Otto Klemperer - Biography


Otto Klemperer the great German conductor was born on May 14th 1885 in Breslau Germany (now Vrocaw Poland and died on July 6th 1973 in Zurich Switzerland. Klemperer comes from a very distinguished Jewish family that has produced a number of eminent physicians including Victor Klemperer who has had posthumous fame as a diarist. Klemperer family moved to Hamburg soon after he was born and it was there where he first saw Gustav Mahler who was the conductor then of the Hamburg Opera who was to have a profound effect on Klemperer’s career. Klemperer first studied music in Frankfort Hoch Conservatory and later received instruction in composition and conducting from the renowned composer Hans Pfitzner. In Berlin he was an assistant conductor during a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony conducted by the composer. Mahler was so impressed that he wrote a recommendation on one of his calling cards for Klemperer to obtain a position at the German Opera in Prague. In 1910 he again assisted Mahler in the storied world premiere of his Eighth Symphony in Munich That year Klemperer was to become a conductor at the Hamburg Opera where he was artistically successful but was forced to leave due to a scandal. He was evidentially involved in a romance with a singer, the soon to be celebrated Elisabeth Schumann; her husband attacked Klemperer with a horse whip while he was rehearsing on the podium. The cuckolded husband took a risk because Klemperer was Six Foot Five and powerfully built. This was the first public manifestation of what was to be a pattern of reckless behavior caused by Klemperer’s clinical manic depression. Klemperer had interim appoints at Barmen and Strasbourg before he got his first major opera directorship in Cologne in 1917. Klemperer’s productions were to become well known throughout Germany for their modernistic staging and musical probity.


Klemperer was to become the music director of the Kroll Opera in Berlin in 1926 and his reign there was when of the great periods in German Opera history. Klemperer’s productions of Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss were revolutionary due to their integration of musical and theatrical values. Klemperer during this period made his symphonic debut in New York. Klemperer’s regime in Berlin ended with Hitler coming to power. Klemperer’s reaction to Hitler was bizarre he was evidentially in one of his manic phases and according to his biographer Peter Heyworth insisted that Jew’s should be loyal to Hitler and volunteer to form a Praetorian Guard around Hitler to protect him. Klemperer when his ardor cooled realized that he and his family had to get out of Germany. He accepted a position as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He moved to California with his wife daughter and son (Werner the future Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Hero’s). Klemperer was paid well but the orchestra was not that good (the best musicians went to the film studios that paid better). Los Angeles at the time was not the world class city it was to become, the audiences were musically unsophisticated (it seems that when he programmed Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony the orchestra’s manager suggested that he cut the famous tragic last movement because it would depress the audience).Klemperer did have the friendship of the great German émigrés in Los Angeles like Arnold Schonberg and Thomas Mann. Klemperer was operated on for a benign brain tumor in 1939, during the operation the nerve controlling movement in his face was severed causing one side of his face to droop. Klemperer then suffered severe depression, coupled with his manic depression and was committed to a private sanatorium in New Jersey. When he left the sanatorium without permission an all points for his arrest and capture made national headlines. The effects of his illness and notoriety destroyed his U.S. career. During the war years the only concerts he got were with semi professional orchestras and he was close to poverty.


After the war an old friend Aladar Toth the husband of pianist Annie Fischer arranged for Klemperer to become music director of the Budapest Opera. In the late 1940’s George Mendelssohn the founder of Vox Records contracted Klemperer to make a series of recordings of Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mahler among others. Though the sound was only OK and the orchestras were undersized this except for a few German recordings from the 1920’s was the first representation of Klemperer on record. These recordings offer the most famous of Klemperer stories. George Mendelssohn and Klemperer were visiting a large New York record store and Klemperer asked the clerk if had the Klemperer recording of the Beethoven’s Fifth, the clerk replied patronizingly that he had Toscanini and Bruno Walter which were much better. Klemperer raised himself to his full impressive height and told the clerk that he was Klemperer; the clerk pointed at Mendelssohn and asked if he was Beethoven. Klemperer replied “no he is Mendelssohn”.


Klemperer left Budapest in 1950. He was now to embark on the third and most significant part of his career when he was to conduct a series of concerts for Waller Legge’s London Philharmonia orchestra. The concerts were so successful that he made a series of mono recordings with them. After Herbert von Karajan gave up his position with the Philharmonia in 1955 to become conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Klemperer became their principal conductor. Starting in 1956 Klemperer was to make his celebrated stereo recordings produced with Legge. They were to record the Symphonies of Beethoven along with the Overtures and Fidelio, the Symphonies and Requiem of Brahms along with selected symphonies of Bruckner,Mahler,Mendelssohn, Haydn, Mozart along with the Magic Flute, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and key orchestral excerpts from Wagner. Klemperer was out of commission for a year when in 1958, he caught on fire when he fell asleep smoking his pipe and doused alcohol over himself thinking it was water.


In 1964 Legge decided to disband the Philharmonia he assumed that Klemperer would retire but he defiantly agreed to become conductor of the reconstituted New Philharmonia permanently breaking with Legge. With the New Philharmonia he completed his Schumann Symphony cycle, recorded more Mozart and Haydn made towering recordings of Bruckner and Mahler and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and the B Minor Mass by Bach. . Before his retirement he made opera recordings of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte and The Marriage of Figaro along with Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Klemperer’s health declined more and more and more and he required help to get to the podium where he would beat time with his huge hands and awe inspiring eagle visage. Klemperer after a short retirement was to die in Zurich in 1973 under the care of his daughter Lotte who was a remarkable woman herself and dedicated herself to taking care of the affairs of her father. Before his death he converted back to Judaism from Catholicism and accepted Israeli citizenship.


Klemperer was a dead serious musician and had little of the flamboyance or tonal allure of a Karajan a Stokowski or Bernstein. Klemperer can be a tough sell for the un initiated because he concentrates on musical architecture, clarity and balance. Also his later recordings have tempos that are somewhat slower than the norm but they are steady and never drag. So ecstasy and frenzy is not a component of Klemperer’s conducting but he avoided the repertoire that required them. I personally view him as my favorite conductor of the great Austro/German repertoire from Bach to Mahler.   

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