Legge was born in Shepherds Bush, where his father was a tailor. One of his parents was Christian and the other had Jewish ancestry. Legge was educated at the Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, where he excelled in Latin and French. He left school at 16 and had no further formal education. Encouraged by his father he developed a taste for music, and Wagner in particular, in pursuit of which he taught himself to read music and to speak German. A music scholarship honouring Legge was established by anonymous donors at Latymer Upper School in January 2006.
Legge first joined HMV in 1927 writing album and analytical notes and copy for the company's monthly retailing magazine, "The Voice", but he caught the eye of another famous record producer, Fred Gaisberg, and was soon taking an active role in their recording procedures. Between 1933 and 1938 Legge also worked as a music critic for The Manchester Guardian.
In the pre-war years, Legge pioneered 'subscription' recordings, by which the public were invited to pay in advance for their copies of future recordings, thus making it economically possible for EMI to make such 'niche' but classic recordings as the songs of Hugo Wolf (sung by Elena Gerhardt) and the complete piano works of Beethoven (played by Artur Schnabel). Another famous pre-war recording supervised by Legge – it remains in the catalogues to this day – was Sir Thomas Beecham’s set of The Magic Flute, made in Berlin in 1937. Impressed by the success of those sessions, Beecham invited Legge to join him at Covent Garden as Assistant Artistic Director. Given a free hand by Beecham he engaged Richard Tauber, Jussi Björling, Maria Reining, Hilde Konetzni, Julius Patzak and Helge Roswänge in their Covent Garden debuts.
During the Second World War Legge took on the musical side of ENSA, arranging concerts for British troops all over the world, and securing the services of eminent musicians such as Solomon, Boult and Barbirolli.
After the war Legge set to work to refresh EMI’s catalogue and its roster of star performers. He set up his base in Vienna, then still occupied by the Allies, and shrewdly contracted German and Austrian artists who were then seriously short of work. These performers included Josef Krips, Irmgard Seefried, Ljuba Welitsch, Hans Hotter, Ludwig Weber, Herbert von Karajan and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (whom Legge married in 1953). Later he was among the first to spot the potential of Maria Callas, whose studio recordings he produced for EMI. The repertoire he chose to record was broad, though not extending much earlier than Handel and among modern composers concentrating on the approachable and diatonic.
He had promoted some Lieder recitals before the war, but in 1945, finding his influence at Covent Garden much diminished under the régime of David Webster he turned his impresario instincts to founding a new orchestra, the Philharmonia. Beecham conducted its first concert (for the fee of one cigar) but was unwilling to be the employee of his former assistant and soon founded the Royal Philharmonic in competition with the Philharmonia. In its early years the Philharmonia became closely identified with Herbert von Karajan, but when he turned his attentions to the Berlin Philharmonic, Legge worked more and more with Otto Klemperer, a famous conductor in the 1920s and 30s who had been out of the limelight until Legge revitalised his career. Other legendary names whom Legge persuaded to conduct the Philharmonia were Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini and Richard Strauss. In its heyday in the 1950s the Philharmonia was generally reckoned the finest British orchestra, though the woodwind section of Beecham's RPO were widely regarded as even finer than their compeers in the Philharmonia. In the 1960s, concerned at what he saw as falling standards, he disbanded the Philharmonia, which at once re-formed as the New Philharmonia, without Legge but with Klemperer as chief conductor.
Legge’s employer, EMI, tolerated his independent ways for many years, but in the 1960s attempts were made to curtail his freedom of choice of repertoire, and finally in 1964 he resigned. That this was EMI’s loss is now clear from the sales figures still enjoyed by his recordings compared with much of the rest of EMI’s classical output of the period.
In retirement he – together with Schwarzkopf – gave many joint masterclasses for young singers but he failed to find a permanent job big enough for his appetite. He was offered, and accepted, the directorship of the Wexford Festival, but he suffered a disabling heart attack in 1967 before he could take up the post, and he withdrew. He continued to supervise the EMI recordings made by his wife, but the breach with the company was complete when in 1977 and 1979 he produced her last recordings not for EMI but for Decca, EMI’s great rival.
His memoirs, edited by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, were published in 1982. They contain this statement, which does much to explain his disenchantment with EMI and its increasingly powerful internal committees:
That extract shows surprising goodwill towards Karajan - whom many regarded as having deserted Legge in the 1960s - and John Culshaw of Decca, Legge's great rival as a recording producer. Legge was not always so benign:
Legge's artistic judgment was not infallible. He predicted to John Culshaw and Georg Solti that their recording of Das Rheingold would not sell. He recorded The Magic Flute three times, conducted by Beecham, Karajan and Klemperer, incurring the disapproval of latter-day critics for omitting the spoken dialogue. His recording of Fidelio under Klemperer has recently been compared unfavourably with the contemporaneous live recording from Covent Garden, on the grounds that Legge's chosen singers were less effective than their ROH rivals. But whatever individual quibbles listeners may have here and there, few would deny that the body of recordings left by Legge has yet to be surpassed. His recordings of The Dream of Gerontius (Sargent), Tristan und Isolde (Furtwängler), Der Rosenkavalier and Falstaff (Karajan), Così fan tutte (Böhm) and the core German symphonic repertory (Klemperer) have remained in the catalogue for forty and even fifty years, and look likely to remain there.
See also: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
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