Thomas Schippers’s family was of Dutch and German origin. He began to study the piano at the age of four, made his first appearance in public aged six, and was soon playing on local radio. During 1944 and 1945 he studied the organ at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and between 1946 and 1947 piano with Olga Samaroff; in addition he studied with Hindemith at Yale, and at the Juilliard School in New York. He was a finalist in a conductors’ competition held in Philadelphia during 1948, the year in which he took up a post as a church organist in New York and made his début as a conductor with the Lemonade Opera in Greenwich Village. Schippers was involved in the musical preparation of Menotti’s opera The Consul in 1950 (conducting it after its first performance) as well as later of two other Menotti operas, The Medium and Amahl and the Night Visitors; he went on to conduct the soundtrack of the former for an Italian film (1950) and the commercial recording of the latter (1952) with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Having joined the music staff of the New York City Opera in 1951, becoming at the age of twenty-one the youngest conductor ever to have appeared with the company, Schippers conducted the first performance of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land there in 1954, the year in which he toured Europe. He made his débuts with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and at La Scala, Milan, in 1955 as well as at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, and went on to conduct more opening nights for this company than any other conductor for forty years.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s Schippers had a highly distinguished career in both America and Europe, but was slightly overshadowed in the public eye by Leonard Bernstein. He co-founded the Spoleto Festival with Menotti, serving as an artistic director of the Festival from 1958 to 1975; conducted frequently in Italy (where he was greatly admired for the vigour as well as sensitivity of his interpretations), especially at La Scala, Milan, and for Italian radio: many of these performances have been subsequently released on disc. He toured the USSR with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1959 and 1976, conducted a new production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival in 1963, and in 1966 led the Metropolitan Opera’s tour to Europe. He also conducted its opening night production at Lincoln Center of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. During 1970 and 1971 Schippers served as chief conductor of the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. His most significant appointment came in 1970 when he became chief conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in succession to Max Rudolf, a colleague from the Met.
Having already lost his young wife to cancer in 1973, Schippers himself succumbed to lung cancer just four years later, leaving his estate to the Cincinnati Orchestra. Earl Rivers of the Cincinnati Conservatory (of which Schippers was a faculty member from 1972 to 1977) has given a vivid description of him: ‘He had a combination of fine technique, musicianship and understanding of style…and a demeanour and elegance that reminded you of JFK.’ An imposing figure on the podium, Schippers was an excellent conductor of opera, as his numerous studio and live recordings testify. He possessed a sure instinct for the dramatic moment, as well as being a fine all-round musician.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).