Nikolaus Harnoncourt

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Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1980)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt [ ˈharnõkuːr ] (born December 6, 1929 in Berlin ; † March 5, 2016 in St. Georgen im Attergau ; actually Johann Nikolaus Harnoncourt, also known as Johann Nikolaus Graf de la Fontaine and d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt in nobility history ) was a Austrian conductor , cellist , music writer and one of the pioneers of historical performance practice .

Live and act

Youth and early years

Nikolaus Harnoncourt's parents both came from the nobility. The father Eberhard Harnoncourt (1896-1970) came from the Luxembourgish - Lorraine the Counts de la Fontaine d'Harnoncourt- Undaunted , the mother Ladislaja Jane Frances (1899-1997; "the wild Laja") was born as Countess of Meran , a Great-granddaughter of the popular Archduke Johann of Austria . His father, who actually wanted to become a musician himself, had completed a degree in engineering as a former naval navigation officer in order to work as a civil engineer in Berlin. He brought two children with him from his first marriage and at that time lived in the immediate vicinity of Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel on Spichernstrasse in Berlin. Nikolaus Harnoncourt got his (actually middle) first name after St. Nicholas Day . Two years after him, his younger brother, the theologian and priest Philipp Harnoncourt , was born. The family moved to Graz in 1931 , where they took up residence in the Palais Meran and where their father completed a doctorate (Dr. jur.) And then got a job in the state government. Other brothers are Renatus ( half-brother ), the lawyer Franz Harnoncourt and the doctor Karl Harnoncourt . His sisters are Alice ( half sister ) and Juliana. The family lived through the summer months on the so-called Brandhof in Styria, an estate belonging to the Merans that Archduke Johann had acquired.

In his elementary school years, Harnoncourt began taking cello lessons from the Graz music teacher Hans Kortschak. He tried his hand at the piano with his brother Philipp. As altar boys in Graz Cathedral , both of them acquired elementary knowledge of church music . Above all, music was played regularly with the family with father, mother and siblings. Philipp Harnoncourt later (1963) founded the church music department at what is now Graz University of Art and was its director for nine years.

The other family members were also musical: the father composed in private, his brother René studied music at the Salzburg Mozarteum after the war . At the end of 1944 they moved to Grundlsee , where Harnoncourt lived through the last months of the war. Harnoncourt was tutored there from 1945 to 1948 by Paul Grümmer , the cellist of the Busch Quartet . After returning to Graz, he resumed teaching with Kortschak.

After having been unclear about his professional career for a long time, he decided to become a musician in 1947 and moved to Vienna in autumn 1948 to study. His cello teacher was now Emanuel Brabec. Harnoncourt first became aware of early music through his encounter with Eduard Melkus and through lessons in performance practice with Josef Mertin . Here he also met his future wife, the violinist Alice Hoffelner , and the oboist Jürg Schaeftlein , with whom he later worked for many years at the Concentus Musicus Vienna .

In 1952 Harnoncourt joined the Vienna Symphony Orchestra as a cellist , which was then directed by Herbert von Karajan . He kept this permanent position until 1969.

In 1953 Harnoncourt and Alice Hoffelner married. The marriage produced four children: the mezzo-soprano Elisabeth von Magnus (* 1954), the director Philipp Harnoncourt (* 1955), the actor Eberhard Harnoncourt (1957–1990), and the doctor Franz Harnoncourt (* 1961).

Concentus Musicus

Also in 1953 a music group was founded in order to “transfer the vitality of the baroque, documented by the fine arts, to music”. The focus was on Nikolaus and Alice Harnoncourt , and they met for rehearsals in the Harnoncourt family's apartment. The musical range of the group, which initially consisted only of strings, stretched from the 18th century back to the time of the papal court in Avignon . One means of finding an understanding of the music was to collect and play suitable old instruments and to relearn the playing techniques that had been lost in the change of style over the centuries. A key to the conception of early music was still the rhetorical understanding of "music as sound speech ", which Harnoncourt later also presented in theoretical writings.

Initially, the ensemble did not have a fixed goal to give concerts. All members had permanent music positions, mostly with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. In 1954 the Musikkreis made its unofficial debut with Monteverdi's “Orfeo” under Paul Hindemith at the Wiener Konzerthaus. In 1957 the first official appearance took place under the name Concentus Musicus Wien , which marked the beginning of a series of concerts in Palais Schwarzenberg. The Concentus Musicus consists of up to twelve members, who can be joined by other musicians as required. The ensemble achieved its international breakthrough with a recording of the Brandenburg Concerts by Johann Sebastian Bach .

1967 Harnoncourt played in the film The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach by Jean-Marie Straub Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen . The Concentus Musicus took part in the film as a court ensemble.

Almost from the beginning, the Concentus Musicus also distributed its music on sound carriers. In 1971 he began his exclusive recording contract with Telefunken (later Teldec), which was only dissolved in 2003 and through which hundreds of recordings were released, including between 1971 and 1990 the complete recording of all sacred Bach cantatas that he shared with Gustav Leonhardt and his ensemble .

In November 2012, Harnoncourt also conducted the concerts for the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Wiener Musikverein , while the Concentus Musicus performed with the Wiener Singverein in a drastically enlarged cast . Was played in GF Handel's Timothy or the power of music in the processing of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart .


From 1972 to 1992 Harnoncourt taught performance practice and historical instrument studies at the Salzburg Mozarteum and from the winter semester 1973 also at the Institute for Musicology at the University of Salzburg. Numerous prominent musicians went through his school here, including the singer Barbara Bonney , the double bass player Jonathan Cable and the oboist David Reichenberg .

Orchestra conductor

After Harnoncourt had long refused to see himself as a conductor and always conducted the Concentus Musicus from the cello with manageable line-ups, he began to conduct other orchestras in the 1970s. The first major classical symphony orchestra with modern instruments with which he worked was the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. From 1975 until 1989 in alternate years were St. John and St. Matthew Passion by Bach listed. The collaboration soon expanded to include Mozart , Joseph Haydn and the late Romantic period: Franz Schubert , Johann Strauss (son) , Brahms , Dvořák , Bruckner , Alban Berg . Since October 2000, Harnoncourt has been the Guest of Honor conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

The first traditional Viennese orchestra that Harnoncourt invited to conduct was the Wiener Symphoniker in 1983 , with whom he had previously worked as a cellist. In 1997 the orchestra offered him the position of chief conductor, which he refused.

Harnoncourt first met the Vienna Philharmonic , of which he had been an honorary member since 2005, and performed with them for a long time, primarily at the Salzburg Mozart Week, then also in Vienna and at guest appearances in Europe, the USA and Japan. In 2001 and 2003 he was invited by them to conduct the New Year's Concert . Several highly acclaimed and successful joint recordings have now been made (e.g. Mozart's violin concertos with Gidon Kremer and Kim Kashkashian , Aida von Verdi etc.). Harnoncourt also directed two rehearsals and the CD recording of Franz Schmidt's The Book with Seven Seals (Wiener Philharmoniker, Wiener Singverein).

The Berlin Philharmonic led Harnoncourt since the 1990s regularly in the Berlin Philharmonic . Two of these concerts are accessible to the public in the “archive” of the orchestra's Digital Concert Hall on the Internet as an audio-video live stream (for a fee).

Nikolaus Harnoncourt did not use a baton when conducting .

Opera conductor

At the beginning of his work as an opera conductor was an invitation to study Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria at the Scala in Milan in 1972 . Apart from a few musicians for the continuo, only instrumentalists and singers from the opera ensemble were used. In 1975, Harnoncourt began a Monteverdi cycle for the Zurich Opera House with the director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle , as part of which L'Orfeo (December 1975), Poppea (January 1977) and Ulisse (November 1977) were staged. In June 1979 a staged version of the eighth book of madrigals followed. The cycle still enjoys a legendary reputation today. The duo then continued with a Mozart cycle: Idomeneo (1980), Lucio Silla (February 1981), Mitridate (May 1983), Die Entführung aus dem Serail (February 1985), Così fan tutte (February 1986), The Magic Flute (November 1986), Don Giovanni (November 1987) and Le nozze di Figaro (February 1989; after Ponnelle's death in his production for the Salzburg Festival in 1972 and the Vienna State Opera in 1977). He then worked several times as a conductor at the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music .

After Ponnelle's death he continued his work at the Zurich Opera House until the end of 2011 with changing directors: Jürgen Flimm ( Fidelio 1992), Ruth Berghaus ( Der Freischütz 1993), Helmuth Lohner ( La belle Hélène 1994). Since 1990 he has often worked with Jürgen Flimm in other places (Amsterdam, Vienna, Graz, Salzburg).

Harnoncourt has worked regularly as an opera conductor at the Wiener Festwochen since the early 1970s - most recently in May 2005 by Mozart's Lucio Silla at the Theater an der Wien (directed by Claus Guth ) - and twice he made his way to the podium at the Frankfurt Opera (1978 Giulio Cesare in Egitto by Georg Friedrich Händel and Castor et Pollux by Jean-Philippe Rameau in 1980 ; both directed by Horst Zankl , set design by Erich Wonder ). Between 1987 and 1991 Harnoncourt conducted four new productions of Mozart operas at the Vienna State Opera : 1987 Idomeneo (directed by Johannes Schaaf , set design by David Fielding , costumes by Tobias Hoheisel ), 1988 Die Zauberflöte (directed by Otto Schenk , set and costumes by Yannis Kokkos ), 1989 Die Abduction from the Seraglio (directed by Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann , set design and costumes by Karl-Ernst Herrmann) and in the same year Così fan tutte (directed by Johannes Schaaf, set design by Hans Schavernoch , costumes by Lore Haas ). The end of the management of Claus Helmut Drese also meant that Harnoncourt stopped his work at the Vienna State Opera. Drese's successors had only asked him for an Idomeneo conducting. Because Harnoncourt did not see the lack of dramaturgical context for further appearances, he withdrew.


Since 1985 in Graz Harnoncourt dedicated classical music festivals, the Styriarte , have been organized. Since then the festival has become the main platform for the Concentus Musicus. In addition to the initial concerts, oratorios and concert operas, staged operas were added later. Harnoncourt began a long-term collaboration with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe with Haydn at Styriarte in 1987 , which led to a highly acclaimed complete recording of the Beethoven symphonies via Schumann and Mendelssohn to Bartók . In 2005 he conducted a Carmen by Georges Bizet , which was enthusiastically received by the audience and critics , for which he developed his own version that took the composer's intentions more into account (directed by Andrea Breth , set design by Annette Murschetz ). In 2008 Harnoncourt appeared with Mozart's Idomeneo for the first time not only as a conductor, but also as a director, with his son Philipp - who has theater experience as a lighting designer - helping him as a co-director (stage design Rolf Glittenberg , costumes Renate Martin & Andreas Donhauser ) . At the Styriarte 2009 Harnoncourt directed a concert (semi-staged) performance of Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess , and in 2011 he presented Bedřich Smetana's The Bartered Bride .

Salzburg Festival

Since the early 1990s, Harnoncourt has been present at the Salzburg Festival almost every year both as an opera and concert conductor . He conducted his first opera there in 1995 (Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro , directed by Luc Bondy ). In 2006, on the occasion of the opening of the new house for Mozart, he directed the new production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (directed by Claus Guth) and the revival of La clemenza di Tito at the Felsenreitschule . In December 2005, Harnoncourt announced in an interview with the Austrian magazine News that, due to his age and his work at the Theater an der Wien, he would reduce his work at the Festival to summer orchestral concerts and no longer conduct operas. At the end of August 2007 he only conducted concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic in the Great Festival Hall. In the summer of 2012, however, he conducted the Magic Flute at the Felsenreitschule with his Concentus Musicus. The response from critics and the public was mixed.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1st row, 3rd from left) at the final applause of the Da Ponte cycle in the Theater an der Wien ( Così fan tutte , March 29, 2014)

Theater an der Wien

In March 2006 Harnoncourt conducted a revival of the Lucio Silla production of the Wiener Festwochen at the Theater an der Wien . In April 2006 he directed a staged realization of Mozart's Die Schuldigkeit des Erste Gebots (directed by Philipp Harnoncourt), which took place as part of the Osterklang festival. On November 17, 2007, he directed the premiere of Joseph Haydn's Orlando paladino (directed by Keith Warner ). On December 5, 2009 there was the premiere of a series of performances of the Haydn opera Il mondo della luna with the Concentus Musicus (directed by Tobias Moretti ). In 2013 Harnoncourt conducted Beethoven's Fidelio in the house where it was premiered; in March 2014 he conducted concert performances of Mozart's three Da Ponte operas with the Concentus Musicus.

Vocal music

In the field of vocal music, a longstanding association with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir under Erwin Ortner began in 1978 . This choir was not only Harnoncourt's first choice for projects with the Concentus Musicus, but it also appears at concerts with other orchestras. In Bach's cantatas, Harnoncourt continued to use boys' choirs such as the Vienna Boys' Choir and the Tölzer Boys' Choir , and for the larger vocal works he preferred the mixed choir.

Withdrawal and death

On December 5, 2015, one day before his 86th birthday, Nikolaus Harnoncourt announced his resignation from the conductor's podium in an open letter.

Harnoncourt died on March 5, 2016 in St. Georgen im Attergau in Upper Austria . There he was buried in the cemetery.


  • The City Museum Graz showed an exhibition entitled Being Nikolaus Harnoncourt until February 28, 2010.
  • Nikolaus Harnoncourt was a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Critical Complete Edition of all of Johann Rosenmüller's works .

honors and awards

Nikolaus Harnoncourt was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh and a holder of the Pour le Mérite order for science and the arts.

In 2008 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Mozarteum University in Salzburg; On this occasion, the Institute for the History of Musical Reception and Interpretation organized a symposium for the first time under the title Event Sound Speech. Nikolaus Harnoncourt as a conductor and music thinker ; The celebrations were framed by a first extensive exhibition (Speaking in Sounds - Nikolaus Harnoncourt) .


  • Nikolaus Harnoncourt was the son of Eberhard Harnoncourt (1896-1970), born de la Fontaine Graf d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt, and his second wife Ladislaja Johanna Franziska (1899-1997), born Countess of Meran (and Freiin Brandhofen).
  • On his father's side, he came from the De La Fontaine family from Marville (Meuse) / Lorraine . The family moved to Harnoncourt (the city is now part of Belgium , at the time it was part of Lorraine). D'Harnoncourt was added to the family name at this time. Joseph Louis Matthieu de La Fontaine d'Harnoncourt (1736-1816) entered the service of the Habsburgs, while a Lorraine, Franz III. of Lorraine, who married Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria and thereby founded the Habsburg-Lothringen dynasty . Francis of Lorraine was later elected as Francis I Stefan to be Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Joseph Louis Matthieu de La Fontaine d'Harnoncourt married Countess Unverzagt , founded the de La Fontaine d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt family, returned to France after his Austrian career and died in Harnoncourt (1816).
  • Through his mother, Nikolaus Harnoncourt was a direct descendant of Franz I Stephan , Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, because she was his great-great-granddaughter. He was also the great-great-grandson of Archduke Johann (1782-1859) and the great-grandson of Franz von Meran .



  • Sabine M. Gruber , Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Impossibilities are the most beautiful possibilities. Nikolaus Harnoncourt's world of language images . Recorded and commented by Sabine M. Gruber. Residenz, Salzburg 2003, ISBN 978-3-7017-1345-5 (first edition: Residenz, Salzburg 2003, ISBN 978-3-7017-1345-5 ).
  • Sabine M. Gruber , Nikolaus Harnoncourt: With one foot in the spring meadow. A stroll through Haydn's seasons . With linguistic images by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Residence, Salzburg 2009, ISBN 978-3-7017-1517-6 .
  • Wolfgang Gratzer (Ed.): Event sound speech. Nikolaus Harnoncourt as a conductor and music thinker (= Institute for the History of Musical Reception and Interpretation of the University of Mozarteum Salzburg [Hrsg.]: Sound speeches. Writings on the history of musical reception and interpretation . Volume 3 ). Rombach Sciences, Freiburg i. Br./Berlin/Wien 2019, ISBN 978-3-7930-9551-4 .
  • Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Being Nikolaus Harnoncourt . With contributions by Johanna Fürstauer u. a. Ed .: Otto Hochreiter, Mathias Huber. Styria, Vienna / Graz / Klagenfurt 2009, ISBN 978-3-222-13280-3 .
  • Monika Mertl: About the thinking of the heart. Alice and Nikolaus Harnoncourt . Residence, Salzburg 1999, ISBN 3-7017-1051-1 .
    • Monika Mertl: Nikolaus Harnoncourt. From the thinking of the heart . A biography. 2nd revised and supplemented edition. Residenz, Salzburg 2011, ISBN 978-3-7017-3231-9 ( limited preview in Google Book Search - 2004 Residenz).
  • Mozarteum : Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The Mozarteum University Salzburg honors the conductor and music thinker. Exhibition documentation, Salzburg 2008.
  • Milan Turković , Monika Mertl: The strangest Viennese in the world. Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his Concentus Musicus . Residence, Salzburg 2003, ISBN 3-7017-1267-0 .

Web links

Commons : Nikolaus Harnoncourt  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b Daniel Ender: 1929–2016 - Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Death of a rebel at the conductor's desk. The musician died on Saturday at the age of 86. In: The Standard . March 6, 2016, accessed on January 28, 2020.
  2. ^ "Family name or surname: Harnoncourt / first name: Johann Nikolaus / date of birth: 06.12.1929". In: Registration information from the Central Register of Residents in accordance with Section 18 (1) of the Registration Act , requested on March 7, 2016.
  3. Cf. Johanna Fürstauer: "Tones are higher words": Conversations about romantic music. Residenz, Salzburg 2007, ISBN 978-3-7017-3055-1 , p. 74:
    Question Fürstauer: “Change of subject: Your real name is Johann Nikolaus Graf de la Fontaine and d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt […] but the nobility in Austria is 1918 [1919 is correct; Note] has been abolished. "
    Answer Harnoncourt: “And I was born in 1929 as Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Everything else is history; but exciting story. ... "(Actually Johann Nikolaus H., see ZMR information above.)
  4. Nikolaus Harnoncourt , Internationales Biographisches Archiv 36/2014 of September 2, 2014 (right). Supplemented by news from MA-Journal until week 47/2018, in the Munzinger archive , accessed on February 12, 2020 ( beginning of article freely available)
  5. A detailed biography. In: Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Official website, Steirische Kulturveranstaltungen GmbH (publisher), undated (after March 5, 2016), accessed on January 28, 2020.
  6. hwember1: Ladislaja, Countess of Meran. In: Geneanet. Retrieved on January 28, 2020 (genealogy of the high nobility predominantly Germany).
  7. Nikolaus Harnoncourt. In: Cosmopolis. September 28, 2003/6. March 2016.
  8. James R. Oestreich: Following His Fixations, Early Music to Whatever. In: New York Times . November 10, 1996, accessed on January 28, 2020.
  9. ^ Harnoncourt: Closing concert. ( Memento from August 15, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) In: Tagesschau from November 27, 2011 by SRF . (Playing the embedded video requires JavaScript and Flash player.)
  10. 2009: Porgy and Bess. In: Philipp Harnoncourt's website , undated, accessed on January 28, 2020.
  11. Nikolaus Harnoncourt's withdrawal from the stage. In: Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Official website, Steirische Kulturveranstaltungen GmbH (publisher), December 5, 2015, accessed on January 28, 2020.
  12. ^ Wilhelm Sinkovicz : Nikolaus Harnoncourt withdraws. In: Die Presse , December 5, 2015, accessed on January 28, 2020.
  13. Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Entry in the cemetery database in: Klaus Nerger (Ed.), Undated, accessed on January 28, 2020.
  14. Large gold with star for Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Alice Harnoncourt represented her sick husband in Graz Castle. In: State of Styria - Office of the Styrian Provincial Government, July 14, 2005, accessed on January 28, 2020.
  15. Bach Medal. In: Bach Festival Leipzig, undated. Bach Archive Leipzig (publisher), accessed on January 28, 2020.
  16. Styrian ring of honor for Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Ceremony after the Idomeneo premiere in the List Hall in Graz. In: State of Styria - Office of the Styrian Provincial Government, July 2, 2008, accessed on January 28, 2020.
  17. Nikolaus Harnoncourt receives an honorary doctorate from the Cologne University of Music and Dance. The award ceremony will take place on June 10, 2011 in the Chamber Music Hall. In: Press release of June 6, 2011 ( memento of March 22, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) on the Cologne University of Music website (filter entries by year 2011), accessed on January 28, 2020.
  18. ↑ Gold Medal of Honor for Alice and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. In: Archive report of the town hall correspondence from March 30, 2011, accessed on January 28, 2020.
  19. Nikolaus Harnoncourt received the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal from RPS Chairman John Gilhooly at the Barbican on Sunday 22 April 2012, to a standing ovation from the audience. In: website of the Royal Philharmonic Society, April 1, 2021, accessed on January 28, 2020.
  20. Classical Prize Winner 2014 ( Memento from November 2, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) In:, October 26, 2014.
  21. La Famille de La Fontaine à Marville. In: Jules Mersch (Ed.): Biographie nationale du pays de Luxembourg, Volume 7, Imprimierie de la Cour Victor Buck, Luxembourg 1956, p. 128 in Luxemburgensia online. Bibliothèque nationale de Luxembourg (Ed.), Accessed on January 28, 2020.
  22. Susanne Kübler: The mother wild, the uncle a Nazi. The book "My Family" by conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt was not actually intended for the public. You can now read it three years after his death - luckily. In: Basler Zeitung , February 12, 2019, accessed on January 28, 2020.