Arthur Nikisch’s father came from Moravia, and his mother from Hungary. At an early age he showed remarkable musical talent, and was initially taught privately: aged only seven, having heard Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and Il barbiere di Siviglia overtures for the first time, he was able to write them out from memory. When he was eleven years old he entered the Vienna Conservatory, where he studied violin with Hellmesberger and composition with Dessoff. He won prizes for his violin and piano playing, as well as for composition, and later commented that all conductors should learn the violin, both for its own sake and to acquire wrist control. He joined the Vienna Court Orchestra in 1874 and played under composers such as Brahms, Bruckner, Liszt, Verdi and Wagner, as well as major contemporary conductors including Herbeck and Dessoff. Nikisch was also a member of the orchestra which performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’ under Wagner’s direction at the laying of the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festpielhaus.
Nikisch’s conducting career began in 1878, when he became second conductor at the Leipzig Opera. He was to maintain a presence in this city for the rest of his life. He made his debut with an operetta entitled Jeanne, Jeannette, Jeanetton; within a year, still aged only twenty-three, he became chief conductor at the opera and was leading major works such as Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Die Walküre. Tchaikovsky wrote thus about Nikisch after a visit to Leipzig: ‘…one only gains a true idea of the perfection to which an orchestra can attain under a talented conductor when one hears the difficult and complicated scores of Wagner played under the direction of so wonderful a master as Herr Nikisch.’ The Russian composer noted that Nikisch obtained his results with a minimum of motion, no superfluous movement, and a small beat. He described Nikisch as ‘...small in stature, a very pale young man with splendid poetical eyes that really must possess mesmeric powers’. The adjectives ‘mesmeric’ and ‘magical’ occurred regularly in contemporary descriptions of his conducting.
As Nikisch’s fame spread he began to conduct outside Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was invited to become chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1889; here what were seen as his interpretative excesses, for instance in his performances of the symphonies of Beethoven, provoked enormous debate. Having toured with the orchestra extensively across the USA, he left Boston in 1893 to become chief conductor of the Budapest Opera, and in 1895 he was approached at the same time by two of the major German orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, with the offer of their chief conductorships. He decided to take on both positions, retaining them to the end of his life, also in 1897 taking over from von Bülow (his predecessor in Berlin) the directorship of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, maintaining this too until his death. In addition to this extraordinary raft of permanent commitments, he appeared after his return from America as a guest conductor with the Vienna Philharmonic and Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestras; and also in London, where he established a close relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra following its formation in 1904, conducting it regularly until the outbreak of World War I, including a tour of the USA in 1912. Nikisch also conducted at Covent Garden, including a complete cycle of Wagner’s Ring in 1913, and between 1905 and 1906 was director of the Leipzig Opera. As if all this was not enough he was also director of the Leipzig Conservatory, where he taught conducting, and towards the end of his life he toured as the piano accompanist to the singer Elena Gerhardt, with whom he also recorded some lieder. He was married to the singer Amélie Heusner; their son Mitja (1899–1936) was a successful concert pianist.
Nikisch had a most engaging personality, and orchestras held him in high regard. In his memoirs Pages from a Musician’s Life, another master conductor Fritz Busch described how Nikisch achieved this rapport, drawing from his own experience of playing under Nikisch in the orchestra for a performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Cologne: ‘Ten minutes after the time fixed for the beginning of the rehearsal… a small, very elegantly dressed gentleman came in. He bowed quietly to the nearest horns and greeted them and the other wind players with such charm that when he stepped up on to the conductor’s rostrum the whole orchestra was already on its feet and had broken out into enthusiastic applause… he then said… that it was the dream of his life to conduct this famous orchestra. He said the same thing, from inborn amiability, wherever he appeared as a guest conductor. Noticing an aged viola player… he cried out “Schulze, what are you doing here? I had no idea you had landed in this beautiful town! Do you remember how we played the Berg Symphony under Liszt in Magdeburg?” Schulze did remember and immediately resolved that with this conductor he would use the whole length of his bow instead of playing with only half, as was his custom with the usual conductors.’
Nikisch always conducted from memory, and had an exceptional baton technique, which although sparing and without any duplication between right and left hands, was always extremely clear and highly nuanced. Sir Adrian Boult, who was greatly influenced by Nikisch, recalled hearing him conduct ‘…the most thrilling performance of the Brahms C minor Symphony I have ever heard’, and noted that ‘…Nikisch’s hand had never been raised higher than the level of his face throughout the whole movement.’ Despite his economical baton technique, Nikisch was a spontaneous and improvisatory performer who was most successful in the interpretation of Romantic music in which his virtuoso (the description of Otto Klemperer) control of rhythm, dynamics and balance could be heard to the best effect. He was able to draw from his orchestras rich string tone, which was allied to a flexible sense of tempo. He rarely repeated performances in exactly the same way, and often in performance pursued a different route to that outlined in rehearsal. Nikisch himself was clear about his varying approach to performance: ‘I don’t sit down and think out in advance how I am going to have every note of the composition played… Music is a dead thing without interpretation. We all feel things differently. A metronome can keep a four-square indication, if they like it that way, but never forget that you should make every performance a great improvisation – even though you direct the same work every day of the year.’ His interpretations of the music of composers such as Schumann, Brahms and Wagner were famous: his conducting of the first performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in Vienna at the end of 1884 effectively established this composer’s international reputation, while his direction of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in St Petersburg in 1888 asserted its greatness after a less than wholly successful first performance.
Nikisch was the first conductor to commit a complete symphony to disc: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which he recorded in 1913 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite the inevitably primitive recorded sound, this performance still sounds remarkably compelling. A year later he recorded for HMV with the London Symphony Orchestra the overtures to Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Beethoven’s Egmont, and Weber’s Der Freischütz and Oberon, as well as Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1: he re-recorded this last work with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1920 together with Berlioz’s overture Carnaval Romain. Nikisch was arguably the father of one of the major styles of conducting prevalent in the twentieth century, the opposite being that pursued by Toscanini. Several of his followers were prolific recording artists: they included his successor with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and the English conductors Albert Coates and Sir Adrian Boult. Through their recordings, and those of many others, the artistry of Nikisch may still be glimpsed, albeit fleetingly.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).