Wolfgang Sawallisch (1923-2013)

German conductor has died at the age of 89

Wolfgang Sawallisch
Published: February 26, 2013 at 10:36 am

Wolfgang Sawallisch’s career took him from the orchestral powerhouses of Germany to one of the ‘big five’ American orchestras.


Best known for his interpretations of Richard Strauss, Sawallisch was equally at home with Wagner, Schumann, Charles Ives and Bernard Rand.

Sawallisch was born in 1923 and studied at the Munich Hochschule für Musik. During the Second World War he worked as a radio operator in France and Italy – where he was held in a British prisoner of war camp.

He was taken on as a répétiteur at the opera house in Augsberg and worked as assistant to Igor Markevitch in Salzburg in 1950. Three years later he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, but Sawallisch turned down invitations to conduct the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Vienna Philharmonic, saying he did not feel he was ready.

It was in the following decade that he began to come to prominence, as principal conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic and Vienna Symphony Orchestras. He stayed with both ensembles for ten years.

In 1971 the Bavarian State Opera beckoned and in 1972 he conducted the company at Covent Garden in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos – the work’s first performance there since the composer had conducted the opera in 1936.

The American phase of Sawallisch’s career began in 1993 when he took up the post of music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra – one of the ‘big five’. He later took the orchestra to the Proms and on a centenary world tour in 2000.

Sawallisch was also a hugely prolific recording artist, largely for EMI, and a pianist of considerable ability.


The conductor retired in 2003, although he still made occasional appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo.

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