In Search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau (Part I): My Mother in the Library

by | Jul 1, 2022 | Research

Design: Elizabeth Van Os of Cavatina Creative

With the generous support of the Presser Foundation’s Presser Graduate Award, I traveled to Germany from late March until early June 2022 to compile and research the published and unpublished song repertoire of German Romantic-era composer Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850-1927). This research will be integral to the completion of my DMA thesis/lecture recital project on Le Beau’s Lieder, which I plan to present in the spring of 2023.

“In Search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau” is an ongoing series. For more details about this project, click here.

Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850-1927)

Portrait of Luise Adolpha Le Beau.
Photo: Author Unknown; Alamy Stock Photos

Born in Rastatt, Germany, Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850-1927) was raised in a musical family, and her parents devoted themselves to her education. She later cultivated a professional career as a composer, pianist, music critic, and piano pedagogue, although she identified primarily as a composer. She wrote in large-scale forms, such as symphonies, operas, and choral works, but also embraced small-scale Lieder and instrumental chamber music. During the 1870’s and 1880’s in Munich, Le Beau was successful in publishing and seeking performances of her newest works. In the decades that followed, however, she struggled to find further performance opportunities, moving to Wiesbaden, Berlin, and Baden-Baden to seek more fertile collaborative landscapes. Le Beau’s memoirs, Lebenserinnerungen einer Komponistin (Memoirs of a Woman Composer), published in 1910, detail her frustrations with the sexism and lack of acceptance she faced as a woman composer, which directly contributed to Le Beau’s withdrawal from her public composition career in the early 1900’s.

Upon her passing in 1927, although she meticulously organized and catalogued her manuscripts and personal papers, Le Beau’s music was simply “forgotten.” While more recent scholarship and recordings have highlighted her large-scale works and instrumental chamber music, there is little to no scholarship about her Lieder repertoire, only a handful of her published Lieder scores are available to the public, and to my knowledge, few professional recordings of Le Beau’s Lieder exist.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning…

After more than a year of planning, I found myself barreling towards the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin on Unter den Linden. With its grand neo-Baroque façade and imposing marble staircase, I felt instantly dwarfed by the sheer size and space of such an historic building. I prepared myself for what I could encounter next – would Luise Adolpha Le Beau’s archive reveal what I hoped and expected it to? Through my online research, I knew that I would find her Nachlaß (estate) at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, which included seventy-nine score manuscripts and some of her personal correspondence. Several letters had been digitized, but Le Beau’s score manuscripts remained in their original or microfilm forms, accessible only on site. While I had cross-checked online resources to create an initial list of her song opuses, both published and unpublished, I could only verify my theories in person.

As I registered for my Bibliotheksausweis (library card), I suddenly felt intimidated. I heard the faint whispers of an “impostor devil” in my ear, wondering whether I really planned to waltz into the Musikabteilung (Music Department) with my awkward German and order the entire estate of Luise Adolpha Le Beau. I had never embarked on archival research before, let alone in another language – what did I think I was doing?

Façade of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin on Unter den Linden.
Photo: Noelle McMurtry
Entrance Hall to the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.
Photo: Noelle McMurtry

After an initial week of engaging with Le Beau’s estate materials, I began to feel more at ease in my burgeoning role as an archival researcher, in part due to the direct, but sympathetic guidance of the Music Department staff. I observed certain characteristics that they all shared – an attention to detail, their acknowledgment that no “small” thing should go untouched, their sense of responsibility as custodians of history, and an indefatigable desire to help visitors like myself. They were all vaguely familiar characters, as if I had met them before. I realized then that they reminded me of my mother.

My Mother in the Library

My mother and I at the National Zoo in Washington, DC; 1987.
Photo: Vanda McMurtry (my father)

In 1976, Maria Emma Vergara, my mother, graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with a Master’s degree in Library Science. After emigrating to the United States from Colombia as a child, my mother carried with her a love of literature and the legacy of a family of writers, including José María Vergara y Vergara (1831-1872), my mother’s great-great grandfather who penned the first Spanish literary history of Colombia. Since her career as a librarian and archivist occurred mainly before I was born, it took me several weeks of research at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin to connect my mother’s story with my own search for Luise Adolpha Le Beau and her music.

Upon my parents’ marriage in 1972, my mother was nineteen years old. They soon moved cross-country from southern California to Upstate New York where my father pursued a PhD in Philosophy at Cornell University. They sold my mother’s Volkswagen Beetle to pay for her first semester’s-worth of tuition at Ithaca College. Originally, she hoped to study Speech Pathology, but after a single semester, they simply did not have the funds for my mother to continue her studies. Without a full scholarship, she faced the real possibility of abandoning her college degree. After interviewing at nearby SUNY Cortland, the university awarded my mother the funds that she so desperately needed, setting her on course to later become a librarian. Since SUNY Cortland did not offer a concentration in Speech Pathology, my mother changed her fields of study to include Social Science and Spanish Literature. In upstate New York of the early 1970’s, my mother was one of the first Latina students and native Spanish-speakers in the Spanish department, as well as the university.

After graduating summa cum laude from SUNY Cortland, my mother scheduled a meeting with her advisor to discuss future career prospects. This advisor, who was also a woman in a university landscape with scant female professors or administrators, offered my mother a piece of advice: she should pursue secretarial work. Infuriated and defeated, my mother cried for a week, but continued with her plans to pursue a graduate degree in Library Science. After moving to Washington DC and graduating from the University of Maryland in 1976, she worked at the Library of Congress as an Assistant Librarian in the Hispanic Division, cataloguing materials related to human rights abuses in Central and South America. Sexual harassment was an overt and commonplace occurrence for women employees, but my mother persisted with her work, serving as a cataloguist for DC-based organizations, such as USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development). There, she archived information on oral rehydration of infants, as well as maternal nutrition and health throughout Africa and Asia.

My mother and her sister wearing their first winter coats after emigrating to the US in Bordentown, NJ; 1961.
My parents’ wedding in the backyard of my grandmother’s house in Orange, California; 1972.
My mother and father newly arrived in Upstate NY at Lake Cayuga; 1972.

Over the past three months in Germany, as I have found myself in the stillness of library reading rooms, it is clear to me that my mother’s work has, in part, guided me into these fraught, and yet important, literary spaces which have historically excluded women. And so, as I am “in search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau,” I see now that I will encounter many others along this path, whose lives and work intertwine with a nineteenth-century composer and a twenty-first century me. Although the story of this project begins long before I traveled to Germany, I find it best to start my first post at the exact moment where I grasp my library card and walk through the heavy wooden doors of the Musikabteilung at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.

Stay Tuned…

Scene of destruction in street near Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin on July 3rd, 1945, three months after the fall of Nazi Germany
Photo: A. Wilkes, Imperial War Museum; Public Domain

As I continued my research over the subsequent weeks at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, I realized that tracing whatever happened to the materials in Luise Adolpha Le Beau’s estate after her death in 1927 was as relevant as anything that occurred during her lifetime. Per her own instructions, Le Beau’s meticulously curated estate was divided between state libraries in Berlin, Karlsruhe, and Munich. Through my examination of her manuscripts, I discovered the twentieth-century history of the library itself embedded into her scores. As a contested socio-cultural space, the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin was irrevocably altered by the brutality of totalitarian regimes, the devastations of war, and the tumult of geo-political events, which wreaked havoc upon the library’s collections and its curators.

Keep an eye out for my next installment of “In Search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau: Part II” and remember to subscribe (it’s free!) for a monthly update in your inbox. Also, feel free to share any comments or questions below.