Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s father was an aristocrat of French ancestry, with liberal Catholic beliefs. Shortly after Nikolaus’s birth in Berlin, the family, whose full name was de la Fontaine und d’Harnoncourt- Unverzagt, returned to Graz from Berlin to live in an inherited mansion. The young boy grew up under the Nazi regime and has commented in interview that ‘This was a time that left the greatest imprint on my life.’ When he was ten years of age he began to play the cello, having decided three years earlier to be a musician after hearing a radio performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. In 1939 he was also obliged to join the junior Hitler Youth; as he recalled, ‘If you did not go twice a week, they picked you up and shaved your head.’ As the Nazi regime collapsed, the family fled in 1945 to Salzburg, where Nikolaus studied the cello with Paul Grummer. Subsequently in 1948 he entered the Vienna Academy of Music where he was a pupil of Emanuel Brabec, one of the finest Viennese cellists of the day and a member of the Vienna Philharmonic Quartet.
In 1952, Harnoncourt was auditioned by Herbert von Karajan for membership of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. After hearing him, Karajan was reported to have said, ‘That one – I like the way he sits down. I’ll take him.’ As a member of the Vienna Symphony he played for many of the world’s finest conductors, and remembers Karajan, Erich Kleiber, Ormandy, Schuricht and Szell as making the deepest impression upon him, although he is discreet as to who inspired him through love and who through hate. While continuing his career as an orchestral musician, in 1953 Harnoncourt formed the group Concentus Musicus Wien in order to explore the world of Baroque music and of period performance. He was convinced that, as instrument makers such as Stradivarius and Amati had created brilliant instruments, so the music which was played upon them had also to be brilliant rather than dull (as Harnoncourt felt it often sounded in contemporary performances). After four years of preparation, in 1957 Concentus Musicus gave its first public performances, which were followed by its first recordings for the Das Alte Werk label of the Teldec company.
Throughout the 1960s Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus produced a series of memorable recordings of major works by Bach, such as the B minor Mass (1968), the St Matthew Passion (1970), and the Christmas Oratorio (1972), all of which were greeted by considerable international critical acclaim; as well as numerous discs by other significant composers of the Baroque era, such as Rameau, Telemann, Biber and Fux. In addition, between 1971 and 1990 and in conjunction with another distinguished Bach performer, Gustav Leonhardt, they recorded all of Bach’s sacred cantatas, also for Teldec. Harnoncourt had his first experience of conducting in the opera house when he directed Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria at the Theater an der Wien in 1971 in a production which was repeated at La Scala, Milan. He developed a close relationship with the Zurich Opera House and the producer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, with whom he created several memorable productions of operas by Mozart, some of which were also recorded.
Gradually Harnoncourt’s performance style, disseminated internationally through his numerous recordings, began to challenge the predominant performance paradigm perpetuated by the concerts and recordings of the great post-war conductors such as Klemperer and Karajan. His breakthrough from specialist to generalist status came with the release of his recordings of the complete symphonies of Beethoven, made with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. These were published during 1991 and won the Record of the Year award from The Gramophone magazine and the German Record Critics’ Prize in 1992, as well as generating huge sales. In recent years Harnoncourt has steadily expanded his repertoire in conjunction with the major European symphony orchestras, such as the Royal Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic, while also maintaining his links with Concentus Musicus. In 1972 he was appointed Professor of Performance Practice at the Salzburg Mozarteum, a position he held until 1993. He has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (1974), the Erasmus Prize (1980), the City of Zurich’s Hans Georg Nageli Medal (1982), and the Styrian Joseph Marx Music Prize (1982). In 1983 he became a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm, and in 1987 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Edinburgh.
Harnoncourt’s approach to interpretation and performance is informed by his many years as an orchestral player, during which he experienced the brutality inflicted upon individual musicians by many conductors of previous generations. ‘They used to order a musician to play his part alone,’ he has recalled, ‘and I have never seen anything less than terror when this happened.’ Harnoncourt’s manner by contrast is courteous and even at times hesitant: for him players are equals. Secondly he is continually questioning. ‘For me to play together and in equal pitch is not a goal,’ he insists. Instead, ‘The rehearsal starts with the content of a piece – what it means, how it can change the listener. I was an orchestral musician for seventeen years and what I missed was the question “why?” I wanted to know why Bruno Walter asked me to play like this… In those days, musicians were slaves, but my musicians are partners and they have to know about the conception. This is my way of working.’
In parallel to his markedly different approach to the psychology of conducting from that of the past, Harnoncourt has used his experience of discovering and performing the music of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to inform his performance of music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He has taken the Baroque principle of balancing instrumental sonorities and applied it to music of later periods, thus giving all the members of the orchestral families of instruments greater equality and allowing inner voices to be heard, rather than permitting the strings to predominate, as was the case with previous conductors in an era where there was a greater emphasis upon melody as an emotional surrogate. This striving for equality of orchestral timbres is in turn paralleled by his uninflected tempi and wide dynamics. The result of all these factors being brought into play at the same time is to energise the performance of composers in ways that are novel for contemporary audiences.
Harnoncourt’s discography is one of the largest of present-day conductors, partly as a result of his early years with the Das Alte Werk label. In addition to his readings of the Baroque and Classical repertoires his opera recordings are consistently interesting, especially those of works by Mozart. These interpretations are in general highly dynamic, lending considerable weight to the various dramatic arguments. Harnoncourt has never feared venturing into new areas, and has, in addition to the traditional symphonic repertoire, also recorded the music of composers as varied as Jacques Offenbach and Franz Schmidt. He remains a supreme musical iconoclast, who has done much to reinvigorate a musical culture in danger of sclerosis.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).