The Austrian cellist, viol player, and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt was born in Berlin, grew up in Graz (Austria) and studied the cello in Vienna, where from 1952 to 1969 he was a cellist with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
In 1953 Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his wife Alice Harnoncourt founded the Concentus Musicus Wien as a specialist ensemble for the performance of early music on authentic instruments of Baroque and Classical music. By 1957 he was giving regular concerts with the group, as well as making recordings of music from the 13th to the 18th century. As well as recording the Brandenburg Concertos (1964) and the Orchestral Suites (1966), which he directed from the cello or viola da gamba desk, Harnoncourt made highly acclaimed recordings of the St John Passion (BWV 245) (1965), the B minor Mass (BWV 232) (1968), the St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) (1972) and the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) (1972). A major project, shared with Gustav Leonhardt, to record all Bachs sacred cantatas was launched in 1971 and completed in 1990. Each director revealed his own distinctive approach in the series, with Harnoncourt the more demonstrative, exuberant, and mannerist in his musical expression. The enterprise established a landmark in Bach recording, both for its challenging of previously accepted interpretative conventions and for the use of a boys voice to sing almost all the soprano solos.
Countless tours, including five to the USA, took Concentus Musicus Wien to every part of the world. Today, forty-five years later, Concentus Musicus Wien and Nikolaus Harnoncourt continue to appear in highly acclaimed performances and to produce award-winning recordings.
Since 1970 Nikolaus Harnoncourt has worked as a conductor both in the opera house (he has appeared in Milan, Zürich, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Vienna conducting a repertory ranging from Monteverdi to Johann Strauss) and in the concert hall, where he has worked with the great European orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Vienna Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonia, and Chamber Orchestra of Europe, among others. He frequently collaborates with many of the world's most renowned soloists, including Martha Argerich, Gidon Kremer, Thomas Hampson, Dawn Upshaw, Cecilia Bartoli, Friedrich Gulda and Peter Seiffert, to name a few. Highlights of his career have included productions of operas by Monteverdi and Mozart at the Zürich Opera in stagings by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and Jürgen Flimm, performances of Mozart, Haydn and Schubert with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and L.v. Beethoven cycles with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
An exclusive Teldec recording artist for over thirty years, Nikolaus Harnoncourt made his first recordings with what was then Telefunken in 1963. Since then he has made several hundred recordings on vinyl and compact disc. His recording activities have expanded since 1970 to include the operas, oratorios and symphonic works of the 18th and 19th centuries. He has performed and recorded the late symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, L.v. Beethoven's complete symphonies and violin concerto, Schubert's complete symphonies and Robert Schumann's complete symphonies, as well as the piano and violin concertos. The complete Brahms symphonies, the Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto were released in 1997. Harnoncourt is in the process of completing a Mozart symphonies cycle, several recordings of which were released in 1998, as were the complete Mozart Sacred Works. Also released in 1998 were Haydn's Nelson Mass and Te Deum with the Concentus Musicus Wien and, following up his recording of Bruckner's Symphony No. 3 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra the previous year, Symphony No. 4 (Romantic'), Dvorák's Symphony No. 7 and The Wild Dove and an album of Johann Strauss waltzes and overtures. His recordings of L.v. Beethoven's Missa solemnis and Symphonies Nos. 1 - 9 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Arnold Schoenberg Chor received numerous distinctions, including the German Record Critics' Prize and Gramophone Magazine's Record of the Year Award in addition to selling nearly one million copies worldwide. In 1994, Harnoncourt was awarded the prestigious Polar Music Prize. His recordings of L.v. Beethoven's Fidelio and Robert Schumann's Genoveva won Belgium's Caecilia Prize in 1996 and 1998 respectively.
In 1972 Nikolaus Harnoncourt became Professor for Performance Practice at the Salzburg Mozarteum, a position he held until 1993. During a career spanning several decades he has been charted by numerous television documentaries and three full-length books. Nikolaus Harnoncourt's outstanding achievements have been recognized with numerous awards: the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (1974), the Erasmus Prize (1980), the Hans Georg Nägeli Medal of the City of Zurich (1982) and the Joseph Marx Music Prize of the Province of Styria (1982). In 1983 he was appointed a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm. In 1985 he received the Golden Honorary Emblem of the German Record Critics for his services to Early Music. In 1987 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh. An authorized biography of Nikolaus Harnoncourt by music journalist Monika Mertl was published in early 2001by the Residenz Verlag, Salzburg.