Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt dies aged 86

Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the New Year's concert of the Vienna Philharmonics in Austria on Jan 1, 2003.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the New Year's concert of the Vienna Philharmonics in Austria on Jan 1, 2003.PHOTO: REUTERS

VIENNA (AFP) - Celebrated Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, considered to be the "pope" of the Baroque music revival, died on Saturday (March 5) aged 86, his family announced via the APA news agency.

"Nikolaus Harnoncourt took his last breath peacefully surrounded by family," said the short announcement carried by the Austrian news agency.

In December, Harnoncourt had announced his retirement, citing health reasons, in a farewell letter to the audience of the Musikverein, home to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

"My physical capacities mean that I have to cancel all my upcoming projects," he wrote in an open letter to disappointed fans with tickets to a concert by the baroque ensemble he founded, the Concentus Musicus Wien, the weekend of his 86th birthday at the start of December.

Count Nikolaus de la Fontaine und d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt was born in Berlin on Dec 6, 1929 to a granddaughter of a Habsburg Archduke and an Austrian count.

Growing up in Graz, southern Austria, he was already a contrarian thinker.

"Even when I was small, I always took the opposite point of view. I'm not someone who agrees," he said, suggesting that his rebellious intellect stemmed from being called up just two weeks before World War II ended.

Harnoncourt showed early on a keen interest in the arts and studied the cello at Vienna's Academy of Music, joining the Vienna Symphony Orchestra as cellist in 1952.

His intensive research into historical instruments and period performance practice led him to set up his own ensemble, Concentus Musicus, in 1953 and it began giving concerts in 1957.

Organised by the musicians themselves, with help from their wives and partners, they specialised in renaissance, baroque and early classical music by the likes of Bach, Beethoven or Haydn.

In 1969, Harnoncourt quit the Vienna Symphony and the decision - and the ensuing financial and professional insecurity that entailed (he and his wife had had four children by then) - was one of the best he ever took, he says.

In musically conservative Vienna, his insistent questioning raised hackles as it ran contrary to the norms of the established classical music scene.

But over the years, Harnoncourt's ideas have gained wider currency, and now even the world's greatest modern-instrument orchestras like the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics use key elements of period practice, such as articulation, tempi, phrasing and the absence of vibrato.