When conductors die in action

When conductors die in action


norman lebrecht

April 20, 2021

Twenty years ago I published an account of the tragic death in action of an important conductor. I reproduce it here, unaltered.

THEY buried Giuseppe Sinopoli in Rome on Monday, before the shock had fully set in. There are few events more stunning than a death at the opera. Two thousand men and women, suspended in a state of self-willed disbelief, are confronted with mortal reality as the conductor crashes to the floor. Doctors clamber into the pit to apply heart massage. Dazed, the audience cluster in chandeliered foyers and the musicians in backstage warrens until an announcement prompts them silently, disconsolately, to disperse.

The tragedy is not as rare as it might seem. Maestros are popularly invested with mythical powers and expected to live to a biblical age. Stokowski was still conducting at 95, Pierre Monteux at 89. With six hours of upper-body exercise a day and plenty of mental stimulation, they ought to live for ever. But Sinopoli’s death exposes the underside of the myth. At least nine have died at work; several others survived close shaves. Contrary to common assumptions, conducting can be a health hazard.

Friday began as one of the happier nights in Giuseppe Sinopoli’s often turbulent life. Bearded and beaming beneath a trademark broad-rimmed hat, the conductor was returning to the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, a house he had stormed out of in 1990 after a row with its director, Gotz Friedrich. Two years ago, Friedrich flew to Rome to make peace. Sinopoli, now 54 and head of Dresden’s Staatskapelle, agreed to conduct a Verdi-year Aida in a spirit of renewed friendship.

Last December, Friedrich died. Sinopoli dedicated the premiere to his memory and wrote a fond note in the programme about their philosophical conversations on principles of hope and utopia. The whole of cultural Berlin turned out for the premiere.

On entering the pit, and returning after the interval, Sinopoli was greeted with ovations of demonstrative warmth, to which he twinkled his appreciation through rimless glasses. He struck up the third act and was approaching the Nile-side duet between Aida and Radames around 10 o’clock when he fell to the ground. Musicians in the orchestra shouted for a doctor. Emergency resuscitation was administered and he was whisked to a heart clinic, but to no avail. Time of death was recorded at 23.15.

“I was sitting just two rows behind him,” said a leading financier, numbed with shock. “He just went down like a tree.” Along the same row sat the America baritone Thomas Hampson, whose mind flashed back to the night in June 1989 when he was singing Barber of Seville in Munich and the conductor, Giuseppe Patane, crumpled in a heap and died hours later in hospital. Patane, a superb trainer, was 57 and about to become head of Rome Opera.

He was the third to succumb in Munich. Felix Mottl, 56, collapsed in 1911 while conducting the 100th performance of the superstition-laden Tristan und Isolde. Legend has it that he fell just as his wife, Zdenka Fassbender, was singing Isolde’s aria Death-doomed head, death-doomed heart. Joseph Keilberth, 59, died in Munich in July 1968, moments after conducting Tristan’s aria, Let me die, never to awake.

These fatalities so alarmed Herbert von Karajan, Keilberth’s exact contemporary, that he endowed a unit at Salzburg University to study the effects of physical stress on conducting. Other maestros exchanged macabre speculation as to whether they were more likely to die in fast or slow passages. The evidence is mixed.

Dmitri Mitropoulos, the giant Greek who was Leonard Bernstein’s predecessor at the New York Philharmonic, expired during a 1960 La Scala rehearsal of the stately opening movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony. We know exactly where he died because the second bassoonist drew a cross in his score at the 86th bar, noting: “In questa misura e morto il Maestro Mitropoulos.”

Eduard van Beinum, 58, collapsed in Amsterdam during a serene 1960 rehearsal of Brahms’s First Symphony. Franz Konwitschny, 60, former head of Dresden Opera, died in a Belgrade television studio in 1962 while rehearsing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Paul Kletzki and Arvid Jansons collapsed while working with orchestras in Liverpool and Manchester respectively.

Jansons’s son, Mariss, had a near-death experience in Oslo in April 1996, seven minutes before the end of La Boheme. As he slid to the floor, still waving his baton, Jansons felt that “in the dark I was struggling with a machine that was crushing my chest from both sides”. Luckily, Oslo is a small town and the nearest intensive-care unit was only two minutes away.

A pattern begins to emerge. All but two of the conductors who died at work were in their fifties or early sixties. Van Beinum and Sinopoli were compulsive smokers. Konwitschny was a heavy drinker, known affectionately as Kon-whisky. Jansons father and son had a genetic predisposition to heart disease. Their peripatetic, late-night concert lives did not facilitate a low-cholesterol diet. There are ticks in every negative box of their health profiles.

Then there is the small matter of stress. Where Mottl led a sedentary life, disturbed only by marital dramas, the modern conductor spends much of his time on a plane shuttling between engagements, managing distant working relationships. Sinopoli led the Philharmonia Orchestra in London for a decade. He brought the record contract, they played the music. Neither affection nor contentment passed between them. Such pragmatisms, financially rewarding but emotionally draining, take their toll. So, too, do the tax and investment strategies for substantial incomes – typically $2-5 million annually for a top performer.

In Dresden, among East Germans, Sinopoli was an exotic attraction. In Bayreuth, where he enjoyed repeated success, he became the first Italian since Toscanini to conduct a Ring cycle. He was also due to play a prominent role in the post-Mortier Salzburg Festival, headed by his friend Peter Ruzicka.

Sinopoli balanced his musical ambitions with a healthy range of external interests. His family life was solid and his friendships strong. A fascination with Freudian psychology invaded and, at times, destabilised his symphonic interpretations, which many found wilfully distorted but some appreciated as an intellectual fancy.

Like Freud, he collected objects of the ancient world, exhibiting his Greek pots in Bonn last year and so impressing the senate of Rome University that they were about to award him this week a doctorate in Egyptology. He was, in many respects, a Renaissance man – not least in having qualified as a medical doctor before he began to practise music. Like many doctors, however, he neglected to observe his own symptoms or take elementary precautions for a man entering the high-risk age range of a stressful occupation.

“These guys need regular screening,” warns Dr Romeo Vecht, a senior cardiologist at London’s Wellington Hospital. “Put them on the bicycle, take an echocardiogram. You can’t always win, but you can pick things up early enough to save lives.”

It is too late to do anything but mourn poor Sinopoli and comfort his family. But, if his death alerts other conductors to check their blood pressure, it will not have been entirely in vain. And, if it prompts audiences to adjust their maestro fantasy from superman to health plan, that too will be a worthwhile step in the direction of cultural sanity.


  • Duncan says:

    Frederick Jackson, chorus master of the London Philharmonic Choir, died during a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the Royal Academy of Music in 1973. I was singing in the RAM choir. A huge shock to everybody.

  • Novagerio says:

    Wonderful obituary that I remember well.
    Only one small observation: Toscanini never conducted the Ring in Bayreuth. Sinopoli was the first Italian.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Thank you, Norman, for a very balanced and fair assessment of Sinopoli as a man and as a conductor. One of the worst aspects of British critical opinion from the 1980s on was the way in which almost to a man they produced one withering comment after another about his apparent lack of understanding of the great scores he conducted and his apparent lack of technical skill when conducting orchestras. If it’s true that no single conductor could ever be as great as a lot of hagiography makes out, it’s also true that no conductor could ever have been as bad as British critics (with very few exceptions) wanted us to believe in the case of Sinopoli. What was equally difficult to understand was the way in which he was airbrushed out of all mentions of “former chief conductors” by the Philharmonia Orchestra (I have protested to them about this omission but to no effect). Sinopoli was unquestionably controversial and had a mind of his own, unlike some other podium stars who have taken blandness to the nth degree. His standing was always much higher elsewhere in Europe than ever in the UK, but he leaves behind many fine recordings, a deep legacy of achievement and gratitude in Dresden and a deserved place in the annals of conducting.

    • Novagerio says:

      They accepted the wonderful Tennstedt – who had an even bigger lack of “demonstrative” conducting technique (what the hell is that actually? They were both great communicators anyway!)
      – There was nothing evidently wrong with Sinopoli’s handwork anyway!…

    • Sonicsinfonia says:

      Agree – I attended several of Sinopoli’s Mahler concerts with the Philharmonia which often overlapped in seasons with Tennstedt’s at the LPO. Both offered some amazing evenings. Welser-Möst was another conductor hounded out by UK critics. Build them up to knock them down – Rattle another target in that respect.

  • Ernest says:

    Let this be a salutary reminder for us to check our blood pressures and blood oxygenation levels daily.

  • drummerman says:

    Conductor/violist Endel Kalam died conducting a concert at the Longy School of Music. His son, Tonu, is the director of orchestral programs at the University of North Carolina.


  • Bill Ecker says:

    Josef Pasternack perhaps the single most recorded conductor ever passed away of a massive heart attack conducting a rehearsal of an NBC radio broadcast in Chicago, April 29, 1940 at the age of 58. He was the Music Director of Victor Talking Machine from 1916-1928 and conducted the orchestra for most of their recordings during that period.

  • nonbarihunk says:

    Another who died in action was the underrated Fausto Cleva who died in Athens in 1971 whilst conducting Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

  • Jack says:

    Add Fausto Cleva, Israel Yinon, and Richard Hickox to the list.

  • Mervin Partridge says:

    San Francisco – Gaetano Merola. Very dramatic, very appropriate

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Thank you for mentioning the great Maestro Merola, Mervin. He made the San Francisco Opera into the second greatest opera company in the country.
      – regards, Greg

  • Wilhelm says:

    Didn’t Marcello Viotti (the father of Lorenzo Viotti) die during a rehearsal in Munich in 2005 as well?

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Marcello Viotti died a few days after a stroke he suffered while rehearsing with the Munich Radio Orchestra, in 2005.

      Similar story with Miltiades Caridis: he died a few days after a stroke he suffered while rehearsing with the Greek National Radio Orchestra, in 1998. He was the uncle of conductor Constantinos Carydis. Same name in Greek, different transliteration into the Latin alphabet.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Insightful and balanced obituary. Please give us more writing of this quality, Mr. Lebrecht.

  • Eyal Braun says:

    Conductor Israel Yinon died while conducting Strauss Alpine Symphony in Lucerne KKL in 2015 . He was just 59

  • David K. Nelson says:

    When Eduard van Beinum died in rehearsal his own son was sitting in the violin section.

    Daniel Forlano, a ballet conductor in Pennsylvania and Milwaukee, died in the pit during a rehearsal – he had had quadruple bypass and had wanted to see if he had the stamina to conduct (his doctors had no yet given approval) so was basically just visiting his orchestra. A day short of age 52.

  • Men having heart attacks? That’s not peculiar to conductors, that’s the common way to go.

    Per the Center for Disease Control, for ages 35-44 it’s the #3 cause of death, for ages 45-64 it’s #2 and for ages 65+ it’s #1.

  • Karl says:

    Is it not really that unusual for men to die suddenly of heart attacks in their 50s I knew a 50 year old who was in excellent shape, not an ounce of fat on him. He came into my cafe and ate oatmeal every day. Then one day he died of a massive heart attack while playing basketball. I read that sudden cardiac death is responsible for half of all heart disease deaths. James Gandolfini and Tim Russert died in their 50s of sudden cardiac arrests.

  • Eduard van Beinum died 13 April 1959, not 1960.

  • Sharon says:

    With conductors part of it could be having to strenuously perform without the body adjusting to time changes. Even a change from daylight to standard time is difficult for some people. Imagine continually having to travel to different time zones and immediately have to be mentally very sharp and strenuously perform.

    In addition conducting may lead to dehydration (I remember that Levine, who perspired profusely, used to have to change his clothes during intermission) and a lot of time dehydration is not recognized.