Karajan, Herbert (actually, Heribert) von

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Karajan, Herbert (actually, Heribert) von

Karajan, Herbert (actually, Heribert) von, great Austrian conductor; b. Salzburg, April 5, 1908; d. Anif, near Salzburg, July 16, 1989. He was a scion of a cultured family of Greek-Macedonian extraction whose original name was Karajannis. His great-grandfather was Theodor Georg von Karajan (b. Vienna, Jan. 22, 1810; d. there, April 28, 1873), a writer on music; his father was a medical officer who played the clarinet and his brother was a professional organist. Karajan himself began his musical training as a pianist; he took lessons with Franz Ledwinka at the Salzburg Mozarteum. He further attended the conducting classes of the Mozarteum’s director, Bernhard Paumgartner. Eventually he went to Vienna, where he pursued academic training at a technical college and took piano lessons from one J. Hofmann; then entered the Vienna Academy of Music as a conducting student in the classes of Clemens Krauss and Alexander Wunderer. On Dec. 17, 1928, he made his conducting debut with a student orch. at the Vienna Academy of Music; shortly afterward, on Jan. 23, 1929, he made his professional conducting debut with the Salzburg Orch. He then received an engagement as conductor of the Ulm Stadttheater (1929–34). From Ulm he went to Aachen, where he was made conductor of the Stadttheater; he subsequently served as the Generalmusikdirektor there (1935–42). On April 9, 1938, he conducted his first performance with the Berlin Phil., the orch. that became the chosen medium of his art. On Sept. 30, 1938, he conducted Fidelio at his debut with the Berlin State Opera. After his performance of Tristan und Isolde there on Oct. 21, 1938, he was hailed by the Berliner Tageblatt as “das Wunder Karajan” His capacity of absorbing and interpreting the music at hand and transmitting its essence to the audience became his most signal characteristic; he also conducted all of his scores from memory, including the entire Ring des Nibelungen. His burgeoning fame as a master of both opera and sym. led to engagements elsewhere in Europe. In 1938 he conducted opera at La Scala in Milan and also made guest appearances in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. In 1939 he became conductor of the sym. concerts of the Berlin State Opera Orch.

There was a dark side to Karajan’s character, revealing his lack of human sensitivity and even a failure to act in his own interests. He became fascinated by the ruthless organizing solidity of the National Socialist party; shortly after Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, Karajan was recruited to join the Austrian Nazi party in Salzburg, and then formally joined the German Nazi party in 1935 in anticipation of his Aachen appointment as Generalmusikdirektor. He lived to regret these actions after the collapse of the Nazi empire, but he managed to obtain various posts, and in 1947 he was officially denazified by the Allies’ army of occupation. His personal affairs also began to interfere with his career. He married the operetta singer Elmy Holgerloef in 1938, but divorced her in 1942 to marry Anita Gütermann. Trouble came when the suspicious Nazi genealogists discovered that she was one- quarter Jewish and suggested that he divorce her. But World War II was soon to end, and so was Nazi hegemony. He finally divorced Güter mann in 1958 to marry the French fashion model Eliette Mouret.

Karajan was characteristically self-assertive and unflinching in his personal relationships and in his numerous conflicts with managers and players. Although he began a close relationship with the Vienna Sym. Orch. in 1948, he left it in 1958. His association as conductor of the Philharmonia Orch. of London from 1948 to 1954 did more than anything to re-establish his career after World War II, but in later years he disdained his relationship with that ensemble. When Wilhelm Furtwängler, the longtime conductor of the Berlin Phil., died in 1954, Karajan was chosen to lead the orch. on its first tour of the U.S. However, he insisted that he would lead the tour only on the condition that he be duly elected Furtwängler’s successor. Protesters were in evidence for his appearance at N.Y/s Carnegie Hall with the orch. on March 1, 1955, but his Nazi past did not prevent the musicians of the orch. from electing him their conductor during their visit to Pittsburgh on March 3. After their return to Germany, the West Berlin Senate ratified the musicians7 vote on April 5, 1955.

Karajan soon came to dominate the musical life of Europe as no other conductor had ever done. In addition to his prestigious Berlin post, he served as artistic director of the Vienna State Opera from 1956 until he resigned in a bitter dispute with its general manager in 1964. He concurrently was artistic director of the Salzburg Festival (1957–60), and thereafter remained closely associated with it. From 1969 to 1971 he held the title of artistic adviser of the Orchestre de Paris. In the meantime, he consolidated his positions in Berlin and Salzburg. On Oct. 15, 1963, he conducted the Berlin Phil, in a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Sym. at the gala concert inaugurating the orch/s magnificent new concert hall, the Philharmonie. In 1967 he organized his own Salzburg Easter Festival, which became one of the world’s leading musical events. In 1967 he re-negotiated his contract and was named conductor-for-life of the Berlin Phil. He made a belated Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. on Nov. 21, 1967, conducting Die Walküre. He went on frequent tours of Europe and Japan with the Berlin Phil., and also took the orch. to the Soviet Union (1969) and China (1979).

In 1982 Karajan personally selected the 23-year-old clarinetist Sabine Meyer as a member of the Berlin Phil, (any romantic reasons for his insistence were not apparent). The musicians of the orch. rejected her because of their standing rule to exclude women, but also because the majority of the musicians had less appreciation of Meyer as an artist than Karajan himself did. A compromise was reached, however, and in 1983 she was allowed to join the orch. on probation. She resigned in 1984 after a year of uneasy co-existence.

In 1985 Karajan celebrated his 30th anniversary as conductor of the Berlin Phil, and in 1988 his 60th anniversary as a conductor. In 1987 he conducted the New Year’s Day Concert of the Vienna Phil., which was televised to millions on both sides of the Atlantic. In Feb. 1989 he made his last appearance in the U.S., conducting the Vienna Phil, at N.Y.’s Carnegie Hall. In April 1989 he announced his retirement from his Berlin post, citing failing health. Shortly before his death, he dictated an autobiographical book to Franz Endler; it was publ. in an English tr. in 1989.

Through his superlative musical endowments, charismatic and glamorous personality, extraordinary capacity for systematic work, and phenomenal command of every aspect of the great masterworks of the symphonic and operatic repertoire fully committed to memory, Karajan attained legendary stature in his own time. A renowned orchestral technician, he molded the Berlin Phil, into the most glorious musical ensemble of its kind. His interpretations of Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss placed him among the foremost conductors in the history of his chosen profession.


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—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire