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Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006): an obituary



Try for a moment to imagine the landscape of singing in the twentieth century without the presence of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. It is almost impossible to do so; such was her impact upon the development of vocal art. There are those whose impact is beyond dispute when considering specific musical forms or composers, but there are very few artists whose mark has been left with equal care across opera, operetta, orchestral song and lieder in the German, French, Italian and English repertoires.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf died peacefully in her sleep on 2 August 2006 at her home in Schruns on the Austrian-Swiss border. She was 90. Her legacy is one of transformation in terms of a listener’s experience, a rich and varied body of recordings and several carefully selected pupils.

Olga Maria Elisabeth Frederike Schwarzkopf was born on 9 December 1915, in Jarotschin, Germany, now in west-central Poland, to Prussian parents. Her father Friedrich Schwarzkopf was a school teacher whose work necessitated much travelling in the years of Elisabeth’s childhood. Her mother took principal charge of the home and the guiding of her young daughter’s musical talents.

In 1928 the family settled in Magdeburg, Germany, where Schwarzkopf pursued studies in piano, guitar, viola and organ and developed a naturally high, light voice. 1933 saw a move to Berlin and enrolment at the Berlin Royal Augusta School before admission to the Hochschule für Musik. In The following year saw her first contact with England – by taking part in a cycling and camping trip funded by the League of National Socialist Students. It was on this trip that she learned English.

Her teacher at the Hochschule für Musik, Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, somewhat inexplicably thought that Schwarzkopf would become a contralto. In 1938 she began singing with the Berlin State Opera. Her first recordings, from 1939 and 1940, are of highlights from Lehár’s Paganini and Das Land des Lächelns with tenor Rupert Glawisch. Schwarzkopf recalled being "totally nervous, totally awestruck" by the experience of recording and that it was largely the support of Glawisch that got her through it. What is striking about these early recordings is the assurance of the high lyric voice, a complete absence of any suggestion of contralto tendencies and how unlike her later self Schwarzkopf sounds. There is almost no dissection of the text in evidence.

Over the past twenty years or so much – perhaps too much – has been made by biographers and academic researchers of Schwarzkopf’s allegiance with the Nazi Party between 1935 and 1945. The facts are these: under the Nazi regime all students attended daily ideological lectures; in 1935 Schwarzkopf joined the student association of the National Socialist Party; on 26 January 1940 she applied for full Party membership; was accepted on 1 March, and assigned membership number 7548960. In the years since her retirement such matters have diverted attention away from her artistic achievements. But Schwarzkopf, like Herbert von Karajan, only made things worse by evading the questions when they were first asked. Three separate Allied questionnaires from 1945 deny Party membership or association. When explanations were offered, she claimed that she ‘thought nothing of it’, that it was ‘like joining a union, in order to have a job’ and, later she took to quoting from Tosca: ‘Vissi d’arte’ – ‘I lived for art’.

The years 1940 to 1947 mark the establishment of Schwarzkopf’s career on an international level. The coloratura role of Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos attracted attention of Maria Ivogün in 1940, where after Ivogün took on Schwarzkopf as a private pupil. Their work together focussed on the high soprano repertory and lieder singing. Engagements with the Vienna State Opera soon followed and at the first post-war Salzburg Festival in 1947, where she worked with the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. The Vienna State Opera toured to London in 1947 and Schwarzkopf performed at Covent Garden in Don Giovanni and Fidelio. The success of these performances led to an invitation to join the Covent Garden company. She sang with them for the next five years, performing in English a wide range of German repertory and other roles including Violetta, Mimi, Gilda, and Massenet’s Manon.

Her period in London though was but a prelude to the 1950s, 60s, and 70s – throughout which she was a dominant force. It is no coincidence that these decades saw the forming and deepening of musical relationships that bore artistic results that it is not easy to dismiss. Often her chosen musical partners were forceful personalities, like Schwarzkopf herself, and she must have seen this in them: conductors Karajan, Böhm and Szell and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau certainly shared her probing approach to music and text. Wilhelm Furtwängler and Gerald Moore might not have been such dominating personalities but they did demand the highest performance standards.

The other person it is impossible to separate from Schwarzkopf’s achievements is Walter Legge. Astute in his musical judgements Legge brought the talents of Schwarzkopf and her collaborators before the public in a great sequence of recordings for the EMI label that traversed the change from mono to stereo technology and captured her voice at its finest. Favouring the process of recording after a series of live performances, Legge hoped to maintain the improvisatory live feeling in the studio. One example of this approach was the 1968 recording of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with Fischer-Dieskau and Szell.

Public success though often hid no so private recriminations between Legge and Schwarzkopf even though they married in 1953. Once during a joint filmed interview Legge said, perhaps slightly jokingly, "Without me you’d be nothing, you know?" "Yes dear, I know", came the meek reply, but behind the eyes daggers were barely concealed.

Whatever the situation of her private life Schwarzkopf’s career went from strength to strength, admired in a diverse repertoire that included over 70 roles from 50 operas. Mozart (Fiordiligi, Donna Elvira and Countess Almaviva), Richard Strauss (Ariadne and the Capriccio Countess) and Wagner (Eva and Elsa) formed the backbone of her stage appearances. Some measure of her willingness to move outside the standard repertoire is provided by her portrayal of Anne Trulove in the world premiere of
Stravinsky’s The Rakes Progress in Venice, 1951.

Thankfully many of these and other roles were captured either live and / or in the studio. In comparing available live and studio versions one becomes aware of her vocal consistency. For opera-goers at the time her beautiful looks and assuredness in acting – she starred in several films when younger – must have added to her attraction. Operetta remained in her repertoire, recording and later appearing on stage in works such as Die Lustige Witwe and Die Fledermaus. Her recordings of both works are references, even though the 1955 Fledermaus with Karajan can sound too echt-Viennese for modern taste. "To perform operetta is much more difficult than opera. The rules are not so strict […] you have seemingly a lot of freedom, but you have to know which freedom to take and which not", she once said. There can be little doubt she consciously took the right choices for her and the music.

Arguably though her greatest contribution was in the area of lieder. With Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf succeeded in redefining how lieder was sung. Their starting point, taken as given, was the flexibility of the voice and its ability to do whatever was asked of it. Beauty of tone, evenness of production across the range and at whatever required dynamic were put to the service of the music and text. One can imagine Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf as surgeons over an operating table as they dissected their lied subject of the moment, laying its entrails bare to with a depth of interpretation that had rarely been heard before. Some call theirs a ‘psychological’ approach to singing because it so succeeded in getting under the skin of the material they interpreted. She became for many a priestess of lieder in much the same way Maria Callas was in the operatic sphere. The two even recorded together once – in Turandot – with Schwarzkopf singing Liu alongside Callas’ hauty ice maiden.

As ever, Walter Legge influenced the choice of repertoire: her Mozart song disc with Walter Gieseking (1952) and Schubert partnered by Edwin Fischer (1957) stand out, as do both recordings of Strauss’ Vier letzte lieder. But for me the really distinctive contribution was made in songs of Hugo Wolf. One only has to compare the live recording of Wolf lieder accompanied by Furtwängler (1953) with those made by Erna Berger and Michael Raucheisen around a decade earlier to hear the difference in approach to two singers had. Berger, for all her beauty, sounds bland alongside Schwarzkopf’s unerring knowledge of just what it is she wanted from each song. But listen more closely still and you’ll hear Furtwängler’s piano playing as the true advocate in their recital, with Schwarzkopf often taking her cue from it for her interpretations.

By the 1960s and ‘70s critical opposition to her style of performance was becoming more widely voiced in the press. It was not uncommon for critics to use words such as ‘arch’, even ‘vocal fetishism’ to describe what they heard. She became for one critic ‘the Prussian perfectionist’, whose extreme vocal nuances are an end in themselves, getting in the way of the music without adding much to the text. Some of the Strauss lieder she recorded in 1966 with Szell and the Berlin RSO are compromised in this way. Another critic wrote in 1981 that ‘intelligence and willpower triumphed over what was basically an unremarkable voice’. Ultimately though such remarks can say more about their authors than they do about their subject. Gerald Moore presented his impressions by calling her "the most cruelly self-critical person imaginable, [capable of] impaling her scores with arrows, stabs, slashes and digs." His farewell recital from 1967 shows again how merciless she could be with Wolf and Schumann, but equally how disarmingly humorous she could be in Rossini’s ‘Cats duet’ with Victoria de los Angeles.

A recital tour in 1977-78 marked her retirement, accompanied by Geoffrey Parsons, who later partnered her farewell recital, held in Zurich, March 1979. The years since retirement were occupied with largely with teaching. Even in later years she was uncompromisingly tough on her pupils, once dismissing a singer from a London master class for breathing that was ‘inappropriate for Mozart’. Pupils were not the only object of attack when teaching: colleagues past and present also came under fire for perceived deficiencies. The hard reputation did little to stop sufficiently talented singers viewing Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau master classes as the vocal finishing schools of choice in recent years. Among those artists to progress their careers this way is Matthias Goerne, every inch the heir of both singers.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a British citizen through her marriage to Legge, was made a Dame of the British Empire on New Year’s Day in 1992. Controversially, when asked to appear on Desert Island Discs she chose eight of her own recordings to accompany her: "memories of great moments in my creative life", she called them. She leaves no immediate survivors, though she is rumoured to be a great aunt to US General ‘Stormin’’ Norman Schwarzkopf. Asked whether she held regrets that she had no children she replied, ‘I have 500 children, they are the songs I sing’.

Evan Dickerson


Essential listening - a personal selection:

Dvorak, Monteverdi, Carissimi, Humperdinck and R Strauss: Soprano duets with Irmgard Seefried; Gerald Moore (piano); Philharmonia / Josef Krips; Vienna PO / Herbert von Karajan. Recorded 1955 (Moore) and 1947 (orchestral). Mono. EMI

Lehár: Die Lustige Witwe (Hanna Glawari): Philharmonia / Otto Ackermann. Recorded 1953. Mono. EMI

Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn: with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau / LSO / Szell. Recorded 1968. EMI

Mozart: Don Giovanni: (Donna Elvira): Vienna PO / Wilhelm Furtwängler. Various live recordings 1953.

Mozart: Don Giovanni: (Donna Elvira): Philharmonia / Giulini. Recorded 1961. EMI

Mozart: Cosí fan tutte: (Fiordiligi): Philharmonia / Karl Böhm. Recorded 1955. EMI

J Strauss II: Die Fledermaus (Rosalinde): Philharmonia / Herbert von Karajan.

Recorded 1955. EMI

R Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier (Die Feldmarschallin): Philharmonia / Herbert von Karajan. Recorded 1956. EMI

R Strauss: Capriccio (Grafin Madeleine): Philharmonia / Sawallisch. Recorded 1959. EMI

Wolf: 22 lieder with Wilhelm Furtwängler (piano). Live recording 18 August 1953 EMI

Gerald Moore – a tribute: Recorded 1967. EMI



Further reading:


Alan Sanders, J.B. Steane, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: A career on record. Amadeus Press, London; 1996.

Alan Jefferson: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Gollancz, London; 1996.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: On and Off the Record – A memoir of Walter Legge. Scribner Verlag



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