Otto Klemperer
Otto Klemperer; drawing by David Levine

Most televised orchestra concerts offer close-up footage of the conductor as his musicians see him, beating time and meter, cueing, manipulating dynamic levels, emoting. Otto Klemperer, with Toscanini and Furtwängler one of the great conductors of the century, barely gestured at all in his later years, and, except through his eyes, was physically unable to register sentiments histrionically. Yet he communicated his musical meanings and drew performances from players and singers surpassing what they had thought of as the limits of their abilities. Of the many musicians quoted to this effect in the long-awaited completion of the late Peter Heyworth’s two-volume biography, none ventures to say what he actually did.1 Moreover, he himself denied the existence of a teachable art of conducting, remarking that it is “so minimal” you could learn it “in a minute,” and understanding that nothing can be instilled into a student that is not already there.

Heyworth meticulously provides the logbook of Klemperer’s professional career: the performances—and the cancellations, at times almost one on one—the recording sessions, the rehearsals, the managerial business, the pros and cons of press notices, and the preferred repertory: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner, Brahms, Mahler; and the Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner operas, for he was a theater conductor above all. Apart from this information, the book’s sustaining interest is in its running commentary on the conductor’s personality disorders, and the eventual triumph over them of his indomitable will. The life, at once tragi-comic and heroic, is one of the strangest in music history.

Nathan Klemperer, the conductor’s father, was born in the Prague ghetto, like all of his known ancestors. His wife, Otto’s mother, descended from a Sephardic family, was brought up in Hamburg, where she raised her only son. Otto seems to have inherited his musical gifts from her, as well as his manic-depressive affliction. Deeply religious by nature, at age thirty-four he converted to Catholicism, not to further his career, as his idol Mahler had to do under Viennese law, but out of “intellectual conviction, and belief in God and the efficacy of prayer.” He remained a communicant—more fervently in his manic phases, when he would go to Mass daily—until near the end of his life when, in a gesture of solidarity with Israel and as a result of revelations concerning Catholic quiescence during the Holocaust, he returned to Judaism.

The earliest manifestation of the manic-depressive stigmata, the oscillations between extremes of temperament that determined the course of Klemperer’s emotional life, occurred in his twentieth year (1905), while he was a music student in Berlin. His apprenticeship in Prague, where a recommendation from Mahler helped him to secure a conducting post, was apparently not disturbed by untoward manically-induced incidents, but this was not true of his next post, at the Stadttheater in Hamburg. Remarking on his elevated, vertiginous mood while leading a concert in the city, a reviewer noted that “the exaltation with which he used his baton in a Bach concerto makes one fear that when he eventually conducts Tristan those within reach will be in danger of their lives.”

In 1912, during a high manic phase, he eloped with the soprano Elisabeth Schumann, a married woman. When they returned to Hamburg after a five-day spree, the husband of his inamorata challenged him to a duel, to which Klemperer’s response was: “Let him shoot ducks.” (The conductor had already fallen out of love and the singer would soon return to her spouse.) Standing in the first row behind Klemperer at the end of his next opera performance, the cuckold asked him to turn around, then struck him on the left side of his face with a riding crop, knocking him into the orchestra pit. This public scandal was the first of a great many that would feed the press and bedevil Klemperer’s career.

Heyworth’s first volume maintains that Klemperer’s cyclothymic illness was caused by chemical changes in the body and was “not a neurosis.” In volume two, the biographer calls it a psychosis, while also maintaining that outer circumstances could and did affect the force and duration of the conductor’s mood swings. Since one of the definitions of the term psychosis is “the impairment of contact with reality,” its applicability to Klemperer is clearly warranted. Item: as late as April 1933 he believed that racial persecution in the Third Reich could be ended by baptizing the country’s Jews, and that “a Jewish palatine guard [should] be formed to protect Hitler.”

In April 1933, when the second volume of Heyworth’s biography begins, Klemperer left Berlin for Zurich, which would become his home after World War II, and, forty years later, his place of burial. In Florence the next month he met the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, who noted that the conductor “hated the Nazis above all because they had dismissed him,” and not because of their “terrible doctrine.” Incredibly, seven years later Klemperer was actually hailing the fall of Paris as a “miracle” and looking forward to the capitulation of Britain as the beginning of “an era of peace.” By the late summer of 1940, it is true, he had progressed to the point of being able to “grasp the readiness of the world outside Germany to accommodate the barbarians in Berlin,” but he was no ideologue, and his artistic allegiances always took precedence over political issues. Not until 1945 did he begin to understand the reasons for the war. Returning to New York from a European concert tour the following year, he told an interviewer: “I never met anyone who said he was a Nazi…. The Germans are sorry they lost the war—period!” Even so, in Baden-Baden the same year, when asked whether he would prefer an oboist who had been a National Socialist or a less good one with irreproachable political credentials, he replied, “The Nazi, of course.” With characteristic inconsistency, he avoided his pre-war friend, the politically ambivalent Wilhelm Furtwängler, while cordially receiving the opportunist Nazi Herbert von Karajan.


In the late spring of 1933 Klemperer fulfilled engagements in Budapest and Vienna, conducting Bela Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto in both cities. During rehearsals, the composer “sat in the auditorium with a metronome before him,” and in Vienna, where he performed the solo part, Klemperer was impressed by “the beauty of his tone, the energy and lightness of his playing.” Bartok, usually sparing with praise, told a friend that Klemperer’s account of the orchestra part was immaculate. After the war Klemperer would become a resident conductor in iron-curtain Budapest, but for the present he sought to establish himself in Vienna, where he was given spacious rooms on the ground floor of Schönbrunn, the former imperial palace. Wishing to explore possibilities in America, however, where he had enjoyed a great success with the New York Philharmonic in the 1920s, he signed a contract to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the forthcoming season.

Professionally and personally, Klemperer’s American years (1933-1947) were the unhappiest of his life. In Los Angeles he was required to play music he did not like, such as the early Sibelius symphonies and the César Franck. New York, which he thought “the only really living city in America,” failed to offer him engagements commensurate with his stature, and hinterland orchestras did not meet his standards or play to his satisfaction. He found the Buffalo orchestra “miserably mediocre,” the Pittsburgh “provincial,” the Portland “a nightmare” (it had never before played Beethoven’s Seventh). After conducting the Chicago Symphony in 1937, he wrote to his wife that it “doesn’t sound well. Sour violins! It reminds me vividly (and with shudders) of certain German orchestras…. There aren’t—it must be said—enough Jews…. They have the warmth of tone that is indispensable for music.”

Arriving alone in Los Angeles in October 1933, he took an immediate dislike to the vast sprawling village and soon began to loathe it. His letters grouse about the “lack of intellectuality,” the enormous distances, the absence of a “real city…with architecture,” the “bad service and unspeakable food” in his hotel. His position as music director demanded that he attend “lunches, at which there is an appalling amount of talk and as good as nothing happens.” But what irritated him most was the obligation to participate in an open-air Easter Sunrise Service. A smarmy account of the 1936 version of this event appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

High on a tree top, above a sleeping city, burned a huge cross. Silently, reverently,… in the darkness, just before dawn, 30,000 persons found their way to the Tower of Legends in Forest Lawn Memorial Park…. The Philharmonic Trumpeters sounded a single long note into the East. And just as the last star faded, the gigantic congregation bowed their heads.

As part of the proceedings, Klemperer had to conduct the preludes to parsifal and Die Meistersinger, then appear at an Easter-egg breakfast with the orchestra board.

Thanks to “rifts and feuds,” German émigré society in Los Angeles was “far from forming a happy family party,” Heyworth writes. What “united the diaspora” was a “dislike of American bread and American children, and a contempt for Anglo-Saxon cultural standards.” One wonders how Arnold Schoenberg endured these and other irritations for seventeen years, but his letters to Klemperer during the period expose the strain. Uncomfortable with English at first, and feeling isolated “among a population they found alien and philistine,” the two men were “thrown together by a common background and common interests.” But Klemperer’s neglect of Schoenberg’s late-Romantic-idiom music, as well as the twelve-tone variety—“while he could perceive [its] logic, he was not convinced of its expressive power”—precluded a close connection between them.


For the reader interested in modern music, however, the stormy relationship between the conductor and the composer comprises one of the book’s most engrossing chapters. Their exchanges in California read like a continuation of their correspondence four years earlier in Berlin, when, following the production of two of Schoenberg’s stage works at Klemperer’s Kroll Oper, yet a third collaboration involving a visual artist was proposed. Schoenberg reminded the conductor of

the atrocities that were committed by skepticism, lack of talent, ignorance…. There is only one way: that Herr Moholy[-Nagy] should work…with me. (That will ensure that there will be at least one person with ideas.)

In Los Angeles, asked to attend a banquet for the Philharmonic’s new music director, Schoenberg wrote to him:

I was yesterday obliged to decline an invitation in your honour. You know I have no reason to show you more respect than you have shown me. But that is not my motive in this case…. I find it outrageous that these people, who for twenty years have suppressed my music in this area, should now want to use me as a stage-prop, just because I happen to be here.

On a later occasion, failing to accept an invitation to visit the composer, Klemperer received a paranoid, hubristic rebuke:

I find it inappropriate that the extent of our meetings should be determined by you…. Anyone should consider it a pleasure as well as an honour if I enjoy seeing him often…. My sense of order tells me…that every civilised person [Kulturmensch] owes me tribute for my cultural achievements.

Still, in April 1936 the conductor, ever humble before Schoenberg, became his private pupil for three lessons in composition. Klemperer would recall that “he never said a word about the twelve-tone system,” and that they had “analysed Bach motets….” The lessons were “among the greatest experiences of my life as a musician.” Schoenberg’s recollection was that Klemperer’s “incompetence became known to me…when I had to realise that he was unable to harmonise a chorale.” In April 1940 Schoenberg wrote to another conductor that he had reproached Klemperer because in six years in Los Angeles he had not performed any work of his,

with the exception of the Suite for school orchestra (which, though it was written by no less a person than Schoenberg, does not represent the sense of my historical task)…. After the usual excuses: box office, board of directors, lack of rehearsal…he was driven into a corner…and forced to admit that my music has become “alien” to him….

Klemperer’s highs and lows of temperament were more extreme and violent during the American period than they had been in Europe, and the conductor suffered from other, equally alarming, medical crises as well. In 1935, at age fifty, he began to complain of imbalance and deafness in his right ear. He would lurch and grope as he walked, and once, rising to speak at a fund-raising dinner for the Hollywood Bowl, toppled across the table, upsetting a water pitcher. Four years later, after consulting with his cousin, a physician in Boston, he entered the Lahey Clinic, celebrated for its school of neurosurgery. An acoustic neuroma, a tumor on the nerve that controls hearing and balance, was discovered, but the surgery which removed it left the right side of his body partly paralyzed, the facial muscles to the extent that the side of his mouth twisted downward and the eyelid could not close. A further but unsuccessful operation to ameliorate these impediments left him with a partial atrophy of the tongue that caused him to speak indistinctly. His recuperation was retarded by a meningitis requiring five daily lumbar punctures without anesthetic. Even so, the worst consequence of the operation was that it exacerbated the manic phase that had already begun and extended it into the most prolonged of his life.

In Heyworth’s account, 1940 was Klemperer’s most terrible year, though he managed to conduct a successful concert series in Mexico in the spring. By this time he had abandoned his wife and was living in New York with a newfound, but married, mistress. Back in California in the summer, he stayed in clinics at Arrowhead and Santa Barbara, chaperoned by his sixteen-year-old daughter, who, when his lady friend joined him from the East, fled through a window and returned to her mother in Los Angeles. Klemperer moved to a hotel in Pasadena but was asked to leave after entering its swimming pool fully dressed. When he turned up at his Los Angeles home, concubine in tow, his humiliated wife evacuated it, threatening divorce. He wrote to her that divorce was out of the question since he had “not the least grounds for one.”

Quite naturally his friends believed that the brain surgery had left him mentally unhinged. One of them, the novelist Vicki Baum, observed that:

Something seems to have damaged his self-control. He tears around like a maniac, getting into conflicts with the police all the time; he is a Hoffmannesque figure with a black patch over one eye, his roaring voice, his paralysed walk and his tragic pursuits of every female that crosses his way.

Heyworth describes him in New York a few weeks later, at the beginning of 1941:

…his clothes were covered with stains and cigarette burns. He…had difficulty in directing food into his mouth…. With his huge height, booming voice, eye patch, and changes of mood that were liable to switch from hilarity to rage within a few seconds, he could be a terrifying figure.

In this condition, nevertheless, Klemperer conducted five acclaimed concerts in Carnegie Hall with the WPA Symphony Orchestra, proving that his musical faculties were perfectly intact.

Few concerts were without scandalous incidents. He would wander around in the orchestra during them, upsetting the musicians’ equanimity. While conducting the Eroica in Carnegie Hall he chased a double-bass player off the stage for inserting an appoggiatura in the slow movement. In the autumn of 1940 he began a rehearsal for a concert at the New School for Social Research by placing what looked like a revolver, but was actually a water pistol, on his music stand. (In an automobile accident in Arizona the next summer, he drew the pistol on the police arriving at the scene and ended up in jail.) Obviously, he could no longer help himself.

At the end of February 1941, Klemperer’s New York doctors persuaded him to enter a New Jersey sanatorium, but three days later he was evicted for singing too loudly. On his own initiative he then went to a similar establishment in Rye, New York, but without realizing that it was a mental home. The physician in charge telegraphed Klemperer’s wife, asking her to sign committal papers, but in the meantime the patient had decamped. An eight-state police bulletin was despatched describing him as “dangerous and insane,” words that he read the next day in a New York Times headline with much amusement. Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Philharmonic did not re-engage him for the next half-season.

If the low point of Klemperer’s artistic fortunes was his March 1943 bus tour with a pickup orchestra to Albany, Binghamton, Sandusky and East Liverpool, Ohio, and Danville, Virginia, he experienced the nadir in other respects in the following year during “the most intensely manic period in his life.” In a sanatorium in Evanston, Illinois, he “became so excited that his arms and legs had to be strapped to his bed.” He was given insulin shock therapy a month later. In Los Angeles, where his wife had taken him back, he went bar-hopping in the middle of the night in a highly rambunctious state, and was robbed, beaten, and left bloodied in the middle of the street until found by police in the morning.

Of the long litany of physical mishaps that beset Klemperer in the 1950s and 1960s, a few instances must suffice. Arriving in Montreal for a concert in 1951, he missed his step leaving the airport, fell heavily, fractured his left femur, and was unable to conduct for seven months. In 1955 he underwent an emergency appendectomy, and a few weeks later an operation to remove a prostate tumor. In 1958 he fell asleep while smoking a pipe, awoke to find his bedclothes smoldering, poured a bottle of (highly flammable) spirits of camphor over the area, and suffered second- and third-degree burns on fifteen percent of his body; two skin-grafting operations were necessary and he was unable to conduct for the better part of a year. In St. Moritz a decade later he fell on a short flight of stairs, fractured his left hip, and, because of the risk of operating on a man in his eighties at the mountain altitude, had to be taken to Zurich in an ambulance, a seven-hour trip. By the late 1960s he tended to doze off while conducting recordings and was in danger of falling from his armchair; once, during a “take” of Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, the London Philharmonia Orchestra finished it without waking him. Klemperer’s family and friends must have come to think of him as indestructible.

Some of the bizarre, often bumptious, occasionally curmudgeonly behavior defies explanation. How could the conductor have greeted Oskar Kokoschka, who had come to discuss a project to design sets for The Magic Flute, with “I would have preferred Picasso”? Or, when dining with Bernard Berenson and guests at I Tatti, have asked for a glass of water and rinsed his dentures in it? Other antics seem not so much willful as impish. Thus he responded to Hindemith’s call for questions at the end of his (musically reactionary) 1947 lecture in Salzburg by asking loudly, “Where is the lavatory?” But what can have impelled him to conduct a series of concerts in Budapest with the trousers of his dress clothes stuffed into high rubber boots? Or to arrive at a formal dance at the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz attired in a Tyrolean hat, Lederhosen, socks, and suspenders? Or, in the same place, to play “tennis by himself, hitting the ball over the net and then walking to the other side of the court to return it”?

A German critic described the start of a Klemperer concert in 1954 as follows: “The side door opens…. A physically broken man supported on a stick makes his way to the conductor’s desk and then, held by nearby musicians, lets himself fall into a chair.” But that same year, Heyworth reminds us, Klemperer, aged sixty-nine, was “about to enter one of the most fruitful periods of his career.” This refers, above all, to the fifteen and more years of his directorship of the London Philharmonia, and the concerts and rich legacy of recordings with the orchestra—of the live 1960 performances of the Beethoven symphonies, primarily, which in tempo, balance, and especially articulation, compare favorably to Toscanini’s streamlined readings and to Furtwängler’s erratic and sometimes heavily portentous ones.

Heyworth’s presentation of the ascendancy of London to the position of world hub of the recording industry usefully contributes to music history. But he is less than enlightening on the specifics of how Klemperer achieved his mesmerizing performances, leaving the reader to infer that a kind of magnetic field must have been established between him and his players, and that they could read his intentions. What the author does offer is a discussion of the question of Klemperer’s more controversial tempos, some of which broke speed records in both directions, and which became slower with age: his Eroica, for instance, clocked at 48 minutes in 1959 and at 59 in 1970. The generally faster tempos of live than of recorded performances, Heyworth believes, is attributable to these different circumstances: Klemperer responded to audiences. But in his greatest recordings, supremely that of The Magic Flute, every tempo is giusto, every phrase alive and meaningful, every note infused with feeling. Klemperer’s credo was that “the measure of the phrase…is what breath is to a human being.”

Otto Klemperer could not have realized his gifts without the love and protective care of his always forbearing and ever-forgiving wife, Johanna, and their daughter, Lotte, the book’s principal source. At a time of tension between father and daughter, Johanna wrote to Lotte:

I know of no man who is so worthy of love (I mean on account of his human qualities, out of which his artistic qualities arise). You will understand that later [and] come to love him and will be proud and happy to have this man as your father.

Years later, when Klemperer, in Budapest, was insisting that Johanna, in Los Angeles, leave the American wilderness and join him, she answered, touchingly, through Lotte:

You rightly ask, where are the intellectual pleasures? Those lie within oneself and are independent of where one lives, my little one. People, in case one is dependent on them…are the same everywhere…. I’m not interested in concerts, as neither Toscanini nor Klemperer is to be heard here. What I do miss, my dear one, is you.

Lotte, for the last thirty-three years of her father’s life, was his impresario, nurse, guiding light, and guardian angel.

A “Publisher’s Note” advises the reader that John Lucas, who completed the biography after Heyworth’s death, “edited the entire draft typescript and checked innumerable details.” But the many misspellings and other errors suggest that the book was not even proofread. Surely on rereading his text, Heyworth would have deleted the most egregious of its countless clichés (“bitten off more than he could chew,” “nipped in the bud,” etc.), as well as reconsidered the meanings of some words (what is an “eponymous orchestra,” or an “eponymous string quartet”?). To mention only two among numerous unchecked details, Agon did not receive its premiere at the Monday Evening Concerts but at the Los Angeles Music Festival. And Gershom Scholem, who had met Klemperer in Jerusalem in 1966, is described as the “author of a biography (1957) of the manic-depressive Shabbetai Javi (1628-1664).” The actual name and dates are Sabbatai Sevi, 1626-1676.

In a further draft Heyworth might well have commented on the parallels between Klemperer and the mystical messiah: the shared psychosis, the musicality, the womanizing, and, in old age, the apostasy—from Judaism to Islam in the earlier case, and from Roman Catholicism to Judaism in the later. Since the conductor’s native Hamburg was one of the cities in which the Sabbatai Sevi movement took tenacious root, Klemperer could conceivably have heard of it there; or later, in Amsterdam, where a portrait of the heretical rabbi was published during his lifetime in a book about Jewish messianism.

Some of the omissions are surprising. Klemperer’s presence is noted at one of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex rehearsals in Festival Hall, London, in November 1959, but not that the performance of the work took place at the unusual hour of 11:00 PM, following a Beethoven concert by Klemperer—memorably described by the late Paul Horgan:

Seated in an odd sort of armchair, …producing a performance of much splendor from the players, with the most unlikely gestures—he was like a wind-tortured old tree with crippled limbs, bending and swaying under a power greater than himself yet which he seemed to control…. When it was over, he lurched to his feet to acknowledge applause, and then marching like a man with heavy weights on his feet left the stage.2

Further, the book does not say that in Zurich, in October 1961, Stravinsky, who loved Klemperer personally and esteemed him more highly than any other conductor, remained in the city an extra day after his own soirée at the opera (for which Klemperer wrote a note to be inserted in the program) to hear him conduct Fidelio.

This Issue

October 31, 1996