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Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Dies at 90

By Vivien Schweitzer
03 Aug 2006

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in a famous image as the Marschallin in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier.
photo by Fayer/EMI Classics

The legendary soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf died early this morning at age 90, report Austrian state broadcaster ORF and the Associated Press.

Schwarzkopf, who excelled in both lieder and opera, was widely regarded in the music world as one of the last century's great vocal artists. Her signature roles include the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro. In 1951 she sang Anne Trulove in the world premiere of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, which became another signature role.

Schwarzkopf was born in Jarotschin, Germany (now Jarocin, Poland). According to the AP, her first voice teacher wrongly labeled her a contralto, until her mother recognized the mistake and the imminent danger to her voice and made her switch teachers.

Schwarzkopf trained in Berlin at the Hochschule für Musik and made her debut at the Berlin State Opera in 1938 as one of the Flower Maidens in Parsifal. Two years later she was singing prominent roles at the company, including Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. In 1944 she became principal soprano of the Vienna State Opera.

She made her Carnegie Hall debut, her first U.S. appearance, in 1953, and her U.S. operatic debut with the San Francisco Opera in 1955. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1964 as the Marschallin, the only complete role she sang there; she also performed at La Scala in Milan and the Royal Opera House in London.

In 1953, she married Walter Legge, artistic director of EMI Records and a founder of the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra. The marriage lasted until his death in 1979, shortly after which she published his memoirs: Walter Legge: On and Off the Record. She made many recordings for the label, the most admired of which are her two versions (1953 and 1965) of Strauss's Four Last Songs. (Her most notorious recording is Furtwängler's 1952 version of Tristan und Isolde starring Kirsten Flagstad, for which Schwarzkopf dubbed in the high Cs Flagstad was no longer able to hit.) Today she remains one of EMI's best-selling classical artists.

Schwarzkopf retired in 1975. Not long afterwards, she admitted having applied to join the Nazi Party in 1939, an issue which was to remain controversial for the rest of her life. According to the AP, she said it was "akin to joining a union" and claimed that she had to do it to preserve her singing career under Hitler's regime.

For years after her retirement, she was in great demand as a teacher for both private instruction and master classes. (Perhaps most successful of her former pupils is the American baritone Thomas Hampson, reportedly one of the very few non-native speakers of German of whose diction she approved.) She was notoriously exacting and could be quite cruel to students. But she was equally demanding of herself. The Guardian of London quotes her longtime recital pianist, Gerald Moore, describing her as "the most cruelly self-critical person imaginable."

The Guardian also quotes Edward Greenfield, its music critic emeritus, as saying, "She was one of the very greatest of all singers. She combined every quality you wanted in a great soprano. What made her so special was the unique timbre of her voice and her unique responsiveness to words, particularly German — together with her great charisma and beauty. She was a wonderful actress."

She died at her home in the western Austrian town of Schruns, near the German border, at around 1:15 am, according to ORF. No cause of death was given.




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