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Monday 5 September 2011

Otto Klemperer and the Large Black Dog

Otto Klemperer (left) was one of the greatest classical conductors of the twentieth century. What is less well-known is that he was haunted by a mysterious Black Dog, which brought him bad luck throughout his life.

The young Otto's first encounter with his nemesis occurred in 1889, when he was just four years old. He was walking with his parents in his home town of Wrocław (now in Poland, but then part of Germany) when a Large Black Dog appeared out of nowhere and jumped onto his shoulders. Recalling the incident, Klemperer said: “Since then, I have always been frightened of dogs. Again and again, in various forms, I have seen this Black Dog, or ones very much like it, shortly before disaster has struck at me and at my private and professional life.”

The next "disaster" occurred more than forty years after that first childhood encounter, by which time Klemperer had established a reputation as one of Germany's leading conductors. This was in the 1930s, when Germany was becoming a dangerous place for Jewish people like Klemperer. However, this particular disaster was not the result of human persecution, but another encounter with a mysterious Black Dog!

During a rehearsal in a Leipzig concert hall, Large Black Dog #2 wandered into the auditorium. A few moments later Klemperer fell off the podium -- it was quite a drop. The conductor was unconscious for several minutes and he suffered from concussion. The resulting brain injury caused agonizing headaches and what Klemperer described as “frightful disturbances of balance”. An operation was needed, but this was not performed until 1939, after Klemperer and his family had fled Germany for America. The operation left him partially paralyzed, with one side of his face twisted into “an ugly and permanent scowl”.

The third encounter occurred in Montreal in 1951, as he was just about to board a plane for Europe. Large Black Dog #3 charged across the tarmac straight towards him. Alarmed, Klemperer slipped and fell, breaking his hip. He was forced to spend the next eight months in hospital in Canada, and it was another four years before he was once again able to conduct standing up.

The next disaster occurred in 1959, when Klemperer was staying at a hotel in Zurich. He was sitting in bed smoking, when he dozed off and was assailed by a startlingly vivid dream about... a Large Black Dog! He woke with a start, to find that the smouldering cigarette had set the bedclothes on fire. He grabbed for what he thought was a bottle of water and threw it on the fire. But in his panic the bottle he picked up wasn’t water -- it was a highly flammable liquid, spirits of camphor. Klemperer suffered severe burns, and hovered between life and death for months.

Shortly after he recovered, while out walking in public, he saw Large Black Dog #5... and promptly fell over and broke his hip again! After recovering from that, Klemperer moved to London to take up a new position of "conductor for life" with the Philharmonia Orchestra. He lived on until 1973, but fortunately never had any further encounters with his nemesis, the Large Black Dog!



Anonymous said...

Wow, what a tale. The thought of the dog charging at him across the tarmac made me laugh. Gotta give those black dogs credit- that's some serious dedication.

Andrew May said...

Of course, this is all based on Klemperer's own anecdotal recollections -- and like everyone's anecdotes I bet they tended to get more dramatic over time!

Anonymous said...

Hey Andrew, I just noticed your post for this story was featured on Episode 609 of the popular Mysterious Universe podcast. Well, it was part of the bonus "plus section" for subscribers.

Andrew May said...

Thanks for letting me know -- I've noticed they've done this once or twice in the past as well. It seems to work... or at least it brings in a few dozen extra visitors!