Obituary: Rudolf Schwarz

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The Independent Online
Rudolf Schwarz, conductor,: born Vienna 29 April 1905: CBE 1973; twice married (one son); died 30 January 1994.

ORCHESTRAL music in Britain lost a good friend and a distinguished exponent with the death of the conductor Rudolf Schwarz.

Born in Vienna in 1905, Rudi Schwarz was already well established as an operatic conductor in pre-war Germany when his courageous acceptance of the musical directorship of the Jewish Cultural Organisation in Berlin brought him to the attention of the Nazis. Bearing in mind his appalling treatment at their hands in camps such as Belsen, from which he was rescued in 1945 more dead than alive, it speaks volumes for Schwarz's character and determination that he should have maintained vigorous health and a zest for life to the ripe old age of nearly 89.

Recuperating after the war in Sweden (where he met and married his dearly loved second wife, Greta, who predeceased him by some years), he read an advertisement for the conductorship of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, and, somewhat to his surprise, got the job. He used to chuckle about being shown the list of some 200 concerts to be given in his first season, and enquiring who the other conductors would be. 'You,' the manager told him, 'you are the other conductors.' 'But what if I get ill?' 'You will not get ill,' the manager replied, 'Bournemouth is a very healthy place.'

When Schwarz succeeded George Weldon as principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1951, he did not find himself conducting quite that many concerts, and he had the able Harold Gray as his Associate Conductor, to look after most of the education work and some of the more popular programmes; but those were still the days when the principal conductor of a regional symphony orchestra was expected to direct the majority of its concerts, and he was kept extremely busy.

In 1952 he became a British citizen, and he was a tireless champion of British composers. In Birmingham, Weldon had established the CBSO Proms as a summer festival, largely based on orchestral 'pops' and with a huge following. In his first summer season, Schwarz programmed two first performances and nine other contemporary British works new to the public; not surprisingly, they stayed away in droves, and a financial crisis ensued. Undeterred, in 1955 he initiated (with major works by Bliss and Tippett) the series of important Feeney Trust commissions for the CBSO that has continued ever since.

But it was in his own Austro-German repertoire, from Haydn to Strauss and beyond, that Schwarz excelled. Symphonies like Mahler's Fourth or the Schubert Great C Major were unforgettable, of an almost Furtwangler-like breadth. His favourite word in rehearsal was 'sustain' ('Soostyne, my dee-ars, soostyne]'). The actual conducting style was strange - the beat lopsided, often hard for players to 'read'; but read it they did, with results that were sometimes controversial but never uninteresting.

Rudi Schwarz was a very private person, but his professional colleagues held him in great affection; Simon Raffle and Christopher Seaman were amongst many close friends and admirers. The pianist Phyllis Sellick described him to me in a recent interview as

a very nice man, and a fine musician. It wasn't always easy to follow his beat, though. I remember that Cyril (Smith) and I played the Lennox Berkeley Two- Piano Concerto with him. It's a score with many tricky moments in it, and at the rehearsal it didn't go too well, but he asked the two of us to stay behind afterwards to go through some sections again for him. He said, 'If I get it right in my head, it will go well tonight.' And it did.

In 1957 Schwarz left Birmingham to become Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, following in the footsteps of Sir Adrian Boult, another distinguished musician who had guided the Birmingham orchestra through six seasons. Later he held other posts, notably with the Northern Sinfonia in Newcastle upon Tyne and the Bergen Harmonien SO.

In recent years he suffered from a hearing impediment which made it impossible for him to enjoy listening to music, but he bore it uncomplainingly, living quietly at home in Putney and keeping in touch with a small but devoted circle of friends.

(Photograph omitted)