Mr. Sawallisch was most at home with the music of German composers such as Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Richard Strauss. The music critic David Patrick Stearns, writing in the Inquirer in 2000, described Mr. Sawallisch as “the greatest living Strauss conductor in an era loaded with excellent ones.”
Some critics regarded Mr. Sawallisch as too traditional, too inclined to hew to the canon. Mr. Sawallisch was unmoved. “I am not a friend of extremely contemporary music,” he told the Times in 1990, “with electronic sounds and so on.’’
On at least one occasion, he looked on modernity with a sense of humor. In 2000, a baton he had used to conduct Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” — the number later featured in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — was sent into outer space aboard the Discovery.
“I’m happy to have my baton go up,” Mr. Sawallisch said, “so long as I don’t have to.”
Wolfgang Sawallisch was born Aug. 26, 1923, in Munich. He studied the piano as a boy and wanted to be a concert pianist, until he heard an opera at 11.
“I was so fascinated by the sounds of the orchestra and the singers and the sight of the whole production on the stage,” he once told an interviewer, “that I decided immediately to change my mind and study to be a conductor.”
He received only limited musical training before being drafted for military service during World War II. Mr. Sawallisch was sent to the front in Italy and held prisoner by the British until the end of the war.
His first professional job was as an opera coach in Augsburg, in Bavaria. In 1953, the year after marrying the singer Mechthild Schmid, he successfully auditioned for the job of music director in Aachen.
Mr. Sawallisch made his American debut in 1964 with the Vienna Symphony and was a frequent guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra before getting the top job in 1993. He was modest about his accomplishments with the institution. “How do you improve on greatness,” he told the Times as he approached retirement. “I simply wanted to maintain it.”
Mr. Sawallisch’s son was reported to have died earlier this year, and his wife died in 1998. After her death, many reviewers noted the intense grief that seemed to fill Mr. Sawallisch’s music.
As a conductor, he had been deeply sensitive to loss. Once, in an interview with the Inquirer, he spoke about Beethoven and the suffering the composer endured as he lost his hearing.
“It must’ve been a martyrdom,” he said, “to be full of music, to have the sounds within himself but not be able to hear the expression of it.”