Arthur Nikisch was born to a Hungarian father and a Moravian mother, and was a typical case of a young boy whose musical talent showed itself early. At the age of seven he heard the William Tell and Barber of Seville overtures for the first time. When he got home he wrote them out from memory.
He was given music lessons and before he was 11 was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory. He studied violin under Hellmesberger and composition under Dessoff. He won prizes for composition, violin, and piano, but the violin was his main instrument. He started his career as an orchestral musician. He was in the orchestra at Bayreuth when Wagner conducted Beethoven's Ninth there at the laying of the foundation stone of the Festspielhaus there. He joined the Vienna Court Orchestra, which gave him an opportunity to play under the leadership of Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, and Verdi as well as some of the great conductors of the time.
In 1878 he gained a position of assistant conductor at the Leipzig Opera, debuting in an operetta called Jeanne, Jeannette, Jeanetton. Just a year later, still only 23 years old, he had became principal conductor of the opera in this major German musical center and was leading works like Die Walküre and Tannhäuser.
Tchaikovsky wrote home about Nikisch after a visit to Leipzig: "...[O]ne only gains a true idea of the perfection to which an orchestra can attain under a talented conductor when one hears the difficult and complicated scores of Wagner played under the direction of so wonderful a master as Herr Nikisch." The great Russian composer recorded that Nikisch obtained his result with a minimum of motion, no superfluous movement, and a small beat. He wrote that Nikisch was "...small in stature, a very pale young man with splendid poetical eyes that really must possess mesmeric powers." The adjective "mesmeric" occurs almost unfailingly in discussion of his musical leadership. Adrian Boult recorded that after hearing Nikisch lead "the most thrilling performance of the Brahms c minor Symphony I have ever heard" he realized "that Nikisch's hand had never been raised higher than the level of his face throughout the whole movement." In his own career, Boult was also famous for using a precise and undemonstrative beat. Nikisch also had exceptional independence of his arms, and was said never to use his left arm simply to repeat what the right arm was doing.
Despite the lack of podium emoting, Nikisch was a spontaneous and improvisatory performer. He rarely repeated performances the same way, and often took off in directions quite different from what he had rehearsed.
One of the secrets to his leadership was something simpler than some hypnotic power. He was a genuinely nice, warm-hearted man. When Fritz Busch was a member of the Concerts Colonne Orchestra in Paris, Nikisch guest-conducted. Busch writes that Nikisch entered and smiled at the horns and winds "with such charm that when he stepped up...the whole orchestra was already on its feet and had broken out into enthusiastic applause." He then said it was the dream of his life to conduct this famous orchestra (he said that to all the orchestras). Noticing an aged viola player, he smiled and said "Schulze, what are you doing here? I had no idea you had landed in this beautiful city," and briefly recalled a performance in which they had both been orchestral players. "By this time," says Busch, "the orchestra would have died for Nikisch."
One of his greatest skills was as a score-reader, which led to one of the few criticisms against him, which was that he sometimes relied upon his ability to hear the sound on sight and failed to study new music as thoroughly as he should. One time he was rehearsing the Berlin Philharmonic in a new work by Max Reger. Suspecting that the conductor had not prepared for the rehearsal and performance, the composer interrupted the rehearsal and gently suggested that the conductor try the final fugue first. The conductor said, "Ja, ja, ja," and started turning the pages to find it. He kept looking and muttering. "The final fugue, ja. Where is it? Where is it?" Reger snapped, "There is none."
In 1889 he was engaged to become the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He stayed there until 1893, and toured the United States, which was then in the midst of an explosion of new symphony orchestras. In 1893 he became director of the Budapest Opera, keeping that post until 1895. In 1895 he was offered the directorships of both the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. He accepted both positions (the two cities are not far apart) and later added the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra in 1897.
He kept the leadership of the Leipzig Gewandhaus until his death in 1922, and became director of the Leipzig Conservatory as well in 1902. He returned to America on tour with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1912, and made other successful appearances there over the years.
Nikisch was one of the first conductors to record a complete symphony, and the earliest-born conductor to appear before the acoustic horn recorder. His recordings of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, made in 1914 with the Berlin Philharmonic, is accordingly a valuable insight into the Romantic era's approach to performances. They reveal much use of portamentos in the strings and pronounced contrasts of tempos, but are not that old-fashioned sounding.