Kurt Sanderling 1912-2011

German conductor who enjoyed great acclaim on both sides of the iron curtain

Published: September 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm

‘I am a little embarrassed by all these questions into my life story. Let’s talk about music instead, a much more interesting and pleasant subject.’ So said conductor Kurt Sanderling in an interview with The Independent in 1999.


Despite his protestations, Sanderling’s life story was extraordinary. Born in Arys, East Prussia, he moved to Berlin at the age of 14 where he was able to listen to conductors such as Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Erich Kleiber.

It was in Berlin that he took up the post of répétiteur at the Berlin Staatsoper in 1931 but was dismissed two years later, after the Nazis took power in Germany, because his parents were Jewish.

As it became increasingly difficult for Sanderling to maintain his livelihood in Germany, he sought a career in the East. One of the questions he was frequently asked later in life was why he went East at a time when most musicians were heading to the West. His answer was simple: ‘Nobody in the West asked me to come’.

Sanderling was, however, offered a post by Artur Rodzinski, conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, US, but he wasn’t able to get a visa. Instead, he headed to the USSR.

In Russia, he worked as assistant to Georges Sebastian at the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra but he made his name at the Leningrad Philharmonic, where he worked with the ensemble’s music director Yevgeny Mravinsky between 1941-1960.

It was during a rehearsal of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony with the Leningrad that Sanderling met the great composer. When Sanderling was forced to take a ‘sabbatical’ by the Soviets in the 1950s Shostakovich intervened to ensure that he didn’t lose his job altogether.

In 1960 he was offered the position of principal conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, with whom he worked until 1977. During this period he also worked as chief conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle and in the 1970s he gained recognition in the UK, conducting various British Orchestras, including the Philharmonia, for whom he became conductor emeritus. It was with this ensemble that he recorded a well-recevied Beethoven Symphony Cycle for EMI.

He continued to make guest appearances for ensembles worldwide until his retirement, aged almost 90, in 2002.


Nathan Comer

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