The celebrated Greek-born American conductor and composer, Dimitri (originally: Dimitris) Mitropoulos, was born in Athens, the son of Yannis and Angeliki Mitropoulos. His father owned a leather goods shop. He was musically precocious, demonstrating his abilities at an early age. From the ages of 11 to 14, 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 piano with Wassenhoven and harmony with A. Marsick at the Odeon Conservatory in Athens. He wrote and opera after Maeterlinck Soeur Béatrice (1918), performed at the Odeon Conservatory on May 20, 1919. In 1920, after graduation from the Conservatory, he went to Brussels, where he studied composition with Gilson. In 1921 to Berlin, where he took piano lessons with Ferruccio Busoni at the Hochschule für Musik until 1924.
From 1921 to 1925 Dimitri Mitropoulos assisted (répétiteur) Erich Kleiber at the Berlin State Opera. In 1924 he became a conductor of the Odeon Conservatory Orchestra in Athens, was it co-conductor from 1924 to 1927 and principal conductor from 1929. From 1930 he was also professor of composition there. In 1930 he was invited to conduct a concert of the Berliner Philharmoniker. When the soloist Egon Petri became suddenly indisposed, Mitropoulos substituted him as a soloist in Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, conducting the orchestra from the keyboard, and becoming one of the first modern musicians to do so (February 27, 1930). He played the same concerto in Paris in 1932 as a pianist-conductor, and later in the USA. His Paris debut as a conductor in 1932 obtained a spontaneous success, and he was conductor of the Paris Symphony Orchestra from 1932 to 1936. He conducted the most difficult works from memory, which was a novelty at the time. He also led rehearsals without a score.
Dimitri Mitropoulos made his American debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on January 24, 1936, with immediate acclaim. That same year he was engaged as a music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now: Minnesota Orchestra). There he frequently performed modern music, including works by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and other representatives of the atonal school. The opposition that naturally arose was not sufficient to offset his hold on the public as a conductor of great emotional power. He became a naturalised citizen of the USA in 1946. He resigned from the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1949 to accept the post of conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the peak of his orchestral career. He was initially co-conductor with Leopold Stokowski, and became the sole music director in 1950. In 1956 Leonard Bernstein was engaged as associate conductor with Mitropoulos. With the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Mitropoulos continued his policy of bringing out important works by European and American modernists. He expanded the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's repertoire, commissioning works by new composers and championing the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. He also programmed modern operas (Elektra, Wozzeck) in concert form. A musician of astounding technical ability, Mitropoulos became very successful with the general public as well as with the musical vanguard whose cause he was so boldly espoused. He recorded extensively with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for Columbia Records and sought to reach new audiences through appearances on television and conducting a week of performances at the Roxy Theatre, a popular movie theatre in New York. In 1958 Mitropoulos was succeeded as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's music director by his former protégé, Leonard Bernstein.
While his time was engaged mainly in the USA, Dimitri Mitropoulos continued to appear as guest conductor in Europe. In addition to his orchestral career, he was an equally important force in the operatic repertoire. He conducted opera extensively at various European opera theatres, making his debut at the Salzburg Festival in 1954. He made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York conducting Salome on December 15, 1954, and from that time until his death in 1960 was the principal conductor of the Met, although the Met did not officially use that title at the time. His musically incisive and dramatically vivid performances of Puccini, Verdi, Richard Strauss and others remain models of the opera conductor's art. The Met's extensive archive of recorded broadcasts preserves many of these fine performances.
Dimitri Mitropoulos' series of recordings for Columbia Records with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra included a rare complete performance of Alban Berg's Wozzeck. Many of these have been reissued by Sony Classics on CD, including most recently his stereo recordings of excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. For RCA he recorded with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra during the 78-rpm era. He was also represented on the Cetra label, most notably with an early recording of Richard Strauss's Elektra.
Dimitri Mitropoulos 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 never married. He was "quietly known to be homosexual" and "felt no need for a cosmetic marriage". Among his relationships reportedly was one with Leonard Bernstein.
Dimitri Mitropoulos died in Milan, Italy at the age of 64, while rehearsing G. Mahler's 3rd Symphony. One of his very last recorded performances was Verdi's La Forza del Destino with Giuseppe di Stefano, Antonietta Stella and Ettore Bastianini at Vienna on September 23, 1960. A recording exists of the performance of G. Mahler's 3rd Symphony given by Mitropoulos with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln on October 31, 1960, just two days before his death. International competition for young conductors is named in his memory.
Dimitri Mitropoulos was noted as a champion of modern music, such as that by the members of the Second Viennese School. In addition he was very influential in encouraging Leonard Bernstein's interest in conducting performances of G. Mahler's symphonic works. He also premiered and recorded a piano concerto of Ernst Krenek as soloist (available on CD), and works by composers in the USA such as Roger Sessions and Peter Mennin. In 1952 he commissioned American composer Philip Bezanson to write a piano concerto, which he premiered the following year. He conducted the premiere performance of Barber's Vanessa at the Met in 1958 and at the Salzburg Festival in 1958.
As a composer Dimitri Mitropoulos was one of the earliest among Greek composers to write in a distinctly modern idiom. He wrote a number of piecfor orchestra and solo works for piano, and also arranged some of J.S. Bach's organ works for orchestra.