Much is written in the obituaries about Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's contribution
to music in general, but less about her importance in Lieder. Indeed,
Schwarzkopf's most fundamental legacy may be the way she changed the art
of song and expanded song repertoire.
It's no coincidence that Schwarzkopf's husband, Walter Legge, was a
champion oif the songs of Hugo Wolf. For Wolf, song ennobled itself by
association with great poetry. The Wolf aesthetic focussed on textual
understanding, and on an appreciating of how the nuances of musical
setting enhanced expression of feeling. Wagner's ideal, that art should
elevate the human spirit, reached a kind of apotheosis in Wolf's music.
Performers couldn't merely vocalise: they had to understand their material
intimately, to to absorb its meaning until it resonated in their own
Legge was instrumental in organising the first recordings of Wolf's
songs. He sought out the greatest German and Austrian singers of the
1930's and persuaded them to sing Wolf in the spirit the composer had
wanted so dearly. It was a labour of love, for Legge had to organise
everything from scratch, even to the extent of coaching the singers,
supervising the recording and raising funds by international subscription.
As soon as possible after the end of the Second World War, Legge was in
Austria, searching for singers who appreciated his approach. He and
Schwarzkopf were a perfect musical match. Schwarzkopf's voice was light
and flexible enough for the delicacy of
Wolf's settings, but she also had the intelligence to understand the
mental and emotional challenge of the poetry and music. Legge was
the researcher, the organiser, the man who recorded and made the music
avaliable outside the relatively small art song circles of the German
speaking world. In Schwarzkopf, he found a singer who could instinctively
interpret his ideals. It was Legge and Schwarzkopf who pioneered an
intensely intuitive, literate approach to Lieder. Our expectations now
are that art song should be thought through and deeply felt. It is a
far cry from the concept of coloratura effects and vocal gymnastics for
their own sake. Schwarzkopf was to tell her students, to understand
what they were singing "from within", and only sing when they had absorbed
what the music expressed.
Just as Legge and Schwarzkopf brought Wolf's music into the mainstream
outside the German speaking world, they promoted other composers whose
work was relatively underappreciated at the time. Although Mahler wrote
little for high soprano, Schwarzkopf saw the potential in Mahler's Lieder.
Her recording of Des Knaben Wunderhorn with Szell and Fischer-Dieskau
was the biggest selling Mahler recording of its time, and brought many
to the composer, including myself, then in my early teens. Schwarzkopf
also ventured beyond the Austro-Germanic repertoire, singing Grieg and
even Sibelius' difficult masterpiece, Luonnotar. Her fondness for
humorous song, too, is underrated. Her Loewe, for example, shows a side
to her personality few appreciate.
And, of course, there is her Strauss Vier letzte Lieder recordings are
immortal. This was "new music" when it came her way. She wasn't the
dedicatee or first singer, but her performance with Ackermann was so
exquisite and so original that it made the songs into instant classics.
To this day, it's impossible toi think of these songs without acknowledging
Schwarzkopf's seminal contribution.
Until recordings became widely available, the norm in recitals was
for programmes that combined arias, songs and even extracts of oratorio.
The aim was to showcase a singer's range and talents. For Legge and
Schwarzkopf, however, the purpose of recitals was to develop deeper
understanding of particular styles and idioms. Programmes based around
single composers, or concepts, made such intense focus possible. Far
from being a self centred diva, Schwarzkopf's primary aim was to bring
greater attention to the composer, rather than the singer. This sort
of intellectual and musiclly informed programming is now fairly standard
practice. We take it for granted, but it wasn't always so.
Schwarzkopf recognised the talent of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau from very
early on. She nurtured him, introducing him to influential people such
as Gerald Moore. Although she was more experienced and better known,
she treated him as an equal, respecting his considerable input into their
creative partnership. Their recordings together are some of their finest
work. Their version of Wolf's Italian Liederbook is outstanding.
Especially on the internet, Schwarzkopf attracted extreme hatred,
often beyond rational standards. But among people who are familiar
with her work, and even more so among those with real musical and personal
experience, she was accorded much respect. From a film in which she was
shown berating a student in a masterclass, she gained the reputation of
being a martinet. She had trained that way too, in more rigorous times,
and Legge was a notorious perfectionist. However, with real students,
as opposed to those in masterclasses, she was, by many accounts, an
inspiring teacher. No matter how much she expected of others, no one
was more driven than herself. It was the pursuit of excellence that
motivated her, and she never rested on her laurels or lowered her aims.
She did not suffer fools. When she detected a student's willingness
to achieve the same high standards, she would give her all. She earned
intense loyalty from many, for she encouraged thir individuality:
understanding from "within" makes that almost mandatory. Above all,
she believed in artistic integrity: on that she did not compromise.
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