Elisabeth Schwarzkopf remembered

James Jolly Tue 8th December 2015

To mark the centenary of the birth of the great German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, we revisit an interview we ran to mark her 75th birthday, in 1990

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Photo: The Tully Potter Collection)

James Jolly writes (December 2015): I remember my visit to Dame Elisabeth’s house in Zumikon, on the outskirts of Zurich, as if it were yesterday. She was a gracious host and exuded an extraordinary aura of star quality – of all the great artists I’ve interviewed down the years, Schwarzkopf had a total belief in her art, and artistry, that I found very impressive. For some it would have come across as arrogance, but it didn't seem so at the time. She was a hard task-master in the masterclasses she undertook following her retirement in 1975: it’s a discipline that she - and her husband, the producer Walter Legge - would have applied as much to herself in her prime as to any of her students. There was only one photograph on the mantelpiece in her house, that of Sviatoslav Richter, given pride of place alongside the urn that contained Legge's ashes!

As a renowned Mozartian, who worked closely with her husband, the producer Walter Legge, and many of the great conductors of the day on now legendary performances and recordings, what did she think of the current fashion for the 'academic' approach to a work often guiding the performance. 

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: It's one thing I believe my husband wouldn't have given way to. He believed in the dramatic and in the truth of expression, and imagination. Naturally he followed the score to the letter. When we were reading Hugo Wolf, for instance, even in the last recitals I did, we were reading it again and again: 'Do I start with this crescendo too early, or do I take it away too early?' In all these things really trying to grasp the letter, but then it was always the imagination which had to take over, to discover why it was written so and not otherwise by the composer. But there are great battles going on – perhaps they have always been going on - between the generations. I think nowadays where the technique and everything develops so quickly, the young people naturally have to prove that they know better, which, when it comes to music, most of them don't really. The great conductors had brains too, they have had access to the scripts, and by this I also mean the scriptures, to the testament of the composer. I think there is no shame in following great artists and saying if it was good enough for X, it had better be good enough for me too. I believe that perhaps one thing which is wrong nowadays with young artists is that they are no longer fearful of not being adequate to their task. They have no humility - in other words they are not able to say sorry I'm not good enough. Naturally as an artist you have to have confidence, to a degree, but it serves you better if you are humble.

But the pressures on young singers are enormous. 

Yes, that is a great pity. It was much better for us, we had more time, we were given more time. Of course we were not wasting time, my husband didn't believe in wasting time at all, but neither did he believe that something should be advertised two weeks after taping it. For some works he said well if it covers the cost in two years, or in five years, we are lucky; even if it was perhaps not financially viable they advertised the great name of the artist and the company - EMI. To many opera-goers and collectors the performances that came from Vienna in the early 1950s give a sense of a real ensemble working together.

Do you feel that's something we've lost, or is it all individuals? 

They say it is all individuals now, but you have no great individuals; we are ensembles of great individuals. Maybe I shouldn't say individuals, perhaps personalities is better. Of course there are personalities today, but I remember in Vienna where Waiter drew his first recording teams, mainly for opera, there was one great personality next to another. Every evening the stage was full of about six incredible people, and we'd go on our knees to hear one of them, but then there were about six on the stage together. Nowadays you have perhaps two stars, and then the chorus, which is usually very good, marvellous. I'm sorry I seem to be starting so negatively, I don't want to do that, because I'm really doing my part in this world to get across some idea of quality into the young ones, and I am starting where it begins, in singing. I can talk about singing first, but I can also talk from my view of the great conductors. We were all in awe of every one of them, and never thought we were able to do what they wanted. But as it turns out, looking back, we were.

And the conductors of today don't seem to have the stature? 

Yes, I don't know where the fault is, maybe they are also coming to the fore too quickly. Few of them, as far as I know, have started out as répétiteur in the opera house, working with everybody, with the orchestra, musicians, instruments, stage hands, lights, curtains, but mainly with the singers, and that includes singers on the way up and on the way down, in variable performances.

They were also prepared to conduct works that weren't only of the first league. 

They did everything: revue, opera, operetta, they had to make a living. And they were keen to learn all the tricks of the trade, and there are tricks when it comes to coordinating singers and orchestra in a theatre where nothing functions, when you don 't even have a full orchestra, where you have to make do with about 25 people for Meistersinger. We went away with an incredible experience which we thought would not be equalled in a hurry, but then it happened all the time. We thought 'Oh this or that will not come again', but then the next evening we had another fantastic experience in the Concertgebouw, the Musikverein, or in the recording studio, where great things happened constantly. For our generation, what happened in the recording studios was that we worked on a thing which was very good already; it was in the recording studio where it became not only polished but gained expression and all the other things which we could only suddenly be aware of when we were listening to the very good tapes, not those little cassettes which they use for taping their performance on now. Singers come here with their little cassettes, and I tell them, don't do it, you have to learn to sing without having cassettes, you have to have it in your head. 'Oh, no,' they say, 'we'll learn it at home'. Oh no, you don 't learn it at home. Of course you do, but you have to have all the ideas in your head, and I am always battling against those ridiculous cassettes. They are very good for learning a language but not singing. But we learned a lot, namely to recognize what we thought we were doing, but weren't achieving. Because on record you have to be clearer in expression, and in everything you want to bring over, than in real life, because people can't see you, and when one is not seen, everything has to be in the voice.

When you first started recording, with your husband as producer, yours was the first partnership that was specifically aimed at creating a recorded product. 

Well, in a way it was Callas, too, with Walter, though it was for a shorter time with her, and it was so concentrated. That was really an incredible partnership, when they sat side by side after listening to the tapes and discussed all the things she wanted to do and didn't do. Walter was for this, that and the other and they honed: that's what we all did, trying not to waste any time, but to get it straight away, so that the next tape should be that much better. It wasn't just the notes, it was other things too, it was a question of the truth behind the given work of art. There were other partnerships, several were shorter than mine with my husband, but they had the same implicit trust, doing what Walter said. 'Do it the other way,' he would say, and one did it. Everybody did, even [David] Oistrakh, all of them. He wasn't questioned by anybody. We knew it was right and we tried to do it - everybody, even the most difficult ones, even Furtwängler. You know Furtwängler didn't want to have him there at all, in the Tristan sessions, but then at the end he said, 'Well, I think your name should be on the record and not mine'. There was this implicit trust in the integrity of his artistic judgement, and with, of course, the mountain of musical knowledge behind it.

Turning to the Vienna of the post-war years, was there a special spirit of creativity? 

Well, immediately after the war none of us could get out, you see. As a matter of fact Walter Legge had to come in, in order to hear us. One regarded singing and participating in a Vienna State performance or a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic as something quite incredible, even though one heard fabulous things every evening, one still regarded it as an utter miracle. I remember the very first evenings after the war, always sold out, when the boxes were full of Russian soldiers with their wives, and usually you could hear them sobbing and crying, they were so moved. We liked that, to move the public. It was mainly Bohème and Rigoletto.

And how about acting? It's not something that singers are often taught, did you find it hard? 

I came to it quite naturally. I learnt a bit about it in some kind of open school, but then had very hard criticism when I was a little beginner in Berlin. We were shouted at when we did the wrong thing, knelt with the wrong foot or moved too fast, it was really hard, and woe betide if we didn't get it right. We were fired if we didn't improve fast, so improve fast we did. I think you have to have a gift for acting. I was never one who just wanted to show off, that was never my idea at all. I wanted to make music and in concerts to help bring out the essence of the work, in the view of the conductor, of course, and in opera I wanted to be as near to the drama as I could without being too literal. My first experience of that kind was Traviata in London, sung in English with Tyrone Guthrie as producer. That was wonderful, working with a real stage producer, and for the first time I was made to crawl on the ground while I was singing and do all kinds of things. I thought you couldn't sing in such a position, but you can. Of course it should never go as far as it does today, when they make things so clear it becomes obscene. I find it totally unnecessary, for instance in Salzburg when the First Act curtain rose and Figaro and Susanna were in bed already - you don't have to hit people over the head with it. Mozart's music is much subtler than that, it is so clear when you only listen and when you give an inkling of what's meant, it gets through to the discerning public, and the undiscerning public we don't want anyway! 

To turn right to the start of your career, can you describe working with Michael Raucheisen whose recordings in the Acanta Lied Edition have made such an impression in recent years? 

He was our greatest accompanist at the time, not only for Lieder but also for chamber music, as accompanist for Fritz Kreisler. At the time he was the German Lieder accompanist, the husband of my teacher [Maria Ivogün], and head of classical music of Berlin radio. So when I was halfway ready, they grabbed me and said, 'We'll have two hours in the studio, and we can take this and that, and just do it.' I just sang them, I didn't know it was recording, it was just once through, and I was too naive to think, 'Is this a recording, or what are they doing?' I hadn't the faintest idea, I just did my two hours of singing and left it to Raucheisen to choose whether there was anything good in it. But as one can hear, the technique was already there, even the timbre was already there, because the technique was there. One follows the other, not vice versa. Of course my voice was much whiter, very silvery, very much lighter. But it was very good singing already, legato and all.

He was a considerate accompanist? 

Yes, he was very inspiring. He knew exactly what he wanted from a singer, and I was obviously able to give it there and then without further ado. And he chose the things which were right for my voice at that time, very light. I find it very revealing that I can hear how I had started already with a very good technique. It must have been immediately before I became ill with tuberculosis, because I was no longer permanently in Berlin. What they did with the recording I didn't know; it wasn't issued, but it was kept somewhere and someone put a date on it. We were totally bombed out in Berlin and I was ill for a whole year with tuberculosis, which seemed to be the end of the world at the time, but was in fact the greatest luck I ever had, because I was out of the worst bombing of Berlin. When I went back I had already got my contract with the Vienna State Opera and that was during the last months before the theatres were shut. I came back and was allowed to sing Blonde and Musetta - still very coloratura. With the end of the war there was another break, again a year of not singing, and by then my voice had already altered a bit. When I came back to Vienna I was then to do Barbiere and Rigoletto and Traviata; later it was Krips and Karajan and Walter who said we want the Countess, and eventually came the Marschallin. It was a logical development. Some voices stay the same for ever, the true coloraturas like Arabella, but I was never a true coloratura, I had the technique but not the upper six or ten notes.

You performed many Italian roles early in your career and over the years have sung in a large number of languages; this must have been good discipline? 

Oh yes. The difficulty is that every language has its own vowel sound, and you cannot sing German opera with an Italian vowel sound. Nor can you do German opera with an English vowel sound, nor vice versa. The truth was driven home to me when I had to sing Bohème in Monte-Carlo in Italian one night and the next night in English in London, and I was suddenly confronted with some technical impossibilities. There are things you do with the Italian language naturally, even as a non-Italian, and you know you have to do certain things in the way of sound, for certain registers, which you cannot do with the English language - the language alters the sound to a great degree. One ghastly experience I had was to sing The Bartered Bride in San Francisco, in English - it was terrible. To get through a thick orchestra with the 'th's; you can sing but not be heard. I had great difficulty with works written in English, it was a terrible lot of work. Even then I was very conscious that perhaps I wasn't really very distinct, and even though they told me at Covent Garden that my pronunciation was clearer than that of the English singers, I was very conscious that it wasn't really a very English sound. I think in all honesty it cannot be done, but in opera it does not matter that much, unless it gets too alien.

Guido Cantelli was a great conductor you worked with, do you remember him well? 

Yes, I remember Cantelli doing his first Mozart opera in the Piccolo Scala in Milan and he was fearfully nervous about it. When I hear it, I think it's the best Così we have, of the ones I did. It is so good musically, it was so well rehearsed and he had such an incredible view of the music. I wish it was on a commercial record and not on one of those pirated things. He had a very dramatic approach, but at the same time a very chamber-music and very symphonic view of everything, and his tempi were all so right. There was nothing which we were wanting otherwise from the stage, and it felt very natural for us. He was very, very clear, and he battled for those tempi, to keep them, to get those transitions right. He had great difficulties and was never satisfied with himself, and he never thought that he was the number one of the whole outfit. He listened to what we were doing, and of course we were in awe of him, but we noticed that he didn't really lay the law down all the time. He did have very musical singers in the cast, though; if there had been non-musical singers, things might not have gone so famously. But he had marvellous singers, so the performances were really incredible.

And you've been very lucky with the pianists you've worked with. 

Yes, I remember Furtwängler, who was very humble when we were preparing all those folk-songs, which are fiendishly difficult to play. He was practising night and day, and then we landed a performance where everything was miles too slow, so slow it wasn't true. But in spite of the slowness he gave them a magic. He was a composer as well as a conductor, and when he played wrong notes he could rescue it and fill in and do things which only somebody who knows how to compose and conduct can do. He had an overall view, a broader view, but he was known to be very slow in those years, partly because he was beginning to go deaf. We had great difficulties on stage convincing him that we wanted it fast; until he heard us, until it registered, it got slower and slower. I can't say that that was the problem with the songs, he just couldn't play them fast enough. So what could I do? They were done as we would never have done them. It was a very great service which he rendered to Hugo Wolf because it was the first time a Wolf recital was put on in Salzburg after the War and by a great name like Furtwängler, and he knew what problems they would have. When he was accompanying, for instance, although the orchestra was so slow, you didn't sink with him. It was like being on salt water, you were carried all the way.

I remember before the last revival of Figaro, he was ill, and a very good conductor who we all knew, Rudolf Moralt, who had done many things in Vienna, took over. He tried to conform to the tempi that Furtwängler had rehearsed, and we sank like nothing, we didn't know where to breathe or what to do, it was really wicked, it was no good. And then he did the next performance with the faster tempi again, and it was fine. With Furtwängler you knew that he would never draw attention to himself. This was something which I have only ever noticed with [Sviatoslav] Richter, this utter absorption in the work of art, nothing else mattered but the music and how this came out. Even when we were on the stage, he wasn't much interested in what we did, no, it was the musical performance which for him mattered, really absorbed him. Like Richter, only with Richter it happens even more. And you knew that in that way he wasn't a vain man, never playing the star, never, he was really very humble. But he, of course, had that one blank spot, that chip on his shoulder, and that was Karajan, whose name he couldn't even pronounce, he always said this K-man. Well, everyone has their shortcomings.

What about Ackermann, he died so young, at about 50. 

Yes, and he didn't have much luck, he didn't come to the fore as soon as he should have, but he was a very serious opera conductor. He was the one Walter chose for operettas; he had this instinct for knowing what the singer does, guiding but not giving too much away, but still giving way, and having the lilt and feel for the Viennese freedom without really falling into abysses of libertinage, let us say. It was liberty but governed, reined by taste, and that was close to Waiter's heart. Also he had this slightly ironic view of it all, not wallowing in the cream, or the clotted cream.

It seems a lot of young singers want to get to the top of their profession fast. If they have a great success as Lucia before they are 30 that's it; that almost seems more important than building up a technique, a repertoire. 

Yes, they always say that times have changed, that's true, but the vocal apparatus hasn't changed, over the last hundred or thousand years. Vocal technique had been developed to the very fullest some hundred years back, so this is the measure we must take. You cannot alter the vocal apparatus of the singer, you can only bring the technique to the utmost degree of perfection, in order to be able to fill the big halls of 10,000. It is a swindle if you use microphones, because you don't have to learn to sing at all for the hall. We all learned to sing to overcome the distance, to fill the big hall, get through or over an orchestra, with beauty, significance, health, and lasting through the years, not just being finished in two years. Maybe three years of singing is all they want. I can't count how many generations of singers have disappeared in my lifetime - they sing for three years and then they are never heard of again.

As a young singer, you've said how you'd listen and listen to others, was it easy to build a way of listening selectively? 

Certainly, it is something I do with my own records to give criticism of them. I don't want any critic passing judgement, I want to be able to say myself whether it is first class, awful, bearable, the ideal solution, and so on. We must not give the impression that we think everything we did was perfect, because it wasn't and we know it, but we can say what isn't perfect and why, better than anybody who doesn't sing themselves.

And what do you think of off-the-air or pirated recordings? 

I have some. There is one in particular which I am very sorry has come out, it is a very nasty performance of the Four Last Songs with Karajan. I could hardly produce a sound, it is fearful. It happens, and you regret it ever afterwards. In general, at first I was against it - it is a fiendish way of stealing - but then something comes out like the Carnegie Hall recital, which I didn't even know had been recorded. That was excellent proof for those people who used to say 'Oh yes, it was all done in the recording studio, she and her husband conjuring it up this way and that.' They can hear how it was done in reality, in one of the biggest halls in the world.

Do you encourage your students to listen to violinists? 

Very much so. I talk about the violin all the time, because stringed instruments are the only ones which can give you the fluid sound - no other instrument can do it. It can really show what a legato is, which is very different for singers because it isn't second nature. You have to want to do it all the time, and if your concentration wanders and you are not listening to the legato, you lose it, because the other way of singing is so much easier.

In your comments you sound a little pessimistic, but there are some fine singers around. 

Yes, there are. I have just heard a young Dutch woman who is going to be very, very good. She surprised me because she was supposed to have an audition to sing the Countess in German in some German theatre, and she wanted to go through it with me, but then she said, 'Ah, but what I really want to do is Rosina'. I said, 'Well, you are blonde, beautiful, and tallish, but have you got the top notes?' She said, 'Oh let me sing it,' and afterwards she said, 'Now what about Constanze?' She got the score from me, looked at it, and the next day she sang it. And it's going to be the Constanze of all time.

To mark the centenary of Schwarzkopf's birth, Warner Classics have recently released a 31-CD set of her complete recitals for EMI. For more information, visit www.warnerclassics.com

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