Born in Stuttgart in 1942, Cordula Kempe née Oettinger was brought up in a family where virtually all classical music was at home, and performed live, eight out of seven days a week. In early post-war Germany, with no records (they came much later for them) and hardly any music on radio, this home provided an invaluable experience of what music is about, and a much deeper understanding of it than is imaginable in today’s world where everything is accessible any time - in sterile technological products.
Cordula’s father - though a lawyer by profession – was an uncommonly gifted practicing musician (who also composed, but was too modest to publish anything). As a versatile pianist, he was in demand both as a soloist with orchestras and as an accompanist of instrumentalists and singers, his repertoire ranging from Bach to Richard Strauss, via Schubert and all the main stream composers - oratorio, chamber music, opera. Mum – not a performer herself - provided the sandwiches for everyone (not easy in the late 40s and early 50s) whilst remaining a loving but astutely critical listener. At 92, she was in raptures about Beethoven’s late string quartets, and on her deathbed she kept saying “How sorry I feel for anyone who leaves this world without having heard a single Schubert song!”
Brother Friedemann, four years younger than Cordula, had a remarkable musical talent, a beautiful baritone voice and a natural gift for conducting (Rudolf Kempe would say of the 23 year old: “Even today I could still make something of him!”) He had taken up Dad’s piano playing early on, but eventually made theology his profession; and a very good job he did in it. He was an invaluable comfort to Cordula when Rudi died; and he also conducted Rudi’s funeral service. Sadly, he himself died young, of an aggressive cancer - terribly missed not just by his family or his parishioners, but by the German Peace Movement and a number of Interfaith Institutions.
Cordula began playing the violin aged eight, having longed for it since she was three when she first heard Bach’s “Erbarme dich” Aria – live - from St. Matthew’s Passion, with its sublime violin solo. But she was made to wait, biding her time on the boring recorder – as obedient children do. Yet she was allowed to page-turn for Dad, at home and in concerts, before she could read and write.
She passed her university entrance exams with flying colours in literature and classical languages (though not exactly in maths …. ) at Stuttgart’s Hölderlin Gymnasium, a grammar school for girls which annually turned out bluestockings in their hundreds. Of Cordula, her class mates used to say “Her soul’s forever searching for the land of Greece!” (Well, it was that of Schubert’s Winterreise rather than ancient Greece … . )
Having also studied Italian (better to understand Mozart’s operas) and, much later, Hebrew (better to understand the Old Testament) Cordula at last had parental approval to devote herself full time to studying violin at the Munich State Academy; and she did, wholeheartedly. That the hugely impressive academy building was actually Hitler’s residence in this ‘Capital of The Movement’ – and still reeked of it – took time to sink in with a girl brought up in the complete political vacuum of post-war German education. But soon confirmation was to come flooding in on her from all sides, and all the more vehemently, when she met Rudolf Kempe and through him the rest of the world. It changed her life.
In 1965 while still a student Cordula had been invited to play in the Munich Bach Orchestra under Karl Richter, a direct descendant of 200 years of Bach tradition. A unique and lasting musical influence. Richter later was, unwittingly, instrumental in her meeting her future husband - who thought the world of his fellow Saxon’s musicianship and conducting. Kempe often invited Richter to conduct the Munich Phil in non-Bach repertoire; and at Cordula’s request he conducted the Munich Philharmonic’s Kempe Memorial Concert in 1976.
As an undergraduate Cordula had also performed as a soloist in works by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven with various chamber orchestras, including in 1966 one led by the Members of the distinguished Melos Quartet: Mozart’s Concerto K 219 in the presence of the ‘Schwaben-Callas’, future Bundes-President Kiesinger who gallantly thanked Mrs Oettinger for having heard, and seen, her daughter... politicians talk.
After graduating in 1967 (with a diploma in both Performing and Teaching) Cordula left Munich and pursued highly intensive violin studies with Max Rostal, Carl Flesch’s most eminent pupil and arguably the greatest violin pedagogue in 20th century Europe and beyond. Driven out of Germany by the Nazis, like Carl Flesch, Rostal mainly worked in London, both at the Guildhall School and the Royal Academy of Music.
In 1969 Cordula was appointed as one of the first female members to the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra – then a bunch of notorious misogynists: “Women always get pregnant, and we have to do all the work!” (Men, of course, at the slightest touch of a nasal cold, would take three weeks’ sick leave.) Cordula’s audition had taken place behind a screen, as the Principal Conductor had made it clear that he didn’t care whether a candidate was male, female, red, black or green; he wanted the best player. Although in this situation life in the orchestra was not easy, Cordula adored it, thanks to the glorious repertoire. When her colleagues would moan “Oh, not Brahms One again!” she would retort “You should be sent down the mines to dig coal instead!”
Cordula also continued to work – occasionally as an assistant - with her mentor Rostal, who became a close friend of both Kempes, until his death in 1991. He had played several times as a soloist in concerts and recordings with Kempe, and later gave numerous master classes for the Rudolf Kempe Society in London and Munich - fortunately all of them documented on video.
When Cordula met at a personal level with Rudolf Kempe late in 1969 - after playing her first Bruckner and Mahler under him - her future husband was, apart from the Munich Phil commitment, also Principal Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra London and the Tonhalle Zurich, and upheld, right through the Cold War, close ties with the Staatskapelle in his native Dresden, resulting in the most wonderful recordings as well as concerts. When Cordula decided to leave the Munich Phil to devote herself entirely to Kempe and his work on the international music scene, he really needed it.
For her, running three households (often without even a charwoman) and keeping Kempe’s diaries were some of the easier tasks at hand. Yet she continued to play as an extra with the Munich Phil in concerts as well as in Kempe’s recordings of the complete cycles of Beethoven, Brahms and the – sadly unfinished – Bruckner Symphonies. She also appeared as a soloist with fellow musicians of the Munich Phil. And Kempe, a died-in-the-wool ensemble musician who sometimes tired of “chopping the air into bits in front of his musicians’ noses”, loved playing piano trio repertoire in concerts with Cordula and the Munich Phil’s Principal Cellist, Fritz Kiskalt, in Germany and Switzerland, or on London’s Southbank with the RPO’s, Christopher Van Kampen.
Rudi’s and Cordula’s relationship – with a medical prognosis at the outset of no more than just a year, owing to his fragile health resulting from the war and post-war stress and deprivation - lasted nearly seven years. And although, in spite of their ardent wish, they couldn’t have children (Cordula had suffered peritonitis as a two year old), their union was a deeply fulfilled and happy one. And eventually hosts of young musicians whom she looked after were to become Cordula’s ‘children’. As well as – posthumously, in a sense - Rudi’s.
Following her husband’s death in 1976, Cordula – unlike other famous conductors’ widows - had to earn her living (not that she minded, never one to twiddle her thumbs). The fact was that Kempe’s artistic qualities had, owing to his incurable modesty, never been reflected in his fees or record royalties. Although she loved playing symphonic repertoire, Cordula did not re-join the Munich Phil. Rostal was probably right: “You wouldn’t like it, after what you so enjoyed before!” When the City of Munich - evading the obligation of paying her a modest pension proportionate to Kempe’s ten year tenure contract - offered her instead a teaching position at Munich’s Richard Strauss Conservatoire, she took it on – unaware of what awaited her. But, being passionate about teaching (and very good at it, as Rostal held), she rolled up her sleeves and literally revolutionised the Conservatoire and its backward syllabus: the Directorate had pronounced ex cathedra that “chamber music and orchestral studies are rubbish” (‘Quatsch’, in German); “our students learn to play their instruments, that’s enough.” Cordula thought otherwise and offered those courses outside and in addition to her contractual hours. And the students came flocking to her.
She also free-lanced with various chamber orchestras as leader or co-leader, including the Munich Residenz Orchestra under Zoebeley. In 1984, she formed her own string-quartet - named Bergonzi after her violin - with members of different nationalities, specialising in what gradually developed into a new way of studying and performing: the blending of word and music, in which the two kindred fields enhance each other - particularly exciting for students as well as for their audiences. Ear-opening, and eye-opening, for both. (The Quartet, later based in the UK, established itself on these grounds.) The reason behind the idea: music on its own may make people feel better, but doesn’t make them better people. Something else is needed to make a difference.
In 1980, some English musicians declared their wish to found a Society in the German conductor’s memory and asked Cordula for her cooperation. Cordula agreed, providing they would – rather than setting up a Kempe museum – actively pursue Kempe’s concern for improving the education of young musicians. The necessity for this had become blatantly obvious to her through her experiences at the Munich Conservatoire and the generally deplorable state of musical education in Germany dating back to her own student days. As a result of it, Kempe himself had for years appointed either foreigners or German musicians who had studied abroad.
The idea of a Kempe Society had actually been the brainchild of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a personal friend of Cordula and her idol of the Lied repertoire since her childhood; having frequently worked with Kempe, he had contributed a foreword to her pictorial biography on him, ‘PICTURES OF A LIFE’, published in 1977; Dieter now agreed to be the Society’s Patron - a position he held until his death in 2012 when it was taken over by Dame Judi Dench.
The vision and quality of Cordula’s artistic and educational work rapidly gained her the respect and active support of a great number of the finest musicians of the time. With Sir Charles Groves as Honorary President, succeeded after his death in 1992 by Sir Colin Davis, they contributed master classes, workshops and concerts in London as well as Munich: Max Rostal, Yehudi Menuhin, Paul Tortelier, Bruno Leonardo Gelber, Bernard Haitink, Heather Harper, Dame Janet Baker, Yfrah Neaman, Elisabeth Soederstroem, Gidon Kremer, Heinrich Schiff, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, to name but a few; and more recently, Roderick Williams, Sholto Kynoch, Michael Gees and Christoph Prégardien. And it is on-going!
The Rudolf Kempe Society’s Public Master Classes in Munich – in the 1980s an absolute novelty for West Germany - were recorded, broadcast and re-broadcast by Bavarian Radio, as were the Young Artists’ Concerts which Cordula established to complement the master classes, on a regular exchange basis between Germany and England. Innumerable young instrumentalists and singers have since benefitted from these schemes; all of them made their way in the profession, many of them in remarkable international careers. They include, amongst many more, Tasmin Little, Jan Talich, Stephan Loges, Radoslaw Szulc, Felix Schmidt, Jens Lohmann, Adrianne Pieczonka, Alexander Schmalcz, Daniel Driver, Gary Matthewman, Julian Prégardien, the Auryn String Quartet, the Phoenix Duo and several other ensembles.
The amazing fact is that all this was achieved thanks to the passionate contributions from distinguished artists – and arguably through Cordula’s solitary hard admin work – with virtually no financial support from anywhere. Certainly not from The Powers That Be who to this day, in order to enhance their prestige, pay nothing but lip service to the Arts and to initiatives like Cordula’s, irrespective of the dire need for them and of the RKS’s undisputed artistic success over thirty-five years. The City of Munich’s Cultural Department had actually commissioned the master classes, which originated from the London end, and promised to fund them. They praised them to the sky but never honoured their promise (whilst paying Kempe’s Munich successor twelve and eventually twenty times Kempe’s fee.) The Kempe Society’s Artistic Director – also Maid of all Chores, in pre-computer and pre-internet times - had to work up to 20 hours a day, and to raise her mortgage on a regular basis.
Not surprising then that Cordula Kempe, with her close ties to England through her husband’s work, decided to end her days not in Munich but in England. Shortly after Rudi’s death she literally stumbled over her second great love in life – Shakespeare. And when in 1985 she found a completely derelict hovel right in the heart of the Bard’s town of Stratford, she took out another mortgage and turned the hovel into a cosy home, making it the base for the Society. On retiring from Munich in 2007, she extended it – with an equity release loan, as she was penniless – to accommodate the whole of Kempe’s vast archive as well as his big Steinway and harpsichord. In addition, there is a performance space holding audiences of fifty, in the intimate atmosphere of a drawing room. Reviewers call it ‘Stratford’s Wigmore Hall’. Performers and audiences love it: Chamber Music and Lieder – Songs of Apollo. Re-kindling the spirit of Schubertiads.
And in the peaceful terraced garden is Rudolf Kempe’s final resting place.
Situated in the most beautiful position between the Royal Shakespeare Company’s theatres, overlooking the theatre gardens and the river Avon, the KEMPE STUDIO at THE MUSES is in fact dedicated to all of Apollo’s followers both ancient and modern: the walls of the house from top to bottom are decorated with their images. Etchings of Shakespeare’s complete plays, renderings of artistic themes from Biblical times to the present – all of them Cordula’s personal friends.
What she began in the 1980s as an experiment with her students, out of her appreciation of poetry and drama, their kinship with music and their meaning today, has evolved in dozens of Word and Music programmes which she devised on a great many subjects, musical or literary. They cover issues that concern us all, from the mundane to the philosophical.
Over some twenty-five years these programmes have been performed at all three of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s theatres, several London venues and also in Germany - by the Bergonzis with some of the finest English actors: Richard Pasco and Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Simon Russell Beale, Jane Lapotaire, Alex Jennings, Julian Glover and Isla Blair, Tim West and Prunella Scales, Henry Goodman, Janet Suzman, Desmond Barrit, Penny Downie, Tim Pigott-Smith and Pamela Miles, Clifford Rose, Penelope Wilton, Malcolm Storry, Cheryl Campbell, Guy Henry, Zubin Varla and many, many others. Not least Judi Dench and her late brother Jeffery, the Society’s Chairman and a very dear personal friend. And now Jeffery’s gifted grandson Oliver. It’s being passed on.
All these artists, musicians as well as actors, seem to share Cordula’s creed summed up in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66:
Tir’d with all these, for restful death I cry:
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.
“LOVE, standing not just for love to an individual human being but to a cause, is the motivation to contribute through the arts to fellow human beings what may look, on the surface, just like ‘entertainment’ offering the ‘feel-good factor’ – though in the best possible sense. Beyond that, however, it unobtrusively raises awareness for what may prove the only healing power for this world of violence, greed and indifference. The ancient Greeks called it Kalokagathia, the union of Beauty and Goodness – as did my revered fellow Schwabian poet and humanist Schiller. Access to Beauty and Goodness is the birth-right of every human being – especially those who are misled into pursuing violence and destruction.
Chaj – Hebrew for Life – is what we all are here for, and committed to shield and preserve.
Whatever God you believe in – He is not a God of Death. He is a God of Life.”
Cordula Kempe lives in Stratford-upon-Avon at 58 Waterside where she created the KEMPE STUDIO at THE MUSES and curates Rudolf Kempe’s extensive archive of personally marked orchestral scores – operatic and symphonic; of piano, harpsichord and organ music (all of which he played), as well as audio and video recordings of his performances – many of them as yet unpublished; and also her own substantial archive of violin and chamber music repertoire. All of it is made available for studies. In addition, she draws on a comprehensive bilingual library, both classical and contemporary, on a great variety of subjects relating to her work and personal interests; it includes material for several books in preparation: a full-length Kempe biography, an anthology of Portraits of German Jews in Israel, and a Flesch-Rostal based compendium on String Playing and Interpretation. (Not, however, she insists, her autobiography.)
Having had to drastically reduce her own playing in public, owing to an injury to her left hand – in a simple carpal tunnel operation a surgeon lacerated the median nerve, leaving her with two dead fingers – Cordula still greatly enjoys coaching professional musicians, thus passing on her lifetime’s expertise gained from work with some of the finest artists of her time.