Walter Leggs, who for over a generation was one of the most influential figures in the world of music, died last Thursday at his home in St. Jean-Cap Ferrat in southern France.The cause of death was cardiac arrest. Legge was 72.
While Legge had been active in the recording industry before World War II, it was his position as the artistic director of EMI, Electric and Musical Industries, and his founding the Philharmonic Orchestra of London that permitted him to dominate the musical scene both in Europe, and to a decided extent, in this country in the quarter of a century after the war.
Those roles, however, were of importance only because Legge, though not a musician himself, was a man of the rarest artistic perception and taste. He established the Philharmonia Orchestra in London immediately after World War II ended, signed an exclusive recording contract with Maria Callas in 1952, and in October 1953, married soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
As early as the 1930s, Legge conceived the idea of recording all of the songs of Hugo Wolf. His employers at that time, the Gramophone Company of England, were doubtful about the saleability of Wolf songs, which were, at that time, regarded as caviar for the most sophisticated music lovers. Legge persuaded them to issue an album to be sold only to subscribers to the Wolf Society. The idea turned out to be immensely successful, and eventually six volumes were issued.
Legge had persuaded his friend and mentor, English music critic Ernest Newman, to write the notes for the albums, and engaged such great singers of that time as Elisabeth Rethberg, Alexander Kipnis, John McCormack, Gerhard Husch, Ria Ginster, and Tiana Lemnitz. As a result of the success of the Wolf Society, similar societies were formed by Legge for the music of Sibelius, Delius, and Haydn.
Legge's aim in creating the Philharmonia Orchestra was to engage the finest players and have them perform under only the very greatest conductors. In its early days it performed and recorded under Otto Klemperer, and the young Carlo Maria Giulini, and Herbert von Karajan, whose career was clouded for a time until he was cleared of charges of collaborating with the Nazi regime in Germany. Legge recognized Karajan's genius and hired him to record with the Philharmonia even before it was possible to put the conductor's name on the record label.
Through years of association with the great performers of the 1930s and 1940s, Legge acquired a keen ear for rising geniuses. He engaged the phenomenal young Romanian pianist, Dinu Lipatti, and French violinist Geinette Neveu. Despite his unfailing affection for great orchestral and chamber music, it was the beauty of the human voice, in songs and opera, that most strongly attracted Legge.
Even before his marriage to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the young soprano had starred in recordings made under Legge's artistic direction. She sang in the Beethoven Ninth Symphony when Wilhelm Furtwangler presided over the re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival Opera House in 1951, and sang the role of Eva in "Die Meistersinger" when Karajan conducted it there that same year. Both events were recorded live by Legge.
Ernest Newman's wife, Vera, in her memoirs, says that Legge called her one day to ask if he and Schwarzkopf could be married from the Newman's home. A few years later, Legge told me that he had said to the Newmans, "I'm going to marry the most beautiful woman in Europe and make her its greatest soprano."
At the time of their marriage, Schwarzkopf, who had been celebrated as a lovely Mimi, Violetta, and Butterfly, began to move into the operas of Mozart and Strauss in which she gained international renown, while, at the same time, she worked unceasingly at the art of songs under Legge's knowing guidance. Not many years ago, Schwarzkopf said that she had learned everything she knew from her husband. While that statement is belied by her polished art in the years before she became Mrs. Legge, it is a tribute to his extraordinary sense of style and his knowledge of the highest achievements in singing.
Under Legge's direction EMI recordings, released in this country on the Angel label, began to pour out in a steady stream, many of them immediately acclaimed as among the greatest recordings ever made, not merely technically, but in their attainment of the rarest artistic standards.
Such singers as Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda, Victoria de los Angeles, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau became household words to record lovers before they set foot on this country's concert or opera stages. Complete operas made on the stage of La Scala in Milan starred Callas, Schwarzkopf, the young Anna Moffo, Tito Gobbi, and Giuseppe de Stefano under the batons of Karajan and the venerable Tullio Serafin.
Legge became Callas's chief mentor, the man to whom she turned for completely honest and valuable criticism, and whose judgment she accepted above any other. Her greatest recordings and many of her outstanding live performances were attained under his influence.
Having know and collaborated with many of the greatest conductors of this century, Legge insisted on nothing but the highest standards for the Philharmonia Orchestra, eventually naming Otto Klemperer its conductor "for life." The recordings of such classics as the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Schubert, the St. Matthew Passion of Bach, and the Brahms Requiem set standards against which any competitors must be judged.
In the world of operatic recordings, his achievements with "Der Rosenkavalier," for which he made the English translation, for Beethoven's "Fidelio," and for Mozart's "Don Giovanni," "Marriage of Figaro," and "Cosi fan Tutte" are not to be surpassed. For the last of these Legge spent a year and a half in preparing the singers, he said, before turning them over to conductor Karl Boehm. Of the "Fidelio," which Klemperer conducts and Ludwig sings the title role, he said, "It might some time be done differently -- but not, I think, better."
Legge could infuriate some musicians and music critics, some of whom he once banned from Philharmonia concerts in London because he believed them to be totally incapable of discussing the performances.
There were very few to challenge him on grounds of artistic integrity, for his taste was impeccable. Among his greatest accomplishments was a second round of recording the songs of Hugo Wolf. With Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau in a repertoire in which they are unchallenged, with pianist Gerald Moore as the ideal accompanist, Legge again produced the Wolf repertoire, most of it on an even higher plane than had been possible his first time around.
It is not surprising, then, that after cremation in Geneva, Switzerland, on Sunday, his ashes will be placed in Vienna's Central Cemetery near those of Wolf, whose grave, in turn, is near those of Schubert and Beethoven. Few men ever served all three composers with greater fidelity.
Legge is survived by his wife, and by two daughters from a former marriage.