Nights at the Opera

Otto Klemperer: His Life and Times

by Peter Heyworth
Cambridge University Press, 486 pp., $39.95

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.