Otto Klemperer in about 1920.
14 May 1885|
Breslau, Silesia Province, Germany
|Died||6 July 1973
Otto Klemperer was born in Breslau, Silesia Province, then in Germany (now Wrocław, Poland), as a son of Nathan Klemperer, a native of Prague, Bohemia (today's Czech Republic). Klemperer studied music first at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, and later at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin under James Kwast and Hans Pfitzner. He followed Kwast to three institutions and credited him with the whole basis of his musical development. In 1905 he met Gustav Mahler while conducting the off-stage brass at a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, Resurrection. He also made a piano reduction of the second symphony. The two men became friends, and Klemperer became conductor at the German Opera in Prague in 1907 on Mahler's recommendation. Mahler wrote a short testimonial, recommending Klemperer, on a small card which Klemperer kept for the rest of his life. Later, in 1910, Klemperer assisted Mahler in the premiere of his Symphony No. 8, Symphony of a Thousand.
Klemperer went on to hold a number of positions, in Hamburg (1910–1912); in Barmen (1912–1913); the Strasbourg Opera (1914–1917); the Cologne Opera (1917–1924); and the Wiesbaden Opera House (1924–1927). From 1927 to 1931, he was conductor at the Kroll Opera in Berlin. In this post he enhanced his reputation as a champion of new music, playing a number of new works, including Janáček's From the House of the Dead, Schoenberg's Erwartung, Stravinsky's Oedipus rex, and Hindemith's Cardillac.
1930s move to United States
In 1933, once the Nazi Party had reached power, Klemperer, who was Jewish, left Germany and moved to the United States. Klemperer had previously converted to Catholicism, but returned to Judaism at the end of his life. In the U.S. he was appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He took United States citizenship in 1937. In Los Angeles, he began to concentrate more on the standard works of the Germanic repertoire that would later bring him greatest acclaim, particularly the works of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler, though he gave the Los Angeles premieres of some of fellow Los Angeles resident Arnold Schoenberg's works with the Philharmonic. He also visited other countries, including England and Australia. While the orchestra responded well to his leadership, Klemperer had a difficult time adjusting to Southern California, a situation exacerbated by repeated manic-depressive episodes, reportedly as a result of severe cyclothymic bipolar disorder. He also found that the dominant musical culture and leading music critics in the United States were largely out of sympathy with his Weimar modernism and he felt he was not properly valued.
Klemperer hoped for a permanent position as lead conductor in New York or Philadelphia. But in 1936 he was passed over in both – first in Philadelphia, where Eugene Ormandy succeeded Leopold Stokowski at the Philadelphia Orchestra, and then in New York, where Arturo Toscanini's departure left a vacancy at the New York Philharmonic but John Barbirolli and Artur Rodzinski were engaged in preference to Klemperer. The New York decision was particularly galling, as Klemperer had been engaged to conduct the first fourteen weeks of the New York Philharmonic's 1935-6 season. Klemperer's bitterness at this decision was voiced in a letter he wrote to Arthur Judson, who ran the orchestra: "that the society did not reengage me is the strongest offense, the sharpest insult to me as artist, which I can imagine. You see, I am no youngster. I have a name and a good name. One could not use me in a most difficult season and then expell me. This non-reengagement will have very bad results not only for me in New York but in the whole world... This non-reengagement is an absolutely unjustified wrong done to me by the Philharmonic Society."
Then, after completing the 1939 Los Angeles Philharmonic summer season at the Hollywood Bowl, Klemperer was visiting Boston and was diagnosed with a brain tumor; the subsequent brain surgery to remove "a tumour the size of a small orange" left him partially paralyzed. He went into a depressive state and was placed in institution; when he escaped, The New York Times ran a cover story declaring him missing, and after being found in New Jersey, a picture of him behind bars was printed in the Herald Tribune. Though he would occasionally conduct the Philharmonic after that, he lost the post of Music Director. Furthermore, his erratic behavior during manic episodes made him an undesirable guest to US orchestras, and the late flowering of his career centered in other countries.
After World War II, Klemperer returned to Europe to work at the Budapest Opera (1947–1950). Finding Communist rule in Hungary increasingly irksome, he became an itinerant conductor, guest conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Philharmonia of London.
1950s and health problems
In the early 1950s Klemperer experienced difficulties arising from his U.S. citizenship. American union policies made it difficult for him to record in Europe, while his left-wing views made him increasingly unpopular with the State Department and FBI: in 1952 the United States refused to renew his passport. In 1954 Klemperer again returned to Europe, and acquired a German passport.
His career was turned around in 1954 by the London-based producer Walter Legge, who recorded Klemperer in Beethoven, Brahms and much else with his hand-picked orchestra, the Philharmonia, for the EMI label. He became the first principal conductor of the Philharmonia in 1959. He settled in Switzerland. Klemperer also worked at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, sometimes stage-directing as well as conducting, as in a 1963 production of Richard Wagner's Lohengrin. He also conducted Mozart's The Magic Flute there in 1962.
A severe fall during a visit to Montreal in 1951 forced Klemperer subsequently to conduct seated in a chair. A severe burning accident further paralyzed him, which resulted from his smoking in bed and trying to douse the flames with the contents of a bottle of spirits of camphor nearby. Through Klemperer's problems with his health, the tireless and unwavering support and assistance of Klemperer's daughter Lotte was crucial to his success.
One of his last concert tours was to Jerusalem, a couple of years after the Six-Day War, at which time he was awarded an Israeli honorary passport. Klemperer had performed in Palestine before the state of Israel declared its independence, and returned to Jerusalem only in 1970 to conduct the Israeli Broadcasting Authority Symphonic Orchestra in two concerts, performing the six Brandenburg Concerti of Bach, and Mozart's symphonies 39, 40 and 41. During this tour he took Israeli citizenship. He retired from conducting in 1971.
Klemperer died in Zürich, Switzerland, in 1973, aged 88, and was buried in Zürich's Israelitischer Friedhof-Oberer Friesenberg. In his later years, he had become increasingly worried about the influence of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and about Israel's foreign policies.
He was an Honorary Member (HonRAM) of the Royal Academy of Music.
His son, Werner Klemperer, was an actor and became known for his portrayal of Colonel Klink on the US television show Hogan's Heroes. The diarist Victor Klemperer was a cousin; so were Georg Klemperer and Felix Klemperer, who were famous physicians.
Klemperer is less well known as a composer, but like other famous conductors such as Furtwangler, Walter and Markevich, he wrote a number of pieces, including six symphonies (only the first two published), a Mass, nine string quartets, many lieder and the opera Das Ziel. He tried at times to get his works performed, as he had hopes of being remembered as a composer as well as a conductor, but had little success. They have generally fallen into neglect since his death, although commercial recordings have occasionally been made of some of his symphonic works. Four string quartets and a selection of piano pieces and songs have been recorded in two limited edition CDs.
Many listeners associate Klemperer with slow tempos, but recorded evidence now available on compact disc shows that in earlier years his tempi could be quite a bit faster; the late recordings give a misleading impression. For example, one of Klemperer's most noted performances was of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, Eroica. Eric Grunin's Eroica Project contains tempo data on 363 recordings of the work from 1924–2007, and includes 10 by Klemperer – some recorded in the studio, most from broadcasts of live concerts. The earliest Klemperer performance on tape was recorded in concert in Köln in 1954 (when he was 69 years old); the last was in London with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1970 (when he was 85). The passing years show a clear trend with respect to tempo: as Klemperer aged, he took slower tempi. In 1954, his first movement lasts 15:18 from beginning to end; in 1970 it lasts 18:41. In 1954 the main tempo of the first movement was about 135 beats per minute, in 1970 it had slowed to about 110 beats per minute. In 1954, the Eroica second movement, "Funeral March", had a timing of 14:35; in 1970, it had slowed to 18:51. Similar slowings took place in the other movements. Around 1954, Herbert von Karajan flew especially to hear Klemperer conduct a performance of the Eroica, and later he said to him: "I have come only to thank you, and say that I hope I shall live to conduct the Funeral March as well as you have done".
Similar, if less extreme, reductions in tempi can be noted in many other works for which Klemperer left multiple recordings, at least in recordings from when he was in his late 70s and his 80s. For example:
(a) Mozart's Symphony No. 38 Prague, another Klemperer specialty. In his concert recording from December 1950 (when he was 65 years old) with the RIAS Berlin Orchestra the timings are I. 9:45 (with repeat timing omitted; the performance actually does take the repeat); II. 7:45; and III. 5.24. In his studio March, 1962 recording of the same work with the Philharmonia (recorded when he was 77 years old), the timings are notably slower: I. 10:53 (no repeat was taken); II. 8.58; III. 6:01. Unlike the late Eroica, the 1962 Prague is not notably slow; rather, the 1950 recording is much faster than most recordings of the work, even by "historically informed" conductors.
(b) Symphony No. 4 Romantic by Anton Bruckner (Haas edition with emendations). A 1947 concert recording with Concertgebouw Orchestra has timings of I. 14:03; II. 12:58; III. 10:11; and IV. 17.48. The EMI studio recording with the Philharmonia from 1963 has timings of I. 16:09; II; 14:00; III. 11.48; IV. 19:01. Again, the 1963 is not a notably slow performance, but the 1947 was quick. The March 1951 recording with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra was even quicker: I. 13:26; II. 11:56; III. 9:22; IV. 16:30.
(c) Symphony No. 7, Nachtlied (Song of the Night) by Gustav Mahler recorded for EMI in 1968. I. 27:43; II. 22:06; III. 10:27; IV. 15:41; V. 24:15. Klemperer's finale is particularly slow-paced at 24:15, where the average timing is approx. 17:30. Compare Klemperer's tempi with Sir Georg Solti for Decca (1971) at 16:29; James Levine for RCA (1982) at 17:45; Claudio Abbado for DG (2002) also at 17:45 and the Michael Tilson Thomas 2005 performance with the San Francisco SO at 18:05. "Thus, as you listen to this performance, it seems... to enclose you within its own world of evocative sound, a world that echoes... the world we may know, but remains a world transformed by imagination, remote, and complete within itself."
Regardless of tempo, Klemperer's performances often maintain great intensity, and are richly detailed. Eric Grunin, in a commentary on the "opinions" page of his Eroica Project, notes: "....The massiveness of the first movement of the Eroica is real, but is not its main claim on our attention. That honor goes to its astonishing story (structure), and what is to me most unique about Klemperer is that his understanding of the structure remains unchanged no matter what his tempo... "
Klemperer made many recordings that have become classics. Among those worthy of note are:
- Bach: St Matthew Passion with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Pears, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, and Walter Berry
- Bach: Mass in B minor
- Bach: Brandenburg Concertos with the Philharmonia Orchestra on ΕΜΙ
- Bartók: Viola Concerto (with William Primrose, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, live version on Archiphon)
- Beethoven: Symphony cycles (notably the one from the mid-1950s on EMI)
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (recorded live, November 1957 and also in 1961)
- Beethoven: Fidelio (both the live recording from Covent Garden on Testament, and the studio EMI recording)
- Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
- Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 3-5, (with Claudio Arrau, live versions issued on Testament)
- Brahms: Symphony cycles
- Brahms: Violin concerto, with David Oistrakh
- Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
- Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major
- Bruckner: Symphony No. 6 in A Major
- Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 with Claudio Arrau, live version issued on Music & Arts
- Franck: Symphony in D-minor
- Handel: Messiah, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Grace Hoffman, Nicolai Gedda, and Jerome Hines
- Haydn: Symphonies 88, 92, 95, 98, 100, 101, 102, 104
- Hindemith: Nobilissima Visione Suite (Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, a 1954 version issued on Andante)
- Janáček: Sinfonietta (a 1951 Concertgebouw Orchestra live version, released by Archiphon)
- Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde, with Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich
- Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, "Resurrection", (1) – 1951 with Kathleen Ferrier & Jo Vincent; (2) – 1963 with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf & Hilde Rössel-Majdan
- Mahler: Symphony No. 4 with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
- Mahler: Symphony No. 7, 1968
- Mahler: Symphony No. 9
- Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Symphonies Nos.3-4
- Mozart: Piano Concerto no. 25 (with Daniel Barenboim)
- Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 25, 29, 31, 34, 38, 39, 40 and 41
- Mozart: Don Giovanni (live version issued on Testament)
- Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), with Nicolai Gedda, Walter Berry, Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the First Lady
- Schönberg: Verklärte Nacht (a 1955 live version with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, on Archiphon)
- Schubert: Symphonies 5, 7 and 9. Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI)
- Schumann: Symphonies 1-4, with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Klemperer was the first to record them integrally
- Schumann: Piano Concerto (with Annie Fischer)
- Stravinsky: Petrushka
- Stravinsky: Pulcinella
- Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
- Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 with the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI
- Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) (with Anja Silja)
- Wagner: Siegfried Idyll in the original chamber version with members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
- Weill: Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, 1931, 1967
A list of historical recordings of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Klemperer conducting (including parts of the George Gershwin Memorial Concert at the Hollywood Bowl) can be found here: Otto Klemperer conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Klemperer's last recording, of Mozart's Serenade in E-Flat, K.375, was made on September 28, 1971, the last time he led an orchestra.
- Keller, Hans; Cosman, (1957). "Otto Klemperer". Musical Sketchbook. Oxford: Cassirer. OCLC 3225493.
- Otto Klemperer site
- Opera. Feb 1961, p 89
- Blyth, Alan. "Otto Klemperer talks to Alan Blyth (Gramophone, May 1978)". Gramophone. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
- Peter Heyworth (29 March 1996). Otto Klemperer, His Life and Times: 1885-1933. Cambridge University Press. pp. 134–. ISBN 978-0-521-49509-7. Retrieved 21 July 2012.
- Joseph Horowitz, Review, The American Scholar, Spring 1997 (v.66, pp. 307-10)
- Peter Heyworth, Otto Klemperer: His Life and Times, Cambridge UP, Vols 1 and 2; 1996; ISBN 0521244889 ISBN 978-0521244886.
- Swed, Mark (August 31, 2003). "The Salonen-Gehry Axis; The Los Angeles Philharmonic Has Arrived at a Rare Confluence of Musical Distinction and Visionary Architecture". Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles Times Magazine).
- Peter Heyworth, Otto Klemperer: His Life and Times, Cambridge UP, Vols 1 and 2; 1996; ISBN 0521244889 ISBN 978-0521244886
- "Maestro Chaslin talks about Klemperer and the tribute concert:". The Classical Series (2012-13). Jerusalem Symphony. Retrieved 13 July 2013.
- Walton, Chris (2005). "CD Reviews: Klemperer, Symphony No. 1 et al.". Tempo 59 (232): 56–58. Retrieved 2008-09-27.
- CDs catalogue numbers MACA001 and ok2b001
- RCM, High Fidelity Magazine, December 1969.
- Heyworth, Peter (1996). Otto Klemperer: His Life and Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-56538-3.
- Holden, Raymond (2005). The Virtuoso Conductors: The Central European Tradition from Wagner to Karajan. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09326-8.
- Cosman, Milein (1957). Musical Sketchbook. Oxford: Bruno Cassirer. OCLC 3225493.
- Otto Klemperer at AllMusic
- Beating Time: a play by Jim Grover about Klemperer
- The Stanford Collection. A comprehensive film archive, collected by Dr Charles Barber
- Otto Klemperer - Behind every great conductor
- portrait of Otto Klemperer and Johanna Geisler by Nickolas Muray
- František Sláma – Archive. More on the history of the Czech Philharmonic between the 1940s and the 1980s: Conductors