The eminent German conductor, Wolfgang Sawallisch, began piano study when he was 5. Later he pursued private musical training with Ruoff, Haas, and Sache in Munich, Before entering military service during World War II (1942). After the War he completed his musical studies at the Munich's Hochschule für Musik.
Wolfgang Sawallisch took up his first professional engagement in 1947 as a repetiteur in Augsburg, making his conducting debut there in 1950. In 1953 he became the youngest general music director in Germany when he moved to Aachen. He served as Generalmusikdirektor of the opera houses of Aachen from 1953 to 1958, Wiesbaden from 1958 to 1960, and Cologne from 1960 to 1963. From 1957 to 1961 he also conducted at the Bayreuth Festival.
Between 1960 and 1970 Wolfgang Sawallisch was General Music Director at Hamburg and Principal Conductor of the Philharmonic State Symphony Orchestra there. In addition he was Principal Conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (1960-1970) and both orchestras elected him an honorary member and honorary conductor. He made his first appearance in the USA with Vienna Symphony Orchestra in 1964. From 1970 (or 1972) to 1980, as successor to Paul Kletzki, he was Artistic Director of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva. In 1971 he became the General Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and, having overseen all artistic activities on a temporary basis in the 1976-1977 season, took on the additional role of Director of the Bavarian State Opera in 1982.
In September 1990, Wolfgang Sawallisch was appointed Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He officially took up the position at the start of the 1993-1994 season and spent 15 weeks of each year with the orchestra. He conducted regularly in Philadelphia since 1984, and since May 1993, when he toured with the orchestra to Japan, mainland China and Hong Kong, he undertook many distinguished tours with the orchestra.
Wolfgang Sawallisch made guest appearances with nearly all of the world's major orchestras and conducted at many festivals including the Proms, Bayreuth, Salzburg, Edinburgh, Prague, Lucerne, Montreux and Florence. He conducted regularly at La Scala, Milan, and was an honorary conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo and of the Accademico Onorario of Rome's Santa Cecilia. He regularly conducted he Wiener Philharmoniker, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestre National de France and in 1996 he completed a three-year L.v. Beethoven cycle with the Orchestre de Paris.
Wolfgang Sawallisch was also a gifted pianist and gave recitals with many of the leading instrumentalists and singers of his time, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Highlights of his 1998 season included an extensive concert series with the Philadelphia Orchestra involving performances with renowned artists such as, Renée Fleming, Sarah Chang, Frank Peter Zimmermann, Yefim Bronfman and Yo-Yo Ma, an Italian tour in February, an Austrian tour with the Vienna Musikverein and an American/South American in May 1998.
Wolfgang Sawallisch was associated with EMI since 1955 and among his earlier recordings for the label was Strauss' Capriccio with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. His most notable releases included Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten, the first ever uncut version of the opera, which won several major international awards, including the Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros and the Prix Caecilia, and his recording of Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No.1 with Stephen Kovacevich which won the 1993 Gramophone Concerto Award. In November 1991 EMI Classics released on Laserdisc and VHS Wagner's complete Der Ring des Nibelungen with the Bayerische Staatsoper. This video received the 1990 German Video Winner special prize and, more recently, the 1993 Gramophone Best Video Award. Sawallisch was awarded the Bacchetta d'Oro 1993 from the Teatro alla Scala. He is the first non-Italian conductor to win this award.
Wolfgang Sawallisch remained very active as a recording artist. His discography on EMI Classics includes a disc of orchestral music by Wagner and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Strauss' Ein Heldenleben and oboe concerto, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan and Burleske both with The Philadelphia Orchestra. He recorded J. Brahms’ Double Concerto with Frank Peter Zimmermann, Heinrich Schiff and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and, as pianist, Schubert's Winterreise with the baritone Thomas Hampson (August 1997). Later EMI Classics releases included Sawallisch accompanying Ole Edvard Antonsen in a collection of 20th century trumpet sonatas in February 1998 and the release of the video soundtrack of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen with the Bayerische Staatsoper as a 14 CD box set in March 1998.