Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

One of the great sopranos of the 20th century, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, died in her sleep at her home in Schruns, Austria, on August 3, at the age of 90. The myriad ways in which she employed her remarkably expressive, silvery soprano gave rise to as much admiration and respect as her penchant for incessant nuance, along with her Nazi past, generated controversy.

The rise of Schwarzkopf's international career has become synonymous with the ascendance of the long-playing record. In 1946, she was invited to audition for Walter Legge, founder of the Philharmonia Orchestra and the EMI producer responsible for recording not only Schwarzkopf, but also Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Maria Callas, and a host of other greats. Her marriage to Legge in 1953 ensured that Schwarzkopf would record most of her core repertoire, usually with the finest conductors and accompanists of the era, while still in her prime.

Schwarzkopf's immediately identifiable voice has become indelibly associated with the music of Mozart and Strauss. A survey of her complete Mozart opera recordings, including the multiple studio and live versions of Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte, and Die Zauberflöte, conducted by, variously, Karajan, Furtwängler, Giulini, and Böhm, shows her excelling in the passionate, emotionally conflicted roles of Dorabella, Countess Almaviva, and Donna Elvira. Her Countess was supremely poised and evocative, while her Donna Elvira became legendary as the epitome of romantic hysteria.

No other singer has demonstrated such a remarkable ability to summon up the fire, fragility, and distraction that, together with a whirling vibrato, characterize Donna Elvira's love/hate relationship with the rogue Don Giovanni, who seduces her into marriage, then immediately dumps her to pursue other conquests. Listening to Schwarzkopf's three remarkable recorded portrayals of the role, twice at Salzburg with the Vienna Philharmonic under Furtwängler (1950 and 1953), then in the studio with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Giulini (1959), deepens regret that she opted out of Furtwängler's 1954 film of Don Giovanni, to be replaced by an unquestionably expressive but not nearly as crazed Lisa della Casa.

In the music of Richard Strauss, Schwarzkopf's mature, worldly-wise Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (see photo), along with her two studio recordings of the composer's Four Last Songs, continue to serve as the benchmarks by which most other interpretations are judged. Her Marschallin was not only captured in full in the studio and on film with an exceptional cast supported by a radiant Philharmonia Orchestra under Karajan, but also in a black-and-white film of the Marschallin's Monologue with the Philharmonia under Charles Mackerras (1961). The latter shows Schwartzkopf in superb command of her instrument, her physical beauty (at least from the neck up) enhancing a portrayal so evocative that it seems as though the Marschallin's every note arises out of her emotional response to the aging process.

As for the Four Last Songs, whose soaring lines first embrace life to the fullest, then bid it farewell, no other singer on record has yet managed to incorporate Schwarzkopf's virtually orgasmic buildup of tension and release. While the 1953 mono version, under Otto Ackermann, finds her in freshest voice, the extra wealth of nuance and better sound that distinguish the 1966 stereo version with George Szell tip the scale for many. It is remarkable to discover how often she changes tempos, sometimes in mid-song, and how she can maintain the intimate expressiveness of a lieder singer in her highest range.

The songs of Mozart, Schubert, Wolf, Strauss, and others benefited from Schwarzkopf's freedom to modulate her voice from profound exclamation to a mere sliver of silvery sound. Equally memorable was her ability (in her prime) to effortlessly spin out radiant head tones. The finer one's sound system, the more one can hear the remarkable range of color she employed in her never-ending quest to ally musical expression with emotional import.

As she would later do with some of her most tortured students in master classes, Schwarzkopf, with Legge, sometimes spent an hour or more on a single word or phrase, perfecting the exact timbre, vowel sound, timing, and dynamic nuance with which to express the composer and poet's meaning. Especially in the later years, when her sound became more covered, this resulted in performances that seemed disturbingly mannered, even arch. In a song about a wounded heart, for example, one could search in vain for a genuine sense of pain, only to encounter an overactive mind dictating how to sound perfectly pained. But just when one is tempted to scream, "Can't you just leave the music alone and sing!" one turns to Schwarzkopf's soprano solo in the irreplaceable 1961 recording of Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem under Klemperer and encounters such angelic, heaven-sent sounds as to inspire gratitude and forgiveness.

Forgiving Schwarzkopf's Nazi past presents a greater challenge. Alan Jefferson, Michael H. Kater, and other writers have detailed how, in 1935, at age 19, she became Führerin (female leader) of the Nazi Party's student organization and was responsible for keeping an eye on other students. Three years later, she applied for party membership. Later, she became a member of Josef Goebbels' Reichstheaterkammer, worked in the propaganda ministry, and starred in several films that Edward Rothstein, of the New York Times, describes as "cheesecakey." Knowing this, or hearing the unconfirmed rumors that I encountered as an impressionable teenager that Schwarzkopf was also Goebbels' mistress, makes it impossible to listen to the opening aria of her wild, idiosyncratic rendition of J.S. Bach's technically imposing Cantata 51 for solo soprano, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!, without imagining the entire German army advancing in goose-step on God's almighty kingdom. No wonder Pacifica Radio station WBAI-FM, in New York City, long refused to broadcast her recordings, and the Metropolitan Opera did not allow her to sing there until 1964.

Schwarzkopf at first denied her party affiliation, then dismissed it as no more significant than belonging to a labor union. Perhaps because she was a woman and a stand-alone artist like Callas—with whom she shared a bristling, oft-contrary (to put it mildly) personality—she has become the recipient of far more intense scrutiny and scorn than Karajan, Knappertsbusch, Webern, and fistfuls of other German and Austrian musicians and composers of the Nazi era. How many of her judges have yet to turn the mirror on themselves and acknowledge how they have rationalized racism, anti-Semitism, or homophobia?

In the end, thanks to recordings, Schwarzkopf's voice remains with us. Her sheer beauty of sound and clarity of intention transcend words and rhetoric, validating the power of great art. For many, ich habe genug.