Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who died on Thursday aged 90, was among the pre-eminent sopranos of
the 20th century. As one of a select group of imporant singers who emerged immediately after the second world war – the
others included Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Tito Gobbi and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (who alone survives her) – she is destined to enjoy a lasting fame, thanks to the advent of long-
playing recordings in the 1950s and the extent to which their careers have been preserved for posterity.
In Schwarzkopf’s case the large number and high quality of her recordings is no accident. In 1946, she met Walter Legge, the British record producer who was to dominate the classical recording industry until the mid-1960s. At her audition Legge reputedly kept her repeating a single phrase from a Wolf song for an hour and a half, and his fearsome demand for perfection was to help mould Schwarzkopf into an artist dedicated to the highest standards and with a special feeling for the kind of musical detail that might repay hours of repeated listening on record.
The couple married in 1953 and Schwarzkopf went on to record the best of her repertoire in the company of the leading performers of the day: Mozart’s three Da Ponte comedies, Verdi’s Falstaff, the Countess in Strauss’s Capriccio and her signature role as the Marschallin in his Der Rosenkavalier, together with many recordings devoted to the great German Lieder tradition of Schubert, Schumann and Wolf. Some people found her singing arch, the product of a too self-aware artist. The depth of her understanding was never in question.
Olga Maria Elisabeth Friederike Schwarzkopf was born near Poznan on December 9 1915.
The highly educated daughter of a classics master, she studied
at the Berlin Hochschüle fur Musik and made her stage debut at the Städtische Oper in 1938 as a flower-maiden in Parsifal. A pupil of Maria Ivogün, she gave her recital debut in Berlin in
1942 and first sang at the Vienna State Opera, as Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, in the same year. Her alleged involvement with the Nazi
party through this period, still a source of dispute today, meant that she was fortunate to pick up her career so quickly when the war ended.
Invited to join the fledgling Covent Garden opera company in London, she remained with it for five seasons, singing all her roles in English. From 1947 she sang annually at the Salzburg Festival until 1964. In 1951 she created the role of Anne Trulove in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. But it was her singing of Lieder that set her apart and, after she retired from opera in 1972, she kept her husband happy by remaining active on the recital platform, giving uniquely intense and communicative performances of her beloved Wolf songs despite her declining vocal resources. After Legge’s death in 1979 her master classes perpetuated his perfectionist methods, reducing some student singers to despair.
To the general public Schwarzkopf may be best remembered for her radio appearance as the guest on Desert Island Discs when she picked seven of her own recordings out of the eight allowed. But perhaps she was not being so cheeky: her two recordings of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, arguably her finest achievement on disc, continue to be among the programme’s regular requests.