BOOK REVIEW / Her Masters' voice

ELISABETH SCHWARZKOPF by Alan Jefferson, Gollancz pounds 22.5

Michael Church
Sunday 18 February 1996 00:02

STRANGE, muses Alan Jefferson, that nobody has written a proper biography of Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. With her beauty, her artistry, her astonishing emergence from the ruins of Nazi Germany, and her mysterious marriage to her producer, she has long been a suitable case for such treatment. Jefferson accordingly asked her to assist him, but she declined. He pressed on alone, drawing on archives and on conversations he had had with her husband, the late Walter Legge. It would have been regrettable, he says, "if the details of this remarkable woman's life were not to become widely known".

Well, they are now, and a fine fuss they've caused. Schwarzkopf always claimed that she never received her Nazi membership card; Jefferson has established that this was a lie. Moreover, he demonstrates that she lied repeatedly about this membership to the denazification authorities when the war was over. The British press have worked themselves into a lather over the Diva-who-became-a-Dame-but-was-a-Nazi. From her home in Switzerland, the Dame has fulminated against the "unfairness" of these gibes. In his Times column, Bernard Levin rode to her defence ("What would we have done in her position?"), and in a Radio 3 interview on 4 February, Schwarzkopf insisted that she had never been interested in politics; art was her sole concern.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf rivetingly chronicles the beginnings of this murky allegiance. Encouraged by her mother, but against the wishes of her schoolmaster father, she became a local Fuhrerin, with the duty of ensuring that her fellow students said nothing disparaging about the Fuhrer. While employed at the Deutsche Oper, she formally joined the Nazi party after testifying to her racial purity. More incriminating than this membership - a voluntary gesture some of her colleagues chose not to make - was the use to which she put it. The picture that emerges from Jefferson's scrupulous account is not a pretty one: of a pushy young woman who, furious at being demoted to a role she considers beneath her, kicks a hole in the scenery; or who, when justly reprimanded for unprofessional behaviour, blackmails her boss by invoking her influential friends. "Colleagues and others have spoken of Schwarzkopf's 'protector' in the highest ranks of the Party, but this does not constitute evidence," Jefferson observes cautiously, but the implication is clear.

At no stage in his account is there any hint that she was uncomfortable under the Nazi regime. She made films for Goebbels, and sang for the SS on the Eastern Front. When tuberculosis removed her to a sanatorium in the Tatra mountains, her relief was simply to have escaped the worst of the bombing in Berlin. Recovered, she went happily to work under the aegis of the Gauleiter of Vienna. With Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert von Karajan, she was temporarily blacklisted by the post-war Austrian regime, but her local popularity ensured that the ban was soon lifted.

Why has this tale waited so long to be told? The answer can only be that those who knew it didn't want to tell it, and that it inspired one of those accommodations which the music business and the music press enter into when the boat must not be rocked. Jefferson, needless to say, is an outsider. "Who he?" as Bernard Levin revealingly asked, before putting the boot in.

But Jefferson seems, to an almost painful degree, a man of honour. Far from revelling in the discomfiture he is meting out to his subject, he makes no mention of some of her post-war humiliations (a hostile demonstration by Jewish refugees in New York, and the banning of her voice from Israeli radio). He gallantly refrains from discussing her love-life before she met Walter Legge. He is happiest when discussing her performances - one by one, in exhaustive detail. And here is the trouble with this book; he's too much of a fan to be a satisfactory biographer.

He is fascinating on the way Legge moulded her talent, to the point where she became known as Her Master's Voice. He hints at the sadism which characterised this relationship, but he never really tries to get under its skin. One senses an emptiness, a meeting - not meshing - of two desperate needs: Legge's for power, Schwarzkopf's for adulation. The fact that they gave pleasure to millions does not seem to have made either of them happy.

For a portrait of the diva herself, we have to fillet what we can from the intervals in Jefferson's relentless catalogue of her recordings and recitals. But certain things stick in the mind: the singer in Berlin who slashed at her legs with a riding whip in exasperation at being constantly upstaged; the way Schwarzkopf flounced off the London stage for ever, after a clutch of hostile reviews; the records she chose for her Desert lsland Discs programme, all but one featuring her own voice. Naked ambition, self-absorption. Interestingly, she liked to have a "blinder", a bright spot-light, directed into her eyes during recitals, the better to isolate herself from the audience.

But what art! She herself described it as "sculpting in sound": to listen to her 1967 recording of Hugo Wolf's Spanisches Liederbuch, for example, is to realise the fastidious care with which she shaped each note, and turned each song into an exquisite structure.

When she asserts that her sole concern has been her art, I think we must believe her. She has never swaggered around like a star: stories abound of her slipping unrecognised through crowds of admirers thanks to her habit of dressing down. It's possible that her wartime opportunism was just another facet of her devotion to her talent. But artists are human too, and they should not be exempt from the ordinary rules of decent human conduct.

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