I wonder how kindly Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who died yesterday at the age of ninety, will be treated by posterity. In her lifetime she was widely–if by no means universally–regarded as one of the greatest sopranos of her generation. Yet even at the height of Schwarzkopf’s career, there were plenty of critical naysayers who found her singing fussy and mannered to the point of archness, and since her retirement in 1975, it’s my impression that their point of view, which I share, has come to prevail.
Schwarzkopf was also a great beauty, which doubtless contributed to the effect she had on live audiences. Alas, I never saw her on stage or in recital, only on film, so I can’t say whether she made a stronger impression in person. I’ve heard most of her major recordings, though, and I find that I rarely return to any of them save to listen to her colleagues. For my money, Herbert von Karajan’s first recordings of Falstaff and Der Rosenkavalier are the best things she ever did in the studio, and her singing is by no means the most memorable aspect of those deservedly admired performances.
As for her private life, suffice it for now to say that she was a Nazi, that she lied about it for as long as she could get away with it, and that she admitted her youthful affiliation with the Nazi Party grudgingly, evasively, and only when confronted with incontrovertible documentary evidence. Sooner or later a frank, fully informed biography of Schwarzkopf will be written, and my guess is that it will prove devastating to her reputation. (Alan Jefferson’s 1996 book didn’t fill the bill, but it was a start.)
Such things may not matter to you, but they do to me, all the more so in light of the fact that Schwarzkopf was so gifted and admired an artist. As I wrote in Commentary a few years ago apropos of those French artists who collaborated with the Nazis:
One thinks, for instance, of Colette, who blithely published in anti-Semitic magazines during the German occupation, or of the great pianist Alfred Cortot, who went so far as to serve as Vichy’s High Commissioner of Fine Arts and to perform in Nazi Germany….Indeed, the most troubling thing about Colette, Cortot and their fellow collaborationists is that they were not second-tier figures but creative and recreative geniuses whose work remains to this day representative of the quintessence of French art.
On the other hand, none of that stops me from reading Colette’s novels or listening to Cortot’s recordings. We are all flawed creatures, and one of the impenetrable mysteries of beautiful art is that it can be made by ugly souls. So feel free to mourn the death of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and to speak admiringly of her artistry–but when you do so, remember that there was more to her than the music she made.
As Clement Greenberg told an interviewer in 1969:
There are, of course, more important things than art: life itself, what actually happens to you. This may sound silly, but I have to say it, given what I’ve heard art-silly people say all my life: I say that if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness. Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art.
UPDATE: Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times obituary, which is both lengthy and candid, is here.
For a sympathetic but equally candid appreciation by Tim Page of the Washington Post, go here.