Hermann Levi (1839-1900)

Hermann Levi  Reproduction based on a photography
Hermann Levi Reproduction based on a photography

Hermann Levi studied in Mannheim and between 1855 and 1858 in Leipzig. After various trips that took him, inter alia, to Paris, he accepted an appointment as Director of Music in Saarbrücken, before moving on to Mannheim in 1861. Between 1862 and 1864, he was Principal Conductor of the German Opera in Rotterdam and was subsequently commissioned by the Grand Ducal Court Theatre in Karlsruhe. In 1872, he was appointed General Director of Music and Court Conductor in Munich. Due to health reasons, he withdrew in 1896. He is considered one of the most important conductors of the 19th century.

He conducted the premiere of Parsifal in Bayreuth in 1882, although he had refused to convert to Christianity, as demanded by Wagner. At the express wish of King Ludwig II, he retained the direction of the premiere. After Wagner’s death in 1883, he remained Cosima Wagner’s right-hand man. However, he also had the merit of promoting Mozart, Brahms, and Schumann. For instance, he integrated Mozart’s operas into the German opera repertoire and translated himself the libretto of Le nozze di Figaro by Lorenzo da Ponte.

Clara Schumann met him in the summer of 1863 in Baden-Baden and appreciated him a lot. She performed several times under his direction in Karlsruhe and Munich, including Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Levi admired her as motherly friend. In the years when Clara Schumann spent the summers at her small house in Lichtenthal near Baden-Baden, she often went with her children to the Theatre in Karlsruhe, and Levi also went to see Clara Schumann, often accompanied by Brahms and the photographer Julius Allgeyer. The conductor took touchingly care of Ludwig Schumann, secured him an apprenticeship with the Braun bookshop in Karlsruhe in October 1865, and was even ready to accommodate him at his house.

In 1868, he rehearsed Schumann’s Genoveva in Karlsruhe, and Clara, who had expressly come to see the performance, considered it “extraordinarily beautiful”. In Munich, he performed Manfred with great success in 1873, with Ernst von Possart in the title role. Eugenie Schumann described him as very lively and spirited and as a very good conductor, who was able to inspire his musicians.

Over the years, an artistic friendship, based on great mutual appreciation, had developed, but Levi’s increasing enthusiasm for Richard Wagner later led to a gradual alienation from Clara Schumann; still, their contact continued and Clara even offered her condolences on Wagner’s death. Although Levi had already mentioned the gap between the two of them in a letter of 1886 but would still greet Clara with love and affection in remembrance of former times, after a surprise visit in 1890, Clara noticed, for her part, that she had no more amicable feelings for him, especially as Levi had not enquired about Brahms nor had he known the latter’s recent works. Still, she continued the friendship until her death.

(J.M.N., translated by Th. H.)

Cf. on Hermann Levi, in particular: Frithjof Haas: Zwischen Brahms und Wagner, Zurich, 1995

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