Harnoncourt: Karajan took body lessons from a dancer

Harnoncourt: Karajan took body lessons from a dancer


norman lebrecht

March 08, 2018

The late and much-lamented Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who died two years ago this week, wrote a memoir for his family, which his widow has just edited for publication.

Among many recollections, he writes of alcoholism and anti-semitism in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, where he was principal cellist in the 1950s and 1960s, and of the limitless vanity of its chief conductor, Herbert von Karajan.

Karajan, he writes, drove ahead of the orchestra’s tour bus in a green sports car. And he took lessons from the dancer Harald Kreutzberg to improve his podium choreography.

Can’t wait to read this:

Nikolaus Harnoncourt: „Wir sind eine Entdecker-gemeinschaft“. Aufzeichnungen zur Entstehung des Concentus Musicus. Hrsg. von Alice Harnoncourt. Residenz Verlag, Salzburg und Wien 2017. 208 S., geb., 24.– €.

photo: Marion Kalter/Lebrecht



  • Tom Moore says:

    Norman, do you know if there is a translation into English planned?

    • Hartmut says:

      It is going to be quite tricky to translate this book. It uses many Viennese and Austrian expressions that sometimes are hard to follow even for a native German speaker. A translation will probably have to say goodbye to the colloquial style which is absolutely charming but also slightly misleading (because the story of the development of the Concentus Musicus is far more than yet another pile of anecdotes).

      Harnoncourt calls Karajan fascinating, a unique character. K. conducted the Wiener Symphoniker, and hired H. after hearing him at the audition – “Wie der sich schon hinsetzt, den nehm ich …”/”Look at the way he sits down, I’ll take that one …”. H. says his years with K. were one single great experience, “mit zwei gewaltigen Seiten: positiv und negativ”/”with two tremendous aspects: positive and negative”. He expressively appreciates K.’s first Beethoven cycle (“wild and dynamic”), also Bruckner and Brahms …

      Much more interesting than that – as far as I can tell – is following the Harnoncourts’ (Alice and Nikolaus) hunt for period instruments, and their relentless curiosity and research in the field of pre-Haydn music. (Harnoncourt played a Baryton owned by Haydn, for some time!). They were famous for a rather unconventional life-style, putting their money rather in struments than in anything else.

      In the sixties, the Concentus included almost three different ensembles: 1. Medieval music in Pythagorean temperament, 2. Renaissance music from 1520 to 1650, 3. Baroque music from 1650 to Haydn.

      During their first American tour in 1966, Stanford university cancelled a concert of the Concentus, because the Concentus’ notion of “musica ficta” (pre-1600 music) didn’t comply with Stanford’s school of thought. This caused H. to completely revise his own thinking about this kind of music, and to restructure the programme of the Concentus. This seems really exciting, only that H. doesn’t elaborate on it.

      Having a female concertmaster for the Concentus (Alice Harnoncourt), by the way, was absolutely revolutionary at that time.

  • Caravaggio says:

    And I’m sure the results from those dance lessons did HvK good. Now, here is someone, Barbara Hannigan, in dire need of not just dance lessons but of technique. It would help too if she took to better music.

    • Fabio Luisi says:

      She is much better than many of us! And, speaking of technique, even Mr. Harnoncourt didn’t have any. But he could motivate, explain and show what his musical ideas were. A great conductor? Not really. But a great musician who could bring many orchestras to exceptional musical results.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Harnoncourt’s interpretations are infused with fantastic ideas, interesting tempi, and yet I often found the pacing less than ideal. Could the latter be attributed to poor technique?

        • Jon H says:

          Interpretation wise – what seems interesting to one person can seem fussy to someone else. Most of the time, I’d say pacing is something that can take a few listenings to get used to, and if you believe he or she knows what they’re doing, it will start to sound “right.” But if you don’t believe they know what they’re doing, for me anyway, I find it difficult to try them that many times. Certainly in a live performance, you don’t have time for the audience to accept a really unconventional interpretation (which isn’t to say it’s wrong).

          • Jon H says:

            And speaking of Karajan’s dance instruction – maybe the orchestra cares what he looks like – but as a listener I don’t. This sort of ties in with the race/gender thing as well – just make good music and that will speak for itself.

        • M2N2K says:

          The problem with criticizing “pacing” for being ‘less than ideal” is that such statement seems to suggest that there is one perfect “pacing” for a given piece of music and any kind of “pacing” that is different from it is necessarily worse. This could lead us to conclude that only one great interpretation of any musical piece is possible, and that is definitely untrue.

          • Petros Linardos says:

            No, there is no one right way. Out one thought of mine you are drawing an argument I don’t indentify at all with.

      • James Inverne says:

        What a lovely and generous remark from Fabio Luisi! It speaks well both of his nature and, of course, her prowess.

        • Pedro says:

          Maestro Luisi is elegant both as a man and as a conductor. We can’t compare Karajan and Harnoncourt. They lived in different worlds and with some exceptions didn’t share the same repertoire. IMHO, Karajan was the most complete of the two. He ventured in the NH repertoire with much more success than the opposite. There are records of HvK in Bach ( listen to the amazing new discovery of the Art of the Fugue ) which match any of NH but none of the latter recordings of the romantic and post-romantic repertoire can compare with Karajan’s. Where are his Strauss, Mahler, Puccini, Sibelius and Schönberg, for instance?

          • Sue says:

            I think the Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Harnoncourt version of Complete Beethoven symphonies are much better than absolutely anything I’ve heard from the ‘competition’ (as it were), except Carlos Kleiber’s 7th :-).

      • Caravaggio says:

        With all due respect but no, sorry, she is not much better, as conductor, than “many of us”. That hyperbolic statement has absolutely no ground to stand on.

        • Fabio Luisi says:

          Sorry, but probably you don’t know so many of my collegues – and I sustain my statement, which is far from being hyperbolic: she is better than many active conductors.

          • M2N2K says:

            As a musician who has worked with, and witnessed performances led by, a huge number of your colleagues, from some of the most famous maestros all the way down to complete unknowns, and has performed with Barbara Hannigan as well, albeit as a singer: based on a few examples of her conducting that I have seen, I agree with you completely.

    • Ben says:

      Where’s the steak?

  • Simon Hall says:

    Yes Mr Lebrecht, and I’m sure you ‘re happy at the thought of any new stick to beat Karajan with.

    • Urania says:

      Yes SH agree – Harnoncourt’s Beethoven which I assisted live in Salzburg – do not remember the year – has been so rude that I was disturbed for hours afterwards. People in front of me did close the ears with their hands. – Karajan did do hatha yoga and meditation – if he did work on smooth movements it was certainly beneficial for conducting and for his spine. Some conductors nowadays do immersion swimming before performances. And why should Karajan drive with the musicians in a noisy and crowded bus?

  • Hilary says:

    All within a context of having a very high regard for HvK.
    Harnoncourt featured in a BBC doecumentary on Karajan, and he was unrestrained in his praise as far as I remember.

  • Andrew Matthews says:

    Haven’t we all had enough of this old tittle tattle? I won’t be reading it. I have more interesting things to do rather than reading about the colour of karajan’s sports car and some ballet dancer twaddle. Anyone interested in that sort of stuff needs to get a life.

    • Bruce says:

      “Haven’t we all had enough of this old tittle tattle?”

      NO! There can never be enough! There can only be more and more!


    • LP says:

      The title is taken from his farewell letter to the audience of the Concentus Musicus concerts a couple of months before his death and I am sure the book includes way more than remarks on Karajan. It is probably a gold mine for any early music lover and for whoever is interested in the history of the Concentus Musicus Wien and the so-called historically informed performance (HIP) movement. I hope it gets translated very quickly.

      And unless I am mistaken, Harnoncourt was not a principal cellist of the Vienna Symphony, just a regular one.

  • David rakes says:

    Two genius conductors! Enough said!!!!!!!

    • Sue says:

      Loved their work; both of them!! Harnoncourt sorely missed. Loved his concerts in the Musikverein where he’d address the audience beforehand.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      I think I agree with Fabio Luisi. Like-him or loth-him, Karajan can be described as a “genius conductor” even if his later work is not as well regarded as his earlier work (he definitely did not improve with age). Harnoncourt, while very interesting, is in the “very good” category rather than “genius”. But nevertheless, being “very good” is a great achievement.

  • Has-been says:

    Both Harnoncourt and Karajan were major conductors in the 20th century. Couldn’t we just recognise their contributions and leave behind the snarky comments and unimportant gossip.

  • Elisabeth Matesky says:

    To quote the savvy Hilary contributor, ‘All within a context of having a very high
    regard for HvK’, it just might be that the inner core of our classical music world,
    need a few ‘Superstars’ to keep finding things of (sorry, no offense) ‘gossipy’-lore re an authentic Conducting genius, von Karajan, whom one of my elite & great
    string mentor’s was fascinated by, musically, & would always perform either the
    Brahms or Beethoven with, yet didn’t break bread ~ Three Guesses Who!!!?

    Life needs a touch of curiosity and fascination about our Heroes and Heroine’s!

    The most important element is by far, How a Conductor/Musician makes Music ~

    Thank you to Jon H., who wrote, ‘… It sort of ties in with the race/gender thing as well — just make good music and that will speak for itself.’ Bravo, Jon! You spoke
    perfectly about a critical point I made yesterday re gender in string education, of all things. It’s ‘rubbish’, as some Best of Brits might say ~

    Elisabeth ‘M’ / U.S.

  • Elisabeth Matesky says:

    To one terming him/herself “Has Been” ~

    Your discernment is that of an “In Process of Becoming” & I request you think
    well of yourself, okay!! We are all “Has Been/s” in that we were just born & not
    able to crawl, stumble or walk & cried for lack of words, then began learning how
    to talk and so forth!! Be kind to yourself in this 2018 Year which may seem most
    uncomfortable, but the greatest teacher I ever had always told me, ‘Practise the
    things which are uncomfortable! Comfortable is easy; do what is uncomfortable!’

    ‘Zrub’ from afar!


  • Has-been says:

    Sorry, I have no idea what you are trying to say..

    • Elisabeth Matesky says:

      It seemed you were putting yourself down calling your contributor name, ‘Has Been’, which appears to me you didn’t think much of yourself? Hopefully, this
      isn’t the case and offer apologies if I interpreted it wrongly ~

      Best Wishes,

      EM / U.S.

  • Leo says:

    It will be fascinating if one day the truth about Karajan comes out… a lot is still hidden for obvious reasons.

  • Richard says:

    Agree with Simon Hall. Lebrecht’s disdain for Karajan is readily apparent in his books and blog. Any negative anecdote regarding the maestro, whether true or not, is yet another opportunity to criticize or embarrass. Case in point: an article/blurb regarding the future release of a Harnoncourt memoir and the highlight is Karajan’s vanity? How about a bit more balance Norman? I wouldn’t mind the bad if it was offset with some good so as to present a more balanced and multi-faceted view of such an important figure.

  • Alexander Platt says:

    All I know is, Harnoncourt was amazing — a true conductor, in the elemental sense of the word

  • collin says:

    There are 2 types of people: those who write about others, and those who get written about.

    Put another way, there was no way Karajan was going to lower himself to the position of writing about Harnoncourt.

    No, Karajan is the lead dog that every other beta dog following him yips and yaps at, while he doesn’t even turn around to look at all the yipping and yapping.

  • Nicholas Martin says:

    Well I agree with the gentleman who said NH ‘s Beethoven is full of insight. I would say that is undeniably so. I agree too about Carlos Kleiber. Who couldnt ? And I heard a superb Beethoven recording the other day from the BBCSSO and I was surprised to discover at the end who was conducting
    It was CharlesMacKerras. I suppose when a conductor really really understands a score everyone hears that understanding whether the players use period instruments or dont.

  • Pedro says:

    To Elisabeth Matesky,

    Thank you so much for sharing your Sibelius/Schönberg memories.

    The Sibelius’ is my wife’s favourite violin concerto and we have heard several outstanding performances since we married seventeen years ago. For her Mullova’s performance in Salzburg a few months after our wedding is still the most satisfactory, speaking about living experiences. As far as recordings are concerned, for us Karajan is the best conductor and Heifetz the best violinist. Pity they didn’t record the work together.

    Regarding Karajan’s Schönberg, I strongly recommend his recordings of Verklärte Nacht, Pélléas and Mélisande and the Variations opus 31. They are really superb. I was lucky enough to hear him live in several performances of Verklärte Nacht with the Berlin Phil. and never found better string playing elsewhere.

    Thank you again


    • Elisabeth Matesky says:

      Dear Pedro ~

      It was lovely reading your response to mine and learning of your wife’s love of the Sibelius Violin Concerto!! When studying with Mr. Heifetz at USC in Los. Angeles, JH once stated his feeling that ‘no one should play the Sibelius’, then
      pointed his finger, gently, at himself (without words) communicating his other
      innuendo’d message that no one but himself should attempt the Sibelius ~ All
      seven of us were in agreement with JH, of course, as his ‘other world’ recording
      of this Mt. Everest work for Violin & Orchestra, was captured by RCA (Red Seal)
      here in Chicago at the Medinah Temple which was a great recording space for
      some of the top recordings of our Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Heifetz made his historic recording of the Sibelius in his second time in 1960 with our CSO & Associate Conductor, Walter Hendl, who was at the ‘ready’ when last moment taken ill Music Director, Fritz Reiner, couldn’t conduct. Several colleagues of mine were on this recording later relaying specifics of what, essentially, was a non-stop Live ‘final take’ performance, after several days … Suffice to say, what you hear was unedited by Jack Phifpher, Mr. Heifetz’s long time recording A&R
      Sound engineer ~ The performance order by JH, was 1. ‘Adagio di molto’ (2nd mov’t); 2. ‘Allegro ma non tanto’ (3rd mov’t); & 3. ‘Allegro moderate’ (1st mov’t) ~
      This was non stop with the CSO & Hendl truly in sync with Heifetz, who upon finishing, put his del Gesu in the case, and starting to leave, was asked by Jack Phifpher, ‘Would you like to hear the playback, Mr. Heifetz?’ Jascha Heifetz said to Jack Phifpher, ‘No Jack; I don’t need to ~ let it go out!’ Heifetz knew what he’d just P L A Y E D was his Best!! Never having written about this until now, as the subject of “the best” is addressed in your post with HvK – ‘the Best’ Conductor &
      stated, ‘Heifetz is the Best Violinist’, No violinist with knowledge of the demands for musical – technical wizardry in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto would dispute the fact
      that Jascha Heifetz’s Sibelius with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Walter Hendl, Conductor, is the Greatest recording of this Masterpiece in the annals of recorded history, but the more colossal feat is Heifetz’s non stop performance –
      as witnessed by violinist members of the CSO, who never stopped reveling at the Live performance captured on RCA, Red Seal, here in Chicago!! *Sibelius,
      himself, conveyed great compliments to Heifetz upon hearing his 1st recording! Try imagining how The Giant Composer might’ve reacted to the JH/CSO/Hendl Live ‘recording’ of Sibelius’ Violin Monument without stopping or editing!? This had to be ‘God’ playing the Sibelius with ‘His’ Orchestra & Conductor …

      Thank you, Pedro, for a chance to tell The Story of the ‘Best Violinist’, Jascha Heifetz’s greatest musical/ technical Conquest of the Mt. Everest of Concerto’s
      for Violin and Orchestra by Jean Sibelius!! As Tennis Great, Roger Federer said, “The Best is Always Worth It!”

      With warm musical regards to you and your wife ~

      Elisabeth Matesky

  • Andrew Matthews says:

    Period instruments are a con. There is no such thing. They are mostly modern instruments made to older specifications. The exception is stringed instruments made during 18th century. Whenever I hear that the piece is going to be played on “period instruments” I turn off. It all sounds thin and ghastly. We all try and pretend that period instruments are in some way “authentic”: what rubbish. There is no such thing as authenticity just an attempt to get to the transcendental truth which happens about once in a hundred concerts.

    • Hilary says:

      ” it all sounds thin and ghastly”

      Makes me glad to be alive to hear the sinewy but very charming Rene Jacobs performance of the Prague Symphony : https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=VP3LtqTj4Fg
      Neither Karajan (mellifluous) or especially NH (choppy) convince to the same extent.
      Authentic (as you say it’s impossible to achieve) or not is irrelevant.

      • Andrew Matthews says:

        The opening of the Prague is marked “adagio” Jacobs marches straight through it. The timpanist hits his instrument so hard I thought the skin was going to break. Since when were “sinews” charming?

  • Nicholas Martin says:

    Very interesting comment from Andrew about period instruments particularly the last sentence . I absolutely agree. That is really what music is all about and maybe it happens one in a hundred concerts but when it is there it touches everyone in the hall equally and democratically and only a plank of wood is left in quotidian life unchanged and unmoved . The capacity of mind to perceive that quality is contingent only upon the capacity to listen of course – as shown by artists for example like Maria Joao Pires, Claudio Abbado , Trevor Pinnock amongst many others of course. To capacity of mind to listen to the spaces between the notes as well as to the notes, as Arthur Schnabel put it .