Otto Klemperer

1933 was not only the year of the Nazi rise to power; it was also an auspicious year for German musical history.  On 13 February 1883, exactly 50 years earlier, that most ‘Germanic’ of composers, Richard Wagner, had died.  As an anti-Semite and nationalist convinced of the supremacy of the Germanic race, Wagner was beloved by the Nazis, and Bayreuth had become an important cultural icon.  Just weeks after Hitler came to power, however, on 13 February 1933, one of the leading conductors of Germany, the Jewish Otto Klemperer, gave a performance of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser.  The performance was met with outrage, and decried as an insult to the memory of the composer.  Years later, one official insisted that

it is particularly significant that as late as 13 February 1933, and after the National Socialist seizure of power, the Jewish general music director Klemperer had the impudence on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Wagner’s death to mount a production of Tannhäuser at the Berlin State Opera that ranked as a deliberate insult to the great German master and an affront to all people with decent feelings.

The incident and its repercussions served to hasten Klemperer’s departure from Germany on in April 1933.  Since the early days of his career, Klemperer had made a name for himself as a champion of the modernist cause of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Hindemith.  Under his direction in the late 1920s, the Kroll Opera in Berlin became a target of hatred for the increasingly reactionary voices of late Weimar, condemned as a centre of ‘cultural bolshevism’.  Although himself avowedly apolitical, Klemperer had conducted frequently in the Soviet Union, and his early conversion to Catholicism had little meaning for a race-based ideology like that of Nazi antisemitism.

Klemperer was born on 14 May 1885 in Breslau.  Although the boy first wanted to be an actor rather than a musician, the aid of a wealthy family member allowed him to pursue a musical education.  With the support of his parents, he dropped out of secondary school to study music in Frankfurt, several years later moving to Berlin to continue his studies at the conservatory.  In 1905 he began a period of study with Hans Pfitzner.  At the beginning of the war in 1914, he received his first big break as the temporary replacement for Pfitzner as the opera director for the city of Strasbourg.  By the end of the war, with the defeat of Germany and the drama of the November Revolution, Klemperer, increasingly radicalised, had become a faithful supporter of the new Weimar Republic.  He moved to Cologne, and formally converted to Catholicism in 1919.  In the mid-1920s he returned to Berlin, a centre of musical innovation in Weimar Germany.  It was there that he held probably his most significant post, as conductor of the Kroll Opera, where he was a vocal advocate of composers like Ernst Krenek, Kurt Weill and Schoenberg.  However, the increasingly conservative atmosphere of Germany, along with the severe economic depression, claimed him as an early victim, and he lost his position at the Kroll in 1931.  Instead, he was offered a position working at the Prussian State Opera, where he was conducting when Hitler came to power.

Despite the response to his production of Tannhäuser in early 1933, Klemperer initially did not want to leave Germany, and hoped that his fame and apolitical stance would protect him.  In April 1933, however, he fled to Austria, leaving his wife and children behind, to follow when he had secured a permanent residence.  Unlike many of his fellow German-Jewish refugees, Klemperer was to establish a successful musical career in exile.  Upon arrival in the United States, where he had already toured successfully in the 1920s, he was offered the position of musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.  In 1939 he underwent an operation for a brain tumour, which left him with facial paralysis and worsened his emotional problems. He was so incapacitated that he ceased to conduct for several years. After the war, however, he was to resume an impressive international musical career.  He became known as one of the best living conductors of the classical German repertoire, particularly of works of the Viennese school and his early idol, Mahler. The conductor died in Zurich in July 1973.


Heyworth, P., 1983. Otto Klemperer, his life and times, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Kater, M.H., 1997. The Twisted Muse: Musicians and their Music in the Third Reich, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Kater, M.H., 2000. Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Levi, E., 1994. Music in the Third Reich, London: Macmillan.

Prieberg, F.K., 1982. Musik im NS-Staat, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.  

Traber, H. & Weingarten, E. eds., 1987. Verdrängte Musik: Berliner Komponisten im Exil, Berlin: Argon.