were staying.

Ironically, it was a smallish place that had only recently expanded to absorb suburbs and outlying villages into a Grossstadt, a metropolis. The inner city, its narrow streets spreading out radially from St. Stephen’s, was crammed, albeit with Beethoven, Schubert, the playwrights Grillparzer and Nestroy, the waltzing Strausses. It counted a population of only half a million in 1858, when the city’s outer defensive walls were pulled down—literally detonated, with high explosives, as they proved too thick to respond to conventional demolition. The work lasted well into the 1860s, and when it was over the vast open space left encircling the inner city became the boulevards known as the Ringstrasse, giving spectators room to marvel at a crescent of public buildings in neo-style, from Greek through Gothic to Baroque: the Opera, the Parliament, City Hall, the Memorial Church, the University, the Burgtheater, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Stock Exchange. It seems characteristic of Vienna to be the last great European city to lose its outlying armor—as though, unlike revolutionary Paris, businesslike London, and eternal Rome, it viewed its battlements as protection from such modern ideas as democracy, a free press, and liberalization of lifestyle. But then, Vienna was also the easternmost of continental Europe’s metropolises. The armies of Islam twice besieged it as they swept through southeastern Europe, in 1529 and 1683, both times unsuccessfully, though the second try nearly came off. The invader had breached the walls and was just smashing into the city when a Christian relief force arrived and turned history around. The Turks retreated so precipitously that they left everything behind, including hundreds of bags of coffee beans. These were immediately put to use—or so the legend runs—in initiating another feature of Viennese life, the coffeehouse.

Vienna’s most identifying feature, however, might be its related worlds of music and the stage. The Viennese are born theatregoers—opera, the classics, low comedy, and operetta all have their publics, and it is worth noting that, aside from a few nomadic excursions, Karoline Blamauer was to live her entire life exclusively in theatre capitals or their environs, even when she was not actively working as a thespian. After Vienna there was Zurich (a modest arts capital, to be sure, but the only Swiss town with something like a theatre community), Berlin, Paris (briefly), and New York. One could argue that the future Lotte Lenya’s wish to take a big bite out of life naturally led her to cosmopolitan places, with their bohemian subcultures. But it is also true that Vienna nurtured the theatrical personality, addicting it to the flamboyant “all the world’s a stage” living style common to cultural capitals.

The Blamauers were too poor to take part in theatregoing, but all the city, regardless of class, followed the news of the arts world. Stage-and-concert gossip was the next topic after the weather for much of the population, and when Gustav Mahler took over as director of the Opera, the announcement that he was converting from Judaism to the state religion, Roman Catholicism, did nothing to soothe a controversy that raged citywide throughout his ten-year reign. Then, too, music was available everywhere, especially from the typically Viennese Schrammel band, after the late-nineteenth-century composer Johann Schrammel, who left his name on a quartet of two violins, clarinet, and guitar.1 Thus, Linnerl Blamauer grew up in an atmosphere rich in the playacting and music-making that would stimulate the longings of a girl of high-concept imagination.

And, indeed, the palace of Schönbrunn was not all that Linnerl could see from the kitchen window. Also in view was a small mom-and-pop circus in which the parents and their kids did everything from tear the tickets to play the clown. It was as close to The Theatre as five-year-old Linnerl had ever got, and somehow or other she conveyed her intense interest to the circus manager and won her first job in show business, dancing in Hungarian folk garb while smashing a tambourine.

Years later, as she recounted the tale, friends would ask what she danced to.

“Oh … Brahms, you know?” she would reply. “Not that it made any difference as they Schrammeled their way through it.”

Tiny circuses offer humble attractions, and in due course little Linnerl walked a tightrope a mere four feet above ground, with an exotic paper umbrella for balance. No crowned heads were scheduling command performances, but to a stage-struck five-year-old it must have seemed a lovely dream. Nor did the senior Blamauers hinder their daughter’s ambitions. Frau Blamauer could see how happy it made her, and, said Lenya, “My father could not have cared less.”

This is how it always begins: the so very young and unhappy child learning to substitute the appreciation of an audience for the affection she cannot get at home. Performing becomes one’s support system—and surely the next stop is a trip to the theatre that impassions self-belief. The actors control a wild magic, and the public needs to share the enchantment. Yet when the Blamauers did take Linnerl to a show, she could scarcely follow the event from the inexpensive seats they held, and the trip was a waste.

Anyway, Linnerl’s parents had no fancy plans for her; she was not even to finish school. At fourteen, she was apprenticed in a millinery shop. The work was monotonous—but delivering the finished hats to a middle-class clientele gave Linnerl tiny access to a world she had known nothing of, wherein people had the money with which to pleasure their lives. Some of her errands took her into the inner city, the old Vienna town of history and fable, the Beethoven-Stadt that, by Linnerl’s youth in the 1910s, had become the radical place of the playwrights Arthur Schnitzler and Frank Wedekind, of Sigmund Freud, of the dangerous inventor of the music that only other inventors liked, Arnold Schönberg. Vienna was stirring, and Linnerl Blamauer needed to slip out of Penzing and its animal-biscuit circus into the pleasurable life. So she followed the example of other girls in the shop and took to selling herself on the streets.

Years later, Lenya enjoyed sharing the secret with virtually anyone—wives of producers and playwrights, fellow actors, strangers at parties. She presented it as another piece of the Lenya Legend, simply what happens to penniless young women who need Extrataschengeld (pocket money) to keep up with Dorothea and Mausi. “And,” she would add, “no one was forcing us, you know?” Lenya’s biographer Jens Rosteck even sees Lenya-as-prostitute as another preparation for her career as a performer: “She smoothed out her future in those early sexual dealings with men, calculating how to interest them in various ways—a skill she would find very useful in the tough world of the theatre.” And yet, Rosteck adds, it helps explain Lenya’s femme fatale side as that of a hobbyist in gender relations: “Like an insatiable collector, she was ever starting off on the hunt once again.”

*   *   *

Kurt Weill had one thing in common with Karoline Blamauer: he, too, grew up with two brothers and a sister. Each was born a year apart. Nathan was the eldest, then Hans,2 then Kurt (who arrived on March 2, 1900), and at last Ruth.

Beyond that, the difference between what Linnerl and Kurt heard in the word “family” were wide. The Blamauers were Catholic but not technically observant, although Johanna made church visits in times of stress or thanksgiving. The Weills were Jewish and pious; Kurt’s father, Albert Weill, was a synagogue cantor, singing the musical sections of the liturgy, and Kurt’s mother, Emma Ackermann Weill, was the sister of a rabbi. We have already noted a cultured background in the Weill home, and as a cantor Albert naturally exposed his children to music. It was a close family, too—and a young one, for Albert and Emma were married in 1897, when he was thirty and she twenty-five. All four children were born in the following four years.

By contrast, the Blamauers had their children over the course of twelve years. Franz and Johanna Blamauer, too, were young at the time of their marriage, both in their late twenties, but there was no music in the home, and Franz, after the death of his beloved first Linnerl, showed no interest in his other offspring besides that eerie hatred of the second Linnerl. Further, his work driving his employer’s coach and his habit of topping off the workday with a drinking binge made him something of an absentee father.

Albert Weill, by contrast, was strictly a family man, and he worked literally next door, for the Weills lived one address over from the synagogue. Where Franz Blamauer could lord about Penzing as both coachman and village bon vivant, Albert Weill was brand new in town. A year after he married, he moved from his ancestral territory in the neighboring states of Württemberg and Baden in southwest Germany to his cantorial job in Dessau, in the province of Anhalt, halfway across the country to the northeast, on the road to Berlin.

This was the old Germany, united into an entity as recently as 1871 but composed nonetheless of a mass of kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, and free cities: the Holy Roman Empire, now nationalized as the Second Reich. That first Reich, as Voltaire famously joked, was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” but this is wordplay. It was indeed holy Roman (meaning “Christian”), and if it was less an empire than an agglomeration of states, it comprised a vast domain—roughly Central Europe from the North Sea to the Alps and from the Frankish west to the Slavic east. It was loosely unified by its German dialects and its emperor, the Holy Roman one, from Charlemagne on to the last, Francis II, at the start of the nineteenth century. Now it had become a nation with something it had never had before: a capital, Berlin. Even so, the land retained its separate ruling houses, its court traditions, its provincial identity politics. And if Prussia was huge, Bavaria culturally distinguished, and some of the duchies incidental yet somehow imposing, a few of the puzzle pieces of this German Empire were so small you could scarcely fit an operetta inside them.

The duchy of Anhalt, when Albert Weill reported there to take up his post at the Dessau synagogue, was not the least significant of its kind, though rules of title inheritance and the bickering of sons led to constant partitioning, reuniting, and repartitioning over the centuries. Anhalt was separate from yet very much a part of the much larger state of Saxony, and Saxony was what one might call Basic Germany, with such major cities as Dresden, Leipzig, and Wittenberg and important history as the cradle of the Reformation and a central battle area in the Thirty Years’ War.

When Cantor Weill took up his post, in 1899, Dessau was a prince’s capital, with an old-fashioned and strictly observed hierarchy, from the court of Duke Friedrich II of Anhalt down through the professions and skilled service industries to the workforce, the whole taking tone from the noble family and a social life centered around Dessau’s one theatre, subsidized by courtly indulgence. It employed a permanent ensemble of musicians, singers, dancers, and actors putting on everything from Shakespeare to Wagner. The programming was conservative, with the occasional prim novelty, for instance allowing Beethoven’s inheritor Brahms but disdaining the overstating Bruckner.

Dessau was not a forge on which a Julien Sorel hammers out his destiny. Still, if everyone starts somewhere, it is worth noting that at least German-speaking Europe offered an abundance of cultural advantages. Kurt Weill ended as an American, not only in citizenship but in attitude; he was marinating in Americanism from the moment he stepped off the boat. But if he had started as an American in the equivalent of Dessau, a backwater of modest accomplishments—something like Harrisburg, say—Weill would not likely have had access to the world of theatre and music that Dessau’s Hoftheater offered. Court Theatre: a home of talents of the lesser divisions, but a prideful place all the same, making the best art of second-rate materials. Here, young Kurt formed his first association with a mentor, the new Kapellmeister (music director) of the Hoftheater, Albert Bing. Kurt was already skilled enough as a pianist to take part in recitals,3 and now Bing gave the teenager his first lessons in harmony—the building blocks of composition. And Bing told Kurt that Europe was filled with pianists but always ran short of good composers.

As it was, Kurt had already been composing for as long as anyone could recall: songs, an intermezzo for piano (Brahms had written a set of intermezzi that every senior piano student in Central Europe was bound to master), a four-part chorus, even a short opera, now lost. Thirteen years later, Kurt told an interviewer, “I composed for the school orchestra and—astonishingly, given who I am today—war choruses.”

The war—the Great one, now termed World War I—had started when Kurt was fourteen, and over the course of its four years it affected the Weills ever more intensely. Kurt’s two brothers were drafted when he was sixteen and seventeen, and soon enough it would be Kurt’s turn. As he approached eighteen, his classes at school became smaller as boys a few months older than he were, one by one, pulled from their books. Not all were drafted; many joined up under pressure. “Even one’s parents,” Erich Maria Remarque tells us in Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front), “were ready with the word ‘coward.’” Typically, Kurt found a musical solution to the problem, taking up the trumpet so he might be spared fighting at the front to serve in a band unit.

He was as well giving piano lessons to youngsters in Duke Friedrich’s family, and studying orchestration with Albert Bing, and interning at the Hoftheater as a coach and accompanist. Most important, at the age of sixteen Kurt composed the first piece that he himself regarded as a kind of “Opus 1,” the initiating work of an oeuvre: a setting of five poems translated into German from the ancient Hebrew of Judah Halevi, entitled Ofrahs Lieder.

Music was his only interest, in total immersion—particularly in attending operas at the theatre. One that left an indelible mark on him, as we’ll see, was a newish piece, introduced as recently as 1903, Eugen D’Albert’s Tiefland (Lowlands). A German of French descent, D’Albert was at first primarily known as a virtuoso pianist. However, opera was music’s booming industry, with a demand for new works so intense that a flash success could count dozens of productions, from St. Petersburg to New Orleans, within two years of its premiere—and flash successes were the rage. Every musician who could do so got into the opera business, and music publishers took to signing up hopefuls fresh from the conservatory in hopes of securing the next Puccini.

Tiefland was typical of the day in its peasant characters and violent action, in the hint of the popular in some of the tunes, and in the composer’s reputation eventually coming to rest on the survival of this one work. Nineteenth-century opera generally favored the doings of the leadership class, whether a Druid priestess or an Egyptian army officer, not to mention the gods and heroes of Wagner’s Ring cycle. These characters tended to converse politically when not making love, and their music was what Western listeners regarded as high art. Suddenly, near the century’s end, a realist vogue took over, introducing characters of obscure social background who conversed about day-to-day matters and sang, at times, the kind of melodies that some thought more suitable to arena events than to an opera house.

The Italians copyrighted the form as verismo (realism), in such founding works as Cavalleria Rusticana (1890), Pagliacci (1892), and Andrea Chenier (1896): Sicilian villagers, adultery and murder in a strolling-players troupe, the French Revolution, complete with bloodthirsty proletarians. And, in standout tenor solos, Cavalleria’s Siciliana and Pagliacci’s “Vesti la Giubba” (the one that climaxes with the sob-strewn “Ridi, Pagliaccio!”), the border between the melodic contour and discipline—the high art—of Bellini and Verdi on one hand and the sensual corruption of folk song or the salon trifle on the other appeared to dissolve. Chenier, even worse, is a kind of highlights in search of a score: bustle music, anguished recitativo, then a Big Tune, then clatter leading into screamy crowd noises, then subdued recitativo capped by another Big Tune, and so on.

With its punchy dramatics and—some said—cheap musical thrills, verismo put a whack! into opera, and it conquered Europe just when the first days of the gramophone provided infrastructure for those Big Tunes. Tiefland, a sort of German verismo, told of a mountain-dwelling shepherd lured to the lowlands to wed the local landowner’s mistress. It’s a front marriage, for the landowner intends to maintain his liaison.

Tiefland never quite breaks out into one of those pop melodies that verismo loved, but it always feels as if it’s just about to, and it has an arresting musical “image,” in a four-note theme representing a wolf that the shepherd takes on in mortal combat. It’s something the young Kurt Weill especially would have noticed—a musical tic that unifies the work in its many appearances while explaining its central concept. These four notes dominate the shepherd’s Wolfserzählung (Wolf Narration), recounting in detail how fiercely he defended his flock and how close he came to death; thus revealing his vulnerability but also his passion, the shepherd draws his humiliated and resentful bride to himself. At Tiefland’s end, the shepherd must again defend what is his when the landowner tries to claim “his” woman. The two men fight to the death, and, to the four notes of the Wolfkill, the shepherd fells his foe once more. And as the airy leaps and curves of the opera’s opening “mountain” music peal out fortissimo, the shepherd and his wife depart for the freedom of the highlands as the curtain falls.

Tiefland is a heady piece—romantic, raucous, sentimental, cruel—a work to mesmerize a young man besotted with the classics from Mozart to Wagner but now discovering in this new style the possibilities in opera. As we’ll see later on, verismo’s popular tang was to figure importantly in Weill’s growth as a theatre composer—and the four notes of the Wolfkill will be heard again, in an hommage in one of Weill’s last great works, when another husband needs to protect his homestead.

Kurt’s interning at the Court Theatre had made him a useful contact in the local prima donna, Emilie Feuge, and she invited him to become her official accompanist. When he was still seventeen, he traveled with her to Köthen, ten miles southwest of Dessau, to play for her recital for a remuneration of forty marks and a set of Grieg solos for himself. In the coming few years, Kurt would continue to play for Feuge and for her daughter Elisabeth; the Feuges would appear to be the first singers to present Kurt’s vocal work in public on the professional level.

Meanwhile, Kurt had achieved his Abitur (graduation) from the Herzogliche Friedrichs-Oberrealschule (roughly, Duke Friedrich High School), and for a young man so imbued with the making of music, there could be but one immediate goal, the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, perhaps the outstanding conservatory in all Europe. Kurt was now subject to the draft, yet somehow or other he managed to stay out of the war even as the American Expeditionary Force threatened to break the stalemate of trench fighting and pour over no-man’s-land into Germany itself. Desperate, the war machine recognized no educational deferments, least of all for the study of music. Nevertheless, at the end of April, 1918, Kurt Weill—eighteen years and two months old—arrived in Berlin to matriculate at the Hochschule, the Prussian State College of Music.

*   *   *

Karoline Blamauer didn’t wait till she was eighteen to set her life in motion; nor did she take an Abitur. But where Kurt always sought to direct his life, establishing long-range goals and diagramming points of approach, Linnerl let destiny fly her about. Granted, she was not without resources, especially in taking advantage of her natural charisma in captivating others. But she applied her gifts for purely social (or sexual) purposes. She wasn’t a user. She simply liked people and wanted to be liked in turn.

No wonder Aunt Sophie took a shine to her. One of those little-known older relations who, one day, bustles in, takes over, and changes your life, Sophie was Frau Blamauer’s older sister. She visited Vienna back in the summer of 1913, when Linnerl was nearly fifteen and desperately hoping for something picturesque to happen to her, especially if it took her away from the millinery business. Aunt Sophie was that something. Thrice married and thrice a widow, Aunt Sophie (as Lenya puts it in her autobiography, in her characteristically deadpan way) “mysteriously landed up in Zurich.” And now Aunt Sophie proposed to pack Linnerl off to live with her in the artistic capital of Switzerland. This is mysterious, too, because Aunt Sophie had no room for Linnerl: she was living as the housekeeper of a retired doctor who was extremely protective of his privacy.

Still, a break is a break. Linnerl’s mother certainly saw it as one. As they said goodbye in the train station, Linnerl holding her humiliating little tramp’s bundle—there was no money for a proper suitcase—Frau Blamauer told her, “Be smart, Linnerl, and, if you can manage it, don’t come back.”

Perhaps Aunt Sophie had entertained a secret plan after all, for soon enough Linnerl was moved out of the doctor’s flat to stay with the Ehrenzweigs. An older, childless couple, they took to Linnerl and she to them. Better, Herr Ehrenzweig was a photographer with a practice favoring the bohemian world of the theatre, and he offered Linnerl as a student to Steffi Herzeg, the ballet mistress of the opera company at the Stadttheater (Municipal Theatre). If Linnerl proved capable, she could count on taking part as a supernumerary in the operas and perhaps in small speaking roles at the Schauspielhaus (Playhouse), home of spoken drama.

Zurich ran its main stages in an orderly separation of skills. The Corso Theatre produced operetta and other light fare. The two big houses, the Stadttheater and the Schauspielhaus, were independent companies under a single management. Still, the pair followed distinct programs. The Municipal Theatre was conservative. The Playhouse was innovative, becoming especially so during the years of the Third Reich, when many German and then Austrian actors and directors fled to Switzerland.

As it happened, Linnerl was not cut out to be a ballerina in any real sense. But she moved well enough and was fascinating to look at, unlike the usual ballet girl with her face in a kind of pretty mask. At the Stadttheater, Linnerl played so many pages, squires, and Nibelungs that she could sing her way through whole chunks of opera scores, startling Kurt in later years, because she couldn’t read music. Meanwhile, at the Schauspielhaus, Linnerl learned her Shakespeare, Molière, and plays by Tolstoy, plays based on novels by Tolstoy, and plays in the gritty, realistic style of Tolstoy’s plays. It was a life beyond the expectations of Penzing, and an education as well.

Years later, as always recounting the episodes of her life to all who would listen, Lenya had little to say about Zurich except that it was so rich even the streetwalkers looked prosperous. “Every second house,” she observed, “was a bank.” It must have been a strange adventure for her, thrust into a land that most German speakers find incomprehensible and irritating. For one thing, the various Swiss dialects are all but impenetrable beyond Switzerland’s borders, and the obsessive use of diminutives—half the nouns end in -li (as in Müesli, oatmeal)—makes everything sound like a grandparent cooing over an infant.

Then there is the Swiss personality, best described as “unexcitable to a fault.” A story: the conductor Karl Böhm is trying to get soprano Lisa della Casa to put a little more oomph into Richard Strauss’ Arabella. Della Casa was known for her creamy vocalizing in Strauss and as Arabella in particular, in an arrestingly nuanced portrayal. But Böhm, it seems, liked his Arabellas broad enough to see from the moon. “More surprise!” Böhm called out during a run-through with the orchestra. Then: “Here she is dejected.” And “Nein, nein, you must seem to explode with defiance!”

Never getting what he wanted, Böhm stopped the orchestra and laid down his baton.

“Where are you from, Fräulein?” he asked.

“Burgdorf, Herr Professor. Bei Bern.”

“Switzerland,” he replied, nodding. “I thought so.”

Still, Karoline Blamauer—her working name, at the time—was thrilled to be far from her evil father and her irksome day job. And she was on the stage!: only fifteen when her first season of performances commenced. It was all the more devastating when, at the season’s end, Aunt Sophie announced that it was time for her niece to return to Vienna. But why? Wasn’t she supporting herself, and at work in the arts? As Lenya later told it, one noticed the holes she always left in certain stories, especially about her family. If asked for details, she would simply shrug, you know?

For instance, did Aunt Sophie worry that, with the theatres closed for the summer, Linnerl would be gallivanting about and getting into mischief? Was Aunt Sophie subject to the old prejudice about ballet girls—that they were prostitutes in tutus? Had she repented of interfering in the life of a self-willing girl, heedless of control?

Back in Vienna, Linnerl’s mother was not glad to see her. (“If you can manage it, don’t come back.”) But hadn’t she missed her daughter? Frau Blamauer’s life, too, had changed: Franz had walked out on her and she had taken in a boarder who was now her temporary boy friend. One tenant and the other children in that same one-bedroom-one-kitchen flat?

Worse, this was the fatal summer of 1914, which began on June 28 with the assassination in Sarajevo, Serbia, of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. On July 23, encouraged by Berlin, the Dual Monarchy hurled the threat of the power of Central Europe upon little Serbia with a humiliating ultimatum and then, responding to aggressive noises from Russia, declared war on Serbia on July 28. Other nations began to mobilize and make their own declarations, and by the second week of August Europe was almost wholly at war.

Except for Switzerland. Not only was Linnerl eager to return to pursue her wonderful livelihood: Zurich would be a much happier place than a belligerent nation, as the sanctions of a war economy lean most heavily on the poor like the Blamauers. For starters, both Linnerl’s brothers, aged seventeen and fourteen, were recruited for war work. And, just to make things interesting, the Blamauers’ boarder died of tuberculosis and his successor, Ernst Hainisch, proved every bit as unpleasant as Franz Blamauer had been. Linnerl was now desperate to get back to the theatre and away from home altogether.

Civilian travel was already severely restricted, and Linnerl had to get into order paperwork fit for an adult; she wrote to the intendant of the two city theatres in Zurich, Alfred Reucker, for confirmation of her labor contract so she could proceed. Reucker had to break the house rules to grant her the necessary permission—another reminder of how most people took to Lenya all her life—and by the middle of September, two weeks late for the first day of rehearsals for the new theatre season, Linnerl was on a train bound for Zurich.

It was a terrible trip, though of course the high point of her narrative much later on, when she would tell of the atmosphere on the train: stuffed with men in uniform, slowly chugging along the slowest possible route to the Swiss border and constantly stopping for interminable waits while some soldiers disembarked and others took their place. Finally, the train neared Switzerland, as Linnerl’s heart pounded. Would authorities suddenly appear to commandeer the train for the war effort? Would she be taken off and spirited away somewhere?

She was not quite sixteen, barely a dancer, and not remotely important as the governors of the world saw things. Many, many others were to make comparable and genuinely dangerous journeys over the next generation or so, but as Lotte Lenya was to tell the tale in the safety of her later life, at Broadway revels or backstage gossipfests, it was simply a thriller. There was no historical long view of the émigré in flight from an attempt to eradicate his personality, nothing about the war, and the ugly peace, and the friend with connections warning you to run. Don’t worry, it’s just a toothbrush: the border, now … “Ihre Pässe, bitte!” … the train continues … a silent sigh of tremendous relief. But still not home yet. Not till Linnerl looked out of the window on her left to glimpse the long, narrow curve of Lake Zurich did she feel she must be safe. The stations: Männedorf, Heilen, Erlenbach, Küsnacht. Yes, she was surely safe now. “Zurich!” the conductor called. And Linnerl stepped down from the car, a free young woman with all her life before her.

*   *   *

At this point in their story, Karoline Blamauer had traveled much farther—in every sense—than Kurt Weill, who was then a schoolboy of fourteen. Let us jump ahead, then, to April, 1918, when Kurt matriculated at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik as a full-time student in harmony, composition, counterpoint, and conducting. Indeed, for a brief time Kurt considered making the baton his primary instrument. After all, it was traditional in German music that composers conduct and conductors compose. Richard Strauss was once almost as famous for leading orchestras as writing for them, and Gustav Mahler, in his lifetime, was thought the greatest conductor alive but hardly a composer at all.

However, the infrastructure of a music conservatory gives a budding composer the tremendous advantage of the school’s instrumental students, eager to play his compositions. It’s tempting. Of course, the wise young composer pleases his tutors with a conservative output; this is an educational process, not a revolution, and one learns by doing what the Masters have done before you. Kurt yields up his String Quartet in b minor (1918) and Suite in E Major for orchestra (1919) in six movements—Introduction and Allegro Vivace, a slow movement, a scherzo, minuet, and intermezzo, and then a finale. This is the bedrock of tradition, Classical structuring as known to Haydn and Mozart. Then, for something Romantic, more up-to-date: a tone poem drawn from Rainer Maria Rilke, Die Weise von Liebe und Tod (The Melody of Love and Death, 1919).

Though lost, the score might well constitute Kurt Weill’s first major work—not a student’s exercise but an outpouring of passion. Rilke’s narrative, now in prose and now in verse, tells how his namesake the young Cornet (cavalier) Christoph Rilke rides with his companions to fight the invading Turks in 1663. The cadre puts up overnight in a castle, where Rilke romances a countess. But the Turks fire the place, and Rilke leaps up half-dressed, escapes the blaze, and storms by horse into the center of the battle, where he falls, beautiful and reckless, lover and fighter. First published in 1906, the poem was a cult favorite in Germany for its love of that national icon the suicidal hero, and for its rousing look at a life short on time and long on valor:

Yet his proud banner cannot be found.

Call out: Cornet!

The desperate horses, the prayers and the sound

Of curses: Cornet!

Swordplay to swordplay, command and respond,

Yet there’s silence: Cornet!

And once more: Cornet!

Down with the foeman and ride him to ground!4

In a letter to his brother Hans, Kurt outlined his plans for the piece, designed to stand on its own as absolute music yet stormy with youthful bravura, ardent with desire, resounding with the shouting and fighting. Kurt wrote such letters to Hans all their lives, telling his brother what he would make of his music: the only way to be close to Kurt was to be close to his work.

After Albert Bing, back at the Dessau Court Theatre, Kurt’s next mentor was his composition teacher at the Hochschule, Engelbert Humperdinck. The man who wrote the music to Hänsel und Gretel (1893) and the then popular but now near-forgot Königskinder (Royal Children, 1897; heavily revised 1910) enjoyed a major reputation and was the first genuinely prominent composer Kurt had met—as much so, almost, as a Strauss or Puccini. When Kurt visited Humperdinck at his home, the composer’s son, Wolfram, then twenty-five and still contemplating his professional future, told Kurt that if he, Wolfram, had Kurt’s gifts, he would follow his father’s route: because, again, there was nothing in the European arts world like being the author of a smash-hit opera. We’ve seen this with Tiefland, and it was true as well of Madama Butterfly (1904), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), or, for that matter, Franz Lehár’s Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow, 1905), an unprecedented blend of opera’s lyricism with sex farce, and an international sensation. In the end, Wolfram Humperdinck became a stage director. But he left young Kurt with a potent piece of advice: “Write an opera and you are a made man!”

Indeed, much later, Weill—who never tired of stating his artistic beliefs in print—said, “I made up my mind, at the age of nineteen, that my special field of activity would be the theatre.” First, however, Kurt had to stabilize his income, for while the war ended in the middle of his first term at the Hochschule, the term’s end, in the spring of 1919, found Germany racked with famine, foreign occupation, and the on-and-off hot war between factions of far left and far right. The nation was in a state of near-collapse and, on the personal level, so was the Weill family. Albert Weill’s synagogue, financially pressed, would not likely be able to keep him on. (He was in fact dismissed in the summer of 1919, though the family was allowed to stay in the parish house till Albert found other employment.) Kurt himself had been living in Berlin on earnings as a choir director at a synagogue in Friedenau, southwest of Berlin proper and not far from the Tempelhof parade ground and aircraft landing field that in 1923 became Berlin’s first official airport. Pupil by day, teacher by night: “Interesting evening, after two composition lessons I had a choir rehearsal,” Kurt wrote Hans, “in which I had to simultaneously direct, sing tenor, play the organ, and yell at the women.” Worse yet, the organ motor wasn’t working smoothly and the synagogue’s cantor was out moonlighting, “singing in a cinema.” But the Friedenau job paid 250 marks a month, a sizable salary for the time.

Nevertheless, Kurt was now to leave the Hochschule. Besides financial considerations, he had it in mind to take Wolfram Humperdinck’s advice and find some project in music theatre. And yet didn’t he need seasoning as a composer, barely nineteen as he was? A new idea: intimate study with a composer Kurt admired. And that composer, who lived in Vienna, was Arnold Schönberg.

It was the Schönberg of the tone poem Pelleas und Melisande (1905) and the gigantic dramatic cantata Gurre-Lieder (1913) that attracted Kurt. This was the early Schönberg, intoxicated with the Wagnerian brew of myth and Leitmotiv. Interestingly, our one impression of the lost music of Kurt’s Rilke tone poem, through a report by the critic Heinrich Strobel, suggests that it compares to Schönberg’s Pelleas. If this is a fair assessment, it reveals Weillmusik we know nothing of, enthralled by the big sound and drunken pastels of the Spätromantik, the last burst of the Romantic Era, which had started with Beethoven and peaked in the tone poems of Richard Strauss: Don Juan (1889), the hero as sensualist; Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896), the hero as superman; Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche (1895), the hero as scamp; Don Quixote (1898), the hero as dreamer.

The very notion of the hero (preferably with a poetically eerie yet sacrificially redeemable flaw) is a Romantic narcotic, and the nineteenth century was mesmerized by the doings of Manfreds, Kings Arthur, and above all Siegfried, dragon-slayer and tamer of wild Brunhild of Iceland. Siegfried is betrayed, as all the best heroes are; because they cannot be conquered, they must be scammed. Thus they remain the two favorite things that German heroes can be: superhuman and dead.

The Nazis were careful to pack that concept into their baggage—and there it is in Kurt’s Rilke piece, his Melody of Love and Death. We can’t access the lost music, of course. Still, in its subject matter it is unquestionably a tour through Romanticism’s clamorous mythopoeia—or, to put it another way, society’s wish to glorify massacres with the propaganda of youth and beauty. “Swordplay to swordplay, command and respond”: the words sound bizarrely fierce on Weill, even if he was using them only as a trot for an orchestral reading. In fact, some pages hence, Weill becomes the symbol of the Kulturbolschewismus that the Nazis loved to hate: the “cultural Bolshevism” made of equal parts—they claimed—of defeatism, satire of the sacred, and America’s mongrel jazz. That is the Kurt Weill we all know, leading his band of musical cutthroats in spoof operas that laugh about sex and tear down your heroes, Public Composer Number One on the Nazis’ enemies list.

So it is astonishing that here, in 1919, Kurt was entranced by what was left of the Romantics and planning to move to Vienna to study with Schönberg. And Schönberg said yes.

So far, so good—except, by this time, Schönberg had renounced Romantic music for jagged, discordant expressionism, the art that explains reality by distorting it. Further, Schönberg was now developing his unique field of dodecaphony, or, more commonly, “twelve-tone” music, in which an arbitrary placement of the twelve notes of the Western scale is reused in infinite variation to create an entire piece, whether a short piano solo or a full-length opera.

Was Kurt aware that Schönberg had, so to say, tuned himself out of the Wagnerian style? True, not till 1925, in Schönberg’s Piano Suite, op. 25, did he finally make a public statement of the twelve-tone method. The piece is presented in strict neo-Classical shape, with Prelude, Gavotte, Musette, Intermezzo, Minuet, and Gigue all baffling the ear in the seductively creepy twelve-tone manner. Still, throughout the 1910s, Schönberg was clearly turning himself into the inventor of what detractors used to call Modern Music: the kind nobody likes. Indeed, by the late 1920s Weill was to disparage—in print—composers so intellectualized they created “as if behind closed doors.” Weill wanted music “one can comprehend without special explanations.”

Is that why Kurt never made it to Vienna? He was himself to embark on an enfant terrible phase in the mid-1920s, getting into atonality, which is also Modern but not as radical as Schönberg’s twelve-tone rows. Yet for a talent as rooted in tradition as Kurt’s was, Schönberg would have made a direly incorrect mentor. On the contrary, it was when Kurt Weill discovered his own twist on traditional composition that he became, in a very different way, as influential as Schönberg.

Kurt’s next move could be seen as a return to basics in every way: he moved back to Dessau to take the position of répétiteur at the city theatre, now called the Friedrich-Theater because the collapse of the Kaiser’s Reich when Germany lost the war did away with the nation’s courts and their court theatres. Kurt was living with his parents and sister, playing the family wageworker but spending all his time in the world of the musical stage. Third in line below the music director and his chief conductor, the répétiteur is literally the “rehearser.” Just as when he was interning at the same theatre, Kurt’s duties included accompanying rehearsals, coaching singers, drilling the chorus, and being present at all performances in various supplementary functions, such as keeping offstage singers in synch with the conductor in the pit.

Unfortunately, the house had hired a new music director, Hans Knappertsbusch. Eventually to be known as one of Germany’s greatest musicians, celebrated for Wagner and above all for his management of the battling soundscapes of the earthy and the holy that permeate Parsifal, Knappertsbusch was the typical tyrant at the controls of the power grid. We will see this in operation throughout Kurt’s German career: the rule of those with Position over those without. This gives way to the merry democratic chaos of Broadway when Kurt gets to America.

Knappertsbursch was not simply one of those arts despots: he really knew opera and conducting. At the slightest cue of his baton, the orchestra played. The critic John Rockwell tells a story: he was in Germany at a performance of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). Knappertsbusch was conducting. As always in opera, the show really begins when the conductor enters the pit, as the audience greets him with applause, as he gains the podium to take his bow, as he then collects his thoughts, raises his baton, and launches the music. The Flying Dutchman begins with choice music indeed, a Nordic storm over the sea on which sails the Dutchman’s ghost ship with his ghost crew. It is one of the most exciting initiations in the repertory. This night, however, Knappertsbusch had no intention of submitting to the Conducting 101 puppet show. As he stepped among the players, still thirty feet from the podium, he suddenly gave them all a look, raised his baton, and signaled the downbeat—and, instantly, the overture to The Flying Dutchman, storm, sea, ghosts, and all, raged into life. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

The problem from Kurt’s view of things was Knappertsbusch’s habitual scorn for assistants. Worse, Kurt’s quiet nature lacked the sycophantic bustle that tyrants such as Knappertsbusch like to see in their shop. Knappertsbusch was an anti-Semite as well, and very vocal in his contempt for Kurt’s short stature—just five feet, three-and-a-half inches. This is the kind of thing Kurt was exposed to: one night, when Knappertsbusch was conducting, Kurt, who was backstage to prompt a tenor on his entrance, somehow or other fell through a trap door. The tenor failed to appear on cue, and at intermission Knappertsbusch came roaring into view to find out why. Knocked unconscious, Kurt wasn’t even available for a scolding. “Always he was so small!” cried Knappertsbusch, as Kurt later recalled it. “Now he’s gone completely!”

Luckily, opportunity called halfway through that season, when the town of Lüdenscheid, on the other side of central Germany in Westphalia, hired Kurt as its theatre’s Kapellmeister. The good news is that now Kurt was his own Knappertsbusch: the Kapellmeister (literally “chapel master,” from long-ago days when serious music was church music) is the music director. The sad news was that Lüdenscheid’s theatre was strictly fourth division, the kind that must simplify even the thinnest operetta for a helter-skelter company and an insecure orchestra. When Kurt arrived to take up his post, he was told he would be conducting Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha that very night. (For the first time in his life—and Martha has some tricky ensembles.) Looking through the orchestra score, Kurt found it rendered impenetrable by cuts marked in various colors, coded to indicate the “Dresden cuts,” “Hamburg cuts,” and so on.

“Which are the Lüdenscheid cuts?” Kurt asked the orchestra leader.

“I’m not sure,” came the reply.

And yet: what better way to steep oneself in the mysteries of music theatre than to be hurled into the thick of a repertory’s worth of it, night after night? Some of what Kurt put on was, he thought, lame musical comedy. Some of it was Die Fledermaus—a great musical comedy—and some was Verdi and Wagner. Perhaps Kurt remade the acquaintance of Tiefland, with its mild-mannered young protagonist who turns savage when defending his marriage—a tale to remember.

And the calendar would surely have included the smash-hit operetta Das Dreimäderlhaus (The Home of the Three Girls), adapting the melodies of Franz Schubert to narrate a more or less romantic episode from Schubert’s life.5 This work stands out because its routine libretto (Schubert loves beauty, sends handsome buddy to woo for him by singing “Ungeduld,” loses beauty to buddy, dies) is redeemed by the superb music. But then, German operetta usually mated superb music to routine librettos. Rehearsing and conducting day after day, Kurt must have wondered why the librettos couldn’t be superb as well, and what sort of theatre might be thus created—not just better operettas but new forms of singing drama. At Lüdenscheid, Kurt later said, “I learned everything I know about the theatre.” The main thing he learned was to seek out for his own works writers who weren’t librettists: to avoid routine and create uniquely in each new piece.

*   *   *

Karoline Blamauer’s second year at Zurich, a few years before this, was in one important way equivalent to Kurt’s immersion in the day-to-day of stage production: because she, too, found a mentor, to graduate her from supernumerary to potential leading lady. But hers was far more influential than Kurt’s mentors had been. Linnerl’s mentor was acting coach, Pygmalion, and best friend in one: Richard Révy, the head stage director at the Schauspielhaus. Révy was the first to discern what used to be called “star quality” in Karoline; he thought she was put on earth for far more challenging work than pirouettes and walk-ons. Révy deconstructed the girl to put her back together with a smoother accent in pure Theaterdeutsch, better breath control and projection of dialogue, and a mind stimulated by reading.

This ranged from the classics to the latest playwrights—not the chic ones, but the ones making history, from Ibsen to Chekhof. In accordance with the German theatre’s passion for Russians, Révy assigned his pupil Dostoyefsky, and she dubbed him Vanya, presumably after Ivan Karamazof, the intellectual of the three brothers. Révy called her Grushenka, after the playfully amoral girl involved with the hotheaded sensualist brother, Dmitri, who then falls for the pious brother, Alyosha. “All your life, men will be crazy about you”—the prediction of Linnerl’s mother, we recall—could have been said of Grushenka as well, and in adaptation for stage or film it would have given Lotte Lenya a major opportunity.6

From a kid in the chorus, Linnerl was turning into a cultured young would-be actress. What Révy gave her, it seems, was not only an education but confidence. Other men liked her; Révy admired her. “Needless to say,” she recalled, “we slept together, too, but that was my way of paying him, you know?” He gave her something else, a little thing, but long-lasting: her name. To accompany his Vanya, he turned Linnerl into a Russian Linja that somehow or other edged sideways into Lenja. This eventually came to be the name by which everyone called her, including her husband—just “Lenja,” neat, later to be revised phonetically for Americans as “Lenya.”

For now, though, she was still billed as Karoline (or sometimes Caroline, but also Lotte, short for her second middle name) Blamauer, and still a dancer and stage extra, though she did take small parts at Zurich’s operetta house, the Corso Theater, during the summer when the municipal stages were closed. Then, too, Linnerl was getting around Zurich more, enjoying its nightlife when not on call at the theatres. Swiss cities don’t favor the drinks-and-a-show boutiques we call “cabarets”; they make the police nervous. But Zurich had a few, including a noteworthy piece of art history in the Cabaret Voltaire, where dada was born. Tom Stoppard’s comedy Travesties (1974), set in Zurich in 1917, plays with that bemusing moment in the course of Western Civilization when James Joyce, Lenin, and dada’s godfather, Tristan Tzara, were all in Zurich at the same time. Stoppard might have included the young Lotte Lenja as well.

But then, she was not hobnobbing with the intelligentsia then. She took a rich old Czech as a lover for the material comfort, only to throw him over because it just wasn’t her way, you know? A chauffeured car and sables make life easier but not more fun. Linnerl preferred the company of a gal pal, Greta Edelmann, with whose family Linnerl was boarding. The Edelmanns’ was a colorful household, starting with breakfast, when the chowbell consisted of Frau Edelmann’s running a finger down the piano keyboard, glissando, and when she would then reprimand Herr Edelmann for his various failings with such stunning report that he would be silent for the rest of the day.

Greta was one of Linnerl’s fellow dancers at the theatres and, like Linnerl, a sensualist. Another of the later Lenya’s recollections: Greta was “pregnant practically every month,” but for cover she kept a boy friend, a proudly nationalistic Serb whom Linnerl didn’t think much of. In her memoirs, she mentions that Serbia was where the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, but says nothing more about it. This is odd, for the assassination produced the European cataclysm that was then in its third year and the first fact in the daily life of everyone from Glasgow to Moscow. Even in peaceful Zurich, war profiteers conducted business in shady corners of see-no-evil cafés or escorted their trophy Mädchen to the opera with the flamboyance of the parvenu who thinks that money is character. “It was like Shanghai,” she told an interviewer many years later, “and what was going on was nobody’s business.”

Indeed, on another visit home late in the war, Linnerl was startled by how exhausted everyone looked. Zurich really was a paradise; despite sending her people care packages and money, Linnerl had not realized quite how bad things were, how abnormal normal life had become. More bad news: Linnerl’s mother had married the aforementioned Ernst Hainisch, though how she could have divorced the still-living Franz Blamauer in Catholic Austria in 1916 Linnerl does not explain.

Back in Zurich, Linnerl was graduated to lead roles in straight plays under Richard Révy’s guidance. Did she intend to settle in Zurich and make her career there? She must have known of the world of theatre, music, and dance that prospered on the main stages of the great European capitals, for many of the most interesting productions traveled from city to city and Zurich was a major stopping point. Any night that she was free, Linnerl attended: a company put together by Max Reinhardt, the outstanding director of the age; or the dance troupe formed by Michel Fokine after he broke with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Zurich was an anomaly in Switzerland for its expansive arts scene, but perhaps it was less a cultural capital than simply a center for artists on the move, whether touring their work or sitting out the war. Zurich was Linnerl’s school; absorbing the lessons of the gifted was how she developed her matchless technique. Watch her forty-five years later in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone: her derisive smile, her crisply tentative gestures, the way she gets two thousand years of hand-to-mouth hunger into the sight of a lobster buffet.

Even when still filling out the scene as an extra, Linnerl took each performance as an education. Elisabeth Bergner, later one of the stage’s greatest classical actors (till she fled the Nazis and found her accent hobbling her in Britain and the United States), came to Zurich in some play with a party scene. Karoline Blamauer was on site as Guest Number Three or something, and, to suggest the joie de vivre of the high life, Guest Number Three held her champagne glass with her pinky extended. Bergner discerned a teaching moment and a crowd-pleaser at the same time, crossed over to Karoline, pushed her finger back, and announced, “Das macht man nicht in feiner Gesellschaft” (That isn’t done in the best company). The audience laughed, the ad lib went into the script, and Linnerl never made that mistake again.

So Zurich was working out well for her. And then Richard Révy said he was going to try his luck in Berlin.

*   *   *

Kurt had lasted half a season in Dessau, and it was the same at Lüdenscheid. His parents had moved to nearby Leipzig, where Kurt’s father finally found a position, running an orphanage. There Kurt joined them, finding more work directing choruses while considering his next move. Like so many others drawn to Berlin, Kurt wondered if he ought to try it again, not as a student in a conservatory but on the rarified level, in a master class taught by Ferruccio Busoni. One of the most prominent men of the day, Busoni was a piano virtuoso; an editor of so much keyboard Bach that he created a new byline as “Bach-Busoni”; and a composer who was as much an intellectual as a musician, the “thinking man’s” minstrel.

Kurt was making another of his Decisions—not just to study with Busoni but to resign any thought of doing so with Schönberg. For Busoni was Schönberg’s opposite, a conservative to Schönberg’s revolutionary. However, Busoni was not easy to approach, and master classes as a rule are small and exclusive. It was apparently the critic Oskar Bie who gave Kurt the necessary introduction, for Bie was a Busoni enthusiast. In his monumental history Die Oper (1920), Bie expressed a reservation about Busoni’s brainy approach to music yet called him “one of the most idealistic, pure, and sincere of artists living today—stimulating in every sound he plays or writes, bold and spiritual in all his theories about the future of music.”

Each in his way, Busoni and Schönberg had an agenda for Western music. Schönberg wanted to demolish and rebuild it from the ground up; Busoni wanted to innovate by redeploying its past. And that was the road Kurt chose when Busoni accepted him, the course of study to begin in January of 1921. Later that year, Karoline “Lenja” Blamauer and Greta Edelmann took the train from Zurich to Berlin with a new dance act they had worked up.

So Kurt and Linnerl finally reach the same place at the same time, as if in a screwball comedy of the 1930s: and when they meet they will meet cute.


Copyright © 2012 by Ethan Mordden

Meet the Author

ETHAN MORDDEN is the author of dozens of books, both fiction and nonfiction. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications. He lives in New York.

Ethan Mordden is the author of dozens of books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Buddies and I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and numerous other magazines and journals. He lives in Manhattan.

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