Karl August Leopold Böhm (28 August 1894 in Graz – 14 August 1981 in Salzburg) was an Austrian conductor. Considered particularly gifted in his interpretations of Wagner and Mozart, he has been described by one critic as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.
Life and career
The son of a lawyer, Karl Böhm studied law and earned a doctorate in this subject before entering the music conservatory in his home town of Graz, Austria. (His father was originally a Sudeten German from Egerland, Bohemia, while his mother was from Alsace.) He later enrolled at the Vienna Conservatory, where he studied under Eusebius Mandyczewski, a friend of Johannes Brahms.
Munich, Darmstadt, Hamburg
In 1917 Karl Böhm became a rehearsal assistant in his home town, in 1919 the assistant director of music, and in 1920 the senior director of music. On the recommendation of Karl Muck, Bruno Walter engaged him at Munich's Bavarian State Opera in 1921. An early assignment here was Mozart's Entführung, with a cast including Maria Ivogun, Paul Bender and Richard Tauber [Source: Karl Böhm, Ich erinnere mich genau, Zurich, 1968]. In 1927 he was appointed as chief musical director in Darmstadt. From 1931 to 1934 he fulfilled the same function at the Hamburg opera company and was appointed professor.
Vienna, Dresden, Salzburg
In 1933 he conducted in Vienna for the first time, in Tristan and Isolde by Wagner. He succeeded Fritz Busch, who had gone into exile, as head of Dresden's Semper Opera in 1934, a position he held until 1942. This was an important period for him, in which he conducted the first performances of works by Richard Strauss: Die schweigsame Frau (1935) and Daphne (1938), which is dedicated to him. He also conducted the first performances of Romeo und Julia (1940) and Die Zauberinsel (1942) by Heinrich Sutermeister, and Strauss's Horn Concerto No. 2 (1943).
In 1938 he took part in the Salzburg Festival for the first time, conducting Don Giovanni, and thereafter he became a permanent guest conductor. He secured a top post at the Vienna State Opera in 1943, eventually becoming music director. On the occasion of the 80th birthday of Richard Strauss, on 11 June 1944, he conducted the Vienna State Opera performance of Ariadne auf Naxos.
After World War II
After he had completed a two-year post-war denazification ban, Böhm led Don Giovanni at Milan's Teatro alla Scala (1948) and gave a guest performance in Paris with the Vienna State Opera company (1949). From 1950 to 1953 he directed the German season at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, and he conducted the first Spanish performance of the opera Wozzeck by Alban Berg, translated into Spanish for the occasion. In 1953 he was responsible for the first performance of Gottfried von Einem's work Der Prozess. From 1954 to 1956 he directed the Vienna State Opera at its reconstructed home. He additionally resumed ties post-war in Dresden, at the Staatskapelle.
Success in New York
In 1957 he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, conducting Don Giovanni, and quickly became one of the favorite conductors of the Rudolf Bing era, leading, all told, 262 performances, including the house premieres of Wozzeck, Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten, which was the first major success in the new house at Lincoln Center. Böhm led many other major new productions in New York, such as Fidelio for the Beethoven bicentennial, Tristan und Isolde (including the house debut performance of Birgit Nilsson in 1959), Lohengrin, Otello, Der Rosenkavalier, Salome, and Elektra. His repertoire there also included Le nozze di Figaro, Parsifal, Der fliegende Holländer, Die Walküre, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
Bayreuth and Wagner
Böhm made his debut at the Bayreuth Festival in 1962 with Tristan and Isolde, which he conducted until 1970. In 1964 he led Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg there, and from 1965 to 1967 the composer's Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle, which was the last production by Wieland Wagner. These appearances resulted in critically acclaimed recordings of the Ring and Tristan. In 1965 Böhm conducted Fidelio in Tokyo. In 1971 he gave performances in Moscow and led Wagner's Flying Dutchman in Bayreuth.
Indian Summer in London
Late in life, he began a guest-conducting relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in a 1973 appearance at the Salzburg Festival. Several recordings were made with the orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon. Böhm was given the title of LSO President, which he held until his death. During the 1970s, the conductor led performances at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
Death, family, legacy
Böhm died in Salzburg, fourteen days before his 87th birthday. Perhaps Böhm's greatest contribution to music lay in bringing to life the operas of his close colleague Richard Strauss. He conducted the premieres of Strauss's late works Die schweigsame Frau (1935) and Daphne (1938), of which he is the dedicatee, recorded all of the major operas (but often made cuts to the scores), and regularly revived Strauss's operas with strong casts during his tenures in Vienna and Dresden, as well as at the Salzburg Festival.
Böhm was praised for his rhythmically robust interpretations of the operas and symphonies of Mozart, and in the 1960s he was entrusted with recording all the Mozart symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic. His brisk, straightforward way with Wagner won adherents, as did his readings of the symphonies of Brahms, Bruckner and Schubert. His 1971 complete recording of the Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic was also highly regarded. On a less common front, he championed and recorded Alban Berg's avant-garde operas Wozzeck and Lulu before they gained a foothold in the standard repertory. Böhm mentioned in the notes to his recordings of these works that he and Berg discussed the orchestrations, leading to changes in the score (as he had similarly done, previously, with Richard Strauss).
He received numerous honors, among them first Austrian Generalmusikdirektor in 1964. He was widely feted on his 80th birthday ten years later; his colleague Herbert von Karajan presented him with a clock to mark that occasion.
His son was actor Karlheinz Böhm who is remembered for his roles as the young Emperor Franz Joseph in the three Sissi movies, as the psychopath in Peeping Tom (1960), and for playing Jacob Grimm opposite Laurence Harvey's Wilhelm Grimm in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962).
On 28 December 2015 the Salzburg Festival announced that it will affix a plaque on its Karl Böhm refreshment lobby (Karl-Böhm-Saal) acknowledging the conductor's complicity with Nazi Germany, which will say that "Böhm was a beneficiary of the Third Reich and used its system to advance his career. His ascent was facilitated by the expulsion of Jewish and politically out-of-favor colleagues" ["Böhm war ein Profiteur des Dritten Reichs und arrangierte sich für die Karriere mit dem System. Sein Aufstieg wurde durch die Vertreibung jüdischer und politisch missliebiger Kollegen begünstigt"]. Austrian Radio (ORF) quoted Festival president Helga Rabl-Stadler as calling Böhm as "a great artist but fatally flawed politically" ["Ein großer Künstler, aber politisch fatal Irrender"].
According to historian Michael H. Kater, Böhm belongs in that group of artists of whom "we also find conflicting elements of resistance, accommodation, and service to the regime, so that in the end they cannot be definitively painted as either Nazis or non-Nazis." While Böhm appears never to have joined the Nazi party, he praised it publicly as early as 1930, and cooperated with it in many ways as a professional. According to music journalist Norman Lebrecht, in November 1923 Böhm stopped a rehearsal in the Munich opera house in order to watch Adolf Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch. In 1930, he is said to have become angry when his wife was accused by Nazi brownshirts of being Jewish during the premiere of Arnold Schoenberg's opera Von heute auf morgen and to have stated that he would "tell Hitler about this".
Kater, in his 1997 Oxford University Press book The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich, says that while Böhm was music director in Dresden (1934–43), he "poured forth rhetoric glorifying the Nazi regime and its cultural aims". Kater also documents how Böhm told Nazi authorities in 1935 that he could be "of propagandist service to Nazis interests by giving concerts" in Vienna, where he had "many followers... especially in the National Socialist camp," and how later that year Böhm praised "the deep artistic comprehension of the Führer"; he also "repeatedly" conducted music from Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at opening ceremonies for the Nazi Party's annual Nuremberg Rally.
Kater also says that Böhm's two "main career moves" in the Nazi era "tended to taint his post-1945 reputation." Kater argues that the 1934 move to the Dresden Opera to replace Fritz Busch after the latter's "politically motivated" dismissal by Nazi authorities showed Böhm's "extreme careerist opportunism at the expense of personal morality" and was facilitated directly by Hitler, who obtained for Böhm an early release from his previous contract; Kater also says Böhm's 1943 move to Vienna was something "Hitler wanted" by July 1942 – which is contrary to Böhm's claim that Hitler consistently opposed the move; Kater adds that shortly after Böhm's January 1943 installation in Vienna, Hitler awarded him the Martial Order of Merit.
Lebrecht notes that after the 1938 Austrian referendum controlled by the Nazis to justify Germany's annexation of Austria, or Anschluss, the conductor told its orchestra that "anyone who does not approve this act of our Führer with a hundred-per-cent YES does not deserve to bear the honourable name of a German!" In 1939, Böhm contributed to the Newspapers of the Comradeship of German Artists special congratulatory edition on the occasion of Hitler's 50th birthday, writing, "The path of today's music in the sphere of symphonic works... has been marked and paved by the ideology [Weltanschauung] of National Socialism..." Lebrecht also states that in the wake of the Anschluss, Böhm gave the Hitler salute during a concert with the Vienna Philharmonic, ironically violating Nazi rules about places where the greeting was appropriate.
Still, Kater notes "shades of gray," citing Böhm's "aesthetically faultless and sometimes politically daring" choice of repertory, and his collaborations with some anti-Nazi directors and designers, which "could have been interpreted by enemies of the Nazi regime as a brave attempt to preserve the principle of artistic freedom". He also mentions Böhm's claim that he sent his son Karlheinz to Switzerland in (to quote Kater) "anticipation of his own eventual flight from the Third Reich."
Honours and awards
- 30 January 1943: War Merit Cross, 2nd class without swords (Kriegsverdienstkreuz II. Klasse ohne Schwerter)
- 1959: Grand Decoration of Honour in Silver for Services to the Republic of Austria
- 1960: Grand Merit Cross of the Federal Republic of Germany (Großes Verdienstkreuz)
- 1964: Honorary Ring of Vienna
- 1967: Berlin Art Prize
- 1970: Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art
- 1976: Commander of the Legion of Honour
- Honorary Ring of Styria
- 2012: Gramophone Magazine Hall of Fame