Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth (1915—)

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Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth (1915—)

German soprano, one of the great singers of the post-1945 era, who was acclaimed for her performances of Mozart and Richard Strauss and achieved equal fame in the recital hall as a Lieder singer. Name variations: Elisabeth Legge-Schwarzkopf. Born on December 9, 1915, in Jarotschin near Posen, Germany (now Jarocin near Poznán, Poland); daughter of Friedrich Schwarzkopf and Elisabeth (Fröhling) Schwarzkopf; studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, 1934–38; studied with Maria Ivogün; married Walter Legge (1906–1979, a record producer), in 1953.

One of the most glamorous sopranos in opera, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf enjoyed an extraordinary career that spanned four decades. She was born in 1915, during World War I, in an area of Germany that would become part of Poland after 1918. An only child, she grew up a stable middle-class family that was rich in cultural traditions. Both her mother Elisabeth and her father Friedrich, a secondary-school teacher, valued the German traditions of Kultur, which meant books and music.

Because Friedrich taught the classics in a number of different schools, the Schwarzkopfs moved to a new town every several years, though this did not shake the family's essential solidity. Elisabeth was given every opportunity to develop her artistic talents from an early age, and her mother strongly believed in her daughter's future success. The Schwarzkopfs, however, had little extra money to spare, and did not even own a phonograph. Neither could they afford to attend opera performances. Elisabeth would be 19 "before she heard decent singing," her husband Walter Legge later noted. But music was never far away from young Elisabeth in her formative years. She began with piano lessons at age seven, and by ten she was learning to play the viola and organ. Schwarzkopf participated in a number of stage performances at her school, and by age 12 she was thinking of music as a career.

In 1934, Schwarzkopf began to study at Hochschule für Musik, Berlin's foremost music academy, where her pure, sweet singing voice, proficiency on the piano, organ and viola, and considerable knowledge of music theory had made her a strong candidate for admission. Schwarzkopf's first voice instructor, Lula Mysz-Gmeiner , was a noted opera and Lieder singer who claimed that both Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf had accompanied her in recitals of their own Lieder. Unfortunately, Mysz-Gmeiner proved to be "despotic to the point of blindness," and even worse was convinced that her new pupil, although vocally well equipped as a soprano, could in fact be turned into a contralto like herself. Perhaps Mysz-Gmeiner saw in Schwarzkopf a familiar echo of her own youth, but whatever the reason, she attempted for over a year to transform one voice into another—something that could easily do permanent damage to a singer's vocal instrument.

Schwarzkopf convinced her strong-willed mother that she was making no progress under Mysz-Gmeiner and was actually in danger of harming her voice. In turn, Schwarzkopf's mother sought out Dr. Fritz Stein, director of the Hochschule, to demand a different instructor. Stein, who was initially indignant, finally agreed to a change, and some time later, after tactful measures had been taken to minimize embarrassment to Mysz-Gmeiner, Elisabeth began voice studies with Dr. Heinrich Egonolf; he concurred that she was no mezzo, expressing confidence that she had a great future as a coloratura soprano.

The events that engulfed Germany starting in the early 1930s did not pass Schwarzkopf by. Her father, an anti-Nazi Social Democrat, lost his position as a gymnasium principal for his refusal either to join the Nazi Party or denounce his Jewish colleagues; Schwarzkopf chose the path of accommodation. Perhaps having been taught a grim lesson by her father's fate, in 1935 she joined the Hochschule's National Socialist German Student League (Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, or NSDStB), rapidly rising to the level of a Führerin. The previous year, even before becoming an NSDStB member, Schwarzkopf had been a beneficiary of that organization's wealth and power, having been awarded a grant to finance a short trip to England during the Easter holidays in order to improve her knowledge of English. Doubtless realizing the value it would have for her career, the ambitious young artist took the final steps to join the Nazi Party in 1940. According to documentation discovered in the Berlin Document Center and the U.S. National Archives in the early 1980s by Austrian historian Oliver Rathkolb, Schwarzkopf applied to join the Nazi Party on January 26, 1940. Accepted on March 1, she was thereupon issued membership card NSDAP No. 7548960.

When the details of her wartime membership in the Nazi Party came to light in The New York Times in March 1983, Schwarzkopf admitted to having been a member, but suggested that "everyone" at that time associated with Berlin's Städtische Oper had been as well: "We thought nothing of it. We just did it." In a letter published in the Times on April 3, 1983, Schwarzkopf wrote from her home in Zurich that her father had urged her to join the Nazi Party, because "nothing was more important to him than my singing." Becoming an NSDAP member, she wrote, was "akin to joining a union, and exactly for the same reason: to have a job." The letter ended with, "Although it was never in my repertory, I cannot help quoting Tosca: 'Vissi d'arte …' ['I lived for art']." It is highly unlikely that her actions will ever be completely understood, and they continue to provide fodder for her biographers and others attempting to understand the tangled relationship between the arts, individual artists, and totalitarian states in modern times.

In April 1938, soon after graduating from the Hochschule, Schwarzkopf passed an audition at the Städtische Oper (Municipal Opera) of Berlin. Within days of being hired as a probationary junior soprano, she made her opera debut on April 17, 1938, in a new production of Wagner's Parsifal in the short but important role of Second Flower Maiden (First Group) in Act II. Even in this supposed temple of the arts, Nazi racial politics intruded: she had to sign several documents stating she came from a family of "pure Aryan" origins, including parents and grandparents, and had never in any way been connected with the Jewish religion. In her first season at the Städtische Oper, Schwarzkopf gave 19 performances in 28 weeks, somewhat below the average.

During her next season at the Municipal Opera, 1938–39, Schwarzkopf's career progressed rapidly; she added 16 parts to her growing repertory, of which the first important one was Frasquita in the trio of Gypsies in Bizet's Carmen. Her second important role that season was Musetta in Puccini's La Bohème. Among the minor roles she mastered was that of Pepa in d'Albert's Tiefland, one of Adolf Hitler's favorite operas (after Wagner's work). The task of learning so many parts was made considerably easier by the fact that in the Third Reich foreign operas were customarily presented in German, not only for the ease of audience comprehension but also because of the new sense of national pride in all aspects of German Kultur.

Despite the incalculable suffering unleashed by its aggressions during World War II, Nazi Germany maintained a veneer of civilized life, which included the preservation of "high" culture. Operas and concerts continued to be scheduled despite the war, and such events as the 150th anniversary of Mozart's death in 1941 were celebrated with much pomp and circumstance by various organs of the vast Nazi propaganda machine. Despite food rationing and air raids, musical life continued, largely due to Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels' belief that a key element in assuring a German victory was keeping civilian morale high. Schwarzkopf and other rising artists benefited from these policies, since it kept them from having to work in warrelated industries or, if they were male, serve at the front. From 1940 through 1942, she continued to appear on stage at the Städtische Oper despite the dangers and burdens of normal living created by air raids and what was becoming a total war.

In September 1940, Maria Ivogün was in the audience when Schwarzkopf appeared in the role of Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. Ivogün, the most famous portrayer of Zerbinetta since Selma Kurz , was astounded by Schwarzkopf's singing, which revealed star quality and "great talent but no knowledge of technique at all." She agreed to take Schwarzkopf on as a special pupil, provided she was willing to let her voice be "taken apart and rebuilt, note by note, in the right way." Schwarzkopf's lessons with Ivogün, crucial to her emergence as one of the great singers of the 20th century, were funded by the Reichstheaterkammer (Reich Theater Chamber), the Nazi state's monopoly overseeing all aspects of the German stage. Schwarzkopf also received valuable coaching in the Lieder repertory from Ivogün's husband, the renowned accompanist Michael Raucheisen. With her enhanced vocal qualities and growing professional self-confidence, Schwarzkopf blossomed; she graduated from second-soprano roles to starring ones, in operas and operettas, including Adele in Johann Strauss, Jr.'s Die Fledermaus.

Accompanied by Raucheisen, Schwarzkopf began giving Lieder recitals in Berlin's Beethoven Saal in May 1942, the beginning of what would become one of the great careers of Lieder singing. By early 1943, her career was flourishing. In March and April, she presented further Lieder recitals, and on April 23 appeared in Bach's St. Matthew Passion. But Schwarzkopf was confronted with a major crisis when she received a diagnosis of tuberculosis, brought on, she believed, from having spent too many hours in cold, damp air-raid shelters during the ever-increasing Allied bombing raids on Berlin. At this time, Schwarzkopf also received the good news that she had been accepted as a member of the Vienna State Opera, whose leading conductor Karl Böhm had been impressed by her talent.

After spending a year at a clinic situated high on the Czech side of the Tatra Mountains, in the town of Tatranská Polianka, Schwarzkopf was released fully cured and moved to Vienna to resume her singing career in April 1944. Her illness had been fortunate in some ways, sparing her from the ever-increasing dangers of almost daily bombing raids on Berlin and, to a lesser extent, on Vienna. From April through June 1944, Schwarzkopf appeared in leading roles in several operas, including Mozart's Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Seraglio), Puccini's La Bohème, and Weber's Der Freischütz. In late summer, Goebbels decreed that all German theaters be closed so that their staffs could be mobilized for the hopeless "total war" campaign he continued to preach to the citizens of the Reich. Schwarzkopf found herself temporarily unemployed, but was able to give a Lieder recital in Vienna's venerable Musikvereinsaal on December 12 of that year.

In mid-April 1945, Soviet troops captured Vienna, but the demise of Nazi inhumanity did not immediately benefit the city's inhabitants. For several weeks, Soviet forces were allowed to rape and pillage. These acts of retribution were justified by Soviet commanders as an appropriate response to the bestial behavior of German soldiers during their occupation of the USSR. Schwarzkopf and her mother had prudently fled Vienna at the time of its surrender, and would live in Attersee near Salzburg for the next few months until the situation became more stable. Once the initial period of violence ceased, however, Soviet occupation authorities were solicitous in assisting Austrians in the restoration of cultural life, so that opera performances took place as early as May 1, 1945, even before the war had officially ended.

In late 1945, Schwarzkopf returned to Vienna in an American jeep. There, she performed under a cloud of uncertainty about her future, singing at the Theater an der Wien and the Volksoper, both temporary stages for the State Opera ensemble whose theater had been destroyed in a bombing raid that March. Along with a sizable number of other musicians, many of them well established in their careers, she sought ways to clear herself of the taint of Nazi sympathies. To accomplish this process of "de-Nazification," Allied occupation authorities required that individuals fill out an extensive Fragebogen (questionnaire) detailing one's political activities during the Nazi dictatorship. In Schwarzkopf's case, she filled out Fragebogen on four separate occasions, two in July 1945, one that October, and one on May 3, 1946. In the first three documents, she denied having ever been a member of the Nazi Party. Only on the fourth form did she admit that she joined the Nazi Party "in 1940 or 1941," but she maintained that she had not been allocated a

party number. In early June 1946, the Austrian State Theater Administration ordered Schwarzkopf's deportation to Germany. An administrative error on the part of the Vienna police, however, prevented the directive from being carried out, and by the end of that year her case, and those of many other artists who had been Nazi Party members, including the gifted Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, had lapsed into bureaucratic inactivity. Officially, Schwarzkopf was declared de-Nazified in February 1947, at which point she was free to resume her career. Now an Austrian citizen and having recently performed at the Salzburg Festival, Schwarzkopf traveled to London as a member of Vienna State Opera company. This would be her great breakthrough.

On March 3, 1946, British record producer Walter Legge had heard Schwarzkopf singing the role of Rosina in Rossini's The Barber of Seville. He heard, he said, "a brilliant, fresh voice shot with laughter, not large but admirably projected, with enchanting high pianissimi." Legge also admired Schwarzkopf's "hair-raising agility" as Constanze in Mozart's Entführung, and soon he was determined to bring perfection Schwarzkopf's voice, whose true nature he was convinced was that of a lyric soprano. At his urging, she began singing roles appropriate to her new voice, including Agathe in Der Freitschütz and the Countess in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). Soon, a strong professional and personal alliance was forged; they would marry in 1953.

Behind Legge's often caustic manner and uncompromising artistic standards was a man who cherished all aspects of music. He was also—unusual for his time and place—an unabashed Germanophile, profoundly attracted to the language, music and traditions of German-speaking Central Europe. The partnership between Schwarzkopf and Legge, who wielded great power in the musical world as artistic director of EMI Records, was an alliance of intellectual equals who both sought perfection. Journalists would sometimes describe Schwarzkopf as being no more than a Trilby to Legge's Svengali, but in truth he (and von Karajan, under whose direction she would perform in memorable concerts as well as make a large number of superb recordings) challenged Schwarzkopf to fulfill her artistic potential. Legge and Schwarzkopf spent countless hours learning new repertory, particularly the Lieder that both loved so profoundly. "Legge turned Schwarzkopf, an uncommonly good soprano, into a great singer," wrote Irving Kolodin. Thanks both to Schwarzkopf's unceasing study and Legge's superb coaching, her voice reached its full maturity, best described by critic Andrew Porter as "a lustrous, powerful lyric soprano, full-toned, warm and flexible."

The upward trajectory of her career continued in 1948 when she joined London's newly formed Covent Garden Opera Company, remaining with it for five seasons and singing her many roles in English. In December of that year, she was invited to sing at Milan's fabled La Scala, and was so successful with Italian audiences that she continued to perform there on a regular basis until 1963. Countless Italian music lovers were enthusiastic about Schwarzkopf, including conductor Arturo Toscanini, who became acquainted with her talent through the 1947 von Karajan recording of Brahms' German Requiem. Toscanini found himself captivated by Schwarzkopf's singing of "Ihr nun habt Traurigkeit," feeling it to be something close to perfection (in his unique mix of Italian and English, Toscanini had exclaimed when he first heard the recording, "Molte bene. I never had the soprano so good"). In 1951, Schwarzkopf was the only non-Italian singer chosen to perform in Verdi's Requiem as part of the celebrations to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the composer's death.

Although Elisabeth Schwarzkopf would reign supreme as a Lieder singer as well as in a select number of roles in Mozart and Richard Strauss operas, she was in actuality an artist with a remarkably broad repertory which included the French roles of Marguerite and Mélisande, Iole in Handel's Hercules, and Marenka (sung in English) in Smetana's The Bartered Bride. In September 1951, she originated the role of Anne Trulove in Igor Stravinsky's witty opera The Rake's Progress, which premiered before a gala audience in Venice's Teatro Fenice. Only the superb musicality of Schwarzkopf and other members of the cast prevented a disaster, because Stravinsky had no experience as an opera conductor (deputy conductor Ferdinand Leitner provided the singers crucial cues from behind the composer's back). In 1953, Schwarzkopf participated in another world premiere, this time of Carl Orff's Trionfo d'Afrodite at La Scala. Although she rarely performed works of contemporary music, the ones she chose were of high quality, including Michael Tippett's powerful anti-Nazi oratorio A Child of Our Time.

Besides von Karajan, with whom she had a productive collaboration until the mid-1960s, Schwarzkopf enjoyed working with some of the finest conductors and Lieder accompanists of her day. From the late 1940s until his death in 1954, legendary German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler chose Schwarzkopf to appear in many of the operas he conducted at the Salzburg Festival. These included Mozart operas which were recorded and still constitute a benchmark for these works. In 1951, Furtwängler also chose Schwarzkopf to sing in the Beethoven Ninth Symphony performance he conducted at the first postwar Bayreuth Festival, the recording of which has become a classic. In August 1953, Furtwängler accompanied Schwarzkopf in an unforgettable evening of Hugo Wolf Lieder, the recording of which also has been acclaimed by several generations of music critics. In the 1930s, Legge had singlehandedly helped to place Wolf's Lieder in the pantheon of great vocal music with his series of Hugo Wolf Society subscription 78 rpm recordings. In the 1950s, through both recitals and recordings, Schwarzkopf and Legge together continued the process of further securing Wolf's position in music history as one of the last giants among Romantic composers.

Legge once explained the essence of Schwarzkopf's success by pointing to Italian baritone Titta Ruffo. Ruffo, who sang in at least 100 operas, once said that if he had the choice of starting his career again, he would have restricted himself to five or six parts, so as to polish each of these in every detail, thus guaranteeing his dominance in these roles. "He was a wise man," noted Legge. By the mid-1950s, Schwarzkopf had come to see the wisdom of the Ruffo-Legge strategy. The six parts she chose to concentrate on for the next 15 years, the culmination of her career, were three Mozart heroines (Fiordiligi, Donna Elvira, and the Countess Almaviva), two Richard Strauss roles (the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and the Countess in Capriccio), and Alice in Verdi's Falstaff. She also became a past master singing in several operetta classics, particularly Die Fledermaus and Franz Lehár's Die lustige witwe (The Merry Widow). In the superbly cast and finely engineered recordings of these works produced by her husband for EMI (marketed in the U.S. starting in 1953 under the Angel label), Schwarzkopf's artistry is preserved. In the 1950s and 1960s, she recorded works that remain classics more than a generation later: Richard Strauss' Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), which exists in three different but all superb Schwarzkopf versions, as well as works she recorded but never performed in public, including Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, Carl Orff's Die Kluge (The Clever Woman), and William Walton's Troilus and Cressida.

Schwarzkopf made her American debut in 1953 with a Lieder recital at New York's Town Hall. Picketers on the street denouncing her as a Nazi sympathizer did not dampen the response she received inside from devotees of German music. Her American operatic debut took place in 1955 with the San Francisco Opera, whose conductor Kurt Herbert Adler had fled Nazism. Schwarzkopf sang there to great success for ten years. Her first appearance in San Francisco, on September 20, 1955, as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, was an overwhelming triumph. Only in 1964 did Schwarzkopf finally receive an invitation to sing at New York's Metropolitan Opera, appearing on October 13, 1964, as the Marschallin. Her relationship with this company was not always perfect, and she last sang there in 1966. By the end of the 1960s, it was clear that Schwarzkopf's career was entering its final phase. She now had to conserve her vocal resources, appearing in fewer operas each year, concentrating instead on less-strenuous Lieder recitals. Her last opera performance in America took place in Carnegie Hall on April 27, 1972. Her last opera appearance was in Brussels in 1972 as the Marschallin—a role that had become uniquely hers. In 1975, she made a farewell recital tour of the United States.

In Europe, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf continued to concertize through the 1970s, despite her declining vocal resources. She gave what would be her last Liederabend in Zurich, Switzerland, on March 19, 1979. Three days later, her husband died, having suffered a severe heart attack a week before. Schwarzkopf decided at this point to end her singing career. Walter Legge's last wishes were fulfilled: his ashes were put to rest near the grave of Hugo Wolf in Vienna's Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery). Determined to work despite her loss, Schwarzkopf flew to San Francisco in June 1979 to give master classes. For the next decade, she remained active in various musical activities, including directing a production of Der Rosenkavalier in Brussels in May 1981. She also served as a judge on panels, and took on a small number of gifted young singers as students.

As the 20th century neared its end, Schwarzkopf had little choice but to slow down. By then in her 80s, she could point with pride to such awards as the Federal Republic of Germany's Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz (Large Cross of Achievement) as well as its coveted Pour le Mérite (an order first founded in 1740 by Prussian sovereign Frederick the Great). From Great Britain, a nation that grew to respect and love her, she had received an honorary doctorate in music from Cambridge University (1977) and the rank of Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE), awarded by Queen Elizabeth II (1992). As the critic Robert Jacobson wrote during her final American tour, and as the finest of her recordings illustrate, Schwarzkopf had "set an exalted standard of accomplishment in so many ways and in so many areas that our opera and concert lives are likely never to be quite the same."


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related media:

Caillat, Gérald. "Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: A Self-Portrait" (videocassette), Ideale Audience-EMI Classics, 1995.

Strauss, Richard. "Der Rosenkavalier" (videocassette of complete opera), recorded in 1962.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth (1915—)

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