Celebrated as one of the first modern conductors, Nikisch was the first conductor to commit a complete symphony to disc: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which he recorded in 1913 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
After study in Vienna, in 1878 Nikisch was appointed choral coach at the Leipzig Opera, becoming principal conductor in 1879. From 1889 to 1893 he was conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, then conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra at Leipzig from 1895 until his death.
From 1897 he also led the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he toured widely. He succeeded Hans von Bülow as conductor of the Philharmonic Concerts at Hamburg in 1897, toured the United States with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1912, and conducted Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle of operas at Covent Garden in 1913.
He was considered an outstanding interpreter of the music of Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Liszt. Johannes Brahms praised Nikisch’s performance of his Fourth Symphony as “quite exemplary, it’s impossible to hear it any better.”
His legacy is as one of the founders of modern conducting, with deep analysis of the score, a simple beat, and a charisma that let him bring out the full sonority of the orchestra and plumb the depths of the music.