Charles Scribner III      

art historian, author, editor, and lecturer

































 A Pilgrimage to Schruns : Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at Ninety



Monday, 30 January 2006

This 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.

   So 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. 

      But 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 tavern.

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 so good.

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 soon dispelled.

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.

     The 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.

      I 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 any cream?”

“No thanks--tell 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.”)

“More cream, please---it is not yet forbidden.”

     Dominating 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 word instinct.”

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.”

“I haven’t 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 criminal.”

    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 Mozart.”

  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.”

“Likewise, the 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.”

Throughout her 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 Contessa. 

“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 sing.”

So, then, no matter how carefully crafted a performance, there is always the element of the almost instantaneous? 


     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.

“Walter believed 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.

Speaking of 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 Donna Anna?

“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 right expression.”

  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 herself repulsive.

“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 cultural background?

“Irrelevant. I have a young Japanese singer here who sings with utmost stylistic perfection already.”

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.”

I reminisced 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!”

Whom 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 la voce!”

    And 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 such tricks.

“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.

Years later, 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.

Which Mozart 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 not.

  “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.”

What about Nicolai Gedda, to shift to tenors?


      Moving 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 audience?

“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!”

The theologian 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.

Bach, she 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 exposed.”

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.” 

After Dame 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 ever did.”

I was surprised to hear this from someone as gifted in acting as in singing.      

“But, 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.”

At two 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.”

Yet more 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 soul).

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 twice.”

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.”

Instead she looked at me with clear blue eyes of wonder and asked, “Why are you not performing?”

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 it!”

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.”

This morning’s 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 Schatz!”

  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 popular.”

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 Mozart.”

She didn’t want to hear about Sellars’ Così set in a roadside diner.

“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.”

The definitive 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 music.” 

Would she envision the sound in terms of other instruments?

“Not at all--it is enough to have to know your own instrument!”

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 that vibrato.”

To me, 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 choose from?

In three words, “His melodic instinct—non-musicians can leave whistling his melodies.”  

Schwarzkopf is 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?

Figaro, of course.”

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.”

What about 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, you know.”   

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 sound.

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 better.” 

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 young.”

  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.

      So 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 laughed.

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.

Finally, the 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.

“Absolutely, 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 much.

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 it?”                  


Thursday 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 sleep.

  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 Legge-Schwarzkopf   (1915-2006)

For memorial DVD of her 'Viennese Evening' [1963] click link:

--Charles Scribner III