Otto Klemperer (14 May 1885 – 6 July 1973) was a German conductor and composer. He is widely regarded as one of the leading conductors of the 20th century.
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 Wagner’s 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. In later life he reverted to Judaism in the 1960s, and became a citizen of the State of Israel in 1970. The conductor died in Zurich in July 1973, at the age of 88. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Zurich.
Prayer: Thank you Lord for this man and the beautiful music he produced. Despite his emotional and personal struggles, he articulated the beauty of God through his musical gifts, and expressed the faith you gave him as a Jew, a Catholic, and a human being caught up in the struggles of life. Even as he brought alive great works of music such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion that proclaim your glory, help us to live lives of faith, worship and devotion to you. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.
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