Herbert von Karajan
Von Karajan, Herbert
Herbert von Karajan is hailed by many as the greatest living conductor of orchestral music. He is revered for eliciting overpowering beauty and precision from the Berlin Philharmonic, the orchestra with which he had been most closely associated from the mid-1950s until poor health forced his retirement in 1989. Many critics have noted his emphasis is on the sound of perfection—of note-perfect expressions of sheer, pure beauty. His conducting method is one of total authority and power. Many associates have noted his seemingly unequaled obsession with music, one that renders him a dynamic dictator when it comes to realizing his ambitions with orchestras. Gustav Kuhn, who studied conducting under von Karajan, told biographer Robert Vaughan that the vaunted maestro is “the greatest, the last great one, the last of the period that started with [Hans] von Beulow in 1850.” Kuhn added: “He is the exception. No one can do it like he can. He is so egocentric, so clever; he uses all of his immense power to do the things he wants.”
Von Karajan was born April 5, 1908, in Salzburg, Austria. He began studying piano in early childhood and first performed before the Salzburg public at age five. But teacher Bernhard Paumgartner found von Karajan too energetic and animated for the instrument and encouraged him to study conducting instead. In his mid-teens von Karajan saw the great maestro Arturo Toscanini and at that time vowed to conduct. But he also continued his piano studies, working under celebrated musician Josef Hofmann. Von Karajan later studied under another acclaimed artist, conductor Clemens Krauss, while attending Vienna’s Academy for Music and the Performing Arts. Aside from his musical pursuits, von Karajan also studied philosophy at the University of Vienna.
In late 1928, von Karajan made his first conducting appearance by leading the student orchestra at the Academy. Soon afterwards, he arranged his own professional audition by hiring an orchestra. Attending that performance was the director of the Ulm Opera House, whose conductor, von Karajan had learned, was ill. In early 1929, von Karajan was hired as a late replacement conductor for a performance of Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. Von Karajan then obtained the Ulm post and began developing the performances there. Aside from his strictly musical duties, he supervised technical aspects, such as lighting and staging as well. When the company was between seasons, von Karajan often returned to Salzburg to assist conductors such as Toscanini and composer Richard Strauss. Eventually, he led courses for other conductors at the Salzburg Festivals.
By the early 1930s, von Karajan’s career was prospering, and he was enjoying increasing recognition as an
Born April 5, 1908, in Salzburg, Austria; son of Ernst (a surgeon) and Martha (Cosmac) von Karajan; married Elmy Holgerloef (a singer), 1938 (marriage ended, 1940); married Anita Guetermann, 1942 (divorced); married Eliette Mouret; children: Isabel, Arabel. Education: Attended Vienna Academy for Music and the Performing Arts and University of Vienna in the mid-1920s.
Ulm Opera House, Ulm, Germany, conductor, 1929-35; Aachen Opera House, Aachen, Germany, music director and conductor, 1935-c. 1942; Berlin State Opera, Berlin, Germany, music director and conductor, beginning 1938; Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, artistic director for life; Philharmonic Orchestra, London, England, chief conductor, 1947-c. 1963; Salzburg Festival, Salzburg, Austria, adviser, 1946, member of board of directors, 1947, artistic director, 1956—; La Scala, Milan, Italy, music director and conductor, 1948-1955; Berlin Philharmonic, conductor, 1955-89; Vienna State Opera, artisitic director from 1956 until the 1960s. Conductor with various orchestras, worldwide, and at numerous festivals. Founder of Herbert von Karajan Research Institute at University of Salzburg, of Herbert von Karajan Foundation, and of film company Telemondial in Monaco.
Awards: Gold Medal from Royal Philharmonic Society.
impressive, multi-talented musician. The decade, however, was not entirely one that von Karajan recalls fondly. In 1935 he was named general music director of the Aachen Opera House. He has since claimed that for professional reasons he joined the Nazi Party at the time of the Aachen appointment. Nazi records, though, disclose that von Karajan had actually joined the party two years earlier, in 1933, within three months of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany. Von Karajan’s actual association with the Nazis remains unclear, and many observers consider it likely that he made a professional, as opposed to a political, move to join the party.
The 1930s also marked the beginning of von Karajan’s supposed feud with conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, whose stature in Germany was such that he remained prominent despite his refusal to join the Nazi Party. As a result of his disdain for the Nazis, though, Furtwangler left his position as director of the Berlin State Opera. By that time, von Karajan had already sparked great public interest in Berlin as a result of his stunning interpretation of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. When he returned there in 1938, he gained further enthusiasm with his rendition of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The acclaim, however, did not impress Furtwangler, who was apparently disgusted by von Karajan’s seeming compliance with the Nazis. Furtwangler used his influence with Nazi culture minister Josef Goebbels to prevent von Karajan from conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.
Von Karajan nonetheless enjoyed great prominence in Berlin through his work with the Berlin State Opera, where he had replaced Furtwangler in 1938. But the acclaim and hectic pace were hardly conducive to von Karajan’s art. “It was a dangerous time in my life,” he later told biographer Vaughan. “Things were going so fast, I was having so much success that I was always apprehensive. Because wherever I went it was a sensation, people said it has never been like this. First, this put other conductors in opposition to me. Second, the expectations were at a level that one could not hope to fulfill…. And people began to say that I was a fast-burning candle, that I would soon burn out.”
Von Karajan turned to yoga, and later to Zen, to stabilize himself. But his personal and professional activities, remained cause for anxiety. In 1942 von Karajan violated Nazi dictum by marrying a woman of Jewish ancestry. As a result he was dismissed from the party. He nonetheless continued to conduct in Berlin during World War II, constantly rescheduling concerts as bombings began to destroy the city. Von Karajan’s activities during this period are obscured by his own privacy and lack of records. He apparently fled to Italy with his wife in 1944 and remained there until the war ended.
Following World War II, von Karajan underwent de-Nazification. For more than a year he was refused classification as a conductor by the Occupation government. In early 1946, however, he led the Vienna Philharmonic in concert. Record executive Walter Legge was awed by von Karajan’s performance. In soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s book On and Off the Record, Legge wrote: “I was absolutely astonished at what the fellow could do. The enourmous energy and vitality he had were hair-raising.” Through Legge, von Karajan was able to record for a Viennese concert society, the Gessellscaft der Musikfreunde, of which he was eventually named artistic director for life. In 1947, von Karajan finally obtained de-Nazification status and resumed conducting in public, whereupon the Vienna Musikfreunde hired him for a series that evolved into an annual event.
The following year, he obtained an important post: music director and conductor at La Scala, the renouned opera house in Milan, Italy. At La Scala, where von Karajan remained until 1955, he enjoyed great success with such artists as soprano Maria Callas. He received further acclaim with his productions of Wagner’s Tristan un Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nurmberg, and the entire Ring of the Nibulungen cycle at Byreuth, West Germany, where festivals are devoted exclusively to Wagner’s operas.
Von Karajan continued his return to prominence in the early 1950s through tours with the Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. Perhaps the turning point in his career came in 1955 when Furtwangler died prior to a tour of America with his orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic. Von Karajan agreed to tour with the orchestra on the condition that he be named conductor for life. Upon obtaining such an agreement, von Karajan led the Berlin Philharmonic on the tour, which proved enormously successful. The following year he was named artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, from which Furtwangler had long succeeded in keeping him. Then he also became artistic director of the Vienna State Opera, where he had led a much praised production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor featuring Maria Callas.
By the end of the 1950s, von Karajan was known as much for his whirlwind schedule as for his musical prowess. And as if the pace of his concertizing were not exhaustive enough, he began recording extensively, producing highly prized interpretations of works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Richard Strauss. Throughout the 1960s he continued to record constantly, repeating and even re-repeating portions of his burgeoning catalog. The records contributed greatly to his status as an unrivaled conductor—and to the Berlin Philharmonic’s claim to the title of the world’s greatest orchestra. Of course, von Karajan and the Philharmonic continued to triumph with their live performances. Particularly impressive were their four successive productions of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Salzburg Easter Festival, which von Karajan commenced in 1967.
In recent years, von Karajan sustained his reputation as one of the world’s greatest—if not the greatest—of conductors. Artists such as soprano Leontyne Price and fellow conductor Seiji Ozawa are quick to offer their reverential praise, and many newcoming musicians cite him as a generous influence. Von Karajan recorded extensively—his canon now exceeds three hundred recordings, including five complete cycles of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. In addition, he appeared on numerous radio and television broadcasts and was filmed many times. Among his many triumphs in the 1980s was a Salzburg Festival production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni featuring soprano Kathleen Battle and baritone Samuel Ramey.
Health was the only obstacle to von Karajan’s continued domination in classical music. He suffered a stroke in 1978 and was left partially paralyzed following emergency surgery in 1983. His health continued to worsen, and in April 1989 von Karajan announced his retirement from the Berlin Philharmonic after nearly 35 years as its conductor.
Johann Sebastian Bach, Mass in B Minor, Deutsche Grammophon.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Nine Symphonies, Deutsche Grammophon.
Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique, Deutsche Grammophon.
Anton Bruckner, Nine Symphonies, Deutsche Grammophon.
Franz Joseph Haydn, The Creation, Deutsche Grammophon.
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5, Deutsche Grammophon.
Felix Mendelssohn, Five Symphonies, Deutsche Grammophon.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Requiem, Deutsche Grammophon.
Giacomo Puccini, Tosca, Deutsche Grammophon.
Puccini, Turandot, Deutsche Grammophon.
Franz Schubert, Symphony No. 8 (”Unfinished”), Angel Records.
Robert Schumann, Symphony No. 3 (”Rhenish”), Deutsche Grammophon.
Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 2, Angel Records.
Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier, Angel Records.
Peter llyich Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”), Angel Records.
Giuseppe Verdi, II trovatore, Angel Records.
Blyth, Alan, editor, Opera on Record, Hutchinson, 1979, Harper, 1982.
Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth, On and Off the Record, Scribner, 1982.
Vaughan, Roger, Herbert von Karajan, Norton, 1986.
Detroit Free Press, April 25, 1989.
High Fidelity, October, 1957; June, 1987; December, 1987; February, 1988; July, 1988.
Newsweek, October 25, 1982.
New York, My 18, 1988.
New York Times, April 29, 1988.
Stereo Review, March, 1987.
von Karajan, Herbert
Over 30 years as its conductor, Herbert von Karajan (1908–1989) molded the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra into perhaps the finest of the world's large classical music ensembles. He was a superstar among conductors—his thick, steel-gray hair and authoritative manner was instantly recognizable around the musical world.
Von Karajan had the kind of powerful personality that stirred disagreement—even beyond the controversy generated by his allegiance to German Fascism early in his career. Critics and audiences marveled at the flawless sheen he could elicit from the Berlin Philharmonic and the other ensembles he conducted, but some found his interpretations almost too polished, lacking in soul and drama. Von Karajan was an autocrat on the podium, and his fabled perfectionism resulted in exhilarating orchestral sound but did not encourage fresh thinking. He lived a jet-set lifestyle, seeking and often receiving publicity, and he had a taste for adventure. Some called him egotistical or ruthless, and musicians cracked jokes in which God aspires to reach von Karajan's level. Yet, whatever divergent opinions music lovers might hold, few would disagree that von Karajan loomed large in the musical imagination of the twentieth century.
Studied Piano from Young Age
The son of Salzburg's chief medical officer, von Karajan grew up in that musically rich Austrian city, the hometown of Mozart. He started piano lessons at age three, gave a recital at eight, and generally benefited from his family's support. Von Karajan embarked on piano studies at the Salzburg Mozarteum but temporarily switched to an engineering program at the University of Vienna. When he was 20, he heard an opera performance by the legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, an artist whose single-mindedness and drive von Karajan himself would seek to emulate. "From the first bar it was as if I had been struck a blow," Von Karajan later wrote (as quoted by Martin Kettle in London's Guardian newspaper). "I was completely disconcerted by the perfection which had been achieved."
Soon von Karajan was taking conducting lessons with Franz Schalk and leading a student ensemble. In March of 1929 he made his public debut as a conductor, leading a performance of Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro in Ulm, Germany. He remained on the staff of the Ulm opera house for five years but often returned to Salzburg to conduct orchestral performances there and to appear at the city's annual festival. Word spread about his talents, and critics began to prophesy a great future for the young conductor; one early newspaper review referred to him as Das wunder Karajan.
After Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, von Karajan flirted with fascism as early as 1933. When he was offered a job as music director at the municipal opera house in the German city of Aachen in 1934 or 1935, he agreed to join Germany's National Socialist (Nazi) party as a condition of employment. Details of von Karajan's involvement with the Nazis emerged slowly over the years, troubling many observers, and he never explicitly apologized for his support of Hitler's regime. The general consensus among historians, however, was that von Karajan had little interest in politics and joined the party because that seemed to be a good professional move at the time.
Indeed, von Karajan ran into trouble with the fascist overlords of German culture during the Nazi period. At first, with his striking good looks and fearsome energy, he created a sensation in German musical circles. In the late 1930s he was the toast of musical Berlin thanks to highly successful stints conducting The Marriage of Figaro and the gigantic Wagner opera Tristan and Isolde at the Berlin State Opera, where he became music director in 1938. He feuded with the other leading German conductor of the time, Wilhelm Furtwängler, who never joined the Nazis but maintained strong control over musical life in Germany. Hitler's deputy, Hermann Goering, admired von Karajan's work, but Hitler himself disliked it. That was a strong sign of trouble for von Karajan, who remained at work in Berlin during the first part of the war, but eventually fled to Italy with his second wife, Anna Maria. She was one-quarter Jewish, which further complicated the couple's status under the German government's system of racial classification.
Underwent American De-Nazification Procedure
After the war, von Karajan returned to Austria and submitted himself to questioning by an American de-Nazification tribunal. At first he was prohibited from performing, but was cleared to conduct a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946. In the audience was Walter Legge, a top producer and executive with England's EMI record company. Amazed by von Karajan's energy, Legge smoothed the way for von Karajan to record with the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, a Vienna music society orchestra, and later to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. Even at this stage the ambitious von Karajan drove a hard bargain; a series of recordings Legge made with von Karajan conducting the Philharmonia took months of negotiation.
In 1947, finally given an unconditional green light by officials of the American occupation, von Karajan began to conduct frequently and resumed much of his former star status. The following year he was hired as conductor at La Scala, the Milan, Italy opera house that stood at the center of Italian operatic tradition. It was a measure of von Karajan's versatility that over much of his career he was considered among the world's top conductors of Italian opera, something uncommon among composers trained in the German-Austrian tradition. Despite his authoritarian streak he was a talented handler of singers with equally strong personalities; African-American soprano Leontyne Price, according to John Rockwell of the New York Times, called von Karajan "one of the kindest men I ever met."
In Germany and Austria, too, von Karajan's mystique grew. Partly because, aside from Furtwängler, he had few competitors at his level in the German-speaking world; many of Germany's top musicians had been Jewish and had fled, if they could, to the United States and other countries. The expansion of classical music as recordings migrated from three-minute 78 rpm discs to LPs, which were much better suited to compositions that might be an hour or more in length, also played a role in his growing success. Von Karajan toured widely with the Philharmonia and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras. To relieve the pressure associated with his growing renown, he took up yoga; he later practiced Zen Buddhism.
Finally, in 1955, von Karajan had his chance. Furtwängler, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, died before the orchestra, Germany's most prominent, could undertake an American tour—its first since the war, and a potent symbol of Germany's full restoration to membership in the international cultural community. Von Karajan offered himself as the ideal replacement. The claim was justifiable, but von Karajan, with characteristic calculation, also insisted that he be named the orchestra's conductor for life. The orchestra's administration agreed, and the protests and pickets that met von Karajan in the U.S. were soon silenced by his dynamic presence on the podium.
Made More Than 800 Recordings
Von Karajan's appointment as the Berlin Philharmonic's conductor inaugurated a long reign at the top of the classical music world. The classics were at the top of their postwar popularity, and conductor-stars such as Leonard Bernstein flourished in both the U.S. and Europe. None could rival von Karajan, however, in terms of a reputation for absolute mastery over an orchestra. Signed to West Germany's premier classical label, Deutsche Grammophon, von Karajan recorded Beethoven's cycle of nine symphonies on three separate occasions. He amassed a total of over 800 recordings over his long career. The Berlin Philharmonic was his "instrument," but he was in demand as a guest conductor. An often-told anecdote related how von Karajan got into a taxi at an airport and, when the driver asked him where he wanted to go, he replied that it didn't matter; people wanted him everywhere.
Named the artistic director of the Vienna State Opera in 1956, von Karajan became as famous in opera houses as he was in orchestral concert halls. He conducted Wagner's massive four-opera Ring cycle at the Bayreuth theater in southeastern Germany, where it had been premiered a century before. Von Karajan also assumed the directorship of the Salzburg Festival in his hometown, revitalizing an event that had come to seem a rather lifeless shrine to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his music. Where other German conductors tended to restrict themselves mostly to the classic Austro-German strand of classical music running from Haydn and Mozart through Beethoven and Brahms, von Karajan ranged farther afield, winning special acclaim for his interpretations of the orchestrally lush symphonies of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. He continued to appear frequently in Italy and to conduct the music of Verdi, Puccini, and other Italian operatic composers.
Von Karajan on the podium was an unforgettable figure for those who saw him in concert, and even more so for the players who worked under him. Philharmonia orchestra flutist Gareth Morris (as quoted by Terry Teachout in Commentary) recalled von Karajan's conducting of Ravel's Bolero this way: "With the eyes closed and the hands barely chest high, von Karajan gave us the beat with a single finger, and even that barely moved…. With each slight lift of the hands the tension became even greater. By the end of the piece, the hands were above his head. And that power of that final climax was absolutely colossal." Von Karajan generally conducted with his eyes closed, as if to say that the music existed in an abstract world beyond the conductor and musicians. Indeed, controlling though he may have been, his interpretations did not draw attention to themselves in a radical way; he aimed instead to erase the boundary between music and listener.
French fashion model Eliette Mouret became von Karajan's third wife, and he lived the high life in his spare time, maintaining houses in the Austrian Alps, in the Swiss resort of St. Moritz, and in the glamorous French town of St. Tropez. Von Karajan learned to fly his own plane, at first a two-seater and finally a Lear jet that he shared with an Austrian airline. He was a mountain climbing enthusiast, and he could often be found on Europe's ski slopes. Von Karajan drew photographers and gossip journalists with outlandish statements; he once, for instance, said that he was considering having himself cryogenically frozen so that he could later be thawed and re-record pieces from the standard classical repertory.
The ego revealed by such statements grated on some observers during the last phases of von Karajan's career, and some of the bloom came off his reputation in the late 1970s and 1980s. Reviewers sometimes charged that he was repeating himself as he performed and recorded the same works again and again, and even the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic began to resist his authority; when he tried to add a young protegée, clarinetist Sabine Meyer, to the orchestra, the (all-male) group of musicians, which traditionally held the prerogative to make personnel decisions, rebelled, and von Karajan was forced to give in. Von Karajan did, however, succeed in making an international star of another protegée, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose playing had the same steely quality of perfection that von Karajan cultivated as a conductor. In increasingly poor health after a stroke and several other serious medical crises, von Karajan resigned as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in April of 1989. Though he continued to work, he lived only three more months and died at his home in the Austrian Alps on July 16, 1989. Some called him the last great conductor in the German-speaking world's great tradition.
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