Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

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Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, DBE (9 December 1915 – 3 August 2006) was a German-born Austrian/British soprano opera singer and recitalist. She was among the most renowned classical singers of the 20th century, much admired for her performances of Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, and Wolf.

Early life[edit]

Olga Maria Elisabeth Friederike Schwarzkopf was born in Jarotschin in the Province of Posen in Prussia (today Poland) to Friedrich Schwarzkopf and his wife, Elisabeth (née Fröhlich). Schwarzkopf showed an interest in music from an early age. She performed in her first opera in 1928, as Eurydice in a school production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice in Magdeburg, Germany. In 1934, Schwarzkopf began her musical studies at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik.[citation needed]

However at the suggestion of the baritone Karl Schmitt-Walter, she switched teachers and started working with the coloratura soprano Maria Ivogün as well as with Ivogün's husband, the pianist Michael Raucheisen. Ivogün's advice to her new pupil was, "Be noble, my child!"[citation needed]

Early career[edit]

In 1933, shortly after the Nazis came to power, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's father, a local school headmaster, was dismissed from his position by the new ruling authorities for having refused to allow a Nazi party meeting at his school. He was also banned from taking any new teaching post. Until Friedrich Schwarzkopf's dismissal, the probability was that the 17-year-old Elisabeth would have studied medicine after passing her Abitur; but now, as the daughter of a banned schoolteacher, she was not allowed to enter university and she commenced music studies at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. Schwarzkopf made her professional debut at the Deutsche Oper Berlin (then called Deutsches Opernhaus) on 15 April 1938, as the Second Flower Maiden (First Group) in act 2 of Richard Wagner's Parsifal. In 1940 Schwarzkopf was awarded a full contract with the Deutsches Opernhaus, a condition of which was that she had to join the Nazi party.[1]

Since the theme was brought up in the dissertation of the Austrian historian Oliver Rathkolb in 1982, the discussion of Schwarzkopf's relationship with the Nazi Party has been discussed repeatedly in the media and in literature. There was criticism that Schwarzkopf, not only in the years immediately after the war but also in confrontation with revelations made in the 1980s and 1990s made contradictory statements, including in regard to her membership in the NSDAP (Member No. 7,548,960). At first, she denied this and then with varying explanations defended it.[citation needed] In one version, for example, she claimed that she joined the party only at the insistence of her father who, himself, had earlier lost his position as school principal after forbidding a Nazi program in the school.[2]

Further publications discussed her musical performances during the war before Nazi party conferences and for units of the Waffen-SS.[2] Her defenders argue in favor of her claim that she always strictly separated art from politics and that she was a non-political person.[3]

In 1942, she was invited to sing with the Vienna State Opera, where her roles included Konstanze in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Musetta and later Mimì in Puccini's La bohème and Violetta in Verdi's La traviata.

Post-war career[edit]

Schwarzkopf as Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni

In 1945, Schwarzkopf was granted Austrian citizenship to enable her to sing in the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper).[citation needed] In 1947 and 1948, Schwarzkopf appeared on tour with the Vienna State Opera at London's Royal Opera House at Covent Garden on 16 September 1947 as Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni and at La Scala on 28 December 1948, as the Countess in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which became one of her signature roles.

Schwarzkopf later made her official debut at the Royal Opera House on 16 January 1948, as Pamina in Mozart's The Magic Flute, in performances sung in English, and at La Scala on 29 June 1950 singing Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. Schwarzkopf's association with the Milanese house in the early 1950s gave her the opportunity to sing certain roles on stage for the only time in her career: Mélisande in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, Jole in Handel's Eracle, Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, Elsa in Wagner's Lohengrin, as well as her first Marschallin in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier and her first Fiordiligi in Mozart's Così fan tutte at the Piccola Scala. On 11 September 1951, she appeared as Anne Trulove in the world premiere of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. Schwarzkopf made her American debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on October 28 and 29, 1954, in Strauss's Four Last Songs and the closing scene from Capriccio with Fritz Reiner conducting; her American opera debut was with the San Francisco Opera on 20 September 1955 as the Marschallin, and her debut at the Metropolitan Opera on 19 December 1964, also as the Marschallin.

In March 1946, Schwarzkopf was invited to audition for Walter Legge, an influential British classical record producer and a founder of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Legge asked her to sing Hugo Wolf's lied Wer rief dich denn? and, impressed, signed her to an exclusive contract with EMI. They began a close partnership and Legge subsequently became Schwarzkopf's manager and companion. They were married on 19 October 1953 in Epsom, Surrey; Schwarzkopf thus acquired British citizenship by marriage. Schwarzkopf would divide her time between lieder recitals and opera performances for the rest of her career. When invited in 1958 to select her eight favourite records on the BBC's Desert Island Discs, Schwarzkopf chose seven of her own recordings,[4] and an eighth of Karajan conducting the Rosenkavalier prelude, as they evoked fond memories of the people she had worked with.[5][6][7][8]

Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier

In the 1960s, Schwarzkopf concentrated nearly exclusively on five operatic roles: Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Countess Madeleine in Strauss's Capriccio, and the Marschallin. She also was well received as Alice Ford in Verdi's Falstaff. However, on the EMI label she made several "champagne operetta" recordings like Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow and Johann Strauss II's The Gypsy Baron.

Schwarzkopf's last operatic performance was as the Marschallin on 31 December 1971, in the theatre of La Monnaie in Brussels. For the next several years, she devoted herself exclusively to lieder recitals. On 17 March 1979, Walter Legge suffered a severe heart attack. He disregarded doctor's orders to rest and attended Schwarzkopf's final recital two days later in Zurich. Three days later, he died.

After retiring (almost immediately after her husband's death), Schwarzkopf taught and gave master classes around the world, notably at the Juilliard School in New York City. After living in Switzerland for many years, she took up residence in Austria. She was made a doctor of music by the University of Cambridge in 1976, and became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1992.[9]

Schwarzkopf died in her sleep during the night of 2–3 August 2006 at her home in Schruns, Vorarlberg, Austria, aged 90. Immediately following her death, an urban myth resurfaced: that she was an aunt of American general Norman Schwarzkopf. This myth was published in several obituaries.[10] However, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was an only child, and thus had no nieces or nephews.


She leaves a discography that is considerable both in quality and in quantity and will be mostly remembered for her Mozart and Richard Strauss operatic portrayals, her two commercial recordings of Strauss's Four Last Songs, and her countless recordings of lieder, especially those of Wolf.

The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf/Walter Legge Society, chaired by Dr Daphne Kerslake, continues to keep her name alive.[citation needed]



  • (After being asked about Peter Sellars) "There are names I do not want mentioned in my home. Do not say that name in my presence. I have seen what he has done, and it is criminal. As my husband used to say, so far no one has dared go into the Louvre Museum to spray graffiti on the Mona Lisa, but some opera directors are spraying graffiti over masterpieces." – Newsweek interview, 15 October 1990
  • "Many composers today don't know what the human throat is. At Bloomington, Indiana, I was invited to listen to music written in quarter tones for four harps and voices. I had to go out to be sick." – Newsweek interview, 15 October 1990


Recordings include the following.






Johann Strauss II

Richard Strauss


Richard Wagner


She can be seen in two videotaped performances as the Marschallin:

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Pick, Hella (2000). Guilty Victim: Austria from the Holocaust to Haider. p. 89. ISBN 978-1860646188. Schwarzkopf who justified Party membership as a passport to performance 
  2. ^ a b Bernstein, Adam (August 4, 2006). "Renowned Coloratura Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, 90". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 4, 2015. 
  3. ^ Tagliabue, John (March 17, 1983). "Germans Explore Ties of Musicians of Nazis". The New York Times. 
  4. ^ "BBC Radio 4 - Desert Island Discs, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf". Bbc.co.uk. 1958-07-28. Retrieved 2012-11-06. 
  5. ^ Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Alan Jefferson (1996). "In any case, this famous Desert Island Discs broadcast has gone down in legend, immediately identifying Schwarzkopf for many who had never previously heard of her."
  6. ^ Gramophone, vol. 83 (2006). "1958 Appears on Desert Island Discs and raises eyebrows by ..."
  7. ^ Gramophone, vol. 83 (2005), Letters. "Schwarzkopf's Desert Island Discs Talk has come up again of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and her Desert Island Discs broadcast in 1958 [and recently repeated on Radio 3] with her unique choice of seven of her ..."
  8. ^ Prima donna: a history, Rupert Christiansen (1995). "It made Schwarzkopf into a uniquely self-conscious interpreter: it was perfectly natural to her that when asked on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs to select eight recordings to be shipwrecked with, she should choose only her ..."
  9. ^ "Viewing Page 7 of Issue 52767". London-gazette.co.uk. 1991-12-30. Retrieved 2012-11-06. 
  10. ^ This urban myth was included in, for example, William J. Kole Famed Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Dies at the Wayback Machine (archived May 3, 2007), Associated Press obituary via Forbes, 3 August 2006, Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf dead at 90 (MSNBC based on AP wire) and Tom Huizenga, Soprano Schwarzkopf Dies at 90 (link to audio), National Public Radio, 3 August 2006.
  11. ^ "Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)". Gramophone. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Jefferson, Alan Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Northeastern University Press (August 1996) ISBN 1-55553-272-1 Chapter One extract
  • Legge, Walter; postscript by Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth; ed. Sanders, Alan Walter Legge: Words and Music Routledge (1998) ISBN 0-415-92108-2
  • Liese, Kirsten, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. From Flower Maiden To Marschallin. English translation: Charles Scribner. Molden, Vienna 2007. ISBN 978-3-85485-218-6
  • Liese, Kirsten, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. From Flower Maiden To Marschallin. English translation: Charles Scribner. Amadeus Press, New York, 2009. ISBN 978-1-57467-175-9
  • Sanders, Alan The Schwarzkopf Tapes: An artist replies to a hostile biography Classical Recordings Quarterly and The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf/Walter Legge Society, (2010) ISBN 978-0-9567361-0-9
  • Sanders, Alan and Steane, John B Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: A Career on Record Amadeus Pr (January 1996) ISBN 0-931340-99-3
  • Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Les autres soirs Tallandier (August 16, 2004) ISBN 2-84734-068-8
  • Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth On and Off the Record: A Memoir of Walter Legge Faber and Faber Ltd (December 31, 1982) ISBN 0-571-11928-X; Scribner (March 1982) ISBN 0-684-17451-0; (paperback) ISBN 0-571-14912-X; University of British Columbia Press (January 1, 2002) ISBN 1-55553-519-4

External links[edit]