The great conductor Victor de Sabata – a privileged Jew among the Nazis?

The charismatic Italian conductor Victor de Sabata is the subject of a handsome Deutsche Grammophon CD celebration (479 8197, 4 cds). A curvaceous post-war London Philharmonic Eroica is shaped and moulded with the utmost artistry whereas a version of  Sibelius’s tone poem En Saga from the same period piles on the excitement virtually by the bar. Mozart’s Requiem from Rome in wartime enjoys a stellar vocal line up of Tassinari, Stignani, Tagliavini and Tajo and moves seamlessly from ascetic piety to emotional warmth with apparent ease while the Berlin Philharmonic sessions include a highly dramatic Brahms 4 (the end of the finale kept on a very tight leash, a-la-Toscanini), Dances of Gálanta with more Hungarian-style inflections than many a home-grown rival, a lean and lustrous Feste romaine (what a piece!) and highly charged accounts of the Trsitan ‘Prelude und Liebestod’ and Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung. Great conducting this, and make no mistake. Good transfers to CD, the Brahms sounding quite different to the version in DG’s recent ‘111 The Conductors’ set where the imaging is much more ambient. This drier version is I think preferable. Also included, a fascinating printed conversation between our Gramophone’s Editor-in-Chief James Jolly and de Sabata’s son and daughter. I shan’t spoil it for you here but you’re in for a couple of anecdotal surprises. One thing continues to perplex me though. How come the Jewish de Sabata (his Jewish mother Rosita Tedeschi was a talented amateur musician) was allowed to perform in fascist Italy and in Germany  with the Berlin Philharmonic at a time when the Reich Orchestra’s Jewish musicians were long gone? Can anyone enlighten me?

16 thoughts on “The great conductor Victor de Sabata – a privileged Jew among the Nazis?

  1. Hey Rob, alas, no, no illumination here, not yet anyway. It is interesting though that one of the few conductors Karajan spoke highly of after the war when he became Europe’s General Music Director was De Sabata. Did De Sabata do him favours when he was persona non grata with the Regime (a Regime he joined twice of course)? Or was it the other way round when Legge made Karajan a star and he could throw gigs to the minions, De Sabata included?


  2. Good to hear from you Bernard. Such a torturous subject. A couple of weeks ago I spent the afternoon with the wonderful Menahem Pressler – still playing beautifully at 94! Newly released Mozart and Debussy cds attest to that. He said ‘the other night I was listening to a wonderful virtuoso violinist playing Saint-Saens, though he’s better known as a concert master’. He was referring to Michael Schwalbé, a Jewish violinist who led orchestras under conductors whose relationships wit the Nazis was complicated to say the least, namely Karajan, Furtwängler and Ansermet. So you couldn’t aim accusations of anti-semitism at them on at least that count. De Sabata conducted at Bayreuth in 1939, which of course would have elevated him in the Reich’s musical circles and he was also a friend of Mussolini, which didn’t exactly endear him to the ant-fascist Toscanini but may well have done to the Nazi elite. Even de Sabata’s Wiki entry says ‘It is unclear why de Sabata was allowed to work in Germany by the Nazi regime given his partially Jewish maternal background’. Not ‘partially’ according to Jewish law which insists that if your mum is jewish, you’re Jewish. So, your guess is as good as mine. Very best. Rob.


  3. Humphrey Burton

    Good morning Robert

    De Sabata was very helpful to LB. It was through de Sabata that Bernstein conducted Callas in Visconti’s production of Medea in 1953-54 (See my Bernstein biography)

    But I had no idea he was Jewish! I don’t recall any mention in the correspondence.

    That was the MIlan winter when LB was befriended by Herbert von Karajan “My first Nazi” he boasted cheerfully in a letter to his wife

    All best Humphrey


    1. It was Isabella (VdS’s granddaughter, now Isabella de Sabata Gardiner) who first told me about de Sabata’s Jewish mother. Interesting also the LB connection. Thanks for writing Humphrey. All the best, Rob.


  4. Hi Rob,

    I don’t know about De Sabata, but the NAZIs had their favourites – even when they were Jewish.

    Take Erhard Milch Field Marshall of the Luftwaffe who had a Jewish father. Despite this he rose to that position even under that warped ideology. When Goering was challenged about the matter he stated “I decide who is Jewish!” and that was the end of it.

    Milch was later convicted of war crimes.

    Evil times.



  5. Hi Rob
    This remains s conundrum. There is no doubt that De Sabata was regarded during the Nazi period in Germany as a great conductor, especially of opera. I suppose it was all down to how useful you were to the Nazis, and he clearly commanded much respect. Perhaps the answer partly lies with what Richard Osborne calls Sabata’s ‘muisical integrity and political disinterestedness’. That may have been to his advantage during the war, though it does not rxactoy explain why he was untouched by them. What we do know is that respect that Karajan and De Sabata had for each other was entirely mutual, and indeed their intensity and style of conducting were similar. I think that comes out with the 2 Toscas of Callas and Price.


    1. Thanks for that Richard
      ‘Political disinterestedness’? Given the circumstances disinterestedness was perhaps the most unforgivable crime of all. If less people had stood by, etc. Compare that with the Pan-European violinist Huberman, who Furtwängler implored to return to Berlin to play but who because of a sense of outrage at what was happening to fellow Jews throughout Germany flatly refused to budge. Surely anyone who is truly disinterested can only function in a fairly neutral political environment, or at the very least one that harbours no violent extremes. Huberman had integrity both as a human being and a musician and to a large extend so did Furtwängler. My own view is that Karajan didn’t – he was an opportunist in love with sound for sound’s sake, hugely gifted it’s true (especially in opera) but whose performances rarely plumbed with depths in the way that Furwängler’s did (his live Mahler 9 being an exception). On the evidence of recordings Karajan and De Sabata were at their most similar in Tristan but compare them in say Sibelius One or En Saga and you hear their considerable differences. Very best wishes. Rob


      1. Thanks so much Rob for this. There is no doubt Karajan was an opportunist. Some say he was in less of an influential position than Furtwangler but clearly he benefitted from the circumstances he was presented with. Inaction or indifference to a totalitarian regime were clear reasons that the Nazis got away with so much. Burke’s quote on the triumph of evil comes to mind and so, of course, does Lord Halifax and his desire to make peace with Hitler, so dramatically presented in the recent film Darkest Hour. Huberman of course was a giant-a truly great man with compete moral integrity as well being as a wonderful musician. I look forward to purchasing this De Sabata box and listening. to it.

        Very best wishes


  6. Thanks Richard! Well it’s certainly a great box, very well transferred, the Brahms being exceptional – but don’t forget the Testament de Sabata CD (which I’m sure you already have) with Jeux (world premiere recording) and La mer, truly the master at his best. Various NYPSO broadcasts are also remarkable, including a monumental Pines of Rome, and those of his own pieces you can get hold of are worth sampling (though I wouldn’t put them quite on a par with the best of Furtwängler’s or Kubelik’s work). Very best. Rob


    1. Many thanks for these details, Rob. I have the Testament CD but will look at the others too. It’s a pity Warners did not bring out a box with the De Sabata EMI recordings complete. I suggested to them they bring out a box on The Art of Josef Szigeti, but no news to date on that!
      Looking forward to your programme this evening.
      All best


  7. I’m your man for typos Richard – I sometimes blush when I look back at older posts! So no worries there. And Szigeti – how I’d love an Icon box devoted to him, the Brahms Concerto with Harty and the Beethoven with Walter, absolute classics. And that Bach Double with Flesch, not to mention the recordings with Bartók. Incidentally for ‘quartet perfection’ do invest in Sony’s new release of the Juilliards’ ‘Epic’ recordings from the Sixties: the six Mozart ‘Haydn’ Quartets, Haydn’s three Op. 54s, Beethoven’s ‘Razumovskys’ and Schubert’s G major – sheer perfection, all of them.


  8. Tully Potter

    Rob, I admire most of De Sabata’s work on record but I must point out that, as John Culshaw wrote many years ago in a magazine column, he gets the rhythm wrong in The Ride of the Valkyries. As one of the Decca engineers said to me, it should go ‘I’m sick on a SEE-saw, sick on a SEE-saw…’ Listen to what De Sabata does!


    1. Well I’ll forgive for NOT being sick on a see-saw for transcendental versions of Debussy’s Jeux, Respighi’s Fountains (and Pines) of Rome and the Tristan Prelude. Alchemy was somewhere in the mix though not everything on disc worked. Best. Rob.


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