Karl Richter (conductor)

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

Karl Richter
Born(1926-10-15)15 October 1926
Died15 February 1981(1981-02-15) (aged 54)
  • Orchestral and choral conductor
  • Organist, pianist and harpsichordist
Gladys Müller
(m. 1952)
  • Tobias Richter (b. 1953)
  • Simone Richter (b. 1961)

Early life and educationEdit

Karl Richter was born in Plauen to Christian Johannes Richter, a Protestant pastor, and Clara Hedwig Richter. He 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.[1]


In 1949, the year of his graduation, Richter became organist at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach was the music director for 27 years. During his tenure there, 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 1952, after marrying Gladys Müller, who bore him two children, Tobias and Simone, he moved to Munich, where he taught at the conservatory there and was cantor and organist at St. Mark's Church.

In 1954, Richter founded the Münchener Bach-Chor (Munich Bach Choir), and soon after, the Münchener Bach-Orchester (Munich Bach Orchestra), which rapidly became established as a prominent international ensemble and noted for its interpretations of the works of J. S. Bach and other composers. In the 1960s and 1970s he recorded often and toured Japan, the United States, Canada, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Richter served as conductor of both ensembles from 1954 until 1981.[2] In 1977, a recording of the First Movement from Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F by the Munich Bach Orchestra under Richter was selected by NASA to be included on the Voyager Golden Record, a gold-plated copper record that was sent into space on the Voyager space craft. The record contained sounds and images which had been selected as examples of the diversity of life and culture on Earth.[3][4][5]

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 interpreting Bach, and devoted much attention to the woodwinds and to balance in general. His recordings from 1958 to 1970 are notable for "discipline, rhythmic tautness and expressive intensity".[6]

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.[7]

As well as a conductor, Richter is also renowned as a virtuoso harpsichordist and organist. His performances of Bach's organ works are known for their imposing registrations and favorable pace.[citation needed]

Later years and deathEdit

In 1971, Richter suffered a heart attack and thereafter suffered increasing problems with his vision. Consequently, he began to memorize as many works as he could before he might lose his sight. Eventually he had eye surgery, of which he was initially skeptical but which was effective.[7]

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

In the 1970s, as the period-instrument revival was burgeoning, according to Nicholas Anderson, "with the growing interest in historically aware performance ... Richter's values were questioned"[citation needed]. In a hotel in Munich in 1981 he suffered a fatal heart attack, and was buried in the Enzenbühl cemetery in Zürich eight days later.


  1. ^ a b c Wörner, Roland (2006). "Karl Richter 1926–1981 / His Life and Work" (PDF). Conventus Musicus. Conventus Musicus. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  2. ^ "Munchener Bach-Orchster (Orchestra) – Short History". www.bach-cantatas.com.
  3. ^ "Voyager – Music on the Golden Record". voyager.jpl.nasa.gov. Retrieved 4 May 2021.
  4. ^ "Late Junction: The songs they sent to space". www.bbc.co.uk. BBC Radio 3. Retrieved 4 May 2021.
  5. ^ Sagan, Carl. Murmurs of Earth. Random House Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-307-80202-6.
  6. ^ Nicholas Anderson, "Karl Richter," in Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 420
  7. ^ a b Lindemann, Klaus. "The Legacy of Karl Richter", Deutsche Grammophon, 11 April 2006.


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