Composer, Conductor. His fame rests mainly on "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (1849), one of the few German comic operas in the international repertory. Its witty overture is a concert hall favorite. He is also remembered as the founder of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Carl Otto Ehrenfried Nicolai was born in Konigsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). A piano prodigy, he was exploited as a child performer by his parents and ran away from home at 16, making his way to Berlin as a pianist and singer. Serving as organist at the Prussian Embassy in Rome from 1833 to 1837, he fell in love with Italy's culture and decided to try writing Italian opera. The popularity of his first stage works, "Enrico II" (1839) and "Il templario" (1840), brought him into competition with the young Giuseppe Verdi, and their fortunes would be linked in a fateful manner. Nicolai turned down the opera libretto for "Nabucco", which later gave Verdi his first big hit; instead he set "Il proscritto" (1841), a text Verdi had previously rejected. It was such a fiasco that Nicolai left Italy for good. Arriving in Vienna in 1841, he established himself as an outstanding conductor at the State Opera, noted for his meticulous revivals of the classics and exacting standards. The following year he launched the Philharmonic Concerts to provide faithful performances of Beethoven's symphonies, laying the foundations for the present-day Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Sickly and self-critical, Nicolai completed relatively few compositions. He worked for several years on "The Merry Wives of Windsor", adapted from Shakespeare and his only opera in German, and resigned from the Vienna Opera in 1848 when they refused to produce it. Nicolai finally led its triumphant premiere in Berlin in March 1849. Two months later he died of a stroke at 38, unaware that he had just been elected to the Prussian Royal Academy of Arts. He had only begun to fulfill the promise of his early work and "The Merry Wives of Windsor" stands as an isolated masterpiece. There is an interesting postscript to his rivalry with Verdi. The success of Nicolai's opera first attracted Verdi to the Shakespeare comedy, though he would wait four decades before writing his own great version, "Falstaff" (1893).
Bio by: Bobb Edwards