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History, Music, Christa Ludwig

Dear Friends,

In her memoir, Germany’s legendary mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig recounts how her mother survived wartime conditions. At a time of drawn carriages, if an emaciated horse collapsed on the street, there was nothing soon left but a skeleton. Food was scarce. Ludwig’s mother Eugenie came from a poor middle-class family in Berlin.

Ludwig was born in Berlin on March 16, 1928. Through one lens, the politics of the day didn’t look so terrible. That spring, following federal elections, the Social Democratic Party remained the largest party in the Reichstag. There was 75 percent turnout. The Nazis captured a mere 12 seats with 3 percent of the vote. But those were days of accelerating fragmentation and sectarianism. There were already 41 parties represented in the Parliament; the Social Democrats had secured 153 of 491 seats.

Ludwig grew up an opera addict, she writes. At age three, she could sing the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute right through to its high E-flat ending. Or at least that’s what her proud and ambitious mother reported. Ludwig’s mother was a singer. Her father sang, but preferred directing. “I practically lived in the theater,” recalls Ludwig, “and saw everything as theater in my imagination.”

The family moved from Berlin to Aachen, a medieval city known for its culture and architecture. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was born in Aachen in 1886. Herbert von Karajan did a stint as conductor at the Aachen opera house. As a ten year old, Ludwig remembers walking with her mother to the theater on November 10, 1938, the morning after Kristallnacht. She recalls:

We could see the smashed shop windows on which ‘Jew’ had been scrawled over and over and the burning synagogue. My mother was indignant.… propaganda was so powerful that many families believed the lies of the Hitler regime, which claimed that ‘the people had been justifiably stirred up.’ Hitler himself seemed to be standing outside the turmoil, as if he were merely listening to the opinion ‘of the people.’

Ludwig grew up on air raid sirens and rationing. Families got an eighth of a pound of coffee at Christmas. The kids ate “Lohengrin liverwurst,” which she and her classmates referred to as “the grey mystery.” The sausage was named after the knight who figures in Richard Wagner’s opera, a character who insists to his beloved Elsa that she never ask where he comes from.

Much of Aachen was destroyed in World War II. The city’s famed cathedral was badly damaged by Allied bombing and artillery fire. The theater was destroyed on July 14, 1943. Ludwig’s family was shattered when news arrived that Ludwig’s brother Rudi had been killed on the Eastern Front.

In the war’s last days, Ludwig and her girlfriends skipped going to bomb shelters — “We saw the squadrons fly over head to other, more important targets,” Ludwig writes — and went instead to a neighboring cafe to drink “heavy southern” wine served in coffee cups.

For many reasons, Ludwig’s In My Own Voice (Opens in a new window) is a worthwhile read.

* * *

I’ve just read Jeffrey Herf’s essay-review (Opens in a new window) in Quillette of Richard Wolin’s new book Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology. There’s the familiar story of reactionary Weimar politicians attacking democracy. But most important, writes Jeff, is Wolin’s detailing of the intolerant fanaticism and radical antisemitism found in Heidegger’s academic work. Nazism had its theorists, just as Jeff notes today that,

A Heideggerian element can be found in Putin’s revanchist dictatorship and in Iran’s antisemitic theocracy, both of which denounce the decadent West and celebrate martial virtues in pursuit of authenticity.… Heidegger’s legacy may finally be in ruins, but the fascist attack on liberal democracy still has its intellectual advocates.

Foolish ideas have their media advocates. Tucker Carlson says he’s “rooting for Russia.” We’re not.

This week in Washington, we convened a roundtable with Belarus opposition to discuss Russia’s war on Ukraine and the intensifying domestic crackdown by Vladimir Putin’s ally Alexander Lukashenko (thanks to Juleanna Glover and her associates Mimi Lyons and Elizabeth Sullivan for hosting us). Next week, we convene a D.C. discussion with a delegation of foreign affairs committee chairs from Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Spain, and Canada.

There’s much to commend in our pages otherwise, either already posted or scheduled for the near term, including Andreas Umland on Moscow’s own legal obstacles (Opens in a new window) to making peace with Kyiv, Victor Monteverdi (pseudonym) on Russia’s ever darkening mood at home, and Dalibor Rohac on EU aid to Ukraine. Wiktor Babinski has interviewed former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in London. Sahar Soleimany has just conducted a splendid interview with Azar Nafisi.

Yushchenko was poisoned in Kyiv in September 2004 by ingesting TCDD dioxin, a contaminant found in Agent Orange. In Iran over the last several months, more than 1,000 schoolgirls at more than 26 schools in 25 of Iran’s 31 provinces have fallen ill by gas poisoning. Victims report a smell akin to rotten oranges, followed by nausea, headaches, and shortness of breath.

Paul DeRosa writes (Opens in a new window) about why Italy and its worsening economic situation deserve our attention. John Rodden discusses (Opens in a new window) Time at 100 and asks whether the iconic brand can be revived. Our Suzi Garment shares reflections (Opens in a new window) on James Q. Wilson and crime four decades after the broken windows theory was first published.

Now Music — and Christa Ludwig’s Opera Addiction

Here’s (Opens in a new window) Christa Ludwig with something from Wagner’s Lohengrin. She first sang the role of Ortrud at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin when the opera reopened after the war in 1961 (the same year East German Communists erected the Wall). Here’s (Opens in a new window) a jewel from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.

Ludwig had immense respect and affection for Leonard Bernstein. She loved the spirit of the Tanglewood festival; it was “closest to my heart,” she said. Bernstein loved Ludwig, so much so that the two could argue like siblings.

Here’s (Opens in a new window) Ludwig quarreling with Bernstein over a tempo in Mahler. At the same time, she quotes Herbert von Karajan approvingly in her memoir that there’s no such thing as an absolutely right tempo, “because every day our pulse is a little different, and, because of that, our way of thinking and moving.” Karl Böhm, von Karajan, and Bernstein were her “three great ones” among conductors — Böhm for precision, von Karajan for beauty of sound, and Bernstein for sheer excitement and joy.

Bernstein used to tease Ludwig for not going out on the town after performances. Here’s (Opens in a new window) Ludwig with “I Am Easily Assimilated” from Bernstein’s Candide.

And then more Mahler: Here’s (Opens in a new window) Das Lied von der Erde, Der Abschied (The Farewell). Wagner composed his orchestral song cycle between 1908 and 1909. Liberal politics had been discarded by then. The old social and political order was disintegrating. Music was exhausting its possibilities and Mahler was himself nearing the end. His music, said Ludwig, seemed to seek salvation from chaos. In May 1911, Mahler contracted pneumonia, slipped into a coma, and passed away at age 50.

Christa Ludwig died two years ago at age 93 on April 24, 2021. She had been teaching master classes for young musicians as recently as 2014. Here’s (Opens in a new window) a charming snippet of Ludwig working with a student. She was passionate about teaching; about vocal technique, acting, the psychology of performance, and the process of becoming “decent people with honest hearts.”



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