Wolfgang Sawallisch The Ideal of a Kapellmeister

Star conductor: this term did not yet exist when Wolfgang Sawallisch, soon after the Second World War, began a career that would take him throughout the world. Sawallisch was the last “Kapellmeister” in that old tradition of German music which liked to see the conductor as a “servant” of music rather than a self-promoter.

Wolfgang Sawallisch, the maestro of clarity Wolfgang Sawallisch, the maestro of clarity | Photo: Angeline Bauer Wolfgang Sawallisch was born in the music city of Munich on 23 August 1923, the native city of the conductor and composer Richard Strauss, who was like a fixed star in his musical universe. For Sawallisch, Munich was probably early on the desired goal as a venue for music-making. After his school leaving examination, military service, graduation from the Munich Academy of Music and master classes with great conductors such as Hans Rosbaud and Igor Markevitch, Sawallisch, now twenty-four, received his first opera job: in Augsburg as répétiteur and conductor. This was followed by positions at the opera houses of Aachen, Wiesbaden and Cologne; then as chief conductor, sometimes concurrently, of the Hamburg State Opera and the Viennese Symphony Orchestra; and later, in addition, the Geneva Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Sawallisch’s early international renown assured invitations for guest appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and at the Bayreuth Festival, where in 1957 his Tristan created a sensation, as did later his Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Flying Dutchman.

Munich as goal

Conducting at the Munich Opera House was an important period in Wolfgang Sawallisch's career. Conducting at the Munich Opera House was an important period in Wolfgang Sawallisch's career. | Photo: Bayerische Staatsoper, Wilfried Hösl His conducting career expanded. Sawallisch stepped to the podium at the Salzburg, Edinburgh and Lucerne Festivals; he conducted opera at Milan, La Scala and London’s Covent Garden. In 1969 he made his first visit to Japan, became a favourite conductor of music lovers there, and regularly returned to Japanese concert halls. His goal, however, remained the Bavarian State Opera. Beginning in 1971, Sawallisch “served” for more than two decades at Germany’s largest opera house. First as music director, proving himself worthy of his great predecessors Hans Knappertsbusch and Joseph Keilberth, and later as State Opera director. Sawallisch shaped Munich opera culture of the 1970s and 80s with a firm and sensitive hand, with his workmanlike, vital and elegant musical style of complete and rounded classicism. The repertoire rested happily on three solid pillars: Mozart, Wagner, Strauss. It was Sawallisch who for the first time in the history of opera, and with worldwide attention, conducted all the operas of Richard Wagner (1982/83) and Richard Strauss (1988/89) in a complete cycle. He was a musician in harmony with romantic, sensitive emotion and an intelligent sense of form; with musical élan, depth of feeling, refinement and fidelity to the score.

The ideal of clarity

In the interest of clarity: this was the title with which Sawallisch adorned his memoirs, published in 1988. Making music in the service of clarity, with discipline and self-effacement – that corresponded to his attitude towards life and his sense of art, in which the love of order, diligence and elasticity played the main role. Musical clarity was also the measure of his music-making on the piano: that Sawallisch was a brilliant chamber music pianist and lied accompanist of Margaret Price, Peter Schreiber, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Thomas Hampson is vouched for by recordings. The Sawallisch era of the Munich State Opera fostered an art that was diverse, vitally conservative and resplendent with great singers in which, alongside the “pillars”, Verdi, Puccini, German comic opera and Modernism in the form of Orff, Pfitzner, Hindemith and Henze also found their place. Sawallisch responded hesitantly, however, to the new interpretations of younger directors and stage artists. The splendour of the State Opera was further enhanced by the frenetically celebrated performances of Carlos Kleiber. Sawallisch’s natural and profound affection for Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, for Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bruckner and Strauss dominated the concert hall. The bulky symphonies of Mahler or the atonal works of the Schönberg school lay outside his purview, much more the music of the contemporary avant-garde.


Sawallisch’s worldwide music-making and his recordings secured him a place among the top international conductors for decades. Thus no one was surprised when, in 1992, he accepted an offer from Philadelphia to become the conductor and music director of the city’s symphony orchestra, once the proud ensemble of Leopold Stokowski and Eugen Ormandy. In the interest of musical clarity, of control and concision, of inspiration and artistic and humane participation: Sawallisch’s rootedness in the tradition of German Classicism and Romanticism was coveted by America’s orchestras, with their globalised standard of perfection. Equally so his stylistic versatility in a broad musical repertoire. For all its self-discipline, Sawallisch’s energetic, elastic conducting style preserved a strain of passionate musicianship. Sawallisch gave American music lovers ten happy years of his conducting before he was forced to retire too early because of problems with his health.

The recordings from the Philadelphia years, as before those from Bayreuth, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Geneva, testify to Sawallisch’s lofty musical ideal: his lively, honest, “clear” conducting produced an astonishing transparency and homogeneity of romantic orchestral sound thanks to an artistry driven by inward emotion. An elemental joy in music, relaxed mastery, warmth and love of music making still flared up again and again in later years. Wolfgang Sawallisch died on 22 February 2013 in his adopted home of Grassau in Upper Bavaria.