Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Austrian conductor

A key figure in the history of twentieth century music, Nikolaus Harnoncourt was one of the initiators of the Baroque revival in the 1960s. His writings, research and teaching stimulated reflection about historical interpretation, and he left authoritative recordings of not only Bach but also Haydn and Mozart.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt (full name Johann Nikolaus Graf de la Fontaine und d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt) was born on 6 December 1929 in Berlin (Germany) and descends from a noble family.  

After growing up in Graz (Austria), Nikolaus Harnoncourt studied cello and viola da gamba at the Vienna Academy of Music. He was a cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra from 1952 to 1969. He was particularly interested in Baroque music and in 1953 co-founded the Concentus Musicus Wien - an early music ensemble performing with period instruments - with Alice Hoffelner, who became his wife that same year. Concentus Musicus Wien began recording with the Telefunken label, which later became Teldec. Its performances of Purcell, Monteverdi, Rameau and Bach have earned it a reputation as one of the most authoritative ensembles in the field of historical interpretation.  

Johann Sebastian Bach played a central role in Nikolaus Harnoncourt's career. In 1971, Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt undertook the very first project to record the complete Cantatas (the project was completed in 1990, without Cantatas No.51 and 199). It was also this attachment to Bach that brought him and Gustav Leonhardt the opportunity to appear in the 1967 film by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach.

Though Nikolaus Harnoncourt constantly returned to Bach's works throughout his career (notably in his major recordings of the St John Passion and the St Matthew Passion), he also performed the classical and Romantic repertoire. Although he conducted a large number of orchestras, he maintained a particularly close relationship with three of them: the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. These close ties spawned a very rich discography. Nikolaus Harnoncourt also taught and gave masterclasses all over the world, and for over 40 years at the Mozarteum University Salzburg.

On 5 December 2015, on the eve of his 86th birthday, Nikolaus Harnoncourt announced that he was retiring from musical life for health reasons. He died on 5 March 2016 in Sankt Georgen im Attergau, west of Salzburg (Austria).  

► Five landmark dates in the life of Nikolaus Harnoncourt:
 1929: born in Berlin
 1953: founded the Concentus Musicus Wien
 1971: began recording the complete Bach Cantatas
 2015: retired from musical life
 2016: died in Sankt Georgen im Attergau (Austria)  

► Five key recordings by Nikolaus Harnoncourt: 

♪ Joseph Haydn, The Creation
 Vienna Symphony Orchestra
 Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor)  

♪ Johann Sebastian Bach, St John Passion
Angela Maria Blasi, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Robert Holl, Marjana Lipovsek, Anton Scharinger, Franz Leitner
Arnold Schönberg Choir
Concentus Musicus Wien
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor)

♪ Felix Mendelssohn, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The First Walpurgis Night
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor)

♪ Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphonies
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor)

♪ Franz Schubert, Symphonies
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor)