|Wolfgang Sawallisch began to learn
the piano at the age of five, studying theory and composition while still
at school and subsequently becoming a pupil of Ruoff, Haas, and Sache in
Munich, prior to joining the German army in 1942. Following the end of World
War II he completed his musical studies at the Munich High School for Music.
He then joined the Augsburg Opera in 1947 as a répétiteur,
and with the violinist Gerhard Seitz won the first prize for duo performances
at the Geneva International Music Competition in 1949. Having made his début
as a conductor with Humperdinck’s Hänsel
und Gretel in 1950 at Augsburg, he shortly afterwards became first
conductor there. He was Germany’s youngest general music director on his
appointment to head the Aachen Opera in 1953, and was later recruited to
the same post at Wiesbaden in 1958 and at Cologne in 1960. He also taught
conducting at the Cologne Conservatory. Sawallisch conducted annually at
the Bayreuth Festival from 1957 to 1961, opening the 1957 Festival with Tristan und Isolde. In the same year
he made his English débuts as both an accompanist, with the soprano
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and as a conductor, with her husband Walter Legge’s
Philharmonia Orchestra. Legge also engaged him to make several important
recordings, notably the first commercial release of Richard Strauss’s final
In 1960, in addition to his appointment at Cologne, Sawallisch became chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and in 1961 of the Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra, retaining both positions until 1970 and touring America successfully with the Vienna Symphony in 1964. He succeeded Paul Kletzki as chief conductor of the Suisse Romande Orchestra in 1972, having been appointed the previous year as chief conductor of the Bavarian State Opera. He led this company on another successful tour, to London in 1972, and remained at its head until 1992, making numerous recordings, notably of lesser-known works by Wagner and Richard Strauss. Sawallisch is also a gifted pianist and has given recitals with many of the leading instrumentalists and singers of our time, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
In 1990, Sawallisch was named as the chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in succession to Riccardo Muti, taking up this appointment in 1993. He relinquished the position in 2003 following the death of his wife, but continued to appear with the orchestra as a most-welcome guest. In addition to his permanent posts, Sawallisch has had an active career as a guest conductor with the world’s leading orchestras, including the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, London Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, and the Orchestre National de Radio France in Paris, and has conducted regularly at La Scala, Milan. He is especially popular in Japan, where he has appeared regularly with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. Sawallisch is a conservative, ‘no-nonsense’ conductor whose platform style is economical and clear. His interpretations are grounded firmly on a complete understanding of the Austro-German school of composers, of which he is a pre-eminent interpreter.
His discography is large and distinguished, and includes recordings of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner, Dvořák, Richard Strauss and Hindemith in both studio and live incarnations.
This interview was recorded on the telephone on May 2,
1994. Sections were used (along with recordings) on
WNIB five days later, and again in 1998. It was transcribed
and posted on this website in 2012.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.