Nikolaus Harnoncourt: In Memoriam

Nikolaus Hanoncourt (second from left) in 1980 at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Nikolaus Hanoncourt (second from left) in 1980 at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

GREAT PERFORMANCES mourns the passing of influential conductor and early-music specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who died on Saturday, March 5, 2016, at the age of 86.

Born in Berlin in 1929, Harnoncourt joined the Vienna Symphony Orchestra as a cellist in 1952 after a demanding audition with Karl Böhm, which he recalls with humor in an interview with The New York Times: “I never for one second knew the downbeat. The whole one and a half hours was a nightmare. To this day I don’t know what happened. But I must have done something correct, because the orchestra invited me again and again after that.”

A year later in 1953, Harnoncourt channeled his famous encyclopedic knowledge of early classical music to create the period-instrument ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien with his wife Alice Harnoncourt, a violinist, as the concertmaster.

He continued his storied career until this past December, when he announced his retirement at a Concentus Musicus concert in Vienna. A handwritten note placed in the programs read, “An unbelievably deep relationship has developed between us on the stage and you in the hall — we have become a happy community of pioneers! – Much will remain. This year’s cycle will be carried on in my spirit. Remain faithful to it!”

GREAT PERFORMANCES had the privilege of working with Mr. Harnoncourt on several productions, including The Coronation of Poppea, Orfeo, The Return of Ulysses, Bach Christmas Oratorio, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, and From Vienna: The New Year’s Celebration in 2001 and 2003.