Christoph von Dohnányi

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Christoph von Dohnányi (German: [ˈkʁɪstɔf fɔn ˈdɔxnaːnjiː]; born 8 September 1929) is a German conductor.


Youth and World War II[edit]

Dohnányi was born in Berlin, Germany to jurist Hans von Dohnányi and Christine Bonhoeffer. His uncle on his mother's side, and also his godfather, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian/ethicist. His grandfather was the pianist and composer Ernő Dohnányi, also known as Ernst von Dohnányi. His father, uncle and other family members participated in the German Resistance movement against Nazism, and were arrested and detained in several Nazi concentration camps before being executed in 1945, when Christoph was 15 years old.[1] Dohnányi's older brother is Klaus von Dohnányi, a German politician and former mayor of Hamburg.[2]

Education and early engagements[edit]

After the war, Dohnányi studied law in Munich, but in 1948 he transferred to the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München to study composition, piano and conducting. At the opera in Munich, he was a stage extra, coached singers, and was a house pianist. He received the Richard Strauss Prize from the city of Munich, and then went to Florida State University to study with his grandfather.

His first position as assistant was at the Frankfurt Opera, appointed by Georg Solti, where he also served as a ballet and opera coach. He was general musical director of the Lübeck Opera from 1957 to 1963, then Germany's youngest GMD. He also served as chief conductor of the Staatsorchester Kassel. He also served as chief conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne. In 1968, he succeeded Solti as general music director and later "director" at the Frankfurt Opera and served in both capacities until 1977. He took the positions of intendant and chief conductor with the Hamburg State Opera in 1977, and relinquished those posts in 1984.

As director of the Frankfurt Opera and with his team including Gerard Mortier (Director of Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, Salzburg Festival, Opéra de Paris), Peter Mario Katona (Director of Casting at ROH Covent Garden) and Klaus Schultz, Dramaturg in Munich (Bayerische Staatsoper) and Berlin (Philharmonic Orchestra), then General Manager of the Stadttheater Aachen, Nationaltheater Mannheim, and Gärtnerplatztheater in Munich, the balance in programming of traditional opera performance and innovative Musiktheater, promoting the idea of Regietheater, established Frankfurt opera as a leading house at that time. He continued this concept in Hamburg.

Cleveland years[edit]

Dohnányi's enduring fame owes largely to a relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra that spanned two decades. He made his conducting debut with the orchestra in December 1981, and soon after was appointed music director designate from 1982 to 1984 and consequently served as music director from the 1984-85 season until August 2002. At the time of Dohnányi's appointment, he was a relative unknown in the shadow of the famously autocratic George Szell, who had forged the orchestra into a world-class ensemble by the time of his death in 1970.[3] Dohnányi's kinship with Szell, both in terms of musical training and micro-managerial conducting style, portended that his relationship with the orchestra would be a successful one. In Dohnányi's 18-year tenure at its helm, the Cleveland Orchestra was sometimes touted as the finest orchestra in the United States and among the finest in the world, presenting creative programming and pursuing an active touring and recording agenda.[4] In spite of it all, Dohnányi was keenly aware of and bemused by the fact that their achievements were frequently overlooked: "We give a great concert...and George Szell gets a great review."[5] Dohnányi was named the first ever "Music Director Laureate of the Cleveland Orchestra" upon his retirement in 2002. During his tenure, Severance Hall in Cleveland underwent a substantial extension and renovation, bringing back the glorious Norton Memorial Organ that had been banned from stage during George Szell's tenure. As Music Director he initiated the foundation of The Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra. The Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus was founded as well, both organisations being active in Northeast Ohio for the education in and enhancement of symphonic music.

From 1998 to 2000 Dohnányi was also Artistic Advisor of the Orchestre de Paris.


In 1994, Dohnányi became the principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia orchestra in London, UK, and in 1997 their Principal Conductor. In April 2007, Dohnányi was one of eight conductors of British orchestras to endorse the 10-year classical music outreach manifesto, "Building on Excellence: Orchestras for the 21st Century", to increase the presence of classical music in the UK, including giving free entry to all British schoolchildren to a classical music concert.[6][7] In 2008, he stepped down from the Philharmonia principal conductorship and now holds the title with the orchestra of "Honorary Conductor for Life".

Being retired from his music directorship at the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi has built an ongoing relationship as guest conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston as well as in Tanglewood and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He has been invited as guest conductor to Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Philadelphia Orchestra. A regular collaboration has developed with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra since the 1990s.

In 2004, Dohnányi returned to Hamburg, Germany where he maintained a residence for many years, to become chief conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchestra. He concluded his NDR tenure after the 2009-2010 season.[8]

As opera conductor Dohnányi had been in residence with Philharmonia Orchestra at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris[9] during the 1990s, presenting new productions of Die Frau ohne Schatten (Andreas Homoki, stage director), Oedipus Rex (Robert Wilson, stage director), Hänsel und Gretel (Yannis Kokkos, stage director), Moses and Aron (Herbert Wernike, stage director), Die Schweigsame Frau (Marco Marelli, stage director), Arabella (Peter Mussbach, stage director). Since 1994 an intensive relationship has developed with the Opernhaus Zürich,[10] where he was invited to lead new productions of a double bill of Bartok's Count Bluebeard's Castle and Stravinski's Oedipus Rex, Richard Strauss operas such as Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die Schweigsame Frau, Salome and Elektra, Wagner's Flying Dutchman, Mozart's Idomeneo, Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, Schoenberg's Moses and Aron.


Christoph von Dohnányi recognized and promoted young conductors. Alan Gilbert, current music director of the New York Philharmonic, was assistant conductor to Dohnányi from 1995 to 1997 at the Cleveland Orchestra. Jens Georg Bachmann, music director of the Crested Butte Music Festival in Colorado, had been in the same position at the NDR Symphony Orchestra from 2007 to 2009.


Dohnányi has been married three times. His first wife was the German actress Renate Zillessen, and they had two children, Katja and Justus. His second wife was the German soprano Anja Silja, with whom he had three children: Julia, Benedikt and Olga. His third wife is Barbara Koller.[1]


  1. ^ a b John von Rhein (2005-02-08). "Distinguished Heir to a Great Tradition - Conductor Christoph von Dohnányi". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2007-07-15. 
  2. ^ Martin Kettle (12 June 2002). "The secret of my success". The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-07-15. 
  3. ^ "The Glorious Instrument". Time. 22 February 1963. Retrieved 2007-07-15. 
  4. ^ Michael Walsh (1994-01-01). "The Finest Orchestra? (Surprise!) Cleveland". Time. Retrieved 2007-07-15. 
  5. ^ James R. Oestreich (26 January 1997). "Out From Under the Shadow". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-06. 
  6. ^ "Pupils get free concert tickets". BBC News. 26 April 2007. Retrieved 2007-07-15. 
  7. ^ Charlotte Higgins (26 April 2007). "Orchestras urge free concerts for children". The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-07-15. 
  8. ^ "Thomas Hengelbrock wird neuer Chefdirigent" (Press release). NDR Symphony Orchestra. 27 March 2009. Retrieved 2009-09-30. 
  9. ^
  10. ^


  • Donald Rosenberg (2000). The Cleveland Orchestra Story. Cleveland, Ohio: Gray & Company. ISBN 1-886228-24-8. 
  • Klaus Schultz (ed.), Offen sein zu - hören. Der Dirigent Christoph von Dohnányi. Hamburg: Murmann 2010, 281 p. ISBN 978-3-86774-074-6 [The book contains a discography.]

External links[edit]

Cultural offices
Preceded by
Principal Conductor, WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne
Succeeded by
Zdeněk Mácal
Preceded by
Lovro von Matačić
General Music Director and Chief Intendant, Frankfurt Opera
Succeeded by
Michael Gielen
Preceded by
Christoph Eschenbach
Chief Conductor, NDR Symphony Orchestra
Succeeded by
Thomas Hengelbrock