Two things you need to know about Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

The revisionists are out to whitewash the great soprano around the centenary of her birth which falls tomorrow.

A Guardian journalist writes today: ‘ Whatever else she may have been, she remains one of the 20th century’s definitive artists.’ Definitive, in what sense? She created no new works*, influenced no-one and left few memories of anything except a lovely voice.

The two things you need to know are these:

1 She was an early and enthusiastic Nazi, joining the Party in 1933 and never renouncing her affinity. Her biographer Alan Jefferson believed she was the mistress of Hans Frank – governor-general of occupied Poland with a major role in the Holocaust – and that the 12 months she was off stage in 1943-44 were spent largely in his company, possibly overcoming a pregnancy. On legal advice, Alan was unable to publish the evidence in her lifetime (or his), but the dates stack up. Schwarzkopf issued a 133-page private rebuttal to Alan’s biography but never challenged it in court.

2 She was the least agreeable, generous and truthful of colleagues. The only hour I ever spent with her was filled with gleeful tales of how she had humiliated candidates for her masterclass the night before. The late Lotte Klemperer sent me three single-spaced sheets of untruths told by Schwarzkopf in the book on her husband, Walter Legge.

Sensational voice, beautiful face, unpleasant human being.

schwarzkopf

*other than Anne Trulove in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress

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  • Her masterclasses were awful: she interrupted her pupils constantly, sometimes before they had even attacked a note. Partly due to her character and partly due to the fact that teaching has to be learned like any other art.

    • I am sorry to disagree but I think those singers benefited enormously from the masterclasses in Edinburgh in the early 1980s. A masterclass is a public lesson, it’s not a showcase for the young singer but a lesson. ( And that’s not just my humble opinion, the incomparable opera critic John Steane said so, too.) The singers are there to learn. If you listen carefully to the extracts you can see on YouTube, you will hear marvellous advice. Indeed, at one point where the young mezzo gets things right, Schwarzkopf says “Lovely!” twice and the look of sheer pleasure in her face must have been so encouraging. I happen to know that one of the singers was immediately afterwards invited for lessons in Switzerland with Schwarzkopf, so impressed had she been with what she had heard. And when one of those singers appeared in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at a theatre in a town in Ayrshire, in the west of Scotland i.e. not the Met or Covent Garden, Schwarzkopf flew over from Zurich for the première. I know, I was there .

      • Gossip and bitchy hyperbole are the resorts of an insecure and poor critic. We don’t need to question the value of her masterclasses (6 of which I attended) or the enthusiastic and moving testimonials from the well-known singers whom she taught, including Thomas Hampson and Cornelius Hauptmann. Sucking blood out of great artists is a really demeaning occupation.

  • A deeply unpleasant woman. Her masterclasses were ritual humiliation exercises (what a contrast to her contemporary Hans Hotter who was kindness itself). Walter Legge ‘made’ her and she has left some wonderful documents of her art behind – but they do not ameliorate her basically bad character.

        • I think the role of Cressida in Walton’s opera Troilus and Cressida was written with her in mind, though someone else took over for the premiere. Don’t think she ever performed it on stage. Walton rewrote/transcribed the part for Janet Baker in the mid 1970s.

          • She recorded excerpts of the Walton with Richard Lewis as Troilus and the composer conducting. And she would go on to premiere Walton’s A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table in the early 1960s.

          • And how many works did Maria Callas introduce? Is this a new criteria for great musicans? What about the fact that ES championed the songs of Hugo Wolf like no other and that he now is still recorded because of her? Are all early musicans not great because they don’t introduce new music? The original posting is absurd. Listen to ES’s live Verdi Requiem, Her live Capriccio final scene and tell me she’s not a great artist. Never mind so many definitive studio and live recordings of lieder and Bach.

      • I think the initial for “György” is “Gy.”, since “Gy” in Hungarian is considered to be a separate letter from “G.” I have certainly seen “Gy. Kurtág” written down like that by Hungarians.

  • There is a story about her and Klemperer retold in “Klemperer Stories”. Seems they were rehearsing the Missa Solemnis, and ES asked him not to take the ascending line that goes up to high-C so slowly. “You see,” she said, I am not really a high-C soprano.” Klemperer agreed but, ever-ironic, suggested that the concert’s advertising posters be changed to read:
    “Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Soprano–only up to B.”

    I wonder what untruths she might have told about OK in her memoir….

  • Though I never heard her live, I seem to remember her “farewell recital” was quite a regular fixture of the London concert scene in the 1970s. Segovia was also guilty of quite a few “farewells” in London around the same time.

    • The saying for this used to be “doing a Melba”. As this no longer figures in the Oxford dictionary perhaps we could adopt “doing a Schwarzkopf”?

    • Give the girl a break. Every time she was interviewed in this country she had to explain ad nauseum that the format of the show wasn’t made clear to her and she thought she was expected to choose the 8 (weren’t there 8?) recordings of hers that she was most satisfied with. I’d love to hear the programme but unfortunately it’s not available in the BBC’s Desert Island Discs archive. The masterclasses in Edinburgh were televised and achieved notoriety among the general public – a sort of highbrow tv talent competition with previously unseen levels of aggressive criticism.

        • That’s utter nonsense, she lied about herself and her past constantly to save face. That’s not being ‘self-critical’ at all.

  • Talent comes with the obligation to live up to that gift in a moral sense. ES obviously was a product of the idea that in life, it’s not talent but power that counts. There is the interesting documentary about her in which she exposes her totalitarian temperament freely and happily, only to succumb to the personality who got that trait a bit more that she: her husband Walter Legge, to whom she looked up like a teenager to her idol.

    The times that classical music was carried by such types is over, something we have to be grateful for, whatever other complaints we may have about the art form.

    • I would be interested in hearing your take one why you believe Legge had a “totalitarian temperament” even greater than ES?

      • In the mentioned interview (can’t find it on youtube but I still remember very clearly), the ‘great Legge’, looking very pompous while listening to his wife’s babbling, threw-in a couple of remarks which were capable of immediately stopping ES for a while (which was impossible for the interviewer) and turning her into a silent school girl looking down, and when Legge proudly recited a story about how he (together with someone else) destroyed a large number of records for some commercial reason, throwing the pieces into a lake, his wife looked up to him in radiant adulation, clearly very impressed by her husband’s heroism. It was obvious he was the only person on earth she was intimidated by. I thought this was totalitarian in nature, since the psychological dynamics were driven by ‘power’. Such women behave like males in the world and thus, their femininity – or whatever femininity has survived their masculinity – gets frustrated. The girl being powerful, and loving it, found someone who appeared to be more powerful and therefore she loved him and could allow herself to feminine surrendering to the male. It was all so openly demonstrated, and so very embarrassing.

        These kind of people have absorbed the 19C idea that artistic achievement liberates you from any other human obligation, and in this way art becomes a free haven for misbehavior and unpleasant characters.

    • Whatever his faults and, surely, they were many and major, Legge rescued Otto Klemperer from the ash-heap of history at a time when he seemed to have no future whatsoever. That in the last fifteen years of his life Klemperer was put in a position of finally being able to show consistently that he was one of the great conductors of the century was Legge’s doing and something for which all of us should be grateful. That eventually he turned on “the old man” in a pretty despicable way should not gainsay what he had done FOR him.

      • Also he rescued Karajan from his postwar hangover and denazification troubles, clearly not finding Karajan’s nazi sympathies any problem. Of course not: he was cut from the same block and could understand Karajan perfectly well.

        • Karajan did not have Nazi sympathies; he never showed much interest in politics as such. He might, however, be considered an opportunist ; on the other hand, he did have to pay the rent and buy food under the Nazi regime.

          • Yes, that is true. ‘Nazy sympathies’ may be too strong, but in the perspective of his power games during his entire following career and narcissistic personality cult, it is not difficult to see the closeness.

  • Ah, farewell concerts – my Dad tells me of taking my Mum to Ella Fitzgerald’s at the Palladium the year they married – 1953…

    • 1953 may possibly have been the last time Ella performed at the Palladium, butin no other sense could that have been a “farewell. She did not retire until 1993 and was only 36 in 1953. I saw her many times in NYC and Boston and at Newport in the 60’s and 70’s.

  • I have to say that my own experience with her in a London masterclass was positive; maybe she was kinder to tenors……… some of my lady colleagues in later masterclasses were less fortunate……

  • She slammed the phone down on Edward Rothstein (The New York Times) when he asked about her Nazi Party affiliation. What does that tell you?

  • In the world of X-factor the perception has developed that good artist must be nice people. If we don’t like them we vote them off the show. It may be important for ordinary Joes like Norman and me to be measured with the yardstick of ‘ordinary’ people and found to be “nice”, however while both Norman and me will die and be quickly forgotten about artists of the calibre of ES and Michael Jackson will go on to be cherished for many years to come, flawed personality and all. I, for one, would not be without her Countess Almaviva, Donna Elvira, Fiordiligi, Marschallin, roles she brought more meaning and understanding to, yeas and a lovely voice, than anybody since.

    • The attempts to live a good, and morally acceptable life, which are basic ingredients for civilization as a whole, are normal requirements for everybody, artists included. There are also lots of artists who are decent people. Where artists demonstrate abject character traits, this is often the result of the difficult territory they have to cross where professional and emotional pressures can be inhumanly high. The only excuse to be found with the types like ES or Karajan, is that they had to develop in chaotic and dangerous times and took-on the jungle mentality they thought would be the only way to survive artistically.

      Mr Jackson, by the way, was not an artist, but a pop musician giving pleasure to the masses. Just for the record.

    • Very interesting. This information confirms the explanation that artists in such times had to find a way to get through the jungle. ES’s fanaticism then, was driven by existential fear. More than enough of an excuse.

    • Opportunistic Nazi? As were Furtwangler, Von Karajan, and possibly Strauss? Fischer-Dieskau, I believe served in the German Army during the war. Not sure about that one. But yet it seems its always Schwarzkopf who is singled out. Her history with the Nazis is complicated as are the histories of most German and Austrians who thought they could make a life by just getting along. She always claimed her father lost his teaching position because he opposed the Nazis and he encouraged her to go along to compensate.

      • Fischer-Dieskau’s brother had profound special needs and like so many others was murdered in a Nazi institution.
        Fischer-Dieskau’s name does not deserve inclusion in this comment.

      • Furtwangler was not a Nazi. He was one of the few important German artists who refused to leave Germany, apparently feeling that it was more important to serve his art in his own country than to emigrate as so many did. He was not afraid to oppose Hitler to his face, even when the Fuhrer threatened to send him to a concentration camp–“If you did, I would be in very good company!” When a group of German conductors were taken to Paris and posed for a photograph in front of the Eiffel Tower, Furtwangler is the only one not giving the Nazi salute. I don’t know what Strauss’s feelings about the Nazis were, but one of his children was married to a Jew, which gave him a strong personal reason to be accomodating.

        I was fortunate enough to hear Schwartzkoph doing the Four Last Songs with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra at their Blossom Center summer home in 1969. The next night they performed five Mozart arias. And while there has been a considerable peppering of negative comment here about her character, about which I know nothing, no one seems to mind her singing.

  • Thank you Norman for including a link to the David Patrick Stearns blog: that and the comments thereafter told me more about about ES than one will ever learn from the kneejerks of the less knowlegeable.

  • ES first thirty years were certainly deplorable but after that she proved to be a great artist and a great professionnal. I just heard her live once in early 1974. Se had broke a leg a few days before and at 58 sang, seated, a long and superb Liederabend.

  • I am a proponent of not speaking ill of the dead. We are now made very clear of her unpleasant nature and passive corroboration, like so many central Europeans of the time. Let it pass, and hope that our colleagues learn to be kind and supportive to young musicians. I should imagine there was little of that going around when she did her training.

  • Who cares if she was an unpleasant, opportunistic person. So many great artists of the past were self-centred and nasty. IMO right now it’s her recorded legacy that counts, more than anything else…and that legacy is fabulous.

  • Leichenfledderei…
    It is too easy to voice moral judgement from the safe armchair of a democracy about those who live and(!) are culturally rooted in a country that falls under a totalitarian rule. If you never lived in such a totalitarian system you should think twice, if you actually have the moral competence and experience to judge.
    It’s a safe bet that about 99% of those who claim the moral highground, are hypocrites and would have been just as opportunistic, had they actually to make a living or even pursue an artistic carreer in such a country.

      • Fully agree. Europe and the US (Le Pen and Trump, to name only two demagogues, saying what many feel and think) experience a dangerous revival of fascism becoming salonfaehig. Who knows, we may ourselves soon experience what it means to keep a semblance of normal life under fascism and political violence.

      • Again you are making a judgement you are not qualified to make. Because you claim definitive knowledge about what “surviving as a normal person” entails, while in fact you have no idea. I’m not defending ES or any of the other musicians that were arranging their professional ambitions – now is that part of living a “normal live” as you say or not? – around the Nazi tyranny, but I cause everyone to be more cautious, because most people’s judgement is unqualified, due to lack of real world experience.

        Personally I think we ought to apply the rules of law to anyone. Was there a crime committed, theses people need to be punished by the appropriate legal process.
        If not, they deserve the freedom to live like anyone else. Even more so post mortem.
        The concept of throwing dirt at anyone you simply despise for political leanings in the past, is a low character treat in humans.

  • The mezzo soprano Nancy Evans was married to Walter Legge. Presumably he replaced her with Elisabeth Schwartzkopf. Luckily, Nancy went on to marry Eric Crozier, Britten’s librettist, so Nancy formed a close association with Britten, sang in some of his operas and had “A Charm of Lullabies” dedicated to her by Britten.

  • I cannot forget two typical Schwarzkopf scenes, occurred during some of her Zurich Opera Studio masterclasses: To a very talented Italian baritone she shouted: “What?? Do you really want to become a singer? With your voice I would immediately go home and open a restaurant or a garage!”. And to an equally talented soprano: “How do you want to become a singer when you are not even able to speak with your normal voice?”. Both left the audience in tears… Schwarzkopf was excellent as a stylistic teacher, but had no real ideas about technical singing mechanisms.
    By the way, after having lost her husband, Mirelly Freni has become a similarly severe “master-class dragon”. Before that, she was such a wonderful, quite and witty person.

    • Maybe the loss of performance practice, making-up so much of their identity, turns these women into frustrated, angry witches working-off their bitterness with the whip wherever they can.

      Aging and loss can be dealt with so differently. When in my twenites I attended a piano master class at the Salzburg Mozarteum with Carlo Zecchi, a brilliant but old pianist, who no longer played, and – due to a car accident – had to slowly walk with two crutches. And he was so enthusiastic, bubbling with esprit, inspiring, and even the worst students were carried aloft by his musical energy. His Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were a revelation. He obviously much enjoyed to demonstrate and discuss music, and seemed to find it entirely fulfilling. (His secretary, managing the playing schedule, was an intimidating and difficult matrone, exercizing all the primadonna manners Zecchi lacked.)

  • Joining the party already in 1933 seems to have to do more with certain unsavoury convictions than saving one’s own skin, and that can and should be mentioned.

  • I still LOVE listening to Kathleen Battle even after hearing what an unpleasant diva she was. Such a breathtaking voice! Schwartzkopf still impresses me as an artist even though she was not Debbie Voigt offstage. Everyone loves Debbie even though the voice is a shadow of it’s former glory. I must confess I sort of enjoy reading all the dishy stories about ES. It is my only failing, I’m sure;-)

  • I always thought that Schwartzkopf was a German Jewish name. My understanding was that Jews were often given names with unflattering meanings.

    • I am unaware of her having recorded the Four Last Songs with Klemperer. So far as I know, she recorded them twice with, respectively, Ackermann and Szell.

      • Which brings up the old chestnut: Which of the two is the ‘better’ performance/interpretation? I love the Ackermann – so fresh, the voice much younger, the tempi less funereal. But thank heavens we have both!

  • Revisionism? Where?

    Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was one of the greatest artist of 20th century alongside Maria Callas, Leonard Bernstein, Kirsten Flagstad, Furtwängler, Birgit Nilsson, etc. No one is trying to revise what is a fact.

    Regarding to her Nazi membership (only that, she wasn’t an officer or a delegate) you should FEEL privileged for living in good times and above all in a country that never elected a facist as a PM. Unfortunately, others countries such as Portugal, Spain or Italy can’t say the same. You don’t know what is living under these regimes!

    Would you prefer Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf had lived in penitence for the rest of her live because she as a young girl was stupidly a member with a card and losing a great singer?

    There is one thing we should learn when we are in this world and is forgiveness! She didn’t killed anyone, she wasn’t responsible for mass murder? She was only and I think with of shame deep in her heart a Nazi member when the things might force her to be!

    Long live her legacy on recordings which makes a lot of people happy and more humans.

    • Maybe one could say that her art was a form of atonement, like Strauss’ Four Last Songs, and not only for herself but for a culture which collaborated with barbarism.

      • “…for a culture which collaborated with barbarism.”

        This is a flawed way of thinking. “A culture” is usually way above of what at a given point in time the majority of a population accepts as the apparent lesser evil in an election. (e.g. Germany in 1932)
        So “the culture” did not collaborate with anyone, simply because most of it was defined by people who at that point in time were dead for quite some time.
        It’s the – living – people you can blame, not their traded culture.

        Also at the end of the day, one could blame British revisionism and Imperialism just as much for the rise of Hitler, as the Germans themselves, since without the British extreme subjugation of future Germany after WW1 in the Versaille treaty, most likely the people of Germany would have been less receptive to demagogues like Hitler.

  • She and Christa Ludwig were invited to do Masterclass in Israel (A friend of mine was there as a student). Thanks God there are still people seperate ‘Wheat and Tares’ when comes to accuse someone of silly acts in their youth.

      • A friend of mine who was a student in 80s told me that the two of them were in Tel Aviv for a Masterclass and my friend choose the session with C. Ludwig because she is a mezzo. Further then this I don’t know.

        The important is not if Dame Elisabeth Schwarzopf was persona non grata or welcome in Israel!. The point is that she was a great artist who left a legacy so important for the classical music that you and I are culturally rich by it.

  • She created Orff’s Trionfo di Afrodite, I believe. There were also some others. Rake’s Progress is the most famous.

  • From the way the article is worded one might be led to think she was the Kommandant’s wife at Auschwitz. Hardly. She was a very great soprano with a lovely voice. To paraphrase Dr. McCoy from Star Trek, “She’s DEAD, Norm.”

      • Don’t we have enough current problems in the world? Do we really have to draw her into the “dreck”? It is now 2015, the Nazi era ended 70 years ago. Give it (and her) some rest.

    • Eric….you said it best. You would think N. L. would have better things to do than trash Elisabeth Schwazkopf every chance he gets. He never seems to have anything nice to say about her…like ever!

      This wonderful, talented and beautiful singer, who worked so hard, is gone now, and she has left millions countless hours of pleasure by way of her records, discs and DVD’s.
      Hey, give her a break, OK? I was taught at an early age “I you cant say something nice, don’t say anything at all” Pity Norman Lebrecht never learned that lesson..

  • One of the greatest singers ever.

    An opportunistic, enthusiastic and eventually unrepentant Nazi.

    An incompetent teacher or so it seems from what I was able to witness a few times in the Wigmore Hall.

    Personal evil and artistic loveliness are impossible to reconcile – a very old dilemma.

  • Having been blessed in actively participating in a masterclass with Madame Schwartzkopf I will have to disagree with many commentators. She was merciless with most as she demanded from everyone else the same total dedications of the art as she had offered. Once she would sense this commitment she was “there” sharing her most precious secrets with the young. A Pool of generosity available also for off-duty advice on human matters.
    As for her political past…. Nazi Germany was not issuing travel documents to artists. Most of them were trapped within the confines of a country ruled by one of the most severe dictatorships in history. Kirsten Flagstad left the Metropolitan Opera to become reunited with her children in Nazi occupied Norway. Did that make her a Nazi? Today s sensationalism is another form of dictatorship.

  • I worked with her in the 1990s at Abbey Road Studios (Der Rosenkavalier re-issue in mono). She was a lovely lady to work with (despite the incessant ‘revelations’ about her Nazi past that were circulating in the press that week, which might have made things difficult, but they didn’t.) She was so proud to sit with me at dinner in the canteen and then join everyone else in taking her finished tray and dirty dishes to be washed up. She politely refused my help. I am not convinced that she particularly enjoyed the bowing and kissing of her hand that some of the press offered. I behaved in a completely ordinary way with her and we got along so well…kindness, happiness and even laughter – not what I had been led to believe. She sat in the studio with me, handbag clutched on her lap, lecturing me on how Walter and Herbert wanted the Der Rosenkavalier to sound and she conducted along with Karajan and often quietly sang as we played through the tapes and remarked on the score. She said her voice sounded ‘stark’ and vivid (not compliments I feel) and she wanted some love and warmth put back into the sound. ‘This is how they would have wanted it’ and so I slightly dampened the sound. We discussed speakers and new technology a great deal and the benefits of the full frequency that can now be obtained and we often disagreed but all with great charm and understanding. She was very respectful of my opinions, although I was only in my twenties and she was in her eighties. One day I asked her for the record that she felt best reflected her voice and that she was happy to leave as her legacy. She told me it was Danny Boy with the beautiful accompaniment, played by Gerald Moore. It does have a certain loveliness…particularly the end…. Having worked with her on several occassions I cannot imagine her being anything but fair at her masterclasses. She was the severest critic of herself – that was obivous. Selecting Danny Boy as the only record she was happy with is interesting and remains a puzzle to me…. I love the record and I smile when its played as it reminds me of my time with her.

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