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Hans Knappertsbusch
In Memoriam

An appreciation by HANS HOTTER*

from: Opera, January 1966, p. 21-23

On 13 August 1964 Hans Knappertsbusch conducted for the last time: it was Parsifal in the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth. In the interval he asked me to see him and confided to me that it was planned to make a film about him and his work. He asked whether I would like to speak the commentary and I agreed with enthusiasm. He then concluded in his rough way, belied by the twinkling eyes: 'Now get off to your dressing room, let's have a beautiful Good Friday spell! See you again for the Holländer in Munich. No production jokes, please! It's Wagner's opera: let's present him and not ourselves!' I did not then realize that these would be the last words he would ever speak to me. The planned co-operation, to which I had looked forward with such happy anticipation, never materialized. Even in the autumn of 1964 illness prevented him from conducting 'Der fliegende Holländer'- my first commission as a producer in the Munich Opera House. Now, approximately a year later, on November 7, with a Parsifal at the Vienna State Opera in his memory, we have said good-bye in our own way to a truly great conductor. Throughout the performance I had the feeling that he was with us in spirit, and all the evening long the thought of him would not leave me.

Knappertsbusch was one of those strong personalities which had a direct and indirect influence on my artistic career from the time of my youth. We have all learnt how lasting and decisive can be the impressions gained from musical experiences in our early years. As a student in Munich I had the good fortune to hear my first operas in that era of the 1920s which, under the musical direction of the young Knappertsbusch, became part of the brilliant history of the Munich Opera. Even then, from an admiring distance, never dreaming how my career would develop, I felt something of the breaths of Olympian air which surrounded this extraordinary man.

I have never really lost this feeling of respectful admiration throughout the later years of close co-operation. Perhaps this was due to a certain reserve which presents intimate friendship between two persons but which usually proves to be the ideal prerequisite for a fruitful and harmonious working basis. I respected his authority, even when I did not agree with him - or, shall we say, when my inexperience led me to disagree with him. When he remarked briefly, after the 19-year-old youth had attended an audition at the Munich Opera, arranged by well-meaning friends: 'The lad should just get on with his studies', the student swallowed his disappointment that a personal meeting had not resulted; but later the Wotan or Dutchman on the stage felt pleasure in seeing one of those typically elegant gestures from the rostrum which meant that 'our Kna' was well satisfied. This rigorous man, who poured the relentless wrath of the gods over my head when my voice failed at the end of a performance through hay fever and bronchitis, was big enough to come on to the stage after a successful performance a few months later and to say to me in the presence of the rest of the cast: 'You were excellent. I behave stupidly a short time ago'.

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The purpose of these few lines is not to enumerate or describe the artistic and human qualities of this great conductor. But perhaps a few remarks and some events, either from personal experience or as related by reliable witnesses, will help to make a clearer and more complete picture of this man for the future. Those who knew him, and have heard one or other of the many anecdotes, will perhaps still find pleasure in remembering what they have heard and perhaps experienced themselves.

There is repeated evidence of how strong were the authoritative, some times magical rays which radiated from this aristocratic master of the art of conducting, and how nobody could escape being aware of them. In private life, too, one felt them. There were two things which I always noticed about him. There was his blunt directness, often tending to caprice, brooking no opposition and occasionally having the power to hurt, yet linked with a genuine sense of just objectivity to everybody, including himself. Parallel with this there was a gentleness which one would never have suspected behind the rough exterior of his brusque manner. Most of the stories which were already classics during his life-time illustrate this point. They will live on, spiced with the dry humour of his Westphalian homeland, often near the bounds of politeness and sometimes going beyond them.

Famous names meant nothing to him; the only thing that counted was ability. On the other hand, he always had understanding for the needs and circumstances of the 'small fry', who never appear in the front row of an opera company. There is, for example, the revealing story of the prompter and the stage band which lost its place. During the interval Knappertsbusch made one of his rare appearances on the stage and in a rough and angry voice asked which idiot had given the stage band the wrong cue. He was given the name of the culprit, a reliable, quietly modest but easily offended prompter. Knappertsbusch said quietly: 'Well, better say nothing to him, he might take offence!' He turned to go but suddenly spun round and in a somewhat louder voice added: 'But at the next performance, when we get to that spot, lock the fellow in the ...'

He could be trenchant about the musical interpretations of some of his fellow-conductors. Once the conductor of a certain performance of Tristan und Isolde heard that Knappertsbusch had been in the auditorium for a short while. Flattered by the presence of the distinguished visitor, he asked next day: 'Well, Professor, how did you like my Tristan?' Knappertsbusch's reply was: 'I never knew you had composed one too!' Then there was the spitefully ironic conversation with another famous conductor: 'Oh, you mean X? Yes, my dear colleague, he is excellent, better than I, in fact almost as good as you !' Once something happened to me in a performance whilst he was conducting, something which happens occasionally to any singer - even though I had sung the part more than a hundred times, in a momentary lack of concentration memory failed, the words were forgotten and an important sentence was just not sung. On this occasion a few strong words of displeasure penetrated audibly through the music from the conductor's stand. That was all. No reproaches after the performance, no reaction during the next few days.

Weeks later I appeared in the same part with 'Kna' again on the rostrum. We came to the same passage and I waited with every effort of concentration, really on my toes, for the entry. Suddenly I noticed that he had risen from his stool to his full height, turned his baton upside down and was shaking the thick end of it at me with a threatening and meaningful gesture. It would not have needed much more to make me forget my part again ! The same scene was re-enacted in a series of performances of this opera throughout the following years. A string of such stories could be told about him. The great magician of the rostrum is no longer with us. In the minds of those who were able to work with him, however, the memory lives on: sitting there, upright and carefully considering, giving his unique, precise sign, small, hardly noticeable, suddenly demanding and dominating, forceful, growling, shouting and then again radiantly happy, never forgetting the brief little gesture of thanks to the company - an exceptional man in an age which has become so poor in real individualism.

Munich paid tribute to Hans Knappertsbusch in a short, but impressive, ceremony in the National Theatre on October 31. Although it was a fine Sunday morning, the theatre was packed with representatives of every section of public life, to say nothing of music-lovers and admirers of 'Kna', as he was known here. In a speech, Rudolf Hartmann (administrator of the Bavarian State opera) characterized Knappertsbusch as 'one of the few for whom constructive devotion to the work of art meant more than the obtrusion of his own personality'. Meinhard von Zallinger conducted the andante from Brahms's Third symphony, Robert Heger conducted the chorus in the Titurel music from Parsifal, and Joseph Keilberth concluded with the funeral music from Götterdämmerung.