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1929 – 1938: Father’s Piano
Had it not been for the war, how different this life would have been…” Although this sentence could be used to introduce almost any European biography, even for those born after 1960, it is especially true for the life of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is descended from a family who, before the First World War, was exceptionally privileged. His father was from the line of the Luxembourg and Lorraine Counts of de la Fontaine and d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt, while his mother, as Countess of Meran and Baroness of Brandhofen, was a great-granddaughter of the legendary Archduke Johann of Austria. After the revolutionary upheavals in the wake of the elimination of the Habsburg Monarchy, there was little more left than the family name; when Nikolaus Harnoncourt was born, on December 06, 1929 in Berlin, his father was working as a civil engineer. In 1931, the family returned to Graz, taking up residence in part of Meran Palace, where Nikolaus Harnoncourt would grow up. What does not seem to have been in any way influenced by the family’s material wealth was the cultural atmosphere the boy had been born into. The family played music regularly, and one of Harnoncourt’s earliest memories would put him on the path he has followed all his life: one day when Harnoncourt was a boy, his uncle René, director of the New York Museum of Modern Art and a friend of George Gershwin’s, sent the family a vocal score of Gershwin’s American Folk Opera, “Porgy and Bess”, fresh from the printer. Harnoncourt’s father played the piece while a young Nikolaus listened, sitting mesmerised under the piano. “I got plenty o’ nuttin” made a particularly strong impression on him. Overall, it was a childhood that Harnoncourt describes as happy, carefree and uncomplicated, and one can safely believe him. But this idyllic family life in the post-monarchy days was not to last. Hitler’s German troops would invade Austria in 1938 and the palace would be sold. It was a time of terror …
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