Karl Richter (conductor)

Karl Richter
Born (1926-10-15)15 October 1926
Plauen, Germany
Died 15 February 1981(1981-02-15) (aged 54)
Munich, Germany
  • Orchestral and choral conductor
  • Organist and harpsichordist

Karl Richter (15 October 1926 15 February 1981) was a German conductor, choirmaster, organist and harpsichordist.


Karl Richter was born in Plauen and studied first in Dresden, where he was a member of the Dresdner Kreuzchor and later in Leipzig, where he received his degree in 1949. He studied with Günther Ramin, Karl Straube and Rudolf Mauersberger. In the same year, he became organist at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach was the musical director for 27 years. While organist at the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, he was witness to the inauguration of Bach's new grave and prepared a special performance of Bach's "St. Anne" Prelude and Fugue in E-flat for the reception.[1]

In 1951 Richter moved to Munich, where he taught at the conservatory, and was cantor and organist at St. Mark's Church. He also conducted the Münchener Bach-Chor starting in 1954 and the Münchener Bach-Orchester. In the 1960s and 1970s he recorded often and toured Japan, the United States, Canada, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Richter played and conducted a wide range of music (sacred works from Heinrich Schütz to Max Reger, as well as the symphonic and concerto repertoire of the Classical and Romantic periods – even including Bruckner symphonies), but is best remembered for his interpretations of Johann Sebastian Bach and Handel. Richter's performances were known for their soul-searching, intense and festive manner. He avoided the fluctuations in tempo that were previously characteristic of the prevailing Romantic manner of conducting Bach, and devoted much attention to the woodwinds and to balance. His recordings from 1958–70 are notable for "discipline, rhythmic tautness and expressive intensity.".[2]

Richter viewed Baroque music as fundamentally impromptu and subjective in nature, explaining in an interview that he had been told his performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion sounded different from the one he had performed last year. He viewed this observation in a positive light, stating, "It's bad if you play a work with disdainful routine because you have to, and if you no longer have any thoughts or ideas about it." This was one of Richter's strengths, because each concert he conducted was a unique, irreplaceable event, and even though two performances could sound slightly different, both seemed just right in the moment he was playing them. Musicians who played with him acknowledged this and analogized that performing Baroque music with Richter was like playing ping-pong because the back and forth is what directed the piece.[3]

As well as a conductor, Richter is also remembered as a virtuoso harpsichordist and organist. His performances of Bach's organ works are known for their imposing registrations and favorable pace. For many years Richter practiced on the local church's organ every day.

In 1971 Richter suffered a heart attack, almost ten years before his death. In the mid-1970s, he suffered increasing problems with his vision. He had a fantastic memory, and began to memorize as many works as he could before he lost his sight. Eventually he had eye surgery, of which he was initially skeptical but which was effective. [3]

When asked about the energy-draining self-imposed burden of work he set himself, he would reply “My time is now,” or even “We Richters don’t grow old." [1]

In the 1970s, according to Nicholas Anderson, "with the growing interest in historically aware performance ... Richter's values were questioned"; in 1981, "a victim of passing fashion and changing taste, he died an embittered man.[4]" In a hotel in Munich in 1981 he suffered a fatal heart attack, and was buried in the Enzenbühl cemetery in Zurich eight days later.


  1. 1 2 Wörner, Roland (2006). "Karl Richter 1926 – 1981 / His Life and Work" (PDF). Conventus Musicus. Conventus Musicus. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  2. Nicholas Anderson, "Karl Richter," in Oxford Composer Companions: J.S. Bach, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 420
  3. 1 2 Lindemann, Klaus. "The Legacy of Karl Richter", Deutsche Grammophon. April 11, 2006.
  4. Nicholas Anderson, "Karl Richter," in Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 420


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