Farewell to Wolfgang Sawallisch, German Conductor February 26 2013

The prolific German conductor, Wolfgang Sawallisch, left us on

Wolfgang Sawallisch signed photo conducting

February 22, 2013. He left behind many recordings, particularly of his beloved Strauss, and made an impact on several orchestras across the globe.

Early Life

Wolfgang Sawallisch was born on August 26, 1923, in Munich, Germany. He was passionate about music from a young age and began playing the piano at the age of five. He continued his musical education throughout his childhood, supported by his widowed mother and older brother.

Sawallisch continued his musical education at Munich’s prestigious music schools, including the Wittelsbacher-Gymnasium and the Hochschule fur Musik. Although World War II interrupted his piano career, he was still established enough to find a job at the Stadttheater Augsburg, although not as a concert pianist but as a repetiteur, or accompanist.

The musical prodigy quickly rose through the ranks of the German classical music scene. After only a few years, he became a conductor at the Augsburg theater. He would soon go on to become a general music director at several other opera houses and was one of the youngest ever to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. His rising star caught the attention of the Metropolitan Opera and the Vienna State Opera, but he turned both offers down in a bold move that could have ended his classical career.

Musical Achievements

Sawallisch was most famous for his renditions of the works of Richard Strauss. He was dedicated to rediscovering new aspects of the composer’s work and bringing obscure compositions back to life. At the Bavarian State Opera, he performed almost all of Strauss’s operas and several of Wagner’s Ring cycles.

His conducting style was described as physically restrained, in contrast to many other conductors that favored bold movements and drama in their performances. However, despite his outwardly restrained appearance, Sawallisch was more than capable of extracting intense emotion from the pieces he worked with, sometimes bringing even hardened audiences to tears. His nickname of “The Firebird” was well-earned.

The capstone of Sawallisch’s career was his tenure at the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was a music director there for 20 years and made numerous well-renowned recordings, including several Schumann symphonies. After retirement, he was named conductor laureate of the Philadelphia Orchestra and continued playing the piano until his health made it difficult.

Personal Life

Sawallisch was a radio operator for the Wehrmacht before his capture by the British Army and time in a POW camp.

He had one great love of his life, the German singer Mechthild Schmid. Mechthild gave up her career to work as his manager, and he adopted her son Jorg from a previous marriage as his own. When Mechthild died in 1998, his musical performances became far more emotional and the aloof conductor was known to break down in tears at rehearsal.

The latter years of Sawallisch’s life were marked by illness. He suffered from low blood pressure, which prevented him from performing and receiving visitors, but his passion for music continued until his death.

Items of interest:

Sawallisch, Wolfgang - Signed Photo 1985

Sawallisch, Wolfgang & Others - Signed Program Don Giovanni 1988


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