A Pilgrimage to Schruns : Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at
Monday, 30 January 2006
morning I landed in Paris en route to Zürich, the first airborne leg of my
pilgrimage to Schruns in Vorarlberg, Austria, to visit Dame Elisabeth
Schwarzkopf. She has lived in Schruns
these past three years, under a glistening tiara of snow-capped Alps, ever
since moving from her house in Zumikon, outside Zürich. I had hoped to time my visit to celebrate
her ninetieth birthday last month, but a family obligation drew me westward to
the Rockies when I wanted to soar like Strauss orchestrations through the Alps.
now I finally arrive on the heels of Mozart’s 250th birthday, his bicenquinquagenary, a term I discovered at a Princeton celebration
a decade ago. Mozart was born in the
year that Nassau Hall—the center of the Princeton campus—was completed.
I digress. I blame not only jet lag but
the immediate surroundings. I am sitting
in an old inn called the Hemingway beside the village church of St. Jodok, so
refreshing in its sorbet hues and beckoning with its confectionery onion dome
atop the bell tower. It’s a blessedly
short stroll through snowy streets to my hotel, the Zimba, a few houses down
from Schwarzkopf’s flat on the Veltlinerweg.
It’s all within a stone’s throw of the train station, where I was
thrilled to arrive at the end of the Montafonerbahn.
Back home, I had boasted that getting here
would take two planes and four trains. I
had miscalculated: the total of trains numbered six—a daunting itinerary to
decipher. But I made it—one train at a
time, and lots of frantic interviews in between. When in early stages of
apprehension I reached Elisabeth via cell phone I confessed that I felt like
Tannhäuser setting off on his Roman pilgrimage.
She directed me to raise my sights and look up
at the mountains—pitch-perfect advice.
Our Rockies cannot compete; these Alps take the gold. As the train
passed alongside a lake outside Zürich, the fine mist rising from frigid water
cast the magnificent mountain backdrop in a gray-slate haze, a Romantic veil
that mirrored a Caspar David Friedrich landscape. Oscar Wilde was right: art doesn’t imitate
nature; nature imitates art.
I have never
written more than a postcard in a restaurant.
But Hemingway’s has a long wooden table with no one else at it; I might
as well be sitting at my desk back home while two neighboring tables of
cheerful Austrian skiers provide a steady current of melodic conversation strong enough to ward
off my self-consciousness. The waitress
stopped and commented that I “write very fast.”
So perhaps enough self-consciousness has remained to recast me as a
student dying to finish his homework before being called out for sacrilege in a
But then I recalled that my family’s most
Ernest author used to write in cafés and in fact came to Schruns with his wife
Hadley and infant son, and stayed a full six months, long enough to complete
his first great novel, The Sun Also Rises,
an idyllic interlude he later chronicled at the end of A Moveable Feast.
I confess I have
always admired Hemingway’s style more than his substance, or at least his
subject matter, the latter so often featuring unbecoming self-postures. But he certainly proved the capacity and
value of writing “one true sentence.” He
did it over and over. His legacy, for
now, seems secure; he was more celebrated at his recent centennial in 1999 than
Mozart was at his in 1856, 150 years ago. Of course, I’ll have no way of
knowing whether Hemingway will survive as long or as gloriously. “Il faut d’abord durer” was his driving
motto---“first, one must endure.” So far
I was reminded of that literary footnote as I
boarded my fourth train—from Buchs to Feldkirch—which would transport us from
Switzerland, through Liechtenstein, and finally across the border into Austria. Its side was emblazoned The Ernest Hemingway; I knew at last I was on the right track. Hemingway’s centennial had illustrated the
fruits of his favorite maxim: he has endured.
But today that
footnote belongs to the impeccable Dame Elisabeth: at ninety she has justly
been hailed the greatest singer of Mozart for the second half of the past
century, certainly for my lifetime and arguably her own as well. That is my
thesis to be inked and underscored on the pristine cream-colored pages of this
leather-bound, gold-stamped journal that my bride, Ritchie, gave me as a
wedding gift more that 26 years ago, in the summer of 1979.
The pages, edged
in gold, have remained blank all these years, for want of a worthy subject. But
all in God’s good time: As I packed for my trip, I didn’t want to sit beside Elisabeth
and take notes on some paltry pad of paper.
Then I spotted this slim blue leather volume nestled on a shelf next to
my favorite opera books. Ecco!
Its gold-stamped year, 1979, was as sad for
Elizabeth as it was happy for me. That
was the year her husband, Walter Legge, died just three days after her farewell
concert, at the close of which he had
proclaimed her “a bloody miracle.”
Through my five decades of listening she has projected into sound the
absolute ideal of beauty--what Shakespeare called “the constant image.”
Tonight, a few
minutes before my arrival, Elisabeth called the Hotel Zimba, and ordered a
bottle of wine for me. The young woman
at the desk spoke hardly a word of English as she tried to explain that
“Professor Dr. Schwarzkopf” had sent a bottle of wine to my room as a welcome
gift. The only words that came to my
mind were Octavian’s (disguised as the maid Mariandl) in the last act of Der Rosenkavalier: “Nein, nein, nein, nein, I
trink’ kein Wein.”
But here my wine
had been ordered not by the lecherous Baron Ochs but the Marschallin herself,
to whom in another life I would dearly have loved to play her Octavian. I
confessed that I didn’t drink wine and would be so grateful to have a bottle of
mineral water instead. Turning wine into
water took no miracle tonight—but it did take some diplomatic explaining. Dame
Elisabeth is today a much sought-out and celebrated professor of voice, but
tonight her fine-tuned grace suddenly conjured up earlier scenes from Mozart
and Strauss; to me, she embodies both the Countess and the Marschallin.
I am to stop by her house tomorrow at 11:30,
for our first face-to-face visit in two decades. I shall try to do her justice,
as I promised, on the subject of Mozart.
She and Mozart inhabit special niches in my pantheon of music: all air
and light. “Dove sono i bei momenti?”
Here, tomorrow, God willing. I pray I may
preserve a sampling of that precious past in print. Ours is surely the last generation to do so
in longhand. How I’d love to give a blank book as elegant as this one to my
sons, but they would never use it. Their
blank pages are in cyberspace.
Tuesday, 31 January 2006
Sitting almost alone in the breakfast room
of the Zimba, while most of the families have already taken to the slopes, I
can see through the lightly draped picture windows the Alps and patches of the
clearest blue skies I can recall. I am
sure I have seen as blue in Maine or even Florida but here the backdrop of the
Alps and the reflections of the snow-capped peaks work their morning magic—and
long beyond first light.
I have almost two hours until I walk over to
Elisabeth’s. Time to meander in daylight
and daydream about an excursion up the mountains. I worried last night about how I would pass
the time when Elisabeth was not free to discuss Mozart. In the clear light of day such worries are
I picked up in the hotel lobby a colorful
brochure from Pfefferkorn’s, traditional
local woodcarvers with an array of objects for sale—from clowns to crucifixes. The cover has captivated me: a
wind-tossed, bearded, and unusually youthful St. Christopher
carrying the Christ Child, who tugs at the saint’s beard as the tyke holds on
for dear life. I’ll go out and see
whether there is a version for sale here in Schruns. The village church does not have daily mass,
and I need something tangible for my prayers each day for my own beloved son
Christopher, an ocean away.
church of St. Jodok is magnificent, a polychrome Baroque feast of
woodcarving—the Pfefferkorn brochure writ large. There was no mass this morning, but somehow
the space, so freezing that the font of holy water was covered by a sheet of
ice, seemed even more suited to a votive candle at the Virgin’s altar. I was able to make out enough of the German
prayer to leave my flickering candle as a silent sacrament to light the rest of
the day. And so it did.
still cannot believe that it has been twenty years since I last saw Elisabeth
Schwarzkopf, whom I first met in 1981, the year my father published On and Off the Record, acquired and
brilliantly edited by his colleague Marshall De Bruhl--her memoir and
collection of writings by her recently deceased husband, Walter Legge, the
legendary record producer at EMI and arguably the past century’s most
influential impresario in classical music.
I had escorted her around a maze of publishers
at the Frankfurt Book Fair that fall and later, as my reward, attended her
master classes over the next three years at the Mannes College of Music in my
hometown, New York. Fifteen years later,
in 2000, we renewed a friendship via phone and fax, prompted by my arranging
for a reissue of the book, for which I had the enviable assignment of choosing
photographs from her collection, composing her captions in the first person
(the ultimate reward for an accidental life in publishing), and thereby
retracing vicariously her luminous career.
This morning, as
she greeted me at her door, two decades vanished in an Augenblick: her face shines
with expression, her eyes sparkle with wit and warmth, and her voice rings as
clear in speech as on record. She
directs me into her music room, awash in pale winter light. Though February is still a day away, we are surrounded by flowers in full bloom, a
collage of color photographs she took of the gardens her husband planted for
her over the years, to welcome her home from world-ranging tours of concert and
opera stages. We are seated on an 18th-century
love seat for most of our first two-hour session; in front of us, on a delicate
table, beside my recording equipment is a tray of coffee and sweets; I cannot
help thinking of Der Rosenkavalier,
act one, sans libretto.
“Don’t you want
me when to stop,” I reply, adding a touch to her cup (recalling that Hemingway
used to request from my Dad “just enough to change the color.”)
please---it is not yet forbidden.”
the room is a grand piano, closed, but with a vocal score on top; at the side,
by the picture window, a brass music stand displays a framed photograph of
Legge; another, still larger, portrait of her late husband hangs on the far
wall, directly facing—appraising?—the would-be pianist.
I confessed to Elisabeth my early obsession
with Mozart; as a boy pianist I could readily identify with Schroeder in Peanuts, except that the bust on my
piano was of Wolfgang, not Ludwig. I
used to commute back and forth from piano bench to phonograph, to listen and
then try to imitate Walter Gieseking playing the simplest minuets (on a classic
recording of all Mozart’s piano music collected aptly on Angel Records and
produced by—who else?—her husband, Walter Legge).
“At least they seemed simple,” she
interjected… “Ah, Gieseking! Do you know that Gieseking, when he accompanied me
on that record of Mozart lieder, never used the pedal once? That was really
something unheard of---and it was perfect.”
The mention of the first pianist I ever heard
had struck a welcome chord.
“We do have to
learn not to sing like the piano,” she continued, “which is not a legato
instrument—and it is very difficult because it is the instrument that most
singers hear accompanying them. Pianists
use the pedal to make it seem legato, but Gieseking didn’t: he didn’t touch the
pedal at all; he just played and it sounded legato.”
Were there other
accompanists she recalled as fondly? I
asked. “Sawallisch was a wonderful
accompanist; he accompanied my very first recital in London, and was hardly
known at all---and I was not known—and we made it with that first recital in
London. Sawallisch was much
underestimated in his knowledge of what music is about. It is not glittering: it is about finding the
right sounds at the right moment, at the right length, at the right strength,
and finding that the sound fits the meaning of what Mozart meant in
accompanying the words.”
I was still
thinking of Wolfgang the child prodigy and his family life in Salzburg. I asked what she thought about the
possibility of a musical gene running through families.
“Not gene,” she insisted, “I’d rather use the
I asked about her parents; which of them
passed on that instinct to her?
“My father took
his guitar with him when he went off to fight in the First World War. He was
very musical and he made me learn the guitar immediately.” Then,
all of a sudden, we were back to time present:
“Why did you
travel so far to see me? I can’t give
you a performance.”
“You give me a
performance every day through your recordings.”
listened to a single record in this room for three years—I started one, but the
acoustics were so wrong that I finished it in two minutes and never heard
another. All the CDs I have heard are a
terror, not the right sound, you know; and we have lived for the sound, lived for the sound—and that sound was
not to take us to the heights of heaven but to bring out the composer’s work in
the best possible manner.
“I am not a
musicologist, but I can tell you what I hate most now: people who dare to put
Mozart into a different time. I find it
such a crime to put Mozart visually into a different time, to make people who
never knew of him like him and come and hear him because he looks more like
themselves. This is the utmost crime against music. I left the Salzburg theatre [in 2002] after
the first act of Don Giovanni, you
know. These producers are nearly
I was already aware of how important
visualization has been in Schwarzkopf’s artistry—she often called herself an Augenmensch [visual person]--which has
long fascinated me as an art historian.
When coaching Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, for instance, she
would have a student picture the famous crucifixion by Grünewald. She delighted especially in the landscapes of
Monet—those “visible blessings of the past,” as she once described them to me. But visualization was not only an internal
process in crafting hues of color and light.
The scene has to fit the notes.
“It has to be in the time which Mozart wanted
us to see it,” she insists. “At
Salzburg, we had the most wonderful producers with the deepest respect for
Had she seen a change since then?
“Have I seen
it! I didn’t have to do it, thank
God. I wouldn’t have done it. In my time
it went on with perfect visual representation.
Our great conductors would never have allowed otherwise. Today it’s all
about money, money, money--- all in modern costumes or none! The public should be educated—they should not
be coming to see naked girls, but to listen to Mozart.”
Is Mozart ideal
training for young singers? I wondered.
Can young singers perhaps harm themselves by singing too much Mozart too soon?
Here she was far more reassuring.
“No, Mozart is
the ideal schooling for singers—but in the style of Mozart, not of Verdi or
Wagner. The fixed style of Mozartean
singing has rules, things you must do and things you must on no account do.”
It comes as no
surprise to a Schwarzkopf fan that her touchstone is legato, that quality of seamless singing in which she is peerless,
“You don’t learn it through the piano, but
through stringed instruments….I played
the viola--not very well, but at least I had to play it. The ear is your most important instrument in
making music; the ear will tell you, ‘well, that wasn’t legato, that note was
finished too soon, why don’t I bind it, why can’t I sing it in one strength
out, why don’t I sing as it is written in a diminuendo and then go pianissimo
to the next note, legato, or sing it with a crescendo and go to a legato even
in a subito piano after a crescendo?’ All those things have to be learned via
the ear, your own ear.”
singer has to put the right person into the sound—not your person, but the
person that Mozart wanted to hear. It shouldn’t just sound like Miss
Schwarzkopf! The Cherubino voice is different from the Susanna voice—they are
all different--and you have to have so many different voices in your voice if
possible—and it is not always possible—so they may still recognize me as
Schwarzkopf but they should also recognize today ‘Aha, that
is Susanna!’ or the next day, ‘Aha, that is the Countess!’—the same opera, but
different ways of singing.
“This is what
you have to learn in the Hochschule
or with a teacher or with your own Fantasie,
your own imagination. Imagination is the
means of translating into your singing a feeling of what art is and what a
great composer is. You cannot sing one
piece like the next.”
career she deliberately limited her roles—in some, she said, “the sound was not
right for me” and in singing “you must do justice to the persona in Mozart’s
cast.” One role that fit like a glove, a
velvet one at that, was the Countess in Figaro. She remains, for me, the definitive
“It was Furtwängler who most influenced me,
with the sound, with the expression you must feel the second before the
note. When you talk, you alter your
expression every second, every part of a second; you should do that when you
So, then, no
matter how carefully crafted a performance, there is always the element of the
recording I have listened to more times than I can count, ever since I studied
it for a term as a college student, is the Giulini Figaro, recorded after she had been singing the Countess for more
than a decade. It was that conductor’s
first recording of a Mozart opera for Legge at EMI.
in him very much; I liked him very much…We all know he fought great battles
inside himself to make it right, you see, to find the expression; you could
feel it--that he was giving his utmost to do the right thing and never felt
safe that it was the right sound; he battled for it all the time, and that
brings forth great expression from a human being.”
Hence the visceral excitement of a recording
that has never staled in its infinite variety over decades of listening.
battles, what about Don Giovanni? I
read recently that whenever Schwarzkopf sang another of her signature roles the
opera might as well have been re-titled Donna
Elvira! “Elvira is the most dramatic role you can do—though Donna Anna
needs a bigger voice.” Did she ever sing
“The arias, yes, but not the role—no, I was
really formed for Donna Elvira, I believe, because I did find—I did feel—the
But Schwarzkopf’s Elvira was so magnetic, so
attractive—how could the Don have ever ditched her? She once tried to fight nature and make
“I put on a false nose and face and made her a
very cruel looking person but it didn’t work at all. Besides, if you cannot
make the vocal character clear to the audience without showing her there would
be no phonograph records.”
My favorite photograph from the archives, on
the other hand, is a masterpiece of chiaroscuro—her
blond Elvira opposite Leontyne Price’s Donna Anna at Salzburg; my confession
evoked a smile of happy memory.
“Ah, her voice was unusually beautiful, she
had great expression-- it’s a totally different voice from mine, totally
different character--and very, very good singing; there was not a flaw, never
any kind of thinking back to singing Verdi or Puccini; she sang pure
Mozart. She had the brains and the taste
of a great artist. It was stylistically
perfect. She knew exactly what you must never do in singing Mozart, what you
should always have in your ear when you sing the note.”
To what should this be credited, I wondered?
“Talent, number one. Instinct, number two.
Then training is utmost.” What of
have a young Japanese singer here who sings with utmost stylistic perfection
So does she actually think that our European
heritage will move eastward?
“Absolutely. They learn so fast—the Japanese,
Chinese, and Korean singers—the minute you tell them something, they do it. It
is quite incredible. I have never experienced anything like it. And the
tradition will pass from Europe to these other countries.”
I couldn’t repress a certain wistfulness,
Eurocentric that I am. Schwarzkopf,
however, has no such qualms.
“Not at all—because the tradition will live!”
Is it because there they are more respectful
of our tradition?
“Not only more
respectful, but talented! They have the
will—and the understanding-- to produce the right sound, and not just the sound
but the feeling.”
about my first trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair and Wiesbaden, where I attended
a performance of Così in a truly cozy
house, an ideal intimate staging. “I did Don
Giovanni there,” Elisabeth recalled with special warmth. She had helped
settle her parents in that delightful 18th-century spa town for
their twilight years.
Is Mozart, then,
better suited to smaller houses?
“Yes, of course, because the discussion—the
recitative—in Mozart is very fast, and passes by so quickly, and is so
important for details of expression; it gets lost in a huge space.”
By contrast, she explained, Der Rosenkavalier was composed to fit a
large opera house, and the dialogue moves more slowly; but not so in
Mozart. “The houses are too big these
days; some are even filled with microphones—it’s a bloody sin!”
of her colleagues would she single out as great Mozart singers? “Karl
Schmitt-Walter, the baritone--he could really sing Don Giovanni, and lieder,
and God knows what.” The best of them
combined opera with lieder. I asked about my pirate CD of the Salzburg Figaro she performed with Dietrich
Fischer-Dieskau. Was he as good on stage as in recital?
“Yes, because of
how he sang the role; there was not one phrase, not one note that was not
perfectly performed from breathing in and breathing out. He completely
matched—in movements, expressions-- what he sang: a great actor as well as
singer, which is not always the case. The acting must never be overdone but
must always underline the singing—prima
what of Christa Ludwig? (A favorite
Octavian for vicarious pursuit of my Marschallin.)
“This is one of the best voices we have ever
had, you know, a very full voice, very musical; she could be serious or funny
or whatever; she could do everything. We were really comrades on the stage; she
always reacted as one hoped she would react.
And she was a marvelous concert artist—she had it all.”
How then did
Schwarzkopf come to learn a Viennese style of singing Mozart?
“Well, I had two years of singing in Vienna’s
Theater an der Wien. Many of the roles I
had to learn overnight, so I really learned the Vienna style of singing in
those two years. But I also had a year
out in the sanitarium in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia, recovering from
tuberculosis, and I took all my music with me and spent that year lying in the
woods memorizing all the parts I wanted to sing—not singing, just memorizing.”
Not every singer, I ventured, would make such
an investment from such a setback.
“I think it was pure instinct.”
Her teacher, Maria Ivogün, had helped make
the arrangements; across the room her smiling picture faced us atop the
bookshelf, flanked by two deep cobalt vases.
I had mistaken the photo of Ivogün for young Elisabeth: beauty plays
“Schmitt-Walter took me to her when I was a
beginner at the Berlin Opera. I was already two years at the opera house, but
Maria told me I had no technique, and we started with two notes; for four
months we did nothing but those two notes, and then slowly we went up bit by
bit, for two years.”
What about Ivogün’s husband, pianist Michael
Raucheisen, with whom Schwarzkopf performed her first lieder recitals?
“He was the most wonderful accompanist in all
the world, the greatest accompanist that ever was—punto, finito.”
I wanted to turn
the clock back even further—to the earliest years of study; we had both
attended all-boys schools--an ocean and era apart. Hers was due to the fact
that her father was headmaster. There
she learned to play a host of instruments, from the lute and Glockenspiel, to the organ (though her
feet could not reach the pedals), and she sang Mary in Christmas pageants.
progressing through Mozart roles at the Deutsche Oper, she began with Blondchen
in Die Entfürhrung, and then
Konstanze. In Die Zauberflöte she started in the chorus—for the famous Beecham
recording produced by her future husband, Walter Legge, in 1937—then sang one
of the three boys, and finally Pamina.
“I could never
sing Queen of the Night; I could not have done the F; I was not a
coloratura. It was really foolish to
have sung the E [in Entführung]
because if you don’t have the reserve on top you should never do it.”
But she did, thank God—and recordings have
preserved its purity for half a century.
In Figaro, she passed through
Barbarina to Susanna and finally the Countess, the role she owned for the rest
of her career.
role remained the most dramatically and vocally challenging?
“Even the slightest folk song is challenging
all the time. But I would have to say Fiordiligi, which is very long and very
hard to sing well. You have to hold a true position of your voice throughout,
and you really don’t even have a minute to go to your dressing room!”
I had recently been to a rehearsal of the
Met’s Così, which is more traditional
and tasteful than so many European counterparts (“Thank God for that!”), and I
wanted to know whether she had ever experienced the novel—dare I say
perverse?-- couple-swapping at the new ending that had so unsettled me. She had
“It would make no sense, since all is
forgiven. It’s just a director wanting
to call attention to himself.” She calls
such modern liberties “crimes—or foolishness—against Mozart.”
Nor does Mozart permit wide vocal liberties,
she added—no surprise that he was not a favorite of Callas or so many Italian
singers who thrive on a free range.
“The one thing
in Mozart is control. Woe to you as a singer if you don’t fit into the
conductor’s picture of sound, speed, loudness, softness, expression….there are
about three hundred things that go into style.
An artist must have responsibility to the composer, just as the composer
took responsibility to the text.”
I thought back
to another photo I had selected for her book. What about her early Don in
Salzburg, Tito Gobbi?
“A great Don Giovanni—ideal. Although being Italian he could sing Mozart.
He sang perfectly. It isn’t easy for an Italian to give up the freedoms that
are not allowed in Mozart.”
Nicolai Gedda, to shift to tenors?
still farther north, I reminisced about the Swedish conductor Sixten Ehrling,
who had once studied with Strauss and shortly before he died gave me his vocal
score of Der Rosenkavalier. I now
imagined it placed on top of this Marschallin’s piano, right in front of us.
Did she ever accompany her students on the piano?
“Yes, sometimes. I had a Japanese student who came here for a
day, and stayed three weeks. For teaching Mozart I could accompany her to give
her the right ideas—technical ideas, not musical ones. Musical ideas you can
work out only with a very good pianist.”
It was now time
to pretend--in the spirit of Walter Mitty—I was her student. What is the most important thing for a
student of Mozart?
“The timbre of
the voice, the sound of the voice--it has to be an utterly beautiful sound, and
not just the notes as such. That sound
will vary from the secco recitatives,
to the accompanied ones, to the first notes at the beginning of the aria, which
is again not quite the sound of the aria itself, and so on.”
After all the
preparation, at the moment of singing an aria, can a singer allow herself to
enjoy the emotion, of joy, sorrow, whatever, that is being conveyed to the
“No, you must be able to put your feeling into
the sound and to hear what you are doing; the ear is all important.”
What of the
current vogue of spontaneity, of just being yourself?
“No, because there is the matter of style, and
the style is in the music--and if Mozart hasn’t got style I don’t know who
has--and that style needs observation, it needs knowledge, it needs hearing,
what you are doing wrong, a feeling for the tempo, for changing of color, as
permitted: you don’t have a lot of
freedom in Mozart, but you don’t have to be afraid of giving beauty to Mozart
if it is true to style….and you must always obey the conductor, because Mozart
is not conducted by nitwits!”
Karl Barth once quipped that in heaven Bach was court composer but that every
afternoon the angels sneaked off to play Mozart. I wanted to know Elisabeth’s appraisal of
that court composer since I have long been addicted to her early recordings of
his cantatas, spun with a young voice of pure silver.
replied, is “fiendishly difficult to sing—I’d rather five times Mozart than
one-half time Bach!”
Then I asked the question to which I was
convinced I already had the answer: What
composer, if she were allowed only one, would she keep for herself?
I should know
better than to second-guess Schwarzkopf. Why Smetana? His
“richly loving folk sound,” she replied. Not so much the vocal music as his
orchestral music. Her father had loved
Smetana, and so did she. Even with no roots in Czech soil, she found listening
to that composer “always a kind of homecoming.”
I was determined to salvage Mozart. Surely he was the most gifted, the most
ingenious of composers?
“I don’t know. I think he is the most feared
to do justice to, because not doing so is immediately audible, immediately
Why? Isn’t Bach technically as difficult?
“More difficult, but Bach does not touch you in
the same way as Mozart does. Mozart is so simple, touching you immediately with
just a few notes. Bach needs many more notes to touch you.”
Elisabeth enumerated the grueling details of traveling, packing, unpacking,
doctors, and everything that precedes performing on tour, I asked her to
pretend I was now her agent and asking her preference: a staged opera, opera in
concert, or a recording?
She recalled fondly those concert performances
of Mozart operas arranged by her husband in London’s Festival Hall.
“You don’t act across the stage but you do
react to each other. I think those are the ideal performances because you don’t
have to concentrate on whether that chair will break down, or whether I have
the right dress, but can concentrate on singing. Those were the very best opera concerts I
I was surprised
to hear this from someone as gifted in acting as in singing.
you know, you can still act while standing still. You can look and listen and
react to what your partners are singing.
More is not needed. In the
recording studio, on the other hand, one does not have the freedom even to turn
and look to the side but must stand completely still and focus on the score.”
I asked her to
list the great Mozart conductors she sang under. “Furtwängler, number one; Krips, Sawallisch, Böhm, Giulini. He
was never happy with his performance, you know, but he was marvelous.”
What about Klemperer, whom her husband had put
in charge of the Philharmonia Orchestra?
“He was very slow—too slow—but when you were singing with him you believed
him; he was very respected.”
o’clock—or was it closer to three?—it
was clearly time for a break and Elisabeth encouraged me to go to the top of
the Hochjoch for a late lunch and for a loftier view from the mountains she has
loved all her life. So I took the cable
car to the top of the Hochjoch Everyone else had skis; I had my camera. I have been deathly afraid of heights all my
life, but today there was no turning back.
I hope the film develops; the views were breathtaking.
When I took the cable car back down I
suddenly saw that I was returning to late afternoon shadow after the
snow-reflecting sunlight of just minutes earlier. I’d never realized how much illumination
mountains steal from the valley between them.
No wonder Moses—and prophets to follow—sought and found God on a
mountain top. Lux umbra Dei: “Light is the Shadow of God.”
revelations lay below. Elisabeth’s eyes
had been bothering her today, and when I arrived at six in the evening she
suggested that I postpone our conversation until tomorrow. But I was determined not to leave as soon as
I’d arrived, and so I pointedly left all the recorders in the bag and offered
to do something practical for her, explaining that I have been well trained by
both my mother and my wife.
So she had me open a bottle of red wine for
her—a “glass and a half”—and as I sipped water we talked over a range of
subjects, starting with religion (prompted by her framed photo of our mutual
friend Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna). Elisabeth said she is a great admirer of
Cardinal Schönborn, whom I ventured may someday be pope. She beamed as she
declared: “He is very courageous; he says what he thinks.” (Obviously a kindred
To her protests
that she considered herself “neither Protestant nor Catholic” and “hardly
pious,” I countered that St. Augustine once said that “whoever sings prays
Her singing has surely given more glory to
the Creator than a lifetime kneeling in church.
We talked of Strauss’s librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whom she
considers a great poet.
“Everything one needs to know about life,
about living life, is in Der
Rosenkavalier”—words of wisdom by the ultimate Marschallin of our age. (“Ja, ja.”)
Elisabeth then turned to the framed photograph
of her beloved father, “Poppi,” and told
me of his lifelong love of books and how his treasured library had been saved
in Berlin and shipped to storage in Bavaria toward the end of the war by
devoted soldiers who had served under him on the Russian front, where the
middle-aged classics teacher had been conscripted to identify the fallen,
notify their families back home, and make the arrangements for burial.
By the end of our two-hour talk on and off the
record, I asked whether I might go into the music room and play her piano
alone—to see whether I might have the nerve to play for her tomorrow. She said yes, but added she would not promise
not to follow me!
And so she did. Sitting by my side, she
stopped me measure by measure, and offered the most insightful critique and
piano lesson I have ever experienced. I
should have practiced days if not weeks before coming here. What was I thinking? I sat and waited for the
obvious conclusion: “No wonder you are a writer.”
looked at me with clear blue eyes of wonder and asked, “Why are you not
To all my
excuses—that it was a childhood pursuit, that I didn’t have the talent, that it
was too late, that I didn’t practice—she countered: “But you must play. Why do
you want to write about music when you can make it? You have time to perform—do
I hedged. I would love to have been able to
sing, I said.
“But that is not your instrument. The piano
is. Make it sing—and thank God it exists.”
Before I flew over here I wrote to one of my
sons that at the risk of sounding morbid I felt that I was going to Schruns “to
meet my fate.” I was jesting in earnest. But now it is no joke: life will never
be the same. I shall go back to practice, back to musical scores, back to the
keyboard of my childhood. Down deep I
have always suspected that my musical laziness has taken a toll in true
satisfaction, if not happiness. But it took a Dame of the British Empire and a Kammersängerin to put it into words—and
with blunt, incredulous honesty. Our
interview tomorrow will be interesting, to say the least. And I have already promised to return and
play again—but after real practice.
Wednesday, February 1, 2006
I hardly slept
at all last night. Was it the cream
sauce on the pasta I had for dinner—or something even less easily digested? The
realization that a new route has been pointed out for me and life will never be
the same again? I cannot afford to procrastinate or rationalize. Elisabeth speaks with nine decades of
experience and a life offered on the altar of music.
As she remarked,
music is the only “saint” or holy art permitted in every church of every
denomination, from Catholic to the most iconoclastic Protestant one. I shall no
longer have the luxury of protesting that I am out of practice—that is no
longer an option. As my late Dad put it, “No rush, just do it immediately.”
visit to Elisabeth at eleven was far more relaxed, but it was clear from the
start that I would never get her to philosophize about singing or even Mozart’s
characters. I heard, in the mind’s ear, the echo of her Marschallin gently
scolding her beloved Octavian in the early morning light: “Philosophier’ Er nicht, Herr
She was no philosopher, she protested to me,
but “purely practical” and her secrets were reserved only for other singers—of
which I am not one. She discounts journalists and critics; hence her conviction
that I should exchange my laptop keyboard for a holier one—the piano’s!
But then I
explained, as I unpacked the recorders, that I was no critic, nor a
journalist. In fact, this was my very
first interview. She was startled: why
did you come all this way then? As a pilgrim, I replied—to give thanks to the
singer who illuminates my every week, if not day, via recordings. I came purely
as a lover of her singing and of Mozart—a listener who still buys her vinyls on
eBay to savor the original sound—not as a professional journalist or critic.
This interview, I explained, was an afterthought with Opera News.
“Be sure to tell your readers,” she
instructed—and so I do.
We moved into the music room and I switched on
the recorders for another two hours of discussion….. What about the recent
revival of lesser-known Mozart not performed in her day? Idomeneo
and Tito?A good thing, she said, but unfortunately a
temptation to producers to “put their hands on the piece to make it more
I made the mistake of describing my young son
Charlie’s first experience of Don
Giovanni on television some fifteen years ago, via Peter Sellars and set in
Spanish Harlem, complete with a McDonald’s take-out for the Don’s feast.
“Why was he
allowed that? Totally idiotic—not only idiotic but a crime, a crime against
She didn’t want
to hear about Sellars’ Così set in a
“Please don’t poison my memories!”
Among the fonder
memories of recent years are those of her former pupil Thomas Hampson, whose
“sound is utterly beautiful.” And the
mention of Anna Moffo, her maid Susanna in the Giulini Figaro evoked the same adjectives:
“An utterly beautiful voice--and she was intelligent in addition, which
is not always the case, you know.”
Susanna? “Irmgard Seefried, to whom
everybody else must be compared---and that isn’t easy”!
I wanted to
learn more about what she termed the “Mozart sound.” Even though he wrote
Italian operas, it is not an Italian sound, she explained. The Mozart sound remains constant, whether in
German or Italian. So how does a young
singer find it?
“They have to be taught. You know, sometimes I
make students sing a sound thirty times and suddenly on the thirty-first time:
‘Ah, that is the sound you are supposed to make.’”
How did she
herself find it? Through her teacher
Maria Ivogün, and Raucheisen, and later her husband, Walter Legge.
“He had a
phenomenal ear and a phenomenal idea of music, not only of Mozart but of all
envision the sound in terms of other instruments?
“Not at all--it is enough to have to know your
Yet she would study the full orchestral scores
when preparing a role. Violins are key,
for they alone can “imitate the vibrato of the human voice.” For instance, when singing a passage in which
the first violins take the second voice, in accompaniment as though a duet,
“you listen to that violin and try to make your voice as similar as you can to
Schwarzkopf made opera singing sound
like a chamber music ensemble.
“But of course it is---do you think it could
be otherwise? You need to listen closely to the orchestra, to the solo
instruments, because the mood of the aria is already set in the introduction
which offers the most revealing notes about the aria, because the aria is but
the feeling of what you have said about the situation in the recitative.”
So studying the recitative is no minor matter?
“Oh, no—it is more important than the aria!”
It was time to
approach, gingerly, the heart of the matter: Why is Mozart the most widely
beloved composer? Why not Haydn or Handel, who wrote so many more operas to
In three words, “His melodic instinct—non-musicians can leave whistling his
unusual among singers for her fidelity and devotion to the written texts of the
librettists as the inspiration and illumination of the composer’s notes. Last
night, speaking of Hofmannsthal, whom she considers a great poet, she told me
that “everything you need to know about living life is in Der Rosenkavalier.” So much for the singer who had earlier
protested that she had nothing philosophical to say, only the most practical
things about the craft of singing!
She remains ever
my Marschallin. What opera of Mozart’s
comes closest to that appraisal of Hofmannsthal?
What then does she make of Die Zauberflöte?
“It’s like a fairy tale, and it should not be
in any way seriously meant in terms of punishments and so on…No, no--it is a
fairy tale about people who want to do the best with their lives and can’t.”
productions that put the emphasis on Masonic mysteries? “No, no—it’s very simple; simple expressions and moments—of being
loved, of not being loved-- in everybody’s life. It is a mistake to make it too philosophical
because the music is not philosophical at all; the simpler it is presented, the
more pity you have for Pamina.”
She enjoyed those early years of singing that
role: “Pamina was not at all difficult.” Again, she stressed the need to keep
it simple, “not like a folk song--it’s a different simplicity, and we all know
how difficult it is to be simple. Sometimes you have to have a lot of life
behind you in order to be simple. If I
give you very simple answers it is not because I have only lived five minutes,
We took a break
as Elisabeth rose from the love seat to take a turn around the room. I offered
to try to get her turntable turning again, and play for her the record of Messiah highlights, produced by her
husband in 1964, his last year at EMI, which
I had bought on eBay and brought over to add to her collection.
Her hi-fi was
more complicated than any system I have ever confronted, and the large framed
photo of Walter Legge did not increase my confidence. But finally I got it to
Her arias “Rejoice, greatly” and (my own
favorite) “I know that my redeemer liveth” gave her no cause for rejoicing:
Elisabeth was merciless in her self-critique (“not legato…ok, that’s my
sound….no, that’s flat…I don’t think I like it…but it is a clean intonation”).
More frustrating was the fact that the system
amplified the extremes at the expense of the middle range, which seemed to her
(not to me) to disappear. I was hopeless as in-house technician, but I
forged ahead and suggested we listen to “Porgi amor” from the Guilini Figaro, my Mozartean grail. It took me awhile to find it, as the record in
her library was the Japanese edition (“not legato…good…ja…ok….no….there are
things that are really not perfect”).
Would it be interesting, I asked, to hear the
same aria recorded ten years earlier? “Yes…cruel, cruel but interesting….” I protested that it’s surely never cruel to
get younger. “Well, I hope it is
I put on the
1950 Vienna recording with Seefried, Jurinac, Petri, and Panerai. She was at this point moving from years of
Susanna to the Countess; did she still hear the voice of Susanna?
“Yes, all of it…marvelous piano…it’s very
clean, but it’s a child’s voice….very sweet…because of the cleanliness you have
to uncover the E, you know….but it’s a child’s voice…it’s ideally clean but not
ideal for the countess.” For intonation she preferred this
recording, but its sound was not “ripe enough for the countess, much too
When I protested that both the Countess and
she were indeed young (she was only thirty-four, the Countess perhaps a few
years younger), she quipped, “Well, I wasn’t eighteen, you know.” The Countess is wiser, and should sound
“riper,” she concluded.
I moved on to play Strauss’s “Die heiligen drei Könige” and then Mozart’s “Ridente la calma,” with Gieseking, which I found enchanting; but
Elisabeth herself heard Italian that sounded too German and a clean voice “that
could be any soprano’s.” She considered her “ideal” voice that of the
Marschallin; I could hardly disagree.
But a Brahms duet with Fischer-Dieskau wore out my welcome with the
machinery. “I think you’d better put that energy into piano playing,” she
So I retreated
to the piano for a second impromptu coaching session before leaving for the
airport. I felt it only fair that I put myself on the receiving end of criticism
after inflicting so much audible pain through the poorly tuned loudspeakers. I started with a Bach prelude in C-sharp; the
piano itself was sharp, her criticism even sharper—and to the point.
“Could you make it sound like a discussion
between the hands? Softer
there….discussing….two people discussing, all the time….come in with the left
hand…give me those four bars piano…ta-ta,
quick …two people fighting, discussing.”
Then on to Beethoven’s “Ecossaises.”
“Take an audible breath…can you make that an
echo…make that less beautiful….more!”
I reminded her
that I had taken six trains to reach her; I would not turn back now. Her final prescription was to add more Fantasie to the pieces once the
technique had been secured. The Haydn
sonata, for instance, needed “more visible humor, wit”; the repeats, more
color, more variety. The Scarlatti
should be turned into a conversation among as many as four people.
Chopin “L’adieu Waltz.”
Can that seem
more like a viola coming in there? Start again…Ah! Left hand…You need more
freedom…You are not thinking of singing, and you should…even breathing, in and
out.” It not just about the notes, she stressed. “There are so many possibilities in the music:
it’s about adding the feelings and human reactions.”
I asked whether
her performances, even after years of preparation, might change.
always, in a moment.”
She suggested I
study some comic actors for the range of human reactions to be translated
through the keyboard. Opera without words
or Lieder ohne Worte. “You should be
able to work the piano music into a human expression.”
It is, in the end, all a matter of Fantasie, her favorite word, of our
imagination; not a matter of technical precision—that is just the skeleton
(which of course must be sound) on which the flesh and blood interpretation
makes a piece of music a living thing . “Music without
thoughts, without ideas,” she said, “is a waste of time.” She
claims to be no philosopher, just a “practical singer”—she doth protest too
Little did I
know what I would take away from this visit, which was initially intended not
as an interview but a thank-you for all those years of grace and vocal paradise
via recordings. We opened a copy of the
new edition of On and Off the Record, the
homage to Walter Legge. My favorite photo is one of her looking
upward, like a Guido Reni saint in ecstasy –not singing but “listening” (as she
inscribed on the verso—“Hören!”) And
that, I concluded, was the key to her success and to her vocal embodiment of
the glory of Mozart, da capo al fine.
As we said auf
Wiedersehen –not good-bye--and I promised to practice her lessons before
returning in summertime with my wife, she told me to waste no time getting to
the keyboard. But which keyboard? Her final question, an encore from last
night, gave the answer: “Why do you want to write about music when you can make
2 February 2006
I went home by another
route. I explained to Elisabeth that I
would gladly take six trains to see her, but not to leave her. And I promised
to return with Ritchie and with some proof that I had returned for good to the
piano. Her driver drove me to Zürich
airport, and I was able to get to Paris a day early—or rather, a late night early.
I stayed at a splendid hotel without ever
leaving the Air France terminal, to board my early morning flight to New
York. The Sheraton is designed like a
ship—with beautifully appointed wood cabins.
If a real ocean liner could replicate this experience—with some added
rocking and salt air—I might yet be lured onto a cruise.
These pilgrimages are exhausting;
I may need a week to recover; but even for someone who loathes leaving his zip
code it was well worth it. For so many
years I have cast Elisabeth in the role of my musical standard and
conscience. This visit confirmed the
choice. It could not have been better. Toward the end of the visit, as I
crossed the music room to come around the other side of the loveseat, she
turned to me and said, “You know, in this light you seem about seventeen years
old!” Then after a pause, she added,
“Perhaps part of you still is?” --Ja, ja.
I always loved being a student; it is too late to give it up.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * *
Postscript: Portions of this pilgrimage journal were
published in the July 2006 issue of Opera
News under the title “The Voice of Mozart.”
I sent Elisabeth a copy, and held my breath until a phone call from her
a week later: she told me that of all the profiles written of her over the
years, this one was her favorite, and despite her longstanding aversion to
digital recordings of any kind, she graciously gave me permission to have her
1963 Canadian broadcast of a Viennese
Evening, a television special with conductor Willi
Boskovsky, issued at last for the public on DVD (now available from VAI).
She had once lamented to me, auf Deutsch, that her voice “had been
sacrificed on the altar of CD convenience and commerce” [my translation] and
she much preferred the warm sound of the original analog vinyls produced by her
late husband still available via eBay, thank God.
But her enduring affection for
that Viennese evening with Maestro Boskovsky overrode any ingrained technical
reservations. She recalled that recital
with such fondness that her voice, suddenly sounding decades younger over the
transatlantic phone line, resonated with delight. That was the last time I
spoke with her; two weeks later, on August 3rd she died in her
How I wish I could have revisited
her before the end of summer, as originally planned. But I now treasure all the
more that Wienerabend DVD as her
parting gift to us all—a foretaste of heaven.
“Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding…Auch sie ist ein Geschöpf des
Vaters der uns alle erschaffen hat.” [“Time is a strange thing…yet it too is a
creation of the Father who made us all.]
In Memoriam: Elisabeth
For memorial DVD of her 'Viennese Evening'  click link:
--Charles Scribner III