Born in Berlin, he was originally a violist and played among the violas of the Bluthner Orchestra of Berlin while still in his teens. He conducted in Riga from 1914 to 1916 and in Königsberg from 1928 to 1933, after which he left Germany in protest at the Nazi regime and worked in Switzerland. Along with the philanthropist Werner Reinhart, Scherchen played a leading role in shaping the musical life of Winterthur for many years, with numerous premiere performances, the emphasis being placed on contemporary music.
Making his debut with Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, he was a champion of 20th century composers such as Richard Strauss, Webern, Berg and Varèse, and actively promoted the work of younger contemporary composers including Iannis Xenakis and Luigi Nono.
He was the teacher of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, and contributed to the libretto of Hartmann’s opera Simplicius Simplicissimus. The conductor Francis Travis was a pupil, then conducting assistant, for five years.
He is probably best known for his orchestral arrangement (and recording) of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of Fugue. Another notable achievement is his 1958 recording of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony for the Westminster label (subsequently reissued on compact disc), containing what is still (as of 2006) the fastest first movement ever recorded and the closest to Beethoven’s own, problematic, metronome mark.   His 1953 “Lehrbuch des Dirigierens” (“Treatise on Conducting” ISBN 3-7957-2780-4) is a standard textbook. His recorded repertoire was extremely wide, ranging from Vivaldi to Reinhold Glière.
He died in Florence. He was survived by a number of children, from five wives and other women.
One his sons was Wulff Scherchen. Wulff’s six-year relationship with Benjamin Britten started when he was aged thirteen. John Bridcut describes the passionate exchanges of letters between the famous composer and the young boy in Britten’s Children.
His daughter, Myriam Scherchen, runs a record label Tahra which produces historic recordings on CD devoted to famous conductors, including Scherchen himself.
Like Vasily Safonov and (in later life) Leopold Stokowski, Scherchen commonly avoided the use of a baton. His technique when in this mode sometimes caused problems for players; an unidentified BBC Symphony Orchestra bassoonist told the singer Ian Wallace that interpreting Scherchen’s minuscule hand movements was like trying to milk a flying gnat. According to Fritz Spiegl, Scherchen worked largely through verbal instructions to his players and his scores were peppered with reminders of what he needed to say at each critical point in the music.
However, Scherchen did not always dispense with the baton. The film of his rehearsal of his edition of Bach’s ‘Art of Fugue’ with the CBC Toronto Chamber Orchestra shows him using a baton throughout, and very effectively.
Edited by SOLOMUSIKA on 12 Apr 2009, 19:28
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