Sergiu Celibidache
Celibidache in 1966
Born(1912-06-28)28 June 1912
Roman, Romania
Died13 August 1996(1996-08-13) (aged 84)
Nemours, France
  • Conductor
  • Academic

Sergiu Celibidache (Romanian: [ˈserd͡ʒju t͡ʃelibiˈdake]; 11 July [O.S. 28 June] 1912 – 13 August 1996) was a Romanian conductor, composer, musical theorist, and teacher.[1] Educated in his native Romania, and later in Paris and Berlin, Celibidache's career in music spanned over five decades, including tenures as principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Sicilian Symphony Orchestra and several other European orchestras. Later in life, he taught at Mainz University in Germany and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Celibidache frequently refused to release his performances on commercial recordings during his lifetime, claiming that a listener could not have a "transcendental experience" outside the concert hall. Many of the recordings of his performances were released posthumously. He has nonetheless earned international acclaim for his interpretations of the classical repertoire and was known for a spirited performance style informed by his study and experiences in Zen Buddhism. He is regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.[2][3]

Early life and education

Celibidache as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1946

Sergiu Celibidache was born on 28 June 1912[4] to Demostene Celebidachi, a cavalry officer of the Romanian army and later prefect of the Iași region and Maria Celebidachi (née Brăteanu), in Roman, a small city in the Moldavia region of Romania, where his father was a government official.[5][6] He grew up in Iași, where his family soon moved after his birth.[7] He was already improvising at the piano by the age of four, and after a traditional schooling in mathematics, philosophy and music in Iași, was sent by his father to Bucharest and then to Paris, where he continued his studies. His father had expected him to pursue a political career in Romania,[5][7] but in 1936 Celibidache enrolled in the Hochschule für Musik (Academy of Music) in Berlin (German authorities erroneously changed his surname from Celebidachi to Celibidache, the form he was known under), where he studied composition with Heinz Tiessen and conducting with Kurt Thomas, Walter Gmeindl and Fritz Stein.[5][6] He continued with doctoral studies at the Friedrich Wilhelm University (Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität), where he studied philosophy with Nicolai Hartmann and Eduard Spranger and musicology with Arnold Schering and Georg Schünemann.[5] He submitted a dissertation on Josquin des Prez and received his degree in 1944.[5][6] Throughout the 1940s, he accompanied and was romantically involved with Romanian-born dancer and choreographer Iris Barbura. During his studies in Berlin, Celibidache was introduced to Zen Buddhism by his teacher Martin Steinke, and Buddhism informed Celibidache's worldview and work for the rest of his life.[6] In a 1986 interview, he said, "I was born a Christian Orthodox, and studied philosophy, but I still couldn't find solutions to my problems. It was through Steinke that I found [...] the way of Zen. All I can say is that without Zen I couldn't have known this strange principle that the beginning is in the end, and the end is in the beginning. Music is nothing but the materialization of this principle."[8]


Celibidache in 1969

From 1945 to 1952 Celibidache was principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. He got his big break shortly after the end of World War II in tragic circumstances: Leo Borchard, who was cleared to conduct by the American forces, was shot during a nocturnal car ride, and no other de-Nazified conductors were available.[9][8] But he fought selflessly to have Wilhelm Furtwängler (a great influence on Celibidache) reinstated as orchestra leader, and from 1947 to 1952 they shared the responsibilities of conducting the Philharmonic.[9] Furtwängler, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1922 to 1945, was required to submit to the denazification process. The young Sergiu Celibidache thereby became the top orchestra’s interim conductor, from 1945 until 1952. Following that, Furtwängler was once again on the podium. When in 1954 Furtwängler died, the Philharmonic selected not the predestined Celibidache to be Furtwängler’s official successor – but rather Herbert von Karajan. Sergiu Celibidache was so incensed by being passed over that he vowed to never again conduct the famous orchestra. It took 38 years before a collaboration could once again take place: the concert of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 happened only at the instigation of the German president at the time, Richard von Weizsäcker. Celibidache later worked with radio orchestras in Stockholm, Stuttgart and Paris. He also worked in Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s, due partly to the promotional efforts of the pianist Eileen Joyce and her partner, an artists' agent. Joyce said that Celibidache was the greatest conductor she had ever worked with: "he was the only one who got inside my soul".[10] In 1970 he was awarded Denmark's Sonning Award. From 1979 until his death he was music director of the Munich Philharmonic. He regularly taught at Hochschule für Musik Mainz in Germany and in 1984 taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Teaching was a major focus throughout his life and his courses were frequently open to all without fee. Among his notable students are Konrad von Abel, Françoys Bernier, Raffaele Napoli,[11] Rony Rogoff, Bernhard Sieberer, Markand Thakar,[12] and Nils-Göran Areskoug.[citation needed]

He appeared in the film Ambassadors of Music (1952), conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Egmont overture.

Later years

Celibidache giving a conducting lesson at the Curtis Institute in 1984 to student David Bernard

A controversy arose over sexist and discriminatory behaviour that came to light during a 12-year legal battle during his tenure at the Munich Philharmonic[13] with trombonist Abbie Conant. Celibidache claimed Conant lacked the "necessary strength" and "emotional empathy" to lead the trombone section.[14] She was asked to sit in the second chair and was paid less than her male colleagues on grounds of her sex.[15] Celibidache was not invited to give testimony at the trials.[16] Finally, the courts found in favour of Conant.[17] As a consequence, Conant was paid the same as her male colleagues.[15]

Celibidache died at the age of 84 on 14 August 1996 at Nemours, near Paris.[18] He was buried in the Cimetière de Neuville sur Essonne.

Performance style

Bust of Sergiu Celibidache at his hometown in Roman

Celibidache's approach to music-making is often described more by what he did not do instead of what he did. For example, much has been made of Celibidache's "refusal" to make recordings even though almost all of his concert activity actually was recorded - having accepted live radio broadcasts - with many released posthumously by major labels such as EMI and Deutsche Grammophon with the consent of his family.[19] In his view, music is made of the cumulation of thousands of "Nos" and one final "yes" when the conditions are eventually all gathered during a concert. It was all about the live experience, the ability to be "in the now".

Celibidache's focus was indeed on creating, during each concert, the optimal conditions for what he called a "transcendent experience". Aspects of Zen Buddhism, such as ichi-go ichi-e, strongly influenced his music making. He believed that transcendental experiences were extremely unlikely to ensue when listening to recorded music, so he eschewed them. As a result, some of his concerts did provide audiences with exceptional and sometimes life-altering experiences, including, for example, a 1984 concert in Carnegie Hall by the Orchestra of the Curtis Institute that New York Times critic John Rockwell described as the best of his 25 years of concert-going.[20]

Celibidache was well known for his demands for extensive rehearsal time with orchestras.[21] An oft-mentioned feature of many of his later concerts, captured in the live recordings of them, is a slower tempo than what is considered the norm, while in fast passages (especially in his earlier performances) his tempi often exceeded metronome markings by far.[22] In Celibidache's own view, however, criticism of a recording's tempo is irrelevant, as it is not (and cannot be) a critique of the performance but rather of a transcription of it, without the ambience of the moment, for him, a key factor in any musical performance. As Celibidache explained, the acoustic space in which one hears a concert directly affects the likelihood of the emergence of his sought-after transcendent experience. The acoustic space within which one hears a recording of one of his performances, on the other hand, has no impact on the performance, as it is impossible for the acoustic features of that space to stimulate musicians to play slower or faster.

That his recorded performances differ so widely from the majority of other recordings has led them to be seen by some as collectors' items rather than mainstream releases and 'one-offs' rather than reference recordings.[23]

Personal life

In 1965, Celibidache married Ioana Procopie Dumitrescu (1924-2012).[24] They had one son, Sergiu Ioan Celibidache ("Serge"), born 19 June 1968.


Notable releases have been his Munich performances of Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, Robert Schumann, Johann Sebastian Bach, Gabriel Fauré and a series of live performances with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra:[25][26]

Honors, awards, and decorations



  1. ^ "Sergiu Celibidache (Conductor) - Short Biography". Retrieved 29 September 2022.
  2. ^ "Sergiu Celibidache – das Wesen der Musik". Focus (in German). 26 June 2012. Retrieved 10 October 2013.
  3. ^ "Der Stachel im Fleisch des Musikbetriebs". Süddeutsche Zeitung (in German). 4 July 2012. Retrieved 10 October 2013.
  4. ^ The 28 June 1912 date of birth was based on the old style Julian calendar then officially used in Romania. According to the modern Gregorian calendar that is currently used in the West, Celibidache's birthdate would be 11 July 1912.
  5. ^ a b c d e Naxos – Sergiu Celibidache (Biography) Sergiu Celibidache. Retrieved 31 August 2012.
  6. ^ a b c d EMI Classics. Sergiu Celibidache (1912–1996): Biography. Retrieved 31 August 2012.
  7. ^ a b Biography
  8. ^ a b Lang, Klaus (2015). Celibidache şi Furtwängler : marele conflict postbelic de la Filarmonica din Berlin. București: Humanitas. pp. 16, 23. ISBN 978-973-50-4878-5. OCLC 967947126.
  9. ^ a b Celibidache, Serge Ioan (2001), Sergiu Celibidache's garden, Facets Video, ISBN 1-56580-282-9, OCLC 50094469
  10. ^ Richard Davis, Eileen Joyce: A Portrait
  11. ^ | url=
  12. ^ "Konrad von Abel". Musikproduktion Höflich. Archived from the original on 2 December 2013. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  13. ^ Buzzarté, Monique. "We Need a Man for Solo Trombone: Abbie Conant's Story." IAWM Journal. (International Alliance for Women in Music, February 1996), 8–11. Available online here Archived 29 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine. (Retrieved 20 October 2012).
  14. ^ Brief, Conant vs. LH München, AGM Aktz: 2 Ca 7022/82, February 3, 1983.
  15. ^ a b "Abbie Conant in the Munich Philharmonic". Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  16. ^ Final judgment, Conant vs. LH München, AGM Aktz: 2 Ca. 7022/82, April 12, 1984.
  17. ^ Final judgement, Conant vs. LH München Aktz. Ca 2 7022/82, April 12, 1984.
  18. ^ "matchID - Moteur de recherche des décès". Retrieved 21 September 2023.
  19. ^ James R. Oestreich (15 March 1998). "The Reticent High Priest of Munich". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 August 2007.
  20. ^ John Rockwell (28 February 1984). "Debut of Sergiu Celibidache". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 October 2007.
  21. ^ Will Crutchfield (27 April 1989). "Sergiu Celibidache Conducts An Unhurried Bruckner 4th". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 August 2007.
  22. ^ John Rockwell (29 August 1993). "When Mystic Meets Mystic". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 August 2007.
  23. ^ "Conductor Sergiu Celibidache Biography". iClassics. Archived from the original on 29 October 2019. Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  24. ^ "Why was Celibidache's conducting career so controversial?". Interlude. 27 June 2022. Retrieved 29 September 2022.
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ Landeshauptstadt München Direktorium. Ehrenbürgerrecht der Landeshauptstadt München (Honorary Citizens of the Provincial Capital of Munich) located online here (Retrieved 1 September 2012).

Further reading