German orchestral conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch (born 1923) has been one of the best-known and most widely respected figures in the field of classical music, both in his native Germany and in the United States.
Sawallisch's conducting art traced its roots back to the long traditions of German opera. He emerged from a German opera house environment that was directly shaped by the music and personal influence of great composers like Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. Sawallisch kept to a fairly narrow focus over much of his career; in an age when other conductors such as Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan became international stars and members of the jet set, he concentrated on the music of a few composers whose music he knew inside and out, and he preferred smaller, high-quality performances to high-profile venues. Yet Sawallisch sought out new challenges in his later years, coming to the United States to assume the leadership of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of America's most venerated ensembles but one that was troubled when he took the reins.
Career Goals Changed by Performance
Born on August 26, 1923, in Munich, Germany, Wolfgang Sawallisch (suh-VAHL-ish) has lived in that south German city for most of his life. He was given piano lessons from the age of five, quickly showed talent, and at ten announced his goal of becoming a concert pianist. But a visit to the opera in Munich changed his mind. “At 11 I heard my first opera, coincidentally in the Munich Opera House where I would one day become music director,” Sawallisch told Mike Bradley of the London Times. “I was so fascinated by the sounds of the orchestra and the singers and the sight of the whole production on the stage that I decided immediately to change my mind and study to be a conductor.”
Munich was one of the centers of German musical life at the time, and Sawallisch soaked up influences from some of the greats of German music. He once saw the aging composer and conductor Richard Strauss conduct a Mozart opera while accompanying it on the harpsichord and inserting little quotations from his own music, to the delight of the audience. Sawallisch's growing mastery of opera was interrupted, however, by the advent of World War II. The teenaged Sawallisch was drafted into the Germany army and sent to the front in Italy, where he was captured and taken prisoner by British forces. He spent three years as a prisoner of war, and was allowed to return home in October of 1945.
By 1947 German musical life had begun to return to normal, and Sawallisch graduated from the Hochschule für Musik (or school of music) in Munich. He landed his first job that year, becoming a repetiteur, or rehearsal conductor, at the Opera Theatre of Augsburg. In 1953, at age 30, he made a splash when he became the youngest person ever to conduct the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and that year he landed the post of music director—a job that combines conducting duties with choice of repertoire and the larger management of a company's artistic direction—at an opera house in Aachen. He was also the youngest person to hold the post of music director in Germany at the time.
Sawallisch never entirely gave up his ambitions as a pianist, and in 1949 he and violinist Gerhard Seitz took honors as best duo at the Geneva International Competition in Switzerland. He went on to a noteworthy career as an accompanist to classical singers, performing and recording with such stars of German vocal art as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; he made his debut in London as an accompanist to Schwarzkopf in 1955. But his career was clearly moving in the direction of conducting. From Aachen he moved to a music directorship at the opera house in Wiesbaden, West Germany, in 1958, and then to the larger Cologne Opera in 1960. There he also became a professor at the Cologne Conservatory.
Clashed with Wagner's Grandson
In 1957 Sawallisch achieved a major breakthrough when he was invited to conduct Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde at the Bayreuth Festival Theater. That opera house, located in Bayreuth in Sawallisch's home region of Bavaria, had been established by Wagner himself and functioned (and continues to function) as a kind of shrine to his music and his vision of a union of all the arts. Sawallisch's command of Wagner's sprawling, five-hour score won critical admiration, and he remained a regular conductor at Bayreuth until 1962. Eventually, however, he ran afoul of Bayreuth's director, Wieland Wagner, who was Richard Wagner's grandson, and decided to seek out situations where he would have more control.
The younger Wagner was an innovator who wanted to impose his own personality on the staging of Wagner's classics. Sawallisch, by contrast, believed in keeping his own personality in the background. In both opera and symphonic music, his rehearsals were devoted in large measure to drawing out what he saw as the composer's original intention, rather than inserting a specific interpretation on top of what was already there. He studied scores in great detail, paying close attention to the composer's interpretive markings and passing those along to the orchestra members. That placed Sawallisch in contrast to other conductors of the 1950s and 1960s, an era that marked a high point of classical music's popularity in the United States. Other noted conductors of that time, such as the New York Philharmonic's Leonard Bernstein and the Berlin Philharmonic's Herbert von Karajan, often gave performances and made recordings of a given work that differed sharply from those of each other and from other top conductors.
During the 1960s Sawallisch continued to conduct opera and also held orchestral conducting jobs: with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra from 1960 to 1970, and the Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra from 1961 to 1973. In the 1970s he achieved world-class posts in both opera and symphony. He became principal conductor of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Orchestra of French-Speaking Switzerland) in Geneva in 1970, remaining there until 1980, and the bulk of his reputation rests on the years he spent with the Bavarian State Opera company in Munich. Beginning as music director in 1971, he became the company's general manager in 1982.
Many of Sawallisch's recordings as a conductor were made in Munich. His recording career began in 1957, and his catalogue grew to include most of the major operas of Wagner and Strauss, as well as Mozart and other German and Austrian composers. Over his career, up to the point when he took over the Philadelphia Orchestra, he conducted Wagner's four-opera, 20-hour Ring cycle an astonishing 32 times. Sawallisch rarely took up the baton in Italian opera, preferring to remain with repertory he felt he knew best. He was regarded as one of the top opera conductors in the world, and he regularly received offers of guest conducting engagements from New York's Metropolitan Opera and other top companies, but he restricted his guest conducting engagements mostly to the La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy. As a symphonic conductor he was slightly better-traveled, taking on guest slots with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Tokyo's NHK Symphony, and making a series of acclaimed Beethoven recordings with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. But for the most part he remained in Central Europe in the orchestral field as well. In personality, unlike many other figures in the world of opera, Sawallisch was described as modest and unassuming.
Made Philadelphia Debut
For the Philadelphia Orchestra, however, Sawallisch made an exception. He made his first appearance with the orchestra in 1966, at the invitation of its longtime conductor, Hungarian-born Eugene Ormandy, and that first appearance turned into a series of repeat engagements over the years. “I enjoyed that and other contact with the orchestra so much that we began to develop a familiarity,” Sawallisch told Bradley. “I was impressed by their discipline, their dedication and their professionalism.” When Ormandy's successor, Riccardo Muti, stepped down in the early 1990s, Sawallisch emerged as a top candidate to replace him, and he assumed the position of music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1993, at the age of 70. Echoing President John F. Kennedy's identification of himself as a Berliner 30 years earlier, Sawallisch proclaimed himself a Philadelphian at a splashy outdoor ceremony where he was introduced by Philadelphia mayor Edward Rendell.
The task Sawallisch faced in Philadelphia, at an age when most other conductors had slowed their activities or retired completely, was difficult in several respects. For one thing, he spoke English poorly at the time. For another, the orchestra's overall quality, historically marked by string tone of legendary warmth, was widely thought to have declined under Muti, who showed little interest in the extra-musical socializing usually required of a music director in America, where orchestras sought corporate support. (The level of governmental arts support in Europe was and still remains much higher than in the United States.) But the challenge of working under a system of patronage (contributions from wealthy individuals and organizations) rather than government support appealed to Sawallsich and, he told Bradley, his decision “to forget the past and go forwards was the right decision. It has endowed me with a new youth.” The decision was partly motivated by the death of Sawallisch's wife in the years before he came to Philadelphia.
Living and working in America altered Sawallisch's musical perspective. Whereas he had been familiar with the works of only a few American composers while conducting in Europe, the 70-something Sawallisch emerged in Philadelphia as a champion of new American music. He was involved with programming changes that were innovative by any standard: in the year 2000 he devoted the orchestra's entire subscription season to music of the twentieth century, resulting in ticket sales records at a time when other American orchestras were struggling at the box office, and in 1997 he led the orchestra in the first live Internet broadcast mounted by a major symphony orchestra, attracting listeners in more than 40 countries around the world.
Among Sawallisch's most important legacies was his championing of the orchestra's new 2,500-seat Verizon Hall, replacing the durable and physically beautiful but acoustically troublesome Academy of Music. The hall was finished under Sawallisch's tenure and opened to positive reviews, completing a process that Muti, Ormandy, and Leopold Stokowski before him had tried without success to initiate. In 2003, before his retirement as music director, Sawallisch made the first recording undertaken in Verizon Hall, a three-disc set of music by Robert Schumann that was nominated for Grammy Awards in the categories of Best Classical Album and Best Orchestral Performance.
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“Wolfgang Sawallisch—Biography,” Wolfgang Sawallisch Foundation, http://www.sawallisch-stiftung.de/index.php?biography (January 14, 2008).
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"Sawallisch, Wolfgang." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sawallisch-wolfgang
"Sawallisch, Wolfgang." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sawallisch-wolfgang
"Sawallisch, Wolfgang." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/sawallisch-wolfgang
"Sawallisch, Wolfgang." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/sawallisch-wolfgang