Schwarzkopf, the soprano who rivalled Callas, dies aged 90

Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the German-born soprano, died at her home in Austria yesterday at the age of 90.

One of the greatest singers of her generation, she was particularly noted for her renditions of Strauss and Mozart on the operatic stage and her Schubert and Wolf on the concert platform.

Beautiful and artistic, her only rival was Maria Callas. She married the English impresario Walter Legge, who met her on a talent-spotting trip to Vienna at the end of the Second World War. She took up British citizenship and lived in London where she continued to enjoy international success.

In this country, her reputation as a singer was somewhat tarnished when her links to the Nazi party were revealed. Schwarzkopf, who was made a Dame of the British Empire on ministerial recommendation in 1992, admitted that she had applied to join the Nazis in 1940, because it enabled her to continue performing. But she denied that she ever held a party card, and said that her application had been rejected.

At the time of the controversy in the late 1990s, she said: "It is so unfair. Maybe you English understand what fairness is, but maybe you don't."

She was also the only guest on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs whose choice of eight tracks comprised all her own recordings.

When Walter Legge died in 1979, she announced that she would not sing in public again. She did, however, continue to lecture and give masterclasses.

Schwarzkopf, the daughter of a Prussian schoolmaster, was born near Posen, German - now in Poland - in 1915. Her family moved to Berlin, where she became a prize-winning student at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, now part of the Berlin University of the Arts. An incorrect analysis by her first voice teacher, who thought she was a contralto, almost thwarted her ambitions.

Schwarzkopf was first paid to sing as a member of the chorus in a 1937 recording of Mozart's Magic Flute under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham.

A year later, she made her operatic debut at the Berlin Municipal Opera as one of the flower maidens in Wagner's Parsifal. Having been given only short notice, she learned the part overnight.

Her leading roles, ranging from the Marschallin in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier to Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni, were immortalised on records and CDs. It was for her Marschallin that many opera-goers most fondly remembered her, but she was also particularly renowned for her lyrical recitals of German lieder.

Performing with many of the great conductors of the 20th century, including Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer and Vittorio de Sabata, she was what Italian opera aficionados would have called a diva assoluta - an absolute star.

Her last operatic performance was in Brussels in 1971, as her beloved Marschallin. In 1976, Cambridge University gave her their rarely awarded honorary doctorate of music.

She died in the early hours in the town of Schruns in Austria's westernmost province of Vorarlberg. No cause of death was given.

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