Herbert von Karajan (5 April 1908 – 16 July 1989) was an Austrian orchestra and opera conductor and one of the most renowned conductors in music history. His obituary in The New York Times described him as "probably the world's best-known conductor and one of the most powerful figures in classical music." Karajan conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for thirty-five years. He is the top-selling classical music recording artist of all time, with record sales estimated at 200 million. [...]
Karajan's membership of the Nazi Party and increasingly prominent career in Germany from 1933 to 1945 cast him in an uncomplimentary light after the war. While Karajan's defenders have argued that he joined the Nazis only to advance his own career, critics such as Jim Svejda have pointed out that other prominent conductors, such as Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber and Arturo Toscanini, fled from fascist Europe at the time. However, British music critic Richard Osborne argues that among the many well-known conductors who worked in Germany throughout the war years—a list that includes Wilhelm Furtwängler, Ernest Ansermet, Carl Schuricht, Karl Böhm, Hans Knappertsbusch, Clemens Krauss and Karl Elmendorff—Karajan was in fact one of the youngest and least advanced in his career. [...]
Those who have achieved all their aims probably set them too low.
I don’t just want it to sound beautiful, I want it to look beautiful as well - for music is an embodiment of beauty.
Explaining why he preferred conducting the Berlin Philharmonic to the Vienna Philharmonic: If I tell the Berliners to step forward, they do it. If I tell the Viennese to step forward, they do it. But then they ask why.
Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music (Hardcover)
VON KARAJAN (1908-1989), an Austrian-born conductor who was a controversial figure because of his membership in the Nazi party at an early stage of his career and because of his lifelong autocratic behavior, receives an exhaustive, penetrating biography. Music critic Richard Osborne, who published Conversations with von Karajan shortly before the conductor's death, has drawn on a huge number of sources to create a notably balanced account of a career that still divides many music lovers into energetic pro and con parties. Von Karajan spent his early years as a provincial opera conductor and orchestra builder in Aachen (where he joined the Nazis as a career move in 1933), then endured years of struggle during the war--when, Osborne convincingly demonstrates, his career was in fact held back rather than encouraged by the Nazis because his wife was partly Jewish. It was not until after the war, when British record producer Walter Legge hired him for a series of recordings with his new Philharmonia Orchestra, that von Karajan began to build an international reputation. After a drawn-out struggle with Wilhelm Furtwangler, von Karajan took the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic. This, combined with his vastly successful recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, finally established the conductor as a world figure whose wide-ranging recordings sold at almost pop-star levels. Osborne is particularly good at showing the wide swings in the quality of von Karajan's performances, from the totally committed to the polished but banal; his material on the conductor's now largely forgotten efforts (to which he devoted large sums of his own money) to immortalize his performances on videotape is riveting. Beautifully written, eminently fair-minded and full of enthralling anecdotes, this book will be catnip to any serious music lover. Photos. [Publishers Weekly]
THIS IS probably the ultimate biography of a complex and controversial personality in recent musical history. The book is conventionally structured: it is based on a detailed chronology supported by a rich factual database on Karajan's accomplishments as an orchestra builder and manager, recording artist and film maker. Stretching to more than 700 pages, the rich detail of Osborne's account certainly is one of the main attractions of this book. We learn a tremendous amount about Karajan's working methods, contract negotiations, concert tours, recording schedules, casting policy, press reviews, etc. As the story progresses Osborne branches out in all kinds of directions, gradually weaving more and more threads into the basic narrative. Given the quality of Osborne's prose this never becomes tedious. And it really does teach us something substantial about the breathtaking speed, economy, tenacity and versatility of the Karajanesque genius. There is no doubt that the book as a whole transcends the merely anecdotal. What emerges is a rich, multifaceted, holographic image of a great artist. What is even more impressive about Osborne's book is that it gives us an idea of what constitutes the essence of great conductorship. Instead of being confronted with woolly and simplistic generalizations about a certain 'Factor X' that allows an individual to coax exactly the right sound from a full symphony orchestra, we see the conceptual foundations of this most elusive of disciplines emerge in all its technical, psychological and somatic richness. Therefore, this book is definitely a must-read for any classical music lover, irrespective of personal predilections with respect to the man himself.
Downfall - and the Mystery of Karajan's Personal Photographer
I worked at EMI in the 1970s when Karajan was one of our artists and I was fascinated by the 'court' that surrounded him and was intrigued by their background. It is documented that Karajan joined the Nazi Party on April 8th 1933 in Salzburg, two months after Hitler came to power. He was cleared by an Austrian Governement denazification tribunal in February 1946 which concluded that Karajan was not involved in any illegal activity between 1933 and 1938. A transcript of the tribunal is given in Richard Osborne's Karajan - A Life in Music. The following exchange is taken from that transcript:
Dr Zellweker, Deputy Chairman of Tribunal: Surely you must have had some thoughts about (politics), and then there you were in 1935 joining the Party.
Karajan: I'm prepared to admit that it was an error, but we artists live in another world, a self-contained one. Otherwise it would be impossible to play music properly, and music is the highest and only thing for me. [...]
Herbert von Karajan: Save Us From the Resurrection of That Old Devil
Ivan Hewett hopes that the return of conductor Herbert von Karajan is only temporary
Something creepy is happening in the world of classical music.
It started a few months ago, when a long-forgotten face started to appear on posters in record shops. Soon it spread to billboards and magazines. Suddenly, those rapturously closed eyes, those springing grey locks and that clenched jaw seemed to be everywhere.
It seemed as if Herbert von Karajan, one-time Nazi, the most tyrannical, reviled, and lavishly rewarded conductor in history, had returned from the dead.
Frankly, I wouldn't put it past the old devil. Before his death in 1989, Karajan talked of having himself cryogenically preserved so that he could be resurrected at some future date, and this was a man who always got what he wanted.
Fortunately, it's only an illusion, brought on by the determination of the music industry to make the most of the 100th anniversary of Karajan's birth, which falls next month. [...]
In Praise of Herbert von Karajan, with a Selective Critical Discography
My immediate reaction to Michael Miller's commentary on the Karajan centenary [Oh No! He’s Not Back Again, is He? - May 2, 2008] was rather choleric, but I've settled down a bit since then and can write this from a relatively balanced perspective.
I bought those 1962-63 Beethoven symphonies, too, which by the way are in such bad sound that three remasterings later, including the most recent in SACD, they remain boomy and muddy. I'm not sure where you heard them praised. But Karajan's quasi-hypnotizing style didn't appeal to me back then. I dropped out until the mid-80s. Since then -- don't be shocked -- I've bought his entire EMI output from 1947 until the early Eighties, all his Decca recordings (which are relatively few), a huge chunk of his DG catalogue, and many highlights from the historical archives. As a result, I incline toward his English biographer, Richard Osborne, in believing that Karajan was among the greatest conductors of the century. And not just in the Fifties, that canard notwithstanding.
Since a reverential regard for Karajan was common in his heyday but sneered at now -- not by you but by taste-benumbed pygmies like Norman Lebrecht -- I won't fight upstream. Time levels out these matters. Sheerly in the interest of offering your readers access to less well known great recordings, along with many that belong on every serious collector's shelf, here's a long list of my favorites. Its length may convince you that I suffer from Karajan monomania. Not at all. I rarely turn to Karajan's Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Bartók, or Stravinsky (with a few exceptions like his wonderful Haydn Creation). I'm distressed by his later Beethoven cycles from the 70s and 80s, which as you point out sound slick and bored. I'm not often convinced by Karajan as accompanist for Mutter, Weissenberg, Anda, Ferras, Kremer, Kissin, and other soloists he favored (again, with some outstanding exceptions like the Beethoven Triple Concerto with three great Russians).
Carlos Kleiber used to get enraged when he heard anyone disparage "the Karajan sound," insisting that such a profound musical mind had to be judged one performance at a time. I beg of you and other detractors to stop branding Karajan as at best a careerist and at worst a semi-charlatan. Subordinate your prejudices to the high opinion that you have of Kleiber, a vast admirer of the older master. (One could also fill a volume of encomiums from all the great singers who considered Karajan the pre-eminent opera conductor of his generation.)
Now to the list. It's not an olla podrida. I've limited it to Karajan's very best -- in my opinion, of course. [...]
Herbert von Karajan's Richard Strauss Recordings
I have been listening to classical music virtually my whole life. At around thirteen, I dove in head deep and started buying CDs like mad until I had a collection of over 500 classical and opera CDs. If one were to browse this collection it would be immediately apparent that I have more Herbert von Karajan recordings than I do of any other conductor. I suppose I just dig his style. There are many detractors to Herbert von Karajan's style, apparently. Most of the criticisms I've read pertain to the orchestral sound being too glossy or lethargic, for Karajan had a prediliction for perfection from his players and typically employed broad and expansive tempi that in some cases could drag the music down. These criticisms are valid to some degree with certain recordings, but on the whole I believe Karajan created a wonderful catalog of his own, offering most of what comprises the standard repertoire, with good to excellent performances and generally excellent sound quality. There are some true gems in Karajan's catalog, and I think most of his recordings of Richard Strauss's works with the Berlin Philharmonic are among them.
Karajan and Strauss, a Shared History
Herbert von Karajan was an up-and-coming young celebrity when he first met Richard Strauss in 1940, nine years before the composer's death. He looked up to Strauss very much, already a great admirer of his music. Strass was attending a performance of his own opera Elektra, conducted by Karajan. Strauss later told him it was the best performance of the opera he had ever heard, and was even more impressed that Karajan could conduct the entire score from memory, without the assistance of the score in front of him during the performance. Karajan had occasion to meet Strauss later and received a few pearls of wisdom regarding music and conducting that he later admitted had an influence on his own approach to conducting.
Karajan and Strauss also shared another similarity in their personal histories: they were both involved with the Nazi party in Germany. Richard Stauss served for a time as the President of the Music division of the Reichskammerkultur, a branch of the Nazi government tasked with identifying what was to be considered "degenerate art" in Nazi Germany. At first, Strauss accepted this position in an effort to reign in the growing atonal movement, due to the backlash against Romantic music it had created. Strauss was never an actual member of the Nazi party, and he did not last long in the position of president, due to the fact that he continued to collaborate with Jewish artists during his tenure. Considering Strauss's own wife was also Jewish, it seems clear that he did not buy into some of the Nazi party's more nefarious ideals, but simply felt a duty to his country to oversee the quality of music that was to be played in Germany. He became disenchanted with the Nazi party, but managed to survive the war years with his family intact.
Karajan joined the Nazi party in the early 1930s, presumably in order to remain in Germany under Nazi leadership and continue to further his ambitions. While he conducted several concerts for Nazi politicians and added the requisite fanfares to the beginning of concerts, there is little indication that Karajan had any real political aspirations. Furthermore, his wife at the time was of partial Jewish descent, and in fact he later became unpopular amongst the higher echelon of Nazi power players. This may have been influential in his decision to spend a few years in England developing his craft with the newly formed Philharmonia Orchestra, before ultimately taking over the directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1955, a post he was to hold until 1989.
To this day, much has been said of Karajan and Strauss's involvement with the Nazis. Several famous musical figures, such as Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern, refused to work with Karajan throughout his life as a result of his Nazi membership. Despite the moral judgments people make decades after the fact, it seems clear to me that both Strauss and Karajan were men of their time; they loved Germany and they loved music. While many conductors and composers fled Germany in protest of Nazi leadership, for better or worse, these men stayed and continued to make music. Whatever one may say about them as men, I for one can enjoy the music as the gift they gave the world despite their human flaws. [...]
Herbert von Karajan conducts A Hero's Life by Richard Strauss
Gross Misconduct? The Centenary of Herbert von Karajan
[Neil Fisher - TimesOnline.co.uk - 06/28/08]
Herbert von Karajan was a maestro whose monstrous life has obscured his musical genius
For many it is the stuff of pure nightmare. The old enemy back from the dead – on posters, on websites, even on coins. For it’s the centenary of Herbert von Karajan, and, 19 years after his death, the maestro with most recordings to his name, the man who led the Berlin Philharmonic for an astonishing 34 years, is being fêted again.
Forget Liverpool ’08 – in Germany and Austria it is definitely Karajan 2008, with a celebratory website (Karajan.org), a commemorative €5 coin, a sprawl of tribute concerts and a tonne of repackagings of some of his crucial cuts on Deutsche Grammophon. Next Saturday Radio 3 joins the party, with a Karajan Week devoted to picking through the conductor’s discography, and including a detailed documentary on his life and times.
No other conductor could possibly inspire all that – and no other conductor could possibly have prompted such a backlash in response. The party year dawned with a flurry of anti-Karajan polemics. He was, we were told, a bully. A barely repentant fascist. A self-publicist. And, worst of all, his music-making was facile: seductive, perhaps, and certainly disciplined, but empty of meaning.
It’s a tempting narrative – indeed, it’s a story that’s been given so much airtime that it is practically canonical. Growing up without any direct experience of the man, my first impressions were only the slurs: it was his great rival, Leonard Bernstein, who seized the imagination, even to the point of claiming Karajan’s home ground for his epochal performance of Beethoven’s Ninth at the recently fallen Berlin Wall.
Perhaps the most interesting release this year from Karajan’s record label is Robert Dornhelm’s biopic, Herbert von Karajan – or Beauty as I See it, a revealing clutch of interviews with those who knew the man. Fast forward through the toadying montages and you hit some fascinating observations.
The soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf recalls his instructions to one hapless cast: “And if any of you are unwilling I’ll twist the screws so tight that every one of you comes crawling to me on your stomachs.” That’s a story that sounds dramatic until you hear that at Karajan’s very first orchestra his sacked concert-master turned up to rehearsals with a loaded pistol in his pocket – such was his hatred of the jumped-up twentysomething who had the arrogance to dismiss him.
That this maestro took no prisoners isn’t up for debate: no, you probably wouldn’t have wanted to have a pint with him. But what emerges most strongly from the film is his artistic credo, indivisible from his personality: the pursuit of total perfection. He had an unflinching desire to control every aspect of music production, even including directing Wagner on stage at the Salzburg Festival (badly) to masterminding the bizarrely dated tableaux of his filmed concerts.
The error is to mistake this musical authoritarianism for the political kind. It’s a terrible and dangerous diversion to align Karajan’s moral cowardice (like many of the artistic community in 1930s Germany, he never considered exile and joined the Nazi party to further his ambition) with that artistic vision. To crave total power on the podium is not some warped adaptation of Nazi doctrine: he simply accepted no other authority. Or as the soprano Gundula Janowitz puts it on film: “he was the locomotive, we were the carriages.”
What were Karajan’s real crimes? He deliberately cultivated an image of cool self-control during performances. He shaped the craggiest of the Romantic repertoire into cogent, seamless wholes. And he believed that everything was subservient to music. One astute observer in the film points out that: “Politics came to art rather than vice versa.” No, Karajan didn’t do outreach.
All that clashes with our image of the perfect 21st-century maestro. We want him sweating like Valery Gergiev, or warmly beatific like Simon Rattle: we want to feel what they feel. The period movement has wiped out our image of rhapsodic Beethoven or Brahms, who now sound fitter, leaner, and meaner. And no maestro would ever dare to demand that politics serve art. Music rests uneasily within culture’s service industry: we hope this will do you some good – please don’t be intimidated.
Much of that may be for the better. But the biggest tragedy of Karajan year would be dismissing his masterworks: that never so-silky Rosenkavalier, the riveting Tchaikovsky symphonies, a Mahler Ninth brimming with tears and anguish. To call any of those empty, fascist or facile is simply giving in to the dogmas of today rather than fairly judging the dogmas of yesteryear. So, roll on Karajan Week: hold your nose, perhaps, but don’t shut your ears. END
Karajan - A Film by Robert Dornhelm
This documentary is a masterpiece - a classic - the gold standard by which all film biographies of musicians will be measured in future. It's editorially balanced, showing Karajan's faults as well as his strengths.
It's also wonderfully crafted, effortlessly blending modern interviews and archive material - black and white and colour. The editing is so subtle you hardly notice it at first viewing. You just concentrate on the content which is riveting. But repeated viewing shows master-craftsmen at work. All the clips are cut back to sound bites so the film moves at a cracking pace, but never too fast. Underneath the clips are long lines of music - scrupulously chosen. These punctuate the comments and are brought up at strategic moments for a few seconds to illustrate the words, often with dramatic effect.
This film explains conducting better than any I've seen. It should intrigue musicians. It's also an object lesson in how to make a documentary with class and style - a must-see for anyone interested in the art of film-making.
Having read these rave comments you may ask if I'm a friend of the director, or linked to Deutsche Grammophon? No! But I am a professional broadcaster and appreciate a good documentary when I see it. This is a real life-enhancer. I watched it four times in three days and am still getting a lot out of it. The film is densely packed with information and wonderful images. Above all it's intelligent. You'll want to become a conductor - or film-maker - after watching this documentary.
Karajan Revealed (vids)
STEP ASIDE BBC and your poxy Maestrocam. Here's how you make a film about a conductor. Via YouTube - Robert Dornhelm’s 2008 biopic, Herbert von Karajan – or Beauty as I See it, attempts to decipher Karajan's dark art with the aid of archive footage and interviews with the likes of Christa Ludwig, Mariss Jansons and Gundula Janowitz.
He emerges, unsurprisingly, as a bullying perfectionist, ruthlessly dedicated as the film's title suggests to the pursuit of beauty. Watch the Berlin Phil take it on the chin as Karajan berates them as "brainless". Hear the tale of the sacked concertmaster who snuck a loaded pistol into rehearsal with the intention of taking out the maestro right there on the podium. Shield your eyes from Simon Rattle's retina-searing HvK tribute pullover.
As Karajan himself says in the film, when you have a hundred and twenty people acting as one, conducting is just an exercise of the mind.
Fascinating whether you're a Karajan fan or not.
Herbert von Karajan - or Beauty As I See it (TRAILER)
Herbert von Karajan - or Beauty As I See it (Part 1)
Karajan, centerstage, in Salzburg at a Götterdämmerung rehearsal
During his long career, Herbert von Karajan amassed a formidable recorded legacy. As the music world marks the conductor's centennial year, Peter G. Davis determines which Karajan records have stood the test time — and which ones haven't.
NO IMPORTANT conductor of his generation was busier in the recording studios than Herbert von Karajan, a musician fascinated by the media technologies of his time and how they could best be put to use. Karajan made his first recording — of the overture to Mozart's Die Zauberflöte — in 1938 and his last fifty years later, with a performance of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera completed just a few months before he died. In between came hundreds of other recordings, a discography that could easily fill a small book.
Those who heard Karajan conduct frequently in the opera house and concert hall might dispute how faithfully these documents reflect the true measure of his music-making, but the conductor himself — a man who usually got what he wanted — seemed more than satisfied with his recorded legacy. And, thanks to the celebratory nature of centenaries — Karajan was born on April 5, 1908 — virtually every disc he made has been reissued recently in one form or another. EMI has certainly done its part by cramming everything the conductor recorded for that company between 1946 and 1984 into two huge anniversary compilations: one set of eighty-eight CDs devoted to orchestral music and the other, seventy-two CDs, containing opera and vocal works. Karajan's other major recording affiliation — to an umbrella organization now called the Universal Music Group, which includes the Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Philips labels — has not been so ambitious, but most of his work for that conglomerate is also currently available. [...]
Generalized assessments of musicians as protean and prolific as Karajan can be dangerous, but I find some merit in the conventional wisdom that tells us early Karajan is generally better than late, or that his live performances often offer more gripping statements than the corresponding studio recordings. Certainly a strong argument can be made that the conductor's interpretations, while never less than cogently imagined and ravishingly played, tended to become increasingly mannered, aloof and self-consciously groomed as he aged, robbing the finished product of spontaneity and vitality. [...]
Rather than dwell on such still-hotly-disputed recordings, I've selected several Karajan opera sets that seem to me to represent him at his best. What better way to lead off than with the one that so vividly recalls the conductor of the Vienna Ring — his 1952 performance of Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth, long available in the pirate underground but now released in optimum sound on the German Orfeo label and with the official blessing of the Wagner shrine. To say that this interpretation of Tristan is an incandescent reading of the score is to understate the case: it is positively radioactive. Karajan seems to release the music in one gigantic, unbroken breath that is even sustained through the intermissions. Other old-time German conductors schooled in Wagnerian performance practices could also pull off this feat, but few combined continuity and structural design with the sort of instrumental transparency, luminously observed detail, forward-moving drive and sheer lyrical expansiveness that Karajan achieves here. [...]
When examining Karajan's lifelong work in opera, even a work as central as Lucia seems like something of a detour for him. With very few exceptions, the conductor focused on the undisputed masterpieces of the opera repertory, rather than reviving worthy neglected works that fascinated other conductors, let alone seeking out and preparing new operas by prominent young composers. Even as an apprentice in the provincial opera houses of Ulm and Aachen, Karajan seldom wasted his time on passing novelties that were liable to have brief lives, although there are a few works that he puzzlingly set aside and never returned to once he could pretty much set his own agenda. [...]
Some of the stranger omissions in Karajan's performing repertory, both live and on disc, can surely be explained by circumstances, but on the whole he went where he felt the call, and his musical instincts seldom betrayed him. What he left us on records and video can be infuriatingly willful much of the time, but the results are never less than provocative, and when the elements were all in the right place, simpy miraculous. END
Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore (final scene)
With: Plácido Domingo et. al.
Conductor: Herbert von Karajan, Vienna, 1978
Karajan: Symphony Edition - box set
ADMIRERS of Karajan will probably own most or all of these symphony cycles from what was probably the pinnacle of the conductor's prolific career. However, if you are unfamiliar with Karajan's work, or well enough acquainted with it to desire further exploration, then this amazingly inexpensive anthology can be enthusiastically recommended. [...]
VETERAN collectors will be disappointed to know that none of these recordings have been remastered, only repackaged. A great shame, since the Bruckner cycle, one of Karajan's great achievements, suffers from a poor digital transfer that is glaring, shallow, and afflicted with tape hiss left over from its LP incarnations. [...]
I AM stunned at what DG has put into one box here, and I have already recommended it to friends galore. We have in one box the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Bruckner, and a selection of the best of Haydn and Mozart. You can make a very convincing argument that the Beethoven, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, and Schumann sets in this box are the best complete sets ever recorded by anyone. And the remainder are never anything less than compelling. [...]
IN THE eyes of the world, the name Herbert von Karajan is inseparably connected with Salzburg. The conductor, born in Salzburg in 1908, shaped and dominated cultural life in Mozart's city for decades. [...]
The large building is the Hotel Sacher, one of the most expensive hotels in Austria (I learned). The white buidling on the left of the hotel was the home of Herbert von Karajan, the world famous conductor. [Flickr.com__EricB2005]
HvK's private residence (detail)__[Wikipedia]
The Berliner Philharmonie in Berlin-Tiergarten is one of the most important concert halls in Berlin. It is home to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It was built by the architect Hans Scharoun in the years 1960–1963.
It is a singular building, asymmetrical and tentlike, with a main concert hall in the form of a pentagon. The seating offers excellent positions from which to view the stage through the irregularly increasing height of the benches. The stage is at the center of the hall, providing an extraordinary atmosphere for both the artists and the viewers. The acoustics are excellent.
The building is located on Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, named for the Philharmonic's longest-serving principal conductor. [Text: Flickr.com__*Checco*]
1. Herbert von Karajan Is Dead; Musical Perfectionist Was 81 (obit)
He also made more than 800 recordings, more than any other conductor. Deutsche Grammophon, the West German record company that shared him with EMI, an English label, said his albums sold "probably hundreds of millions" of copies. Der Spiegel, the West German newsweekly, reported that the conductor earned more than $6 million annually from record sales and conducting fees.
2. HvK Tribute site
3. Karajan on the Music of Today
As for myself, I can tolerate wrong notes, but I cannot stand unstable rhythm. Perhaps I was born in Africa in another existence. Once in Vienna after we had finished a recording session, I surprised everyone by telling them I was going to hear a Louis Armstrong concert. When they asked why? I told them that to go to a concert and know that for two hours the music would not get faster or slower was a great joy to me.