Sergiu Celibidache

Sergiu Celibidache grew up in the capital of Moldavia, Iassy, where his father held an official position. He was already improvising at the piano by the age of four and after a traditional schooling he studied music, philosophy and mathematics in Bucharest and Paris. His father wished him to pursue a political career in Romania, but instead Celibidache left for Berlin in 1936, motivated to study composition at the Berlin Academy of Music with Heinz Thiessen by having heard a quartet of his on Romanian radio. Two years later he enrolled to study conducting with Kurt Thomas and Walter Gmeindl, while simultaneously attending the Friedrich Wilhelm University to study musicology with Arnold Schering and Georg Schünemann, and philosophy with Nicolai Hartmann and Eduard Spranger. During this period he became increasingly attracted to Buddism and Zen Buddism: through his teacher Martin Steinke he was exposed to Buddhist ideas as to the limits of thought, including what was translatable into music and what was not. Celibidache completed his education in 1944 with a doctorate on Josquin Desprez. During this period he was also active as a conductor of student ensembles, attended Furtwängler’s rehearsals with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and composed: his works included concertos, masses and four symphonies, all of which remained unheard.

With the end of World War II, Celibidache won a conducting competition and began to conduct professionally with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, based in the Russian sector of occupied Berlin. He went on to make his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in August 1945 as a result of several related coincidences: the orchestra’s war-time conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler was awaiting de-Nazification procedures in Switzerland; the orchestra’s first post-war conductor, Leo Borchard, had been accidentally killed by an American sentry; and no other well-known conductors were either available or acceptable to the four powers occupying Berlin. In February 1946 he was appointed as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Furtwängler returned to the orchestra in 1947 and henceforth shared the direction of the orchestra with Celibidache up until his death in 1954. By this time Celibidache had led the orchestra in four hundred and fourteen concerts, presenting many new works by composers such as Blacher, Tiessen, Hindemith and Wellesz. With the selection of Herbert von Karajan as the new chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Celibidache left Berlin, conducting the orchestra only once again, in 1992.

Celibidache had made his London debut in 1948, followed by some recording sessions for Decca, and after his departure from Berlin he began a nomadic period, conducting in Italy in particular. He worked with the orchestras of La Scala, Milan and the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, as well as with the radio orchestras of Rome, Milan, Naples and Turin amongst others. His extreme demands for extensive rehearsal time made radio conducting more feasible than with normal concert-giving symphony orchestras. From 1959 he began to work with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, and from 1960 he held master-classes in conducting at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena that soon achieved legendary status.

Between 1960 and 1963 Celibidache worked intensively with the Royal Danish Orchestra, and from 1962 until 1971 he was chief conductor of the Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra, which he completely rebuilt. This was followed by a period as chief conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1972 to 1977, and two seasons as the chief conductor of the Orchestre National de Radio France, from 1973 to 1975, which remain a potent memory for many in France. In 1979 he accepted the post of chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, which he made into one of the best orchestras in the world. In Munich he held master-classes in orchestral conducting, continuing to conduct and to teach, including the subject of phenomenology at the University of Mainz (1978–1992), right up until his death.

Sergiu Celibidache was a follower of the religious mystic Sai Baba, and he belonged to a school of thought which denied that the spoken or written word or reasoning may make reality accessible. He believed that when conducting it was necessary to let the complexity of sounds from a passage develop and be heard in a concert hall (an occurrence known as ‘epiphenomena’). He went on to maintain that the ‘epiphenomena’, which added to the total experience of a ‘live’ performance in a concert hall, could never be captured on record. Hence, the particular magic and uniqueness of a ‘live’ performance would be lost in a recording, the artificiality of which he went so far as likening to going to bed with a photograph of Brigitte Bardot!

Fortunately his preference for working with radio orchestras, because of the extensive rehearsal time permitted, also resulted in many of his performances being committed to tape in Italy, Sweden and Germany in particular. During his lifetime many of these recordings were circulated in unofficial editions. Since his death numerous radio recordings have been authorised for commercial release by his family, to ensure the highest possible standards of reproduction. Several video recordings of Celibidache conducting, especially with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, have also been released. Strangely Celibidache did not object to these in the way that he did to sound recordings.

Whatever their provenance, recordings of Celibidache conducting demonstrate a complete master at work. His pursuit of the idea of ‘epiphenomena’ suggested that the richer the music, the slower the tempo required; and especially in his later years his generous tempi helped to broaden the vision of the works that he performed. With the music of certain composers this approach was extremely successful: Celibidache’s interpretations of Bruckner for instance possessed a transcendental quality that was very powerful. Performances of Brahms, although very different, were equally as successful. His mastery of orchestral balance, intonation and dynamics, when combined with his deliberate tempi, gave his readings of French music, and of composers such as Ravel and Debussy in particular, a refinement that was exceptional. By contrast his interpretations of Russian music such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet possessed an unusual weight and grandeur. Celibidache may have been described as one of the last of the ‘mad genius’ conductors (David Hurwitz), but in truth little that he conducted was without the greatest musical interest.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).