Born in Munich in 1923, Wolfgang Sawallisch was a prominent representative of the German conducting tradition, known for his thoughtful and refined interpretations of the classical repertoire.
Beginning piano studies when he was five, Sawallisch developed rapidly as a child musician. His piano teachers were Ruoff, Haas, and Sachse. In 1947, following graduation from the Munich Hochschule für Musik, Sawallisch began his professional career, working first as a repetiteur and chorus master at the Augsburg Opera Theater. In 1949, he and his recital partner, violinist Gerhard Seitz, won the Geneva International Competition as best duo. In the same year, he began obtaining guest conducting assignments. When Sawallisch conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1953, he was the youngest person ever to have led that orchestra. That year, he became General Music Director at Aachen, and this appointment made him the youngest music director in Germany. He remained in Aachen until 1958, when he moved to a similar position in Wiesbaden, staying there until 1960. From 1960 to 1963, Sawallisch was in Cologne, also teaching conducting at the Conservatory. He made his first Bayreuth appearance in 1957, opening the festival with Tristan und Isolde. Again, he was the Festival's youngest conductor. Also in 1957 he made two debuts in London: one as pianist in a lieder recital with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and the other as a guest conductor with the Philharmonia. He held concurrent appointments as principal conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, from 1960 to 1970, and the Hamburg State Philharmonic, from 1961 to 1973. He made his American debut conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra during a 1964 tour. Also in 1964, he made his first appearance guest conducting the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Japan, and returned every year to conduct it. He held another pair of concurrent appointments through most of the 1970s: Artistic Director of L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, from 1972 to 1980, and General Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, beginning in 1971. Artistic director of the Bavarian State Opera from 1976 to 1977, he became the company's director in 1982. His first appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra was in 1984, part of his busy schedule as a guest conductor. He was appointed its Music Director in 1990, effective at the start of the 1993-1994 season, and ultimately having a large effect on its personnel and sound. In 1993, Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra toured Japan, China, and Hong Kong, the first of several acclaimed international tours. In addition to extensive touring, Sawallisch has pursued a busy recording schedule with EMI, programming an intriguing mix of the established classics, major masterworks of the 20th century, and new music, including compositions by Druckman, Pöntinen, Rochberg, and Ullmann. He led the Philadelphia Orchestra in the first appearance by an American orchestra in Vietnam, and directed the first live Internet performance by an American symphony. Sawallisch regularly conducted Europe's greatest orchestras, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and Concertgebouw Orchestra. A winner of numerous awards, Sawallisch performed with such stars as Yefim Bronfman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Frank Peter Zimmermann. Continuing his career as a pianist, Sawallisch accompanied some of the greatest performers of the 20th century, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Among Sawallisch's numerous acclaimed recordings is the 1998 video soundtrack of Wagner's entire Ring des Nibelungen cycle with the Bavarian State Opera.