June 01, 2016

Today marks 110 years since the birth of legendary record producer Walter Legge

The EMI pioneer made immortal recordings with his wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Maria Callas, Herbert von Karajan and more.

'If you examine Walter Legge's work from beginning to end, you will experience something extraordinary and grand. You will hear the work of a man with god-given musicality and imagination, and you will know that all the great artists who appear on these albums worked alongside Walter, with his attentive ears, with the greatest satisfaction.' -Elisabeth Legge-Schwarzkopf

That Walter Legge was a consummate musician is obvious to anybody who knows his work. Yet he received no formal education in music. The source of his knowledge was a local public library in west London. He played the piano, and before heavy smoking took its toll he possessed a good baritone voice; but poor eyesight and a certain lack of physical coordination prevented him from mastering any musical instrument. On one occasion he conducted an orchestra, but after a few minutes he put the baton down, realising that he could never obtain results to satisfy his own acute musical sensibilities.

If he could not reach great heights in making music himself, then he would create great music-making by inspiring others; in later years he referred to himself, with perhaps a touch of irony, as 'a midwife to music'. His first employment within the record industry came in 1929 through the help of the manager of the HMV shop in London's Oxford Street, who recommended him to senior company colleagues. Soon Legge was writing analytical notes for HMV album sets. He then became editor of the company's trade magazine, The Voice.

In the early 1930s, he formed the London Lieder Club, and made contact with some of the finest singers of the day. Early in 1934, he met Sir Thomas Beecham, who was sufficiently impressed to insist that the 27-year-old should produce all his Columbia recordings (HMV, Columbia and Parlophone had amalgamated in 1931 to form EMI Records Ltd). In 1938 Beecham appointed him as his Assistant Artistic Director for two international opera seasons at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The outbreak of war in September 1939 brought radical change to his working life. EMI continued to make recordings, though on a reduced scale, and Legge (rejected for war service on account of his poor eyesight) found himself responsible for all of the company's classical output. Among Beecham's last recordings before he departed for America in 1940 was one in which unusually he played the piano accompaniment for a young contralto, Nancy Evans, who was to become Legge's first wife the following year.

By June 1940, enemy forces occupied most of Europe, and Legge could only use British-based artists for his recordings.  With young musicians returning from the fighting services, plus the pick of the players from other orchestras, Legge founded his Philharmonia Orchestra in October 1945. Almost immediately the new ensemble started to make recordings.

In 1946, Legge visited Vienna to renew contact with established artists and to seek new talent. Over the course of the next five years he made many recordings in Vienna, Lucerne, Prague, Berlin and Geneva, besides running his orchestra and maintaining a busy recording schedule in London. In 1951 he made recordings at the first post-war Bayreuth Festival, and in 1953 he made the first of a series of opera recordings in Milan's La Scala theatre. It was also in 1953 that he married his second wife, the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whom he had met in Vienna seven years previously.

A flow of recordings for EMI (now Warner Classics) continued until 1964; he continued to supervise all of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's recordings until her last sessions, three months before his death in March 1979. His recordings with Callas, Schwarzkopf, Karajan, Furtwängler, Klemperer, Lipatti and many of the greatest artists in the post-war era remain legendary today. He supervised some 3,500 recordings of separate works, large and small. Even in the most unpropitious circumstances, such as an unheated wartime town hall with a leaking roof, or when electrical power had to be provided via a power-driven generator in early post-war Vienna, he strove for the highest possibile artistic standards. He usually achieved his end. -Alan Sanders, 1996

Schwarzkopf Legge