Hermann Abendroth received his basic education at his birthplace, Frankfurt am Main, and went on to study music at Munich. Here he learnt composition with Thuille, piano with Wirzel-Langenham, and conducting with Mottl, who at this time was one of Europe’s leading conductors of Wagner. Initially Abendroth turned to bookselling as a career, but soon abandoned this in favour of conducting. His first appointment was as conductor of the Munich Orchestral Society, during 1903 and 1904. From 1905 to 1911 he directed the Music Lovers’ Society in Lübeck, and from 1907 the Lübeck City Theatre. This was followed by the post of music director at Essen, where he worked from 1911 to 1914.
Abendroth’s first major musical position came in 1914 when he was appointed as director of Cologne’s Gürzenich Concerts in succession to Fritz Steinbach. Steinbach was steeped in the North German tradition of music-making, having succeeded von Bülow at Meiningen, and later Franz Wüllner at Cologne. Cologne was to be the centre of Abendroth’s activities until 1934. He became general music director of the city in 1918, and director of the Lower Rhine Music Festival in 1922, as well as director of the Cologne Conservatory. From this base he guest-conducted extensively throughout Europe, including the symphony concerts of the Berlin Opera during the 1922–1923 season. He made his first recordings, of Brahms’s Symphonies Nos 1 and 4, in London for HMV with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1928 and 1927 respectively. In 1933, having taken on responsibility for the Cologne Chamber Orchestra, he recorded with it a series of works by Handel, Mozart and Vivaldi. Although now recognised as one of the foremost conductors in Germany, he nevertheless gradually lost favour with the dominant National Socialist Party and in 1934 was dismissed from his posts by the mayor of Cologne, who cited his conducting in Moscow and his friendships with members of Cologne’s Jewish community as reasons for this action.
The same forces had simultaneously driven Bruno Walter out of Leipzig and ironically Abendroth was asked to take over the conductorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra from him, as well as to become director of the Leipzig Conservatory. He took control in 1934 of the orchestra that he had first conducted in 1922, and some of the musicians preferred him even to Furtwängler. He managed to steer clear of political complications until 1937, when the mayor of Leipzig forced him to join the National Socialist Party in order to maintain his musical positions. Abendroth was later to assert that he never changed his opposition to the philosophy of the Party, and never attended a Party meeting.
During World War II Abendroth conducted memorable performances of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival in 1943 and 1944. As the Allied bombing of Germany gathered pace, Abendroth and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra gave some extraordinarily intense performances, several of which were captured for posterity on early tape recordings made by the Reichs Rundfunk Gesellschaft. The Gewandhaus itself was destroyed in February 1944, but concerts continued in the basement of the Capitol Theatre. During this time Abendroth also conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he had first appeared in 1909. His final radio recording with the Gewandhaus Orchestra was made at the end of March 1945, just a month before the final collapse of the Third Reich.
The Red Army proceeded to occupy Leipzig and Abendroth gave his first post-war concert there in July 1945, to be followed by many more, often featuring the works of composers such as Mendelssohn, Mahler and Hindemith who had been banned under the former regime. His final concert with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra during this period took place at the end of November 1945, after which, as a former National Socialist Party member, he was banned from conducting by the occupying forces. Nonetheless he continued to be active. In August 1945 he had conducted for the first time in Weimar, a small town in comparison to Leipzig. Following his dismissal from the Gewandhaus Orchestra he directed the opera at the Weimar Theatre, concerts with the opera orchestra as the Weimar Staatskapelle, and directed the Weimar High School for Music. The East German authorities were aware of Abendroth’s stature as a conductor, and in 1949 he was invited to conduct the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. The public reception was enthusiastic and he was offered the conductorship of the orchestra, which he accepted. This appointment was fortuitous in that Leipzig radio was in a position to record and so to preserve much of Abendroth’s work with the orchestra. Several of these recordings were licensed for commercial release in the USA on the Urania label.
In his final years Abendroth was built up into one of the leading conductors of the Communist bloc in Europe. He was awarded the East German National Prize in 1949, and appeared in Moscow, Budapest, Warsaw and Prague, as well as in the West at Munich and Winterthur. In 1953 he was appointed conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, although maintaining Weimar as the centre of his work until the end of his life. This came in Jena in May 1956, after an operation. He was given a state funeral in Weimar.
Hermann Abendroth was a conductor and musician of great character and temperament. His early 78rpm recordings of the Brahms symphonies gave little indication of the fiery interpretations that were to develop during World War II and afterwards. Like Furtwängler, Abendroth seems to have been driven to an acute frenzy by the military conflict, as may be heard in performances from this period. Much of this character was maintained afterwards, even if the frenzy diminished slightly. Although his conducting could be heavy-handed to the point of brutality, it nevertheless possessed a forward drive and melodic freedom that in the appropriate repertoire, such as the works of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and Richard Strauss, could be extraordinarily thrilling. All of his recordings of music by these composers are of interest and have been extensively reissued. Other performances of note include Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, Humperdinck’s rarely heard Moorish Rhapsody, and a powerful Symphony No. 2 of Sibelius.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).
Hermann Abendroth with Cologne Chamber Orchestra