and internationally. Born in 1899 to a highly musical and noble family on the island of Susak off the Croatian coast (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), he grew up in Vienna, where he was a member of the celebrated boys’ choir then attached to the Imperial Chapel. His musical studies, too, were largely Viennese, though equally largely informal.
Even at the age of 16, halfway through World War I, his career seemed on the point of beginning (again informally) at Oper Köln; but he decided to join the Austrian infantry, only to become seriously ill and promptly invalided out. Back in Vienna by the close of the war, he became a member of an (informal) group of left-wing intellectuals and was briefly imprisoned before being returned to Zagreb.
His obvious musical gifts saw him secure conducting engagements in provincial but increasingly prestigious theatres, reaching Ljubljana in 1922: Janáček’s Jenůfa became and remained something of a speciality. Slowly and steadily, he built up an enormous repertoire of operatic and symphonic works, running from Monteverdi and Handel through Wagner (another speciality) to Puccini and Strauss, while also taking in numerous recent or contemporary works. Committed to the musical life of his native land (though both before and after the war his career was international), he championed
music by his fellow countrymen and even found time within an extraordinary schedule to write music himself.
It was his behaviour during World War II that damaged his reputation. Already a regular guest in Germany, and a friend and colleague of Furtwängler and later of Karajan, he continued to conduct in Germany and Austria during the war and supported the Independent State of Croatia puppet regime during the Nazi occupation of his homeland. Following the war and the arrival of the Communist state, he seems to have been twice sentenced to death, but had those sentences revoked; instead, he received a sentence of five years’ imprisonment with forced labour—though within a year he had received a pardon.
Eventually he resumed his career, at first in provincial Yugoslav centres, then later on in prominent national and subsequently international contexts. Beginning in the 1950s he made a number of admired recordings with Walter Legge for EMI; his studio recordings include La fanciulla del West (with Birgit Nilsson), Die lustige Witwe and highlights from Arabella (both with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf), Pagliacci (with Franco Corelli, Tito Gobbi and La Scala forces) and Der Freischütz. He also enjoyed long-term relationships with distinguished orchestras and opera companies (as Generalmusikdirektor in Frankfurt from 1961 to 1966, for instance). He died in 1985.
Published by the foundation established by his widow, whose main activity is to discover and support young conductors, his story is told here with honesty and in considerable detail. Occasionally the narrative tends too far towards lists of engagements and repertoire for its own good; but there’s a huge amount of material on the subject, decently translated (English text alongside the standard Croatian original) and generously illustrated. george hall
Opera, May 2021