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.
Sergiu Celibidache was born on 28 June 1912 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. He grew up in Iași, where his family soon moved after his birth. 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, 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 retained), where he studied composition with Heinz Tiessen and conducting with Kurt Thomas, Walter Gmeindl and Fritz Stein. 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. He submitted a dissertation on Josquin des Prez and received his degree in 1944. 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. 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 the end. Music is nothing but the materialization of this principle."
His late career was over-shadowed by sexist and discriminatory behaviour that came to light during a 12-year legal battle during his tenure at the Munich Philharmonic with trombonist Abbie Conant. Celibidache claimed Conant lacked the "necessary strength" and "emotional empathy" to lead the trombone section. On his orders, she was forced to sit in the second chair and was paid less than her male colleagues on grounds of her gender. Celibidache was not invited to give testimony at the trials due to lack of substantiated criticism. The courts found in favour of Conant as Celibidache "could not justify his complaint with facts". An appeal on the decision failed, and Conant was paid the same as her male colleagues.
Celibidache died at the age of 84 on 14 August 1996 at La Neuville-sur-Essonne, near Paris. He was buried in the Cimetière de Neuville sur Essonne.
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 with many released posthumously by major labels such as EMI and Deutsche Grammophon with the consent of his family. Nevertheless, Celibidache paid little attention to making these recordings, which he viewed merely as by-products of his orchestral concerts.
Celibidache's focus was instead 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 thinking. 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.
Celibidache was well known for his demands for extensive rehearsal time with orchestras. 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. 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.
In 1965, Celibidache married Ioana Procopie Dumitrescu. They had one son, Sergiu Ioan Celibidache ("Serge"), born 19 June 1968.
^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.
^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 hereArchived 29 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine. (Retrieved 20 October 2012).
^Brief, Conant vs. LH München, AGM Aktz: 2 Ca 7022/82, February 3, 1983.