Nikolaus Harnoncourt

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Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Graf de la Fontaine und d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1980).jpg
Harnoncourt in 1980
Born Johann Nikolaus Graf de la Fontaine und d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt
(1929-12-06)6 December 1929
Berlin, Germany
Died 5 March 2016(2016-03-05) (aged 86)
St Georgen im Attergau, Austria
  • Cellist
  • Conductor
Organization Concentus Musicus Wien
Known for Pioneer of Historically informed performance
Spouse(s) Alice Hoffelner
(1953-2016;[1] his death)
Children 4 children (including Elisabeth von Magnus)
Awards Erasmus Prize

Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Johann Nikolaus Graf (Count) de la Fontaine und d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt; 6 December 1929 – 5 March 2016) was an Austrian conductor, particularly known for his historically informed performances of music from the Classical era and earlier. Starting out as a classical cellist, he founded his own period instrument ensemble, Concentus Musicus Wien, in the 1950s, and became a pioneer of the Early Music movement. Around 1970, Harnoncourt started to conduct opera and concert performances, soon leading renowned international symphony orchestras, and appearing at leading concert halls, operatic venues and festivals. His repertoire then widened to include composers of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2001 and 2003, he conducted the Vienna New Year's Concert. Harnoncourt was also the author of several books, mostly on subjects of performance history and musical aesthetics.


Harnoncourt was born Johann Nikolaus Graf de la Fontaine und d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt[2] in Berlin, Germany. His mother, Ladislaja Gräfin von Meran, Freiin von Brandhoven, was the great-granddaughter of the Habsburg Archduke Johann, the 13th child of the Emperor Leopold II, making him a descendant of various Holy Roman Emperors and other European royalty. His father, Eberhard de la Fontaine Graf d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt, was an engineer working in Berlin who had two children from a previous marriage. Two years after Nikolaus's birth, his brother Philipp was born. The family eventually moved to Graz, where Eberhard had obtained a post in the state government (Landesregierung) of Styria.

Harnoncourt was raised in Graz, Austria, and studied music in Vienna. During his youth, he served in the Hitler Youth under duress, where, as he noted:[3]

If you didn't go there every Wednesday and Saturday, the Hitler Youth police would come, fetch you, cut your hair and toss you into a group with other difficult ones who were treated terribly.

At the Vienna Music Academy, Harnoncourt studied cello with Paul Grümmer and Emanuel Brabec, and also learned viola da gamba.[1]


Harnoncourt was a cellist with the Vienna Symphony from 1952 to 1969. In 1953, he founded the period-instrument ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien with his wife, Alice Hoffelner, whom he married that year.[1] The Concentus Musicus Wien was dedicated to performances on period instruments, and by the 1970s his work with it had made him quite well known. He played the viola da gamba at this time, as well as the cello. For the Telefunken (later Teldec) label, Harnoncourt recorded a wide variety of the Baroque repertoire, beginning with the viol music of Henry Purcell,[4] and extending to include works like Bach's The Musical Offering,[5] Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea,[6] and Rameau's Castor et Pollux.[7] One of his final recordings with the Concentus Musicus Wien was of Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5.[8]

One reason that Harnoncourt left the Vienna Symphony was to become a conductor. He made his conducting debut at La Scala, Milan, in 1970, leading a production of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria.[9]

In 1971, Harnoncourt started a joint project with conductor Gustav Leonhardt to record all of J. S. Bach's cantatas. The Teldec Bach cantata project was eventually completed in 1990 and was the only cantata cycle to use an all-male choir and soloist roster, with the exception of cantatas nos. 51 and 199, which were intended for a female soprano voice. He also made the first recordings in historically informed performance of Bach's Mass in B minor (1968) and St Matthew Passion (1970). In 2001 a critically acclaimed and Grammy Award winning recording of the St Matthew Passion with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir was released, which included the entire score of the piece in Bach's own hand on a CD-ROM. This was his third recording of the work.[10]

Harnoncourt later performed with many other orchestras that played on modern instruments, but still with an eye on historical authenticity in terms of tempi and dynamics, among other things. He also expanded his repertoire, continuing to play the baroque works, but also championing the Viennese operetta repertoire. He made a benchmark recording of Beethoven's symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE),[11] and recorded Beethoven's piano concertos with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the COE.[12]

Harnoncourt was also a guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and made several recordings with the orchestra.[13][14] Between 1987 and 1991, he conducted four new productions of Mozart operas at the Vienna State Opera (1987–91: Idomeneo; 1988–90: Die Zauberflöte; 1989: Die Entführung aus dem Serail; 1989–91: Così fan tutte). He directed the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Day concerts in 2001 and 2003.[15]

In 1992, Harnoncourt debuted at the Salzburg Festival conducting a concert with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. In the following years, he led several concerts with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Concentus Musicus. Harnoncourt also served as the conductor for major opera productions of the Festival: L'incoronazione di Poppea (1993), Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (1995 and 2006), Don Giovanni (2002, marking also Anna Netrebko's international breakthrough as Donna Anna, and 2003) and La clemenza di Tito (2003 and 2006), and Purcell's King Arthur (2004).[16] In 2012, Harnoncourt conducted a new production of Die Zauberflöte staged by Jens-Daniel Herzog.[17]

Harnoncourt made his guest-conducting debut with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam in 1975. He continued as a guest conductor with the orchestra, including in several opera productions and recordings.[18] In October 2000, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (KCO) named him their Honorair gastdirigent (Honorary Guest Conductor). His final appearance with the KCO was in October 2013, leading Bruckner's Symphony No. 5.

Other recordings outside of the baroque and classical era repertoire included his 2002 recording of Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 with the Vienna Philharmonic. An accompanying second CD contained a lecture by Harnoncourt about the symphony with musical examples, including the rarely heard fragments from the unfinished finale. In 2009, Harnoncourt recorded Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, taken from live performances at Graz.

On 5 December 2015, one day before his 86th birthday, Harnoncourt announced his retirement via his website. "My bodily strength requires me to cancel my future plans," he wrote in a hand-written letter inserted into the program on his 86th birthday of a concert by the Concentus Musicus Wien.[19]

Personal life[edit]

Harnoncourt is survived by his wife Alice, a violinist, and three of their four children. The couple met through their mutual interest in historically informed performances of Baroque music and co-founded the Concentus Musicus Wien.[1] Their daughter is the mezzo-soprano Elisabeth von Magnus. Their two surviving sons are Philipp and Franz. Their third son Eberhard, a violin maker, died in 1990 in an automobile accident.[20]

Harnoncourt died on 5 March 2016 in the village of Sankt Georgen im Attergau, north east of Salzburg.[21] His widow Alice, their three adult children, seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren survive him.


Harnoncourt was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music,[29] Honorary Doctor of the University of Edinburgh[29] and of the Order Pour le Mérite for Science and Art.[29]


  • Harnoncourt, Nikolaus (1983). Musik als Klangrede: Wege zu einem neuen Musikverständnis. Salzburg: Residenz Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7017-0315-9. 
  • — (1993). Die Macht der Musik: Zwei Reden. Salzburg: Residenz Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7017-0827-7. 
  • Harnoncourt, Nikolaus; Pauly, Reinhard G. (1988). Baroque Music Today: Music As Speech. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press. ISBN 978-0-931340-91-8. 
  • —; — (1997). The Musical Dialogue: Thoughts on Monteverdi, Bach, and Mozart. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press. ISBN 1-57467-023-9. 


  1. ^ a b c d Barry Millington (6 March 2016). "Nikolaus Harnoncourt obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 March 2016. 
  2. ^ Munzinger-Archiv GmbH, Ravensburg. "Nikolaus Harnoncourt". Retrieved 6 March 2016. 
  3. ^ James R Oestreich (6 March 2016). "Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Conductor and Early-Music Specialist, Dies at 86". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 March 2016. 
  4. ^ Andrew Clements (18 April 2003). "Concentus Musicus Wien: A Celebration". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 August 2007. 
  5. ^ Wolff, Christoph (July 1972). "Reviews of Records, Johann Sebastian Bach: Musikalisches Opfer". The Musical Quarterly. 58 (3): 496–501. doi:10.1093/mq/LVIII.3.496. Retrieved 12 August 2007. 
  6. ^ Glover, Jane (1975). "Review of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea". The Musical Times. 116 (1590): 715. 
  7. ^ Cyr, Mary (April 1973). "Reviews of Records, Rameau: Castor et Pollux". The Musical Quarterly. 59 (2): 328–333. doi:10.1093/mq/LIX.2.328. Retrieved 12 August 2007. 
  8. ^ Nicholas Kenyon (21 February 2016). "Beethoven: Symphonies 4 & 5 CD review – Harnoncourt bows out with blazing intensity". The Observer. Retrieved 6 March 2016. 
  9. ^ James R. Oestreich (2 March 2003). "Only the Best Follow His Beat". New York Times. Retrieved 13 October 2007. 
  10. ^ "Matthaus-Passion BWV 244 – conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt". Retrieved 6 March 2016. 
  11. ^ John Rockwell (17 November 1993). "Harnoncourt Gives Beethoven a Mild Jolt". New York Times. Retrieved 12 August 2007. 
  12. ^ Andrew Clements (28 February 2003). "Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos 1 -5: Aimard/Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Harnoncourt". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 August 2007. 
  13. ^ Andrew Clements (2 October 2002). "Smetana: Ma Vlast". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 August 2007. 
  14. ^ Andrew Clements (24 October 2003). "Bruckner Symphony No 9: Vienna Philharmonic / Harnoncourt". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 August 2007. 
  15. ^ James R. Oestreich (2 January 2003). "A New Year Comes to Old Vienna". New York Times. Retrieved 12 August 2007. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ Gotoh, Nahoko (10 August 2012). "A visually brilliant but serious Zauberflöte at the Salzburg Festival". Bachtrack Ltd. Retrieved 6 March 2016. 
  18. ^ Andrew Clements (2003-05-23). "Dvorak: The Golden Spinning Wheel; The Noon Witch; The Water Goblin; The Wild Dove: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/ Harnoncourt". The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-08-12. 
  19. ^ "Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt dies at 86". BBC. 6 March 2016. Retrieved 6 March 2016. 
  20. ^ James R. Oestreich (1996-11-20). "Following His Fixations, Early Music to Whatever". New York Times. Retrieved 2016-03-29. 
  21. ^ Klapper, Bradley; Jahn, George (6 March 2016). "Austrian Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt Dies at 86". ABC News. Associated Press. Retrieved 6 March 2016. 
  22. ^ "Former Laureates: Nikolaus Harnoncourt 1980". Praemium Erasmianum Foundation. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  23. ^ Ableitinger, Alfred (2002). Steiermark: die Überwindung der Peripherie (in German). Vienna: Bohlau. p. 590. ISBN 9783205992172. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  24. ^ "Reply to a parliamentary question" (pdf) (in German). p. 802. Retrieved 12 December 2012. 
  25. ^ a b c d Merk, Beate (12 May 2012). "Grußwort der Staatsministerin Dr. Beate Merk anlässlich der Verleihung des Romano Guardini Preises am 10. Mai 2012 in München" (PDF) (in German). Die Bayerische Staatsministerin der Justiz und für Verbraucherschutz Dr. Beate Merk. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  26. ^ "Léonie Sonning Awards 1993 Nikolaus Harnoncourt". Léonie onning Music Prize. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  27. ^ "Nikolaus Harnoncourt Laureate of the Polar Music Prize 1994". Polar Music Prize. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  28. ^ "Die Kunstuniversität Graz trauert um ihr Ehrenmitglied Nikolaus Harnoncourt" (in German). Art University of Graz. 7 March 2016. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  29. ^ a b c d e f "Weitere Ehrendoktorwürde für Harnoncourt" (in German). Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  30. ^ "Preisträger" (in German). Schumann in Zwickau. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  31. ^ Fuhrmann, Wolfgang (31 March 2000). "Nikolaus Harnoncourt und die Berliner Philharmoniker Wenn Bruckner ganz nach Bruckner klingt". Berliner Zeitung (in German). Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  32. ^ "Past Winners Search". Grammy. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  33. ^ "Archiv: Hauptpreisträger" (in German). Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  34. ^ "History". Musik Fest Bremen. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  35. ^ "Telemann-Preis für Nikolaus Harnoncourt". MDR (in German). 14 March 2004. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  36. ^ "Star conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt wins Kyoto Prize". Kyocera. 10 June 2005. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  37. ^ "Groß Gold mit Stern für Nikolaus Harnoncourt" (in German). Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  38. ^ "Bach-medaille voor dirigent Nikolaus Harnoncourt". NRC (in Dutch). 11 June 2007. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  39. ^ "Reply to a parliamentary question" (pdf) (in German). p. 1840. Retrieved 12 December 2012. 
  40. ^ "Lifetime Achievement. Pierre-Laurent Aimard pays tribute to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a true visionary". Gramophone. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  41. ^ "Nikolaus Harnoncourt". Royal Philharmonic Society. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  42. ^ "Goldenes Ehrenzeichen für Alice und Nikolaus Harnoncourt" (in German). 30 March 2011. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  43. ^ "Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor and cellist)". Gramophone. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 


  • Gratzer, Wolfgang (ed.) (2009). Ereignis Klangrede. Nikolaus Harnoncourt als Dirigent und Musikdenker (klang-reden 3), Freiburg/Br.: Rombach. ISBN 978-3-7930-9551-4
  • Official catalogue Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Die Universität Mozarteum Salzburg ehrt den Dirigenten und Musikdenker. Salzburg: Universität Mozarteum 2008

External links[edit]

Media related to Nikolaus Harnoncourt at Wikimedia Commons