The Sphinx on the Podium

Portrait: Arthur Nikisch

Arthur Nikisch, Aufgenommen von Nicola von Perscheid
(Photo: Staatliche Landesbildstelle Hamburg, Sammlung zur Geschichte der Photographie, erworben 1972)

Arthur Nikisch was chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker for 27 years and during that time conducted more than 600 concerts with his orchestra. He died 100 years ago – in January of 1922 – of influenza at the age of 66. 

Born in Hungary in 1855 and trained in Vienna, Arthur Nikisch provided all sorts of firsts. When he was still young, he played under Wagner and Verdi, Bruckner and Brahms. He held the position of chief conductor with both the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, appeared with the Berliners in revenge-bent Paris in 1897 and took them to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kyiv and Odessa in 1899. He brought the first European orchestra – the London Philharmonic – to the US in 1912, and he established the tradition of celebrating New Year’s Eve with Beethoven’s Ninth.

Two continents admired him enormously; crowds of people streamed to Berlin to see and hear him. Such radically different greats as Toscanini, Stokowski and his successor Furtwängler proclaimed Nikisch their idol, and his concert agent, Louise Wolff, declared that he was the “magnet of the entire musical world”.

Supporter of Strauss and Mahler

Deeply rooted in the German musical culture, he strongly supported contemporaries like Strauss and Reger. He did not champion his unloved rival Mahler until relatively late, but then even more vehemently. Nikisch expressed tremendous interest in works from other countries; he conducted the world premiere of Scriabin’s Third Symphony in Paris and frequently programmed Elgar and Rachmaninoff, less often Dvořák, Glazunov, Debussy and Sibelius.

Nikisch was the embodiment of a new type of conductor and thus influenced the style of that time. His dedicated efforts on behalf of two late Romantic composers left the deepest traces in musical history, however.

As a student, Arthur supposedly sat among the second violins of the Vienna Philharmonic when Bruckner conducted the premiere of his revised Second Symphony. The Leipzig premiere of the Seventh Symphony under Nikisch in 1884 – an important milestone on Bruckner’s difficult path to recognition – was legendary and forward-looking.

Nikisch remained loyal to Bruckner throughout his entire career. He reserved the right to conduct the first performances with the Philharmoniker of the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, which they had not played yet. His aura of authenticity made him completely unassailable; in November of 1921 Nikisch still insisted during a rehearsal of the “Romantic” Fourth Symphony that he had once “discussed thoroughly and agreed on” all the changes with Bruckner. The culmination and end of his campaign for the strange man from St. Florian was the Leipzig performance of the nine symphonies during the winter season of 1919/20.

Nikisch’s style was described as romantic-lyrical, melodious even in fortissimo, with an inclination towards broad tempos and instrumental timbres of luminous power, with breathtaking climaxes during which both musicians and listeners sank into a blue-black twilight – and the conductor often had to fight back tears. The ideal prerequisites for Peter Tchaikovsky, in other words!

“Commanding, strong and full of self-control”

The composer heard Nikisch for the first time during his concert tour through western Europe in 1888, when he attended performances of two Wagner operas in Leipzig. Nikisch’s conducting was “commanding, strong and full of self-control”, Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary; a “very pale young man of about thirty, with wonderful, radiant eyes, and he really must have some magic power in the way he is able to force the orchestra now to thunder like the thousand trumpets of Jericho, now to coo like a pigeon, now to die away with a truly gripping mysteriousness”. Tchaikovsky was thus the first to put into words the characteristics described time and again in the Nikisch reception: the completely unpretentious demeanour, the magical gaze, the Olympian calm.

Tchaikovsky invited him to Moscow, hoping that Nikisch would conduct the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto the following year. But Nikisch went to Boston instead – for four years. He never saw Tchaikovsky again, despite statements to the contrary, also by Nikisch himself. One of these legends claims that – due to an enthusiastically cheered Moscow performance of the Fifth Symphony, which was a flop at the premiere – Nikisch prevented Tchaikovsky from throwing the manuscript into the fire.

Nikisch in the old philharmonic hall 1900

In fact, this concert did not take place until 1896, three years after the composer’s death. It is correct, however, that thanks to Nikisch’s efforts, Russians also began to regard Tchaikovsky as their great classical composer.

Nikisch conducted the Fifth at his inaugural concert in Berlin in 1895 and regularly in Leipzig and Vienna; he also conducted several foreign premieres, including in London and Buenos Aires.

His most significant accomplishment was probably a cycle of the six Tchaikovsky symphonies, which he and the Berliner Philharmoniker presented at three concerts in St. Petersburg in 1904.

Nikisch’s magical charisma had long since become a trademark by then. He was undisputedly regarded as the leading conductor of his time but also enjoyed a popularity that went beyond purely artistic elements. Tourists to the capital city absolutely had to have seen him – like the Museum Island and the Siegesallee. Even among the members of the uneducated class, still referred to as the proletariat in those days, the magician’s name spread.

Impenetrable and unapproachable as a sphinx, Nikisch was nevertheless not an elitist. Beginning in 1915 he organized public concerts that people could attend for 60 pfennigs and conducted the premiere of the Third Symphony by Paul Büttner, a Dresden composer who was closely associated with the labour movement; his last conducting appearance, on 10 January 1922, was at one of these concerts.

Nikisch advocated allowing women to become  conductors and was determined to present the F sharp minor Symphony by the Croatian-Hungarian composer Dora Pejačević. That was prevented by his unexpected death. Arthur Nikisch died in Leipzig on 23 January 1922.

Volker Tarnow

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