Otto Klemperer

1885 1973

Otto Klemperer



The German conductor Otto Klemperer was one of the preeminent interpreters of both the emerging 20th century avant-garde movement and the German romantic tradition. His austere conducting style, strict musical constructionist views and heavy emphasis on bringing out the central ideals of the composers earned him a formidable reputation as an authority figure of uncompromising honesty, and his electic background earned him praise from Wieland Wagner as "a unique artistic phenomenon." 

Klemperer was born in Breslau, Germany, which is now a part of Poland, and began playing both piano and violin at a young age. He studied both instruments at the Hochschule fur Musik in Frankfurt and then at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin, where he also began studying composition with Hans Pfitzner. In 1906 the young Klemperer traveled to Vienna to meet withGustav Mahler, immediately impressing the elder musician with his knowledge and musicality on the piano, and marking the beginning of a long collaboration between the two. On Mahler’s recommendation, Klemperer was appointed as the conductor for the German Opera in Prague, his first major conducting position. During this time he frequently returned to Vienna to assist with rehearsals for Mahler’s symphonies,

While in exodus, Klemperer became known as one of the finest interpreters of the great German works, includingBeethoven, Brahms and Mahler. He also developed a reputation as a musical hardliner who was spare with his praise, stern with criticism and had a personality so overbearing that he could intimidate entire orchestras. Nevertheless his renditions possess a unique power and sensibility that few have been able to match. 

In the 1940s, a series of mishaps and bad luck derailed Klemperer’s career, including the discovery of a debilitating brain tumor, manic-depressive episodes, a fall that confined him to a wheelchair for several years and the revocation of his hard-won American passport under the false supposition that he was a Soviet sympathizer. However his role in the popular eye would see a remarkable resurgence in 1956 when he became the leader of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. The next 14 years would see an incredible renaissance for both conductor and orchestra, as the massive Klemperer, his back bent almost double and his face contorted in pain led the Philharmonia in some of the most powerful and evocative performances of Beethoven and Mahler the world has seen.

Header image courtesy of Sinfini Music Other image courtesy of public domain

Over the next two decades Klemperer was appointed to a series of increasingly prestigious conducting positions, including in Hamburg (1910-1913), Cologne (1916-1924) and Wiesbaden (1924-1927). In 1927 Klemperer joined the Kroll Opera House in Berlin, where he introduced many new works includingArnold Schönberg ’sDie glückliche Hand, and Hindemith’s Neues von Tag. Unfortunately his championship of contemporary music drew the ire of the Nazi regime for not doing enough to glorify Germany, which is ironic since later in life Klemperer would devote almost all of his energies to resurrecting and interpreting the great works of the Germanic classical and romantic traditions.

In 1933 the intellectual tensions between Klemperer and the ruling party finally came to head, with the Nazis confiscating all of his property and issuing a warrant for his arrest. Klemperer barely escaped alive and moved to the United States as a penniless refugee. Fortunately for him he had already amassed an impressive career as a conductor, and within a few years he had led theNew York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and accepted a permanent position as conductor of theLos Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.