Klemperer was born in Breslau, Silesia, which was then in Germany, but is now called Wrocław in Poland. He was born into a Jewish family. He studied music at the Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main, and then went to Berlin where he studied conducting and composition with
Hans Pfitzner. In 1905 he met Gustav Mahler who was very impressed with him. He recommended him for the job of conductor at the German Opera in Prague. He soon got jobs in other places: Hamburg,
Barmen, Strasbourg, Cologne and Wiesbaden. He was offered a job at the
Berlin Staatsoper, but he did not want it because he thought he would not be able to do things there the way he wanted. However, four years later, in 1927, he took a job with a special branch of the Staatsoper which had been started in order to perform new music in modern (non-traditional) performances. They played in the
Kroll Theatre. Klemperer became very famous for the performances that he conducted there.
The Kroll Theatre had been started by politicians who supported the Weimar Republic. They wanted opera to be different from the traditional operas that were performed in the Theatre Unter den Linden supported by the monarchy.
The operas that Klemperer conducted there included Leoš Janáček's
From the House of the Dead, Arnold Schönberg's
Erwartung, Igor Stravinsky's
Oedipus Rex, and Paul Hindemith's
By 1931 the political situation had changed and the Kroll Opera was shut down. By 1933 the Nazis had gained power and Klemperer left Germany and went to the United States where he took U.S. nationality. He became conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (1933-39) and also conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the
Pittsburg Orchestra. However he was not happy in the United States where the musical culture and music critics were largely out of sympathy with his Weimar modernism and he felt he was not properly valued. He hoped for a permanent position as lead conductor in New York or Philadelphia. But in 1936 he was passed over in both - first in Philadelphia, where
Eugene Ormandy succeeded
Stokowski at the Philadelphia Orchestra, and then in New York, where
Toscanini's departure left a vacancy at the New York Philharmonic but John Barbirolli and
Artur Rodzinski were engaged in preference to Klemperer. The New York decision was particularly galling, as Klemperer had been engaged to conduct the first fourteen weeks of the
New York Philharmonic's 1935-6 season. Klemperer's bitterness at this decision was voiced in a letter he wrote to Arthur Judson, who ran the orchestra: "that the society did not reengage me is the strongest offense, the sharpest insult to me as artist, which I can imagine. You see, I am no youngster. I have a name and a good name. One could not use me in a most difficult season and then expell me. This non-reengagement will have very bad results not only for me in New York but in the whole world.... This non-reengagement is an absolutely unjustified wrong done to me by the Philharmonic Society."
In 1939 he had a series illness and was operated on for a brain tumour. For some time he was not well enough to work. Then from 1947 to 1950 he returned to Europe to conduct the
Budapest Opera. In the early 1950s Klemperer experienced difficulties arising from his U.S. citizenship. American union policies made it difficult for him to record in Europe, while his left wing views made him increasingly unpopular with the State Department and FBI. In 1952 the United States refused to renew his passport.
In 1954 Klemperer again returned to Europe, becoming conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. He took German nationality. By this time Furtwängler was dead and Toscanini had retired, so Klemperer was thought of as the greatest conductor of German music. He was given a recording contract by EMI. His concerts and many recordings with the Philharmonia brought him world-wide recognition. He lived in Switzerland but spent much time in London conducting.
Klemperer became an Israeli citizen in 1970. He retired from conducting in 1971 and died in Zürich in 1973, aged 88.