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Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006)

With the passing away of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at the age of almost 91, the musical world has lost one of the most important and beloved voices of the mid-to-late 20th century. Olga Maria Elisabeth Frederike Schwarzkopf was born on 9 December 1915 in Jarocin near Poznan in Poland but her parents and all four of her grandparents were Prussian. Her father being a teacher meant in those days that the family had to move several times: Liegnitz, Breslau, Magdeburg and in 1931 to Cottbus between Dresden and Berlin. By then young Elisabeth already had a musical career in view, she was a good pianist and her singing voice had developed to a high light soprano. While still in Magdeburg she sang a leading part in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at a school performance. In 1933 the family finally moved to Berlin and there she applied for Die Staatliche Akademie Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin and was accepted.
 
Her singing teacher became Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, a famous mezzo-soprano, then in her late 50s, who was renowned for her Lieder singing, having herself studied for Lili Lehmann and was admired by Brahms and Wolf. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf admitted that she learnt a lot about interpretation but the development of her voice went slowly, since her teacher had decided that Elisabeth actually was a mezzo-soprano. In 1937 she started taking lessons for Dr Egonolf, who realised the true character of her voice and then she made rapid progress.
 
After graduating the same year she became a member of the Opera School of the Hochschule and sang in a production of Brecht-Weill’s Der Jasager. She also joined the Favre Solistenvereinigung, a semi-professional chorus that had been engaged to take part in an opera recording, the now legendary Die Zauberflöte conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. His technical assistant was a young man named Walter Legge, who was to become possibly the most influential recording producer in years to come and – even more important for the aspiring chorus soprano – her husband.
 
Her real debut was in 1938 at Städtische Oper Berlin where she was one of the flower maidens in Parsifal and after that followed a number of minor parts until she got more prominent roles like Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. At this stage of her career she was still a light coloratura soprano. After further studies with the legendary Maria Ivogün she made her debut at the Vienna State Opera, a house she belonged to as a permanent member 1944 – 1949. Now she was entrusted roles like Gilda, Violetta and Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. Her international break-through came in 1947 when she visited Covent Garden as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and during the 1950s she was the leading Mozart soprano at Salzburg and elsewhere but she also sang Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Bayreuth under von Karajan (also recorded and available on Naxos), she became the Strauss soprano, singing Ariadne, the Countess in Capriccio and, her probably greatest assumption, Die Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and she was Anne Truelove at the world premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Venice 1951. In 1954 she took part in another world premiere, Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, composed with her in mind. She sang at La Scala and in the USA, where her belated MET debut took place in 1962 as Die Feldmarschallin. Gradually she cut down on her opera appearances and finally left the stage in Brussels 1972 but she continued to perform Lieder, a field where she had no superiors and few equals.
 
Like all great artists also Elisabeth Schwarzkopf had her detractors. Few could deny the beauty of her voice, the purity of tone and the technical accomplishment, but as the years passed there were those who meant that her interpretations became too knowing, too detailed, too artificial, that she went too far in characterisation and thus violating the music’s natural flow. I have never felt that myself even though I can understand the point, but far better that than note-perfect but faceless singing. She never became uninteresting and many are the songs and arias that I can’t listen to without hearing Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s inflexions and accents. I was never lucky enough to hear her live but one of my earliest opera experiences was the filmed Salzburg performance of Der Rosenkavalier which I saw during my military service. The nobility of her appearance, the caressing of the phrases made an unforgettable impression and possibly it was this film that triggered my interest in opera, which has never faded during the ensuing 45 years.
 
Her career as a recording artist was long and rich. What is probably her earliest recording is a selection of excerpts from Lehar’s operetta Paganini, set down for Telefunken on 2 September 1939 – a remarkable date in itself: the day after Germany’s attack on Poland and the day before England’s and France’s declarations of war – where her tenor partner was Rupert Glawitsch. A year later they recorded a similar selection from Das Land des Lächelns. Both selections can be found in the appendix on the Naxos 2-disc set of the complete 1953 recording of Das Land des Lächelns under Ackermann with Gedda, Kunz and Emmy Loose as well as Schwarzkopf as Lisa. What is remarkable is that the 23-year-old “beginner” already shows the characteristics we associate with the mature singer: her easily recognisable timbre and also the delicate phrasing. It is of course evident that it is a young voice, but without knowing the identity of the singer one could still predict a glorious future. WW2 meant for Schwarzkopf, as for her whole generation, that an international career was delayed by several years, the years when she was at her first youthful blossoming, but luckily she could start recording directly after the war and there are some Mozart arias from 1946 and 1947, Krips and von Karajan conducting, collected on a Preiser CD (93444) where the greater part of the space is occupied by the Mozart LP she recorded with Pritchard in 1952. This is certainly among the most delicious Mozart singing ever captured by microphones. She also recorded several complete Mozart operas: Le nozze di Figaro with Karajan in the early 50s and a decade later a stereo remake with Giulini, with whom she also did what is by many regarded as the best ever Don Giovanni. She also sang Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte twice, with Karajan in 1955 and then in 1962 with Karl Böhm. Der Rosenkavalier with again Karajan and the young Christa Ludwig as Octavian is another classic, as is Capriccio under Sawallisch.

In the field of operetta she was also especially successful. With Nicolai Gedda and Erich Kunz she recorded Die lustige Witwe, Das Land des Lächelns, Wienerblut, Eine Nacht in Venedig, Der Zigeunerbaron and Die Fledermaus and there also was a stereo remake of Die lustige Witwe with Lovro von Matacic conducting and Eberhard Wächter a tremendous Danilo. Few recordings in my collection have a more honoured place. And we shouldn’t forget her lovely LP/CD with a delectable helping of various operetta arias.

In the field of song, hers are two of the most recommendable recordings of Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder. The earliest, with Otto Ackermann, is probably the best with her radiant voice so perfectly in tune with the music and a completely natural delivery. The much later remake with George Szell is still gloriously sung, not inappropriately more autumnal in character and maybe a notch too – what the detractors may call – knowing. Among orchestral recordings Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, also with Szell and partnered by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, is also a desert island disc, as is Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem with the same two singers and Otto Klemperer at the helm. In piano-Lieder she mainly collaborated with Gerald Moore and Geoffrey Parsons but also, in the beginning, with Edwin Fischer and that duo among other things made an unforgettable Mozart LP. I have lost count on all her song recordings but there is none that can’t be recommended. Let me just mention a couple of personal favourites: Brahms’ Deutsche Volkslieder, again with Fischer-Dieskau and with Gerald Moore at the piano, is so lovely and it seems obvious that the three musicians enjoy their music making and inspire each other. Hugo Wolf was another special favourite with Schwarzkopf and both the Spanish and Italian Songbooks – with the same trio – are excellent examples of the fairly late Schwarzkopf, lavishing all her consummate skill on these miniatures.
It is sad that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is no longer among us and a whole musical world is mourning. We can only be happy that she left such a rich recorded legacy behind that will no doubt be listened to and admired as long as there are people around who can appreciate high-quality singing.

Göran Forsling

 

 

Much is being written in the obituaries about Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's contribution to song and opera in general, but less about her importance in Lieder. Indeed, Schwarzkopf's most fundamental legacy may be the way she changed the art of Lieder. When she was young, Lieder was frequently something opera singers did as a sideline, however much they may have enjoyed the genre. Of course there were Lieder recitals - Schubert cycles in the 1860s, for example. And composers certainly believed that Lieder was High Art. Schumann, for example, felt that his songs were as great as his symphonies. Hugo Wolf treated poetry with almost religious reverence, believing his music paid it tribute. But for wider audiences, such as on the radio, recitals were mixed bags of arias, Lieder and extracts from oratorios, Bach etc.

It's no coincidence that Schwarzkopf's husband, Walter Legge, was involved with Wolf circles from early on. It was he who pioneered the recording of Wolf songs, getting various artists of the day to sing Wolf - whether they were specialists or not - and raising money for the recording project by seeking subscriptions from song enthusiasts. Indeed, it should be mentioned that even then, in the mid-1930s, a lot of the sponsorship came from Japan. As soon as possible after the end of the war, Legge was in Austria and Germany, searching for singers who appreciated his approach. He and Schwarzkopf were a perfect musical match: had they not found each other, what might have happened? But the fact is that Schwarzkopf instinctively related to the idea that Lieder was a refined and intellectual genre, a distinctive art form with its own values. She was the performer, and he was the researcher, the inspirer and the one who knew how to get music across to the public.

Their enthusiasm for art song was infectious: it was they who pioneered recitals devoted entirely to art song, who persuaded concert soloists, and conductors, to play in public performance with singers, who organised recordings, and launched high profile concerts. It was Legge and Schwarzkopf who pioneered a text based, poetry led approach to singing. Just compare the pre war recordings to Schwarzkopf and Fischer Dieskau's work in the 1950s and 1960s. We now expect singing to be well nuanced, well-informed, intuitive and intelligent.

The all-Wolf recital at the newly opened Royal Festival Hall was a sell out. Even today 3500 people at a concert of Lieder would be a spectacular success. And Wolf was relatively unknown in those early post-war years. It was Schwarzkopf who took Fischer-Dieskau under her wing and helped nurture his career; he sang with her at that RFH recital. Later, the two of them made the first hugely successful issue of Mahler's Lieder, at a time when Mahler was himself relatively under-appreciated.

Especially on the net, Schwarzkopf attracted extreme hatred, often beyond rational standards, and way out of proportion to her youthful Nazi links. But among people who knew her work, and who had real experience in music, she was accorded much more respect. She was notorious for being hard on her students, but she too was trained that way, in more rigorous times. Moreover, no one was more driven than she herself. It was the pursuit of excellence that motivated her. Of course she was no touchy-feely person, but that's no crime.

When she respected a student's willingness to achieve the same high standards she would give her all to them, especially if they had the integrity she prized above all.

Anne Ozorio



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