Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) was a multifaceted conductor, a master at interpreting opera, the avant-garde, and the classic German repertoire. Those musicians who performed under his baton recall his sternness and indomitable spirit, which enabled him to overcome personal and historical challenges.
Otto Klemperer was born on May 14, 1885, in what was then the Silesian city of Breslau during a period when the area was ruled by the Germans. Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, Poland received parts of Silesia, including the city of Breslau, whose name has since been changed to Wroclaw. Like his birthplace, Klemperer would also be cast adrift by the tides of history.
Klemperer's musical studies brought him first to Frankfort, where he studied at the Hochschule fur Musik, then at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin, where he was a student of the Russian-German composer, Hans Pfitzner. In 1905, he caught the eye of Gustav Mahler and became his protege. Two years later, Mahler recommended the young Klemperer for the third conductor position at the German National Theater in Prague. In 1909, it was again through Mahler's influence that Klemperer received a position as second conductor in Hamburg. In essence, these two men—Pfitzner and Mahler—represent the two great strains of music that were synthesized by Klemperer. Pfitzner represented the conservative, Romantic and Germanic element, which embodied Klemperer's solid musicianship and his choice of work. Mahler inculcated the young man with the avant garde. When refracted through the prism of Klemperer's romantic character, this contributed to his unique style. A third influence on Klemperer, although not a direct one, was the nineteenth-century conductor Hans von Bulow, who had taught at the Stern Conservatory.
Of Klemperer's indebtedness to von Bulow's technique, David Ewen wrote (in The Man with the Baton ): "Both Bruno Walter [another protege of Mahler and rival of Klemperer] and Otto Klemperer were nurtured and raised upon the traditions of conducting created by Hans von Bulow—and their strength and weakness as conductors are to a great degree those of the school they represent. [L]ike their predecessor Hans von Bulow, both Walter and Klemperer look upon a musical masterpiece as a plastic organism which the conductor can shape at his own discretion. Liberty with tempi, with a preponderance of rubato, exaggeration of dynamics, reconstruction of the melodic phrase are occasional intruders into the performances of Klemperer and Walter." Yet Ewen, like many music critics, did not find these so-called faults insurmountable when appraising Klemperer. He noted the conductor's ability to "feel the heart beat of most works" he conducted. All of these musical influences, were perhaps manifestations of something deeper within Klemperer's psyche: he suffered from bipolar disorder, which grew worse over time.
Klemperer's early reputation was made conducting opera. He moved to Strasbourg in 1914, at Pfitzner's invitation, where he was appointed first conductor and musical director of the opera house and a professor and the director of the conservatory there. In 1916, Klemperer became Strasbourg's general music director. The next year he moved to Cologne, whose avant-garde tastes suited his own and where, as first conductor, he expanded his reputation. Klemperer remained in Cologne for seven years, leaving to accept an appointment as general musical director in Wiesbaden.
Three years later, in 1927, Klemperer was appointed general musical director of the Kroll Opera in Berlin. He served in that capacity until 1931, the year the company went out of existence. Klemperer also founded the Berlin Philharmonic Choir. His experience at the Kroll was legendary and markedly different than his later work in the United States and Great Britain. This was the heyday of the Weimar Republic. Culturally, Berlin was at its notorious between-the-wars zenith. Under Klemperer, the Kroll became one of the most renowned experimental companies in the world. The list of composers whose works were performed reads like a who's who of European modernism: Arnold Schoenberg (given a double-bill), Igor Stravinsky (a triple-bill), Paul Hindemith, and Kurt Weill among others. Klemperer also gave all-Bach concerts and sometimes mixed Bach with contemporaries such as Hindemith and Weill.
The Kroll's experimentalism scandalized even Weimar Berlin. The company was attacked from both the left— which was ironic because its artistic mission was a socialist connection of art with the workers—and from the right, where the Nazis were gaining strength and becoming bolder with each passing year. Finally, the pressure proved too great and the Kroll closed down in 1931. In The Maestro Myth, Norman Lebrecht quotes Klemperer as saying, "I didn't want an avant-garde opera, I just wanted to make good theatre—just that and nothing else."
Klemperer remained in the increasingly antagonistic atmosphere of Berlin until the month after Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933. After leaving the Kroll, he took the position of second conductor at the Staatsoper (State Opera). Being a Jewish musician (albeit one who had converted to Christianity), and a controversial one at that, Klemperer foresaw difficulties with the Nazi regime. Yet before leaving Germany, he did make a few attempts to appease the government. As John Rockwell points out in his 1984 New York Times review of the first volume of Peter Heyworth's 2-volume biography of Klemperer, the conductor "wrote prose poems in praise of the New Order and even suggested the formation of a Jewish Palatine guard to protect Hitler." Both suggestions most likely demonstrated evidence of Klemperer's bipolar disorder. When the Gestapo began arresting opponents of the Nazi government, Klemperer fled to Switzerland and eventually made his way to the United States.
Conducted Los Angeles Philharmonic
In many respects, Klemperer's sojourn in America was the nadir of his life and career. Depression (possibly made worse by unfamiliar surroundings and culture) continued to plague him, and he found the respect that he had garnered in Europe had all but vanished in the New World. He settled almost immediately in Los Angeles, where a thriving community of intellectual refugees had mane their homes. This was a city where serious music was nothing more than a backdrop to cinema. Klemperer was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic after the departure of Artur Rodzinski for Cleveland.
In addition to his duties at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Klemperer was a guest conductor for the New York Philharmonic during the 1934-35 and 1935-36 seasons. In 1937, he spent six weeks reorganizing the Pittsburgh Symphony. However, his behavior outside the concert hall became more erratic and the ensuing publicity he received damaged his reputation in the United States. His tenure at the Los Angeles Philharmonic lasted until 1939. Just before the start of the 1939-40 season, Klemperer was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The surgery and the stroke he suffered afterward ended his career in Los Angeles. Bruno Walter took over the baton.
The stroke left Klemperer partially paralyzed. Conducting was out of the question. It could only have deepened the torment he experienced during bouts with the depressive phase of his illness. The remainder of his stay in America was a long slide into obscurity. Ironically, as he went about the task of rehabilitating his body (Klemperer, at six feet four inches had the physical strength to match his will), rumors of insanity persistently followed him. By the time he was able to again take up conducting, he was left to promote his own concerts, including one at Carnegie Hall. During the war years he received little work.
In 1947, Klemperer returned to Europe, first to Prague, the location of his first conducting post, then on to Budapest for the 1948-49 and 1949-50 seasons. He began making recordings during these years. After leaving Budapest, Klemperer moved on to East Berlin, where he conducted opera until government interference became too great. Klemperer thereupon returned to the United States, but his woes returned. This was the beginning of the Cold War and Klemperer had spent most of the post-war period in the Eastern Bloc. His passport was confiscated and he found himself under scrutiny by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was rescued from this latest debacle by British record producer, Walter Legge.
Revival and Acclaim in London
Legge scoured Europe and North America during the post-war years in search of the finest available talent— musicians and conductors not already under contract. Klemperer's career was in limbo when Legge offered him a conductor position with the London Philharmonia. It proved to be the renaissance of his career.
At that time, London was filled with refugees eager to hear the classic German repertoire, which Klemperer brought to the Philharmonia. The recordings he made with the Philharmonia received international praise. Beginning as a guest conductor, Klemperer was appointed musical director by 1955. In 1959 he was named the Philharmonia's principal conductor for life. It was during this final stage of his career (which lasted until 1972) that the recognizable figure of Klemperer as an indomitable, deliberate, acid-tongued personality gained acceptance among the general public. He was never very tactful, reserving some of his sharpest barbs for colleagues such as Wilhelm Furtwangler, whose work he admired but whose collaboration with the Nazi government he could not abide. The antagonism that Klemperer felt toward Furtwangler, however, was nothing compared to that which he felt toward Herbert von Karajan, who had actually joined the Nazi party. By the time the war had ended, Klemperer had re-embraced Judaism and someone like Karajan was not merely a rival, but anathema to him.
In these final years, Klemperer made the recordings upon which his posthumous reputation rests. The pace of many of these recordings is slow, critics have conceded, yet they confirm him as the master of the German repertoire: Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. Listening to them, one might never realize that Klemperer had been a harbinger of European modernism in the 1920s and early 1930s. However, he retained a love for contemporary music throughout his life. Almost belying the classics is his later interest in the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.
Klemperer was also a composer, though in this area he did not meet with very much success; his compositions are seldom, if ever, performed. His total output was six symphonies, nine string quartets, and an opera. Klemperer died on July 6, 1973 in Zurich, Switzerland. He was eighty-eight years old.
Further Reading on Otto Klemperer
Ewen, David. The Man with the Baton: The Story of Conductors and Their Orchestras. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1936.
Lebrecht, Norman. The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power. Birch Lane Press, 1991.
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie. Macmillan, 1980.
Wooldridge, David. Conductor's World. Praeger Publishers, 1970.
New York Times April 24, 1984; May 12, 1985.
Times (London), July 7, 1996.