The conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim has announced his resignation as general music director of the Berlin State Opera due to his declining health.
The 80-year-old has been leading the Staatsoper since 1992 and expressed his gratitude in a statement for the 30 years of collaboration, “which in all respects, both musically and personally, have enabled us to fly”, he said.
Barenboim, who is among the pre-eminent conductors in the world, has served as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris and La Scala in Milan. But his lifelong love affair with German music and his intense interest in the country’s post-cold war reunification led to him committing himself passionately to Berlin.
He is credited with reviving the Staatskapelle, the orchestra of the opera house on the Unter den Linden boulevard in former East Berlin, which had sunk into relative obscurity under communism. He took it to new artistic heights and international prominence after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
He also built a reputation as a staunch defender of culture in Germany, fighting politicians tooth and nail on many occasions – most notably opposing a threat to merge the Staatsoper in the east of Berlin with the Deutsche Oper in the west. Barenboim said the move would “not destroy the building … but the people inside”, as well as the Staatskapelle’s unique sound developed under its former artistic director Richard Strauss.
He described that sound as being “based on a set of values that have gone slightly out of fashion today … of harmony [and] legato, over the values of brilliance … a more spiritual and less athletic way of playing.”
In an interview with the Guardian in 2000, an incandescent Barenboim said politicians who backed the merger were carrying out nothing less than a “western takeover” of the Staatsoper, one of east Germany’s most valuable cultural assets, in the same way western Germans had taken over companies, universities and almost every other aspect of the former German Democratic Republic. In the end he won the fight.
More recently he secured the political backing for the construction of Berlin’s first recital venue, the Pierre Boulez Saal, which opened in 2017. He was also behind the creation of the Barenboim-Said Akademie, a foundation to promote cooperation among up and coming musicians from Middle Eastern and north African countries and championed an orchestra for young Arab and Israeli musicians.
Barenboim, who was the first person to hold both Israeli and Palestinian passports, has long been a vocal critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
Born in Buenos Aires to Jewish professional piano players, he gave his first public appearance at the age of seven, his first international performance aged 10, and went on to have a glittering career, first as a pianist, then as a conductor, beginning in London at the South Bank in 1968.
In 1966 he married the British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, in what was one of the most celebrated unions in the classical music world. Du Pré died from multiple sclerosis in 1987 aged 42. In 1988 Barenboim married the Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova.
Last October Barenboim announced he was stepping back from performing after a diagnosis of the neurological condition vasculitis, a term for rheumatic conditions that cause painful inflammation of the blood vessels.
In his statement on Friday, he said: “Unfortunately the state of my health has worsened considerably in the past year. I can no longer achieve the level of performance which is rightly required of a general music director. As a result, I ask for your understanding that I will be giving up this role as from 31 January 2023.” He said he had asked Berlin’s senator for culture to release him from his contract.
Over the past few months, Barenboim had been forced to cancel several performances, including a new production of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. At his request, the conductor Christian Thielemann took over his role.
In his statement Barenboim expressed his pride at what he and the Staatsoper had achieved. “I believe that the Staatsoper and I were extremely lucky to have each other. I am happy and proud in particular, that the Staatskapelle elected me to be their chief conductor for life. We have become a musical family over the years and will always remain so.”
Barenboim said he planned to continue conducting whenever possible. “Of course, I will stay – as long as I live – closely connected to music and am ready to conduct, especially with the Staatskapelle.”
The Berlin Philharmonic said Barenboim would go ahead and conduct three performances as scheduled this weekend. Earlier this week he conducted two sold-out new year concerts of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Staatsoper, which were also beamed on screens to crowds outside the opera house.
Matthias Schulz, the Staatsoper director, said the house was “eternally grateful” to Barenboim and had “great respect” for his decision.
“For more than 30 years he has let his inexhaustible strength as an artistic personality with global renown benefit this house and his Staatskapelle Berlin,” he said. “One can only imagine how hard it must have been for Daniel Barenboim to take this step. We all wish him all the best.”