In Search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau (Part II): An Estate in Ashes
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Graduate Award, I traveled to Germany from late March until early June 2022 to compile and research the published and unpublished song repertoire of German Romantic-era composer Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850-1927).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)
Born in Rastatt, Germany, Luise Adolpha Le Beau was raised in a musical family, and her parents devoted themselves to her education. She later developed a professional career as a composer, pianist, music critic, and pedagogue of female piano teachers, although she identified primarily as a composer. She wrote in large-scale forms, such as symphonies, operas, and choral works, but also embraced smaller-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 instrumental chamber music, there is little to no scholarship about her Lieder repertoire (or other parts of her oeuvre), few of her published Lieder scores are available to the public, and to my knowledge, only one recording of several Le Beau Lieder exists.
The Geo-Politics of a Manuscript Score
Throughout my first three weeks at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, my drive to “discover” the Lieder of Luise Adolpha Le Beau was often obscured. I planned to compile her song scores, guided by a basic English translation I had made of her autobiography, as well as to gather copies of her letters and journal entries that related to her song compositions. As I finally held one of Le Beau’s string-bound scores in my hands, the act of simply opening its cover revealed another layer of historical and socio-cultural context that I had not anticipated and would now need to decipher. While my research still centered itself on “the music” and Le Beau’s scores that she had copied so neatly as an ultimate act of self-preservation, I realized that the layers of meaning encasing her music, most of which had accumulated in the century after her death, could not be ignored. In fact, tracing whatever happened to the materials in her estate over the past century, which inevitably led me to questions about Germany’s twentieth-century past, is as relevant as anything that occurred during Le Beau’s lifetime.
This fact began to dawn on me as I learned to use the various archival tools that the library had to offer, namely a microfilm reader and a digital scanner. Each slide of microfilm represented one page of Le Beau’s musical materials, and since none of her Lieder compositions were particularly long, each opus fit onto its own roll of film with book-ended title slides. These slides listed identifying features of the musical work, such as its title, date of composition, and the date and location of its transfer onto microfilm. I soon noticed that the title slides on Le Beau’s Lieder compositions consistently listed their date of transfer in the 1980’s and their transfer location as the Deutsches Staatsbibliothek Berlin (DDR).
Le Beau in the GDR
After the surrender of the German military and the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, Germany was divided into four Allied occupation zones, each controlled by the United States, Great Britain, France, or the Soviet Union. In 1949, the American, British, and French zones merged to later form the Federal Republic of Germany, a parliamentary democracy. In turn, the German Democratic Republic (GDR; known in German as the DDR) was constituted from the Soviet occupation zone in northeastern Germany. Ruled by the oppressive Socialist Unity Party as a satellite Marxist-Leninist nation of the Soviet Union, the GDR contained Berlin, Germany’s former capital, whose post-war fate had played out similarly to the rest of the nation. West Berlin remained part of the Federal Republic of Germany, a tiny enclave of democracy, while East Berlin became the de facto capital of the GDR itself. Berlin was now a divided city of two nations and the ultimate breeding ground for the Cold War’s political and cultural battles. In 1961, as a barbed-wire fence was built through the city overnight by the East German government, the division of West and East Berlin was further entrenched. To thwart the constant flight of East German citizens into West Berlin (and therefore, West Germany), the Berlin Wall transformed into a concrete fortress with armed guards instructed to “shoot to kill” anyone who illegally tried to escape from the east. Due to the Friedliche Revolution (Peaceful Revolution), the Wall fell incredibly without violence in 1989, as the government of the GDR collapsed.
Where then do we find Le Beau’s estate as it was partially transferred onto microfilm in the 1980’s at the Deutsches Staatsbibliothek Berlin (DDR)? It seems that the post-World War II consequences for Germany’s largest library also mirrored that of its capital. After the defeat of the Nazi regime and the partitioning of Berlin, the library found itself once again as a contested socio-cultural space where struggles over political ideology dominated. Its collections were now divided and claimed by two separate countries: the Deutsches Staatsbibliothek of the GDR and the Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz of the Federal Republic of Germany. Le Beau’s estate, housed in the Musikabteilung (music department) on Unter den Linden, now lived in East Germany under another iteration of a totalitarian regime.
The Nazi Regime & World War II
How, though, did Le Beau’s estate survive World War II? What happened to the library’s holdings during the terrors of the Nazi regime? Per her own instructions, Le Beau’s estate was divided between the state libraries of Berlin, Karlsruhe, and Munich. Less than a decade after her death in 1927, the Nazi regime censored the (then-named) Preußische Staatsbibliothek’s collections, obstructing the staff’s ability to acquire new materials and inciting the 1933 public burning of over 20,000 books by students in the neighboring Bebelplatz. Library staff were fired, silenced, and persecuted. The Nazi regime also expanded the library’s holdings through wide-scale theft and seizure of property. In 2019, the Berlin Central and Regional Library (ZLB) estimated that as much as a third of their 3.5 million volumes may have been stolen by the Nazis, who looted the property of Jewish families, libraries, and organizations, as well as Masons, Catholics, Communists, Socialists, Slavs, and anyone who dared to criticize the Nazi regime.
As war raged from 1940 to 1945, Berlin sustained heavy bombing with large swathes of the city reduced to rubble. Prior to the war, Unter den Linden, the library’s home since 1914, had already experienced a radical transformation. Throughout the nineteenth century, this iconic boulevard, considered one of the most elegant promenades in Europe, had been lined with linden trees, a cultural symbol of truth, love, and memory. Under their authoritarian grip, the Nazi regime dug up its trees, replacing them with immense Nazi flags and propaganda. In 1945, Unter den Linden was left in ruins by one of the largest American air raids on Berlin.
Earlier in 1941, after Allied bombing damaged the Preußische Staatsbibliothek, the Nazi regime evacuated the library’s collections. Millions of volumes of printed materials and media, which presumably included seventy-nine of Le Beau’s manuscript scores, were transferred to thirty secret locations throughout eastern Germany, including caves, monasteries, abandoned mines, and castles. After the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945, these cultural materials were scattered. Many library staff had fled or died during the war. The Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin estimates that between 335,000 to 400,000 items were destroyed, and over 300,000 are missing to this day. While Le Beau’s estate survived in Berlin, she was less fortunate at the Badische Landesbibliothek in Karlsruhe, a city that held personal significance for Le Beau and her family. Located in Baden-Württemberg, a region in southwestern Germany east of the Rhine River, Le Beau had spent her childhood in Karlsruhe and later Baden-Baden; it seemed a fitting choice to bequeath the more personal items in her estate to the region’s largest library. In 1942, the Badische Landesbibliothek was collateral damage in a British air raid, and firebombs destroyed the building and much of its holdings (at the time, 360,000 volumes). The fires consumed a sizable portion (though not all) of Le Beau’s personal estate, including her diaries.
In Berlin, however, Le Beau’s estate was ultimately returned to its former home on Unter den Linden, a bombed-out shell of its former self and the soon-to-be national library of the GDR. In 1989, with reunification on the horizon, the two Berlin libraries discussed their desire to unite as one institution. In 1992, after nearly fifty years as separate entities, irrevocably altered by the brutality of totalitarian regimes, the devastations of war, and the tumult of geo-political events, the two state libraries merged to form the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, in whose building I now sat.
An Estate in Ashes
While far greater atrocities occurred during the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, World War II, and the subsequent rise and fall of the GDR than the potential of losing Le Beau’s estate, I believe that tracing the fate of her materials throughout this brutal history lays bare one of the many twisted aims of totalitarianism — it seeks to destroy knowledge by erasing the historical archive and rewriting it in its own terrifying image. By following the microcosmic trajectory of Le Beau’s musical scores, we also reveal the extent to which hatred, cruelty, and ignorance can ripple throughout a society, leaving nothing, not even the smallest of cultural items, unscathed.
In the foreword of her memoirs, Lebenserinnerungen einer Komponistin, Le Beau articulates how, although thwarted as a composer in life due to gendered prejudice, she desired that her musical legacy would survive and earn a fairer assessment from future generations.
“Whatever gifts I was given, I have nurtured with all my strength; no one can do anything more! I did not disdain even the smallest gifts, but rather, I took delight in all musical works as long as they were artistically serious and true… The royal libraries in Munich and Berlin already preserve all my printed works and will later also receive my manuscripts, which I will leave them. Historians and all those whom I wish to present with this consideration can judge the collection of my works, yes, and they will certainly do so with more impartiality and fairness than my contemporaries… Should one or another of my compositions please later generations, I have not written in vain.”
Le Beau entrusted her estate to these historic institutions, believing that they would act as a bulwark in preserving her legacy; less than two decades after her death, some of her materials were already in ashes. Despite this chaos, her manuscript scores endured, including her song compositions. Although few have been publicly heard since the late nineteenth century, I intend to make it so that they are considered once again with “more impartiality and fairness” (unparteiischer und gerechter), as Le Beau herself intended.
- “Geschichte,” Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz, accessed on August 2, 2022, https://staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/die-staatsbibliothek/geschichte.
- Katherine Quinlan-Flatter, “One Story, Different Voices – The Bombing of Karlsruhe,” Imperial War Museum Blog, March 2, 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/blog//partnerships/2021/03/one-story-different-voices-bombing-karlsruhe-guest-blog-katherine-quinlan.
- Milton Esterow, “The Hunt for the Nazi Loot Still Sitting on Library Shelves,” The New York Times, published on January 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/14/arts/nazi-loot-on-library-shelves.html.
Keep an eye out for my next installment of “In Search of Luise Adolpha Le Beau: Part III” in September and remember to subscribe (it’s free!) for a monthly update in your inbox. Also, feel free to share any comments or questions in the section below.