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Norbert Schultze, 91; Composer Best Known for 'Lili Marleen'

October 23, 2002|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Norbert Schultze, German composer best remembered for the moody "Lili Marleen," which became a World War II favorite of infantrymen in various languages on all fronts, has died. He was 91.

Schultze died Oct. 14 in Bad Toelz, Bavaria, of unstated causes.

Already an established film composer in Berlin as war clouds gathered in the late 1930s, Schultze wrote what unwittingly became his best-known work in 1938. The song, which expresses the universal sadness and longing of couples separated by war, was inspired by an obscure poem called "The Song of a Young Sentry," written by a German soldier, Hans Leip, in World War I.

The poet-soldier sent to the front was leaving behind two girlfriends, which in the poem became one girl named Lili Marleen, faithfully awaiting his return in the lamplight. The song was recorded in 1939 by cabaret singer Lale Anderson, but -- far from becoming an immediate hit -- sold a mere 700 copies.

Two years later, however, the German Army resurrected the failed recording to close broadcasts rallying its troops fighting in North Africa. Nazi leaders considered the song overly sentimental and banned it, but soldiers -- German and their British opponents alike -- loved it, and the anthem spread through barracks, hospitals and bunkers across Europe.

The British, and later their American allies, made up their own lyrics for Schultze's haunting melody -- often implying that Lili was a prostitute rather than the sweet girl next door. British leaders and the BBC, disapproving of the free-form translations, asked songwriter Tommie Connor to write more suitable English lyrics.

With an anglicized spelling, the song became "Lilli Marlene" and was recorded in wartime England by Anne Shelton and Vera Lynn with these words:

Underneath the lantern

By the barrack gate,

Darling, I remember

The way you used to wait:

'Twas there that you whispered

tenderly,

That you loved me,

You'd always be

My Lilli of the lamplight,

My own Lilli Marlene.

Eventually, the song was translated into about 30 languages and sung by soldiers on fronts throughout Europe and Asia. It became a signature hit for Marlene Dietrich, who sang it to entertain Allied troops in Europe and in her one-woman Broadway show more than two decades later.

On Schultze's 85th birthday in 1996, Reinhold Kreile, president of GEMA, a German-language acronym for the society for musical performing and mechanical reproduction rights, presented him with the group's highest award. At that ceremony, Kreile called Schultze's song "a stroke of genius which, in just a few beats expressed the sentiments of an entire generation, and became not just a popular song but a folk song known around the world. It was then sung by friend and foe, and still is part of the folk repertoire of all peoples."

The song's unlikely journey from oblivion to international recognition was chronicled by the 1980 film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder called "Lili Marleen" and by Schultze's own 1996 book, "With you, Lili Marleen."

Schultze, ironically, never considered the song his greatest work and even rued its amazing success. "When I hear it today," he said in 1996, "I don't have the feeling that it is from me. Musically, I had bad luck."

Schultze's World War II output other than "Lili Marleen" did not endear him to Allies and other international audiences. He wrote songs for the Nazis, such as "Bombs Against England," "Forward to the East," "Forward With Rommel" (although by the time it was finished, the German leader Rommel was actually in retreat), and the music that Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels played before the official announcement of the war with Poland.

Schultze's compositions for the Nazis so discredited him after the war that for many years he could find work only as a gardener.

He later apologized for supporting Hitler's regime and said Goebbels had locked him in a room until he produced music the minister considered acceptable.

He also told one interviewer: "I had the choice: Be a composer or face death, so I chose the first option." (That remark was interpreted to mean that he could compose under duress or serve in the German military, not that the Nazis had threatened to execute him.)

Born a doctor's son in Braunschweig, Germany, on Jan. 26, 1911, Schultze studied conducting, composition and the piano in Cologne and theater in Munich.

He acted and composed in a student cabaret in Munich, conducted opera in Heidelberg and Darmstadt, worked for the Telefunken record company and in 1936 settled in Berlin, where he composed music for more than 50 films as well as children's musicals such as "The Snow Queen" and operettas including "The Rain in Paris."

A few of Schultze's compositions over the years were published under the pseudonyms Frank Norbert, Peter Kornfeld or Henry Iversen, according to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

In his later years, Schultze owned a music publishing company and worked to protect music copyrights.

Schultze, who spent his retirement years on the Spanish island of Mallorca, is survived by his wife, Iwa Wanja, and five children.

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