The exact nature of the relation in classical music between composition and performance remains at best confused and paradoxical. On the simplest level, music can hardly exist without performance; those gifted enough to “hear” music directly from a reading of the score are few, and even those fortunate individuals would doubtless admit even their talents are hardly able to do more than present a schematic, rather than a definitive, picture of the composer’s intentions. On the other hand, a musical composition can live in many realizations that differ widely in conception, quality, and competence of execution.

Furthermore, the balance between composition and performance changes for different kinds of music. Great music, as the pianist Artur Schnabel pointed out, is greater than its performers. It is difficult to think of the most cerebral works, like Bach’s Art of Fugue or Musical Offering, as dependent for their continued existence on any particular realization. And even the esteemed masterworks of Mozart and Beethoven seem to thrive wherever, however, and, by whomever they are performed. By contrast, the continuing presence of music of lesser ambition and achievement seems to depend more on the personalities of the performers. This is especially clear in the fate of classical encore pieces, and of popular music in general.

Perhaps this split between the composition-oriented status of great music and the performance-oriented status of popular music is least evident in opera. Here, of course, one does not deal in abstract musical notation but rather with immensely attractive people, lustily singing on the stage and vibrantly living real lives before the audience. So it is no accident that the greatest musical careers—greatest, that is, in the sense of capturing the hearts of a mass audience-have for many years been made by singers: one would search in vain for a pianist or a violinist, or even a conductor, whose public presence has equaled that of such present-day songbirds as Luciano Pavarotti and Beverly Sills.

Not surprisingly, there remain cults of these charmed beings long after their retirements and deaths. One such cult is that of Enrico Caruso, whose artistic life served to form our image of the Italian singer and of Italian opera, and even of Italy itself. Caruso’s triumph over his repertory, however, was only to be expected, for most of what he sang (from Meyerbeer and early Verdi to Puccini) was at the very least far from Olympian.

In the case of an arguably much greater body of operatic composition—Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Parsifal—it might be thought that performers would pale beside the stature of the music. And, indeed, present evidence suggests as much. While performances of these masterworks still command audience and critical interest, today’s Wagnerian singers, when they are not more or less voiceless, seem faceless. A lover of these monumental works would be hard put to mention one contemporary singer of this repertory, whether female or male, whose vocalism proclaims itself as irreplaceable, or whose personality comes across the footlights as truly memorable.

Recorded evidence suggests that today’s Wagner presentations are not the thrilling artistic experiences an older generation knew.

Recorded evidence suggests that today’s Wagner presentations are not the thrilling artistic experiences an older generation knew. In this regard, three singers take pride of place: the Hungarian baritone Friedrich Schorr (1888–1953), the Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior (1890–1973), and the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895–1962). Schorr, Melchior, and Flagstad all left major phonographic documentation. Schorr, famous for his portrayals of Wotan in the Ring and especially of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, made many 78 RPM records in the late 1920s and early 1930s;1 Melchior’s discs date from these relatively early days of electrical recording but also extend to the later 1930s and the early-to-mid-i940s. Of these three great artists, Flagstad was perhaps best treated by the phonograph, for almost all her recording activity took place from the mid-1930s to the end of the 1950s, with a significant part of it occurring after World War II, in the electronically advanced era of the tape recorder.

And what recordings Flagstad’s are! Only a few can be mentioned here, and yet they are enough to suggest her whole achievement. First, there are the excerpts, often in duplicate versions dating from various times in her career, of the great moments from the Ring that she made her own—in particular the Immolation Scene from Götterdämerung—and major sections of Tristan (including a dazzling RCA recording of the love duet with Melchior), as well as the Herzeleide scene from Act II of Parsifal (again with Melchior). In addition, the past decade has seen the availability of her complete performances of the Ring and of Tristan. The leading item in this distinguished collection, if only because it was the sole complete performance of a major Wagner role by Flagstad at the height of her career to be commercially released, was the 1952 Tristan with the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Of almost equal importance was the complete Ring Flagstad did with Furtwängler at La Scala in 1950; this recording, based on broadcast tapes of varying quality, documents Flagstad’s Brünnhilde toward the end of her career, and has been released on several private labels in LP pressings of equally varying quality.

Flagstad’s non-commercial recordings are not limited to these late examples of her art.2 They include her complete 1936 Covent Garden Tristan, with Melchior in the title role and Fritz Reiner conducting.3 Another Tristan—a complete broadcast of the opera from 1941—was made available by the Metropolitan Opera several years ago; the tenor is again Melchior, but the conductor this time is the very young Erich Leinsdorf. One can also hear, though in relatively dim sound, the 1937 Met broadcast of Lohengrin (conducted by Maurice Abravanel) and the 1938 broadcast of Siegfried (conducted by Bodanzky, with Melchior in the title role).

Returning to the world of modern recording, one finds a wealth of Flagstad discs made after World War II for EMI, and then, in the last years of her career, for Decca. In addition to many Wagner excerpts, there are complete recordings of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (with Flagstad as Dido and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Belinda) and Gluck’s Alceste. From the very end of Flagstad’s career, six years after her official New York retirement, there is her 1958 portrayal of Fricka in the Solti Das Rheingold, the first installment of his now standard Ring.4 One additional non-Wagner item, too, deserves mention: a technically inadequate but magically evocative 1950 broadcast disc of Flagstad’s world premiere performance (undertaken by her at the composer’s request) of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs with Furtwängler conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in London.

Born in 1895 to a family of professional musicians, Kirsten Flagstad appeared first in public in 1913. She sang a great deal of light music, including operettas and musical comedies, though she also sang Nedda in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, and the title role in Puccini’s Tosca. In 1929, she tried her first Wagner role, appearing as Elsa in Lohengrin; in 1930 she sang Eva in Die Meistersinger, and finally, in 1932, Isolde. An invitation to the Bayreuth Festival in 1933 resulted in her singing small parts; at the next year’s festival she appeared as Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Gutrune in Götterdämmerung. Her growing reputation, very much assisted by the praise of the great Russian bass Alexander Kipnis, produced a Metropolitan Opera audition in 1934. Now almost forty, she was immediately engaged; there seems no evidence that the Met realized quite what a prize it had gotten hold of.

Though Flagstad’s great career was late in coming, once launched it proved immediately full grown. She first appeared at the Metropolitan as Sieglinde on February 2, 1935, and the reaction was tumultuous. The New York Times’s Olin Downes wrote:

To the Metropolitan Association came yesterday a new singer who made an immediate and indeed irresistible appeal to the audience. . . . [T]he performance yesterday was the performance of an artist superbly gifted, physically a true figure of Wagnerian music drama, rarely eloquent and communicative in action and song.

When Flagstad appeared as Isolde four days later, The New York Herald-Tribune’s widely respected Lawrence Gilman marked the historic nature of the event:

Last night’s performance of “Tristan” at the Metropolitan was made unforgettable for its hearers by a transcendently beautiful and moving impersonation of Isolde—an embodiment so sensitively musical, so fine-grained in its imaginative and intellectual texture, so lofty in its pathos and simplicity, of so memorable a loveliness, that experienced opera-goers sought among their memories of legendary days to find its like. They did not find it.

Appearing in partnership with Melchior—who had made his Met debut in 1926, and had been coming annually to the house since 1928—Flagstad not only revived the performance of Wagner in New York but also, through her tremendous box-office success, played a major role in saving the company during the difficult later days of the Depression. Though she did sing regularly at London’s Covent Garden, and spent much time in Norway, her artistic base was very much the United States. And so it came as a considerable shock when she decided, in the spring of 1941, to return to Norway to live. This decision, made at the request of her husband, a Norwegian businessman and collaborator with the Nazis, effectively removed her from the operatic and concert stage (despite a few engagements in Sweden and Switzerland) for the duration of the war.

Upon the liberation of Norway, Flagstad’s husband was arrested; he died awaiting trial. The resumption of her career was delayed by accusations—now generally agreed to be unfounded—of her cooperation with the Germans and her complicity in her husband’s political activities. She finally began to sing again in 1947, appearing in Italy at La Scala and then in the United States at Carnegie Hall, at Covent Garden, and in South America.

Her first postwar recordings, made in London in 1948 and produced by the redoubtable Walter Legge, featured not just Wagner but also Purcell, Handel, Gluck, and Grieg.5 She continued to record for EMI until the mid-1950s, when she moved to Decca, performing for that enterprising company Wagner, Handel, Brahms, and, of course, many Scandinavian songs.

Curiously, the greatest political opposition to Flagstad’s postwar appearances came not from heavily bombed England but from the United States. There was much trouble over her San Francisco Opera engagement in 1949; her return to the Met was delayed until Rudolf Bing (himself an Austrian refugee from Hitler) took over as manager in 1950. Soon the controversy died down, and opera-lovers were saddened by her retirement from the American stage in 1952, when she still possessed close to her full vocal endowment. Though she was to return for a benefit all-Wagner concert with the Symphony of the Air three years later, her official farewell took place in Carnegie Hall, at a Sunday broadcast of the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bruno Walter. The program of this concert, which will long remain in the memories of those in the hall and of those across the country for whom the Philharmonic broadcasts were a treasured habit of life, included the Götterdämmerung Immolation Scene and the five Wesendonck Songs, with the piano accompaniment in the songs played most beautifully by Walter himself.6

After a brief flurry of activity in London—including, remarkably enough for the possessor of such a large voice, performances of Purcell’s Dido at the 175-seat Mermaid Theatre—Flagstad returned again to Norway. In 1958 she became the director of the Norwegian Opera. Still in remarkably good vocal estate, to judge from her recordings and increasingly rare public appearances,7 she soon began to suffer from bone cancer, and in 1962 she died in Oslo, by common consent the greatest Wagnerian singer of the century.

In the old days, I suppose, Hollywood might have made a cracking good movie about Flagstad. What more could you ask for than great tunes, the politics of war, and the triumph of a woman as a world figure? At the least, one might expect a wide-ranging biography of this great artist, a study that would discuss not just the personal events of her life and the reactions of her admirers but the artistic achievement which alone makes an artist’s life worth writing about. In Flagstad’s case, this would mean a close look at how she sounded and how she sang; in particular, it would mean a detailed consideration of her recordings, both commercial and private. This ideal biography would also discuss, in a kind of coda, just why the age of Flagstad seems an age never to be repeated.

Sadly, we do not have such a biography—and given the state of writing about great singers and musicians today, it is unlikely that we will have one any time soon. What we have instead is a recent book by Howard Vogt entitled Flagstad: Singer of the Century.8 Mr. Vogt is described on the dust jacket as a singer and a librarian. As a singer he “sings professionally mainly in the eastern United States, where he is especially noted for his interpretations of German Lieder and Mozart roles”; as a librarian, he ran the Bloomfield, New Jersey, Public Library until his retirement in 1984. He was also the founder, in 1969, of the Bloomfield Opera Theatre.

At the outset it must be said that Mr. Vogt gets the broad outlines of his subject right. It need hardly be remarked that he gives Flagstad every credit for the opulence, purity, reliability, and beauty of her voice. Moreover, he recognizes that even her quiet behavior on the stage, called uninvolved by those whose tastes run to theatricality, concealed—and conveyed—a profound involvement with the roles she sang. When he deals with personal matters, he understands Flagstad’s reclusiveness and her loyalty; he understands, too, how unwilling she was to change her mind.

Despite the general soundness of Mr. Vogt’s conclusions, the fact seems inescapable that, whatever his qualifications, he has arranged and written his book as a fan, not as a professional. From his first hearing of Flagstad as Elsa in Lohengrin at the Met in 1937 to his trip to Oslo in 1982 to attend the unveiling of a memorial statue to her, his concern has apparently been his feelings about this artist. He is quite clear that at the center of his life and feelings is Flagstad: his book’s preface begins with a confession which, in its total preoccupation with one glorious heroine, places Mr. Vogt in the world of fandom:

After I turned fifty, in 1974, I found myself looking back over the years and reliving experiences that had shaped my life. My most vivid memory was both aural and visual: the voice and presence of the Norwegian soprano, Kirsten Flagstad. This book has its origins in that memory.

As much as his book discusses Flagstad’s personal tribulations and her public appearances, Mr. Vogt still finds time and space to discuss his own relation to the star:

In 1939, the year I turned fifteen, I wrote to Kirsten Flagstad and asked her if she would send me an autographed photograph of herself as Isolde. I was planning to stage Tristan in a puppet theatre and I wanted the picture for costume details. She sent it to me, signed “Sincerely, Kirsten Hagstad.” I was overwhelmed. That photograph became my most prized possession, but the puppet production never materialized. I was at that age when dreams are plentiful.

At the end of his book, Mr. Vogt takes many hundreds of words to describe his work at the Bloomfield Library and his founding of the Bloomfield Opera Theatre. Somewhat earlier, he is able to find space to describe his educational career, including his experience as a part-time graduate student in library science at Rutgers. This curriculum vitae is immediately followed by paragraphs detailing his reactions to Birgit Nilsson, whom he calls “Flagstad’s worthy successor.” “I think of gold when I hear Flagstad,” Mr. Vogt writes, “and silver when I hear Nilsson.” Inexplicably, after this discussion of Nilsson and of a 1960 performance of Die Walküre in Chicago which Mr. Vogt attended, he goes on to talk about all the wonderful operas he saw in Chicago around this time, and about his concert-presentation activities in nearby De Kalb.

But when the reader wants to know important personal material about Flagstad and her family, Mr. Vogt sometimes fails to supply the goods. Thus he never accounts for the fate of Flagstad’s only child, Else Hall, after 1962: if it were not for Mr. Vogt’s mention of her as the “late mother” of Flagstad’s grandson, the reader would be entirely ignorant of her death some time in the last two decades. An equally serious lapse is Mr. Vogt’s failure to discuss the musical role played in Flagstad’s development by her long-time accompanist, Edwin McArthur. McArthur, who died this past year at the age of eighty, was a shining example of an immensely gifted musician who fell between the cracks in musical life. Closely associated with Flagstad from 1935 on, he was not only her accompanist and coach but a conducting protegé on whose behalf she made many enemies in the course of attempting to advance his career. From the recorded evidence it is clear that McArthur was a remarkably sensitive and fluent pianist; it is equally clear that his conducting was solid and dependable, and sometimes something much more than that. For his pains on behalf of Flagstad, McArthur was forgotten during his life; indeed, there is no entry on him in the voluminous New Grove Dictionary of American Music (1986).

It is not that Mr. Vogt ignores McArthur; he gives him much credit for his devotion, and even for his musical accomplishments. But nowhere is there consideration of what musically passed between Flagstad and her young assistant. Those familiar with the ways in which great singers work know that they greatly depend on the artistic advice of those they trust. Were we to have some understanding of McArthur’s role in Flagstad’s art, we could begin the necessary task of recognizing him for the considerable artist he must have been.

The most serious flaw in Mr. Vogt’s book, and what finally disqualifies it totally as the needed study of Flagstad, is his neglect of her recordings; his book lacks even a discography. Not until the last page does he make clear why he disdains this consideration:

Kirsten Flagstad’s voice is preserved more or less faithfully on records. But the total, unsurpassable impact of a Flagstad performance is recorded only in the memories of those who heard her and saw her on the stage.

This will not do. Until the present century, the greatest tragedy of performers’ lives was the inescapable result of their aging and the loss of their powers: the good they did died with them. Now, with recordings, this hitherto rigid ground rule has been mitigated. We know Caruso today by the evidence of his art; we know his predecessors, no matter how great they may have been, solely by the testimony of their fans.

In the case of Flagstad, there is every reason to think that her recordings give a remarkably accurate picture of how she sounded throughout her international career.9 Just because her acting was so inward and so concentrated on directing attention to the creation of character by vocal means, Flagstad was well served by the phonograph. I myself can vouch for the fact that the Flagstad whose recordings I bought in the early 1950s sounded exactly like the Flagstad I had just heard in the opera house. All in all, it is difficult to escape the impression that Mr. Vogt’s lack of interest in Flagstad’s recordings has more to do with what he sees as the preciousness of his own memories in the opera house than with any real shortcomings in the records themselves.

Because of the inadequacies in Mr. Vogt’s book, it remains necessary for the reader interested in Flagstad to go back to the two books which have for many years provided the basic information on her life and career. These are The Flagstad Manuscript (1952), her own memoirs (as told to the music critic Louis Biancolli), and Edwin McArthur’s Flagstad: A Personal Memoir (1965). Both books—McArthur’s perhaps even more than Flagstad’s—ring true and clarify matters of dates and relationships. They are both stronger on character than music, and their greatest virtue is their lack of sentimentality.

And so the questions flood in. Why was Flagstad so great? What exactly was her role in conveying the music dramas she sang? Why, with the passage of more than a generation, has she had no successors?

It is easy to say that her greatness was the result of her talent: a pure musicality allied to a beautiful voice, with both musicality and voice allowed to grow slowly over years of relatively undemanding appearances in light repertory performed in provincial surroundings. And then there was her contact with great musicians, among them George Szell (who worked as her coach prior to her Metropolitan appearances), Artur Bodanzky, Edwin McArthur, and then, after the war, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Bruno Walter. It also seems true that another beneficent factor in Flagstad’s greatness was the way in which operatic life was conducted prior to the 1950s. Ocean travel and long engagements made a singer’s life less strenuous than it is in today’s world of one night La Scala, the next night Covent Garden.

Wagner did not write for coquettish soubrettes, nor did he write for fiery prima donnas.

As I reflect on my recent experience of listening to tens of Flagstad’s LPs, it becomes clear to me that to an unparalleled extent in this century she completed the great works of Wagner in which she specialized. Wagner did not write for coquettish soubrettes, nor did he write for fiery prima donnas. Instead, drawing on folk legends, he wrote for women who could in their own bodies and in their own voices personify the womanly—not simply feminine—qualities associated with physical strength and surface placidity concealing deep passion. Isolde, Sieglinde, Brünnhilde, even Kundry: these are larger-than-life heroines, mythic archetypes whose raison d’être is not transient attractiveness but rather what used to be called the future of the race. In his written scores Wagner suggested what he needed; it took the heroic reserves of strength and concealed passion of Kirsten Flagstad to make Wagner’s design concrete, and in this concreteness lay her true greatness.

Why has Flagstad had no successors?10 I have mentioned above the slowness of her development and the relative physical ease in which she conducted her career. We live now in a world that worships youth; and that which it worships, it exploits. Young talents, nowadays in any case poorly trained, are given punishingly difficult roles, which must be sung in enormous houses run by administrators whose backgrounds and qualifications include everything except direct musical experience. At our greatest opera houses, richly talented conductors, those inestimable influences on the greatest singers, are seen as troublemakers, and are distinctly unwelcome.

But we do have our records, and in the case of Wagnerian singing, like the parchments which preserved the culture of antiquity across the Dark Ages, these records have much to tell us. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Kirsten Flagstad.

  1.   For a discussion of Schorr’s records, along with those of other famous Wagnerians of the period, see my article “Growing Up With Old Records” in The New Criterion, April, 1984.
  2.   It should be mentioned that Flagstad’s greatest role outside Wagner, that of Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidielio, has frequently been available in two stunning performances: a 1938 Met broadcast conducted by Artur Bodanzky (with Friedrich Schorr as Pizzaro); and a 1950 Salzburg Festival performance conducted by Furtwängler.
  3.   This recording was originally made by EMI/HMV for commercial release, but was blocked (according to the legendary HMV producer Fred Gaisberg) because Melchior felt that the microphone placement favored Flagstad at his expense. My copy of this wonderful performance does not seem to have been made with the benefit of recent advances in the resuscitation of old 78 RPM originals. Perhaps at this late date, after performers’ passions can no longer influence the decision, EMI should consider issuing this classic recording.
  4.   The story of Flagstad's decision to essay this relatively minor role, new to her, is touchingly told by Decca producer John Culshaw in Ring Resounding (1967), his account of recording the Solti Ring.
  5.   Almost all Flagstad's 1948 recordings, along with slightly later material, are available, or recently were. The Wagner recordings provide perhaps the best approximation—under excellent recording conditions—of how the now more than fifty-year-old Flagstad actually sounded at the time of her return to Norway in 1941, just seven years earlier; these include a beautifully sung (and previously unreleased) “Liebestod” from Tristan. They are available in this country on Seraphim 1C 6158. The non-Wagner items, along with some of the material on the above set, were issued several years ago in Germany as Electrola 147-01 491/492. There can be no doubt that much choice Flagstad material, as is now true of the 1952 Tristan with Furtwängler, will appear shortly on compact disc.
  6.   Though this concert was indeed broadcast by CBS—which suggests that high-quality tape recordings made directly from the Carnegie Hall performance do exist—it has sadly never been commercially released. Nonetheless, the Götterdämmerung excerpt and the Wesendonck Songs have been available on various private labels over the years, and will doubtless reappear in the future. They are worth searching for.
  7.   One of these appearances was her 1957 London farewell recital, which took place in the Royal Albert Hall, with Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This concert has been available on at least one private label recording; my copy is on Unique Opera Records [Edward J. Smith] 264.
  8.   Flagstad; Singer of the Century, by Howard Vogt, with a foreword by Jessye Norman; Seeker & Warburg, 300 pages, £20.
  9.   It is even possible, because she made recordings of her repertory for more than a decade after World War I, to hear how she sounded in the years before her fame. One LP transfer of sixteen items, ranging from folksongs to Grieg, was available shortly after Flagstsad’s death, as Harvest H-1004. These performances suggest that the size and strength of her voice were not a sudden accretion just prior to her discovery in the mid-1930s but had instead been gathering throughout the 1920s. A certain darkness of timbre and accuracy of intonation in the youthful Flagstad suggest the mature artist; what is more, in all these early recordings there is a quality of rapt yet radiant introspection that was to be the hallmark of her greatest performances.
  10.   It is with some trepidation that I state here that I do not consider Birgit Nilsson, despite her bounteous voice, a true successor—i.e., replacement—for Flagstad. Nilsson sang her roles often wonderfully, though also often with faulty intonation; in the deepest sense she did not, as did Flagstad, become the characters she portrayed.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 7, on page 30
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