Conductor Otto Klemperer Dies
Klemperer pictured in 1947. Photo: US State Department

July 6, 1973

Otto Klemperer, a legendary German Jewish conductor and composer, dies at 88 at home in Zurich.

Born in 1885 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), Klemperer began playing music at age 4. He studied at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt before moving to the Stern Conservatory in Berlin, where major composers and conductors guided him. In 1905 he met and befriended Gustav Mahler, who helped him become the conductor at the German Opera in Prague in 1907. He held conducting positions in cities across Europe the next 20 years, then became the conductor at the Kroll Opera in Berlin in 1927. He earned a reputation as a champion of new music and rising musicians, and he had a thriving career until the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933. Although he had converted to Catholicism and married a Lutheran (he returned to Judaism late in life), Klemperer and his family, including his son, the future actor Werner Klemperer, fled to the United States in 1933.

He became the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but he struggled to adapt to the California climate. He also found that recent German music was not popular in the United States, and he conducted more of the classics, such as Beethoven and Brahms. He pursued the position of lead conductor for orchestras in New York and Philadelphia but was passed over, despite a 14-week run as the guest conductor for the New York Philharmonic and a recommendation from its outgoing conductor, Arturo Toscanini.

Klemperer had a brain tumor removed in 1939. The surgery left him partially paralyzed and contributed to his battles with depression. He left the United States after World War II to conduct the Budapest Opera from 1947 to 1950, then served as a guest conductor across Europe for several years. He acquired a German passport in 1954, the same year his career was revived when he was hired to conduct London’s Philharmonia Orchestra in recordings of Beethoven, Brahms and other classical composers for EMI Records. Klemperer became the Philharmonia Orchestra’s first principal conductor in 1959.

Having visited pre-state Palestine, Klemperer performed in the state of Israel for the first time in 1970. He conducted the Israeli Broadcasting Authority Symphonic Orchestra in two concerts, covering Bach and Mozart. He gained Israeli citizenship but returned to Switzerland. He retired in 1971.