Mechthild Schmid Sawallisch

Posted: December 29, 1998

Mechthild Schmid Sawallisch, 77, wife of Philadelphia Orchestra music director Wolfgang Sawallisch, died on the morning of Christmas Eve near her home in Grassau, Germany.

Sawallisch had been recovering from treatment for thyroid cancer since summer, but a sudden decline forced her husband to rush her to a hospital in the nearby town of Traunstein, the Orchestra announced yesterday.

Sawallisch was a friendly and gracious presence, always at her husband's side. Their relationship was unique, for she acted as his confidante, musical critic and companion. She is also survived by their son, Jurg.

Since September 1990, when her husband was named sixth music director, she became involved in the many volunteer organizations as Orchestra first lady. An expert gardener, she relished opportunities to visit the Philadelphia Flower Show as well as Longwood Gardens and Winterthur.

``Mrs. Sawallisch was an integral part of the orchestra family,'' said Orchestra association president Joseph Kluger. ``She will be sorely missed both for her gracious spirit and calm inner-strength. The orchestra benefited from her tremendous support in many ways.''

Born in Munich, as was her husband, Sawallisch was the daughter of a master organ builder. Many musical figures of the time were house guests of her family, and she soon became a lyric soprano with great promise. At age eight, she was appearing in children's radio broadcasts, and by 18 she was helping to select young artists for future live appearances. When she noticed her future husband, who was singing in a children's choir and who could also play piano and conduct, their relationship began.

The Sawallisches married in August 1952, without telling either of their families, and drove to Salzburg, Austria, on their wedding day to hear the brilliant Igor Markevich conduct Stravinsky's ``The Rite of Spring.'' Romance took a hand as their borrowed car broke down, and they were forced to have an impromptu wedding dinner in an Alpine village.

Sawallisch chose not to pursue her singing career. This sacrifice was acknowledged by the maestro, who said in his memoirs, ``Without the aid of my wife, I would not have been able to surmount the difficulties that have confronted me, or to have achieved the success that I have.''

In August, Sawallisch completed two years of planning for a gala 75th surprise birthday party for her husband. Five years before, she had used only music written by composers as their Opus 70, but this time she invited a glittering array of international talent, including Orchestra musicians, to the cathedral-ceilinged music room he had designed in their home. Just days before the event, however, Sawallisch was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and hospitalized. Though her husband did not discuss the details, her absence seemed striking to the assembled wealth of friends.

In October, Wolfgang Sawallisch requested replacement conductors during the final two of his five fall weeks so he could return to Grassau to care for his wife.

A requiem in her memory is being planned for next week in Munich, and will include the chorus and orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra, which Wolfgang Sawallisch led for 22 years.