The grandfather on the mother's side of Ludwig Lenel was the Prussian democrat Friedrich Kapp (1824–1884), who emigrated to the USA, but returned later and became a national-liberal deputy to the German Reichstag and a friend of Bismarck. His youngest son Wolfgang, a great-uncle of Lenel, was leader in the coup d'état in 1920.
Since 1918, the Lenels had lived in various places, one among them being Heidelberg. Lenel's father was a lecturer for Italian medieval history, his uncle the famous industrialist Richard Lenel. He was made an honorary professor without remuneration of the university in 1932, but was forced out of it a year later because he was Jewish. In August 1933, he lost his license to teach. He died in 1937 in Heidelberg.
Lenel, who was half-Jewish, was the last of his family to leave Germany in 1939 to relatives in the USA.
Lenel was strongly influenced by his meeting Albert Schweitzer, who usually stayed with his family when he was visiting Heidelberg. Upon matriculating in 1932, Lenel received an invitation to take organ lessons at Schweitzer's hometown of Gunsbach/Alsace. Already earlier on, Lenel wrote a concerto for saxophone and orchestra. In 1933, his concert for two violins and string orchestra was initially performed at the Collegium Musicum of Heidelberg. Lenel then proceeded to study music for three years in Cologne and another three years in Basle. The organ remained his main focus, though.
After emigrating to the USA, Lenel worked as an organist and continued his studies in music composing at Oberlin College (Ohio/USA). After living in Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York City, he eventually settled at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, (Pennsylvania), where he taught for 27 years – until 1979 – as a professor of music. He conducted the College Choir, with whom he also went on tour, initiated a series of concerts, and founded the Department of Opera. In 1989, he received an honorary doctorate from Muhlenberg College.
On November 9, 1998, Lenel returned to Heidelberg to attend the performance of his main oeuvre, Death and Atonement, for narrator, violin, oboe, brass, piano and drums, in memory of the Holocaust. The 20-minute-long concerto, written between 1976 and 1992, is based on Paul Celan's poem Todesfuge and texts by Nelly Sachs. Composer Wolfgang Fortner mentions Lenel, besides René Frank, Laurence Feininger, and others, as witnesses and examples of his teaching Jewish students before and during World War II in the attachment of his "Story of Life" in his de-Nazifiying file (Generallandesarchiv Karlsruhe).
Lenel died in 2002 in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
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