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Dimitris Mitropoulos was born in Athens on the 1st of March, 1896. He was musically precocious, demonstrating his abilities at an early age. From the age of eleven to the age of fourteen, when Mitropoulos was in secondary school, he would host and preside over informal musical gatherings at his house every Saturday afternoon. His earliest acknowledged composition – a sonata for violin and piano, now lost, dates from this period.
He studied music at the Athens Conservatoire as well as in Brussels and Berlin, with Ferruccio Busoni among his teachers. From 1921 to 1925 he assisted Erich Kleiber at the Berlin State Opera and then took a number of posts in Greece. At a 1930 concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, he played the solo part of a piano concerto and conducted the orchestra from the keyboard, becoming one of the first modern musicians to do so.
Mitropoulos made his U.S. debut in 1936 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. From 1937 to 1949, he served as the principal conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, after which he worked with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He became the Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal conductor in 1951 and left in 1957 to be replaced by Leonard Bernstein, to whom he had served as a mentor. He introduced many works by Gustav Mahler, including his 6th Symphony. Many of his live performances are now available on CD and are well worth investigating.
In addition to his orchestral career, Mitropoulos was an equally important force in the operatic repertoire. He conducted opera extensively in Italy and from 1954 until his death in 1960 was the principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, although the Met did not officially use that title at the time. His musically incisive and dramatically vivid performances of Puccini, Verdi, Strauss and others remain models of the opera conductor’s art.
He was noted for having a photographic memory which enabled him to conduct without a score, even during rehearsals and for his monk-like life style due to his deeply religious beliefs (Greek Orthodox).
He died in Milan, Italy at the age of 64, while rehearsing Gustav Mahler’s 3rd Symphony. His ashes are kept in Athens’s first cemetery.