Erich Kleiber was among the most respected Austrian conductors for the first half of the twentieth century, noted for precise, exciting, beautifully shaped performances of the great symphonic and operatic repertory.
He had the usual school education, and was taught violin as a boy. He was taken to concerts from an early age, and heard some of the legendary figures of music, including Gustav Mahler. He entered university in Prague in 1908, studying philosophy and the history of the arts, while also entering the Prague Conservatory to study music. He won a prize in 1911 for a symphonic poem.
Even before graduating he got a typical entry-level job for a conducting career, chorus master in the German Theater of Prague (1911). He was a staff conductor at the Court Theater in Darmstadt from 1912 to 1919. He followed a typical career path: conducting in Barmen-Elberfeld, Düsseldorf, and Mannheim, where he began in 1922. He also made guest conducting appearances, conducting a sensational performance of Beethoven¹s opera, Fidelio, in Berlin in 1922. Just three days later he was appointed General Music Director of the Berlin State Opera.
During his leadership there he kept high standards and engaged many of the world¹s finest singers, undertook reforms in production, and introduced many new operas to the Berlin public. His performance of Janacek¹s Jenufa is credited with having solidified the fame of its composer outside Czechoslovakia. His premiere of Alban Berg¹s Wozzeck was a triumph following 137 rehearsals. He also presented premieres of operas by Milhaud, Schreker, and Krenek.
He toured widely as a guest conductor, debuting in New York in 1930. His son, Carlos Kleiber, who has also become a world-famous conductor, was born in the same year.
After the Nazis were appointed to power in Germany in 1933, the cultural minister, Joseph Goebbels, announced a ban on what the Party termed "Entartete" (Degenerate) Music. One of the works so labeled was Alban Berg¹s opera Lulu, even though at this point it was a work in progress, unheard and unpublished. Kleiber resigned from his post at the State Opera in public protest. Then he played his farewell concert on December 4, 1934, including a suite of music from the incomplete opera. It was a triumph, receiving the plaudits of the public.
Kleiber immediately left Germany directly from the concert, and did not return until 1951. He settled in Buenos Aires because he had been well received there on tour, and because it had afforded a welcome home to his exact contemporary, the conductor Fritz Busch, who had left Germany in 1933. He conducted regularly in the great Teatro Colón opera house there (where Busch also conducted. He was put in charge of that house¹s German repertory from 1937 to 1949. He based his career there, making important appearances in Santiago (Chile), Mexico City, Havana, and Montevideo, helping develop the local orchestras.
He debuted with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1935, and also in London conducted a legendary performance of Strauss¹s Der Rosenkavalier with Lotte Lehman in the cast in 1938. He frequently appeared in Europe outside of German territory until World War II broke out. He confined his activities during the war years to the Americas.
He was considered one of the supreme conductors of Mozart, Beethoven, and Richard Strauss, particularly in Rosenkavalier. He conducted only one production in his native Vienna in his entire life, a Rosenkavalier in 1951. His Italian debut was also delayed by was and Fascist politics: a production of Verdi¹s Les vêpres sicilliennes, starring Maria Callas. This was in the 1951 Maggio Musicale of Florence, where he also conducted the first performance of Haydn¹s Orfeo ed Euridice since the composer¹s time.
He was known for an almost fanatical effort at rehearsals to achieve complete accuracy. He avoided sentimentality, and achieved his performance concepts through deep study, never relying on so-called "performance traditions."
In 1954 he agreed to resume directorship of the Berlin State Opera, which was now in East Berlin. The appointment was announced publicly. But the Soviet-dominated East Germany government started making arbitrary, politcally based suggestions and decisions. As a result, Kleiber resigned the position on March 16, 1956, before he even took it up. He died within the year. He left a legacy of exciting recordings, including a Rosenkavalier, some Beethoven Symphonies, and Mozart¹s Le Nozze di Figaro. ~ Joseph Stevenson