Schwarzkopf: from Hitler youth to quiet dignity

August 25, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Staff

"Elisabeth Schwarzkopf," by Alan Jefferson. Northeastern University Press, 304 pages, $29.95.

Although she retired from the stage in the late 1960s, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf will always be the beautiful and gracious Countess Almaviva of Mozart and Marschallin of Richard Strauss.

The distinction of Alan Jefferson's useful new biography is that it shows us the relentless ambition that drove Schwarzkopf to become one of the most celebrated sopranos of her time. His portrait is not always pretty and it's easy to understand why the singer did not cooperate with the author, who gives the most complete account so far of Schwarzkopf's Nazi associations.

The book's first third concentrates on the period between 1933 - when Hitler came to power and when the 17-year-old Schwarzkopf and her family moved to Berlin so that she could attend the Hochschule fur Musik - and 1945, when the "thousand-year Reich" collapsed. Jefferson follows the singer as she joins Nazi youth organizations, becomes a member of Joseph Goebbels' Reichstheaterkammer, a roster of privileged Aryan singers with certified racial purity, and then, in 1940, a full member of the Nazi party.

Jefferson illuminates many details in Schwarzkopf's career during the next five years: her stormy relations with the administrators and other singers of Berlin's Deutsche Oper; her career in films; her move to the Vienna State Opera as the Red Army began to move toward Berlin; and her ability - despite orders to return - to remain in the safer Austrian capital.

Jefferson is tactful, but he makes it obvious that the singer enjoyed the protection of at least one person in the upper echelons of the Nazi hierarchy. The identity of Schwarzkopf's protectors are likely to remain mysteries. But two likely candidates are Goebbels, whose eye the singer had caught and without whom she could not have enjoyed a film career, and Hans Frank, governor-general of occupied Poland.

Her behavior may have been shameful, but talk is cheap and Schwarzkopf was hardly a war criminal. She was - to use VTC Jefferson's term - streetwise. One need not defend Schwarzkopf to understand the compromises of an ambitious young artist in a state in which the arts were heavily subsidized and completely controlled.

In the second part of the book, Jefferson offers insights into the singer's relationship with the British record executive, Walter Legge, who first rescued her from the Allied tribunal investigating her wartime activities, then abrasively drove her to refine her artistry and finally married her.

He sheds less light on her relationship with the equally dictatorial Herbert von Karajan. Jefferson maintains that the singer shortened her operatic career because she let the conductor persuade her to take roles too heavy for her. He mistakenly assumes that Karajan then had the musical and political clout he was to enjoy later and forgets that Schwarzkopf had an unblinking watchdog in Legge and was herself too savvy to waste her resources.

The book concludes with Schwarzkopf in retirement in Zurich, leading a life in her 81st year as quiet, comfortable, dignified and as far removed from its unsavory beginnings as that of any of the unforgettable heroines she once created on the stage.

Stephen Wigler has been The Sun's classical music critic since 1986. He previously wrote about music for the Orlando Sentinel and the Rochester Times-Democrat.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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