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Herbert von Karajan

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Herbert von Karajan in 1938

Herbert von Karajan (born Heribert, Ritter von Karajan) (German pronunciation: [ˈhɛɐbɛɐt fɔn ˈkaʁaˌjan]; 5 April 1908 – 16 July 1989) was an Austrian orchestra and opera conductor. To the wider world he was perhaps most famously associated with the Berlin Philharmonic, of which he was principal conductor for 35 years. Although his work was not universally admired, he is generally considered to have been one of the greatest conductors of all time, and he was a dominant figure in European classical music from the 1960s until his death. Part of the reason for this was the large number of recordings he made and their prominence during his lifetime. By one estimate he was the top-selling classical music recording artist of all time, having sold an estimated 200 million records.



The Karajans were of Greek- Macedonian or Aromanian ancestry. His great-great-grandfather, Georg Karajan, was born in Kozani, a town in the then Ottoman province of Rumelia (present West Macedonia in today's Greece), leaving for Vienna in 1767, and eventually Chemnitz, Electorate of Saxony. He and his brother participated in the establishment of Saxony's cloth industry, and both were ennobled for their services by Frederick Augustus III on 1 June 1792, thus the prefix " von" to the family name. The surname Karajánnis became Karajan. Although traditional biographers ascribed a Serbian or simply a Slavic origin to his mother, Karajan's family from the maternal side, through his grandfather who was born in the village of Mojstrana, Duchy of Carniola (today in Slovenia), was Slovene. By this line, Karajan was related to Austrian composer of Slovene descent Hugo Wolf. Karajan seems to have known some Slovene.

Early years

Herbert von Karajan's parents, Ernst and Marta (née Kosmač)

Karajan was born in Salzburg, Austria-Hungary, as Heribert Ritter von Karajan. He was a child prodigy at the piano. From 1916 to 1926, he studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, where he was encouraged to concentrate on conducting by his teacher, who detected his exceptional promise in that regard.

In 1929, he conducted Salome at the Festspielhaus in Salzburg and from 1929 to 1934 Karajan served as first Kapellmeister at the Stadttheater in Ulm. In 1933 Karajan made his conducting debut at the Salzburg Festival with the Walpurgisnacht Scene in Max Reinhardt's production of Faust. It was also in 1933 that von Karajan became a member of the Nazi party, a fact for which he would later be criticised.

In Salzburg in 1934, Karajan led the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time, and from 1934 to 1941, he was engaged to conduct operatic and symphony-orchestra concerts at the Theatre Aachen.

Karajan's career was given a significant boost in 1935 when he was appointed Germany's youngest Generalmusikdirektor and performed as a guest conductor in Bucharest, Brussels, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Paris. In 1937 Karajan made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin State Opera, conducting Fidelio. He then enjoyed a major success at the State Opera with Tristan und Isolde. In 1938, his performance there of the opera was hailed by a Berlin critic as Das Wunder Karajan (the Karajan miracle). The critic asserted that Karajan's "success with Wagner's demanding work Tristan und Isolde sets himself alongside Furtwängler and de Sabata, the greatest opera conductors in Germany at the present time". Receiving a contract with Deutsche Grammophon that same year, Karajan made the first of numerous recordings, conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in the overture to The Magic Flute. On 26 July 1938, he married operetta singer Elmy Holgerloef. They divorced in 1942.

On 22 October 1942, at the height of the war, Karajan married Anna Maria "Anita" Sauest, born Gütermann. She was the daughter of a well-known manufacturer of yarn for sewing machines. Having had a Jewish grandfather, she was considered a Vierteljüdin (one-quarter Jewish woman). By 1944, Karajan was, according to his own account, losing favour with the Nazi leadership, but he still conducted concerts in wartime Berlin on 18 February 1945. A short time later, in the closing stages of the war, he and Anita fled Germany for Milan, relocating with the assistance of Victor de Sabata. Karajan and Anita divorced in 1958.

Karajan was discharged by the Austrian denazification examining board on 18 March 1946, and resumed his conducting career shortly thereafter.

Herbert von Karajan conducting in 1941

Postwar years

In 1946, Karajan gave his first post-war concert in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic, but he was banned from further conducting activities by the Soviet occupation authorities because of his Nazi party membership. That summer he participated anonymously in the Salzburg Festival.

On 28 October 1947, Karajan gave his first public concert following the lifting of the conducting ban. With the Vienna Philharmonic and the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, he performed Johannes Brahms' A German Requiem for a gramophone production in Vienna.

In 1949, Karajan became artistic director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna. He also conducted at La Scala in Milan. His most prominent activity at this time was recording with the newly formed Philharmonia Orchestra in London, helping to build them into one of the world's finest. Starting from this year, Karajan began his lifelong attendance at the Lucerne Festival.

In 1951 and 1952 he conducted at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

In 1955 he was appointed music director for life of the Berlin Philharmonic as successor to Wilhelm Furtwängler. From 1957 to 1964 he was artistic director of the Vienna State Opera. Karajan was closely involved with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Salzburg Festival, where he initiated the Easter Festival, which would remain tied to the Berlin Philharmonic's Music Director after his tenure.

On 6 October 1958 he married his third wife, French model Eliette Mouret; they became parents of two daughters, Isabel and Arabel.

He continued to perform, conduct and record prolifically until his death in Anif in 1989, mainly with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. In his later years, Karajan suffered from heart and back problems, needing surgery on the latter. He increasingly came into conflict with his orchestra for an all-controlling dictatorial style of conducting that had vanished from use everywhere else. Karajan officially retired from conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, but at his death was conducting a series of rehearsals for the annual Salzburg Music Festival. He died of a heart attack in his home on July 16, 1989 at the age of 81.

A practitioner of Zen Buddhism, Karajan believed strongly in reincarnation and said that he would like to be reborn as an eagle so he could soar over his beloved Alps.

Nazi Party membership

Karajan joined the Nazi Party in Salzburg on 8 April 1933; his membership number was 1,607,525. In June 1933, the Nazi Party was outlawed by the Austrian government. However, Karajan's membership was valid until 1939. In that year the former Austrian members were verified by the general office of the Nazi Party. Karajan's membership was declared invalid but his accession to the party was retroactively determined to have been on 1 May 1933 in Ulm, with membership number: 3,430,914.

British musicologist and critic Richard Osborne states:

What are the facts? First, though Karajan was nominated for membership in the as yet unbanned Party in Salzburg in April 1933, he did not collect his card, sign it, or pay his dues, though the registration itself (no. 1607525) got on to the files and crops up in many memoranda and enquiries thereafter. Secondly, he did not join the Party on 1 May 1933 despite prima-facie evidence to the contrary. In the first place, the membership number 3430914 is too high to belong to that date. The highest number issued before the freeze on membership, which lasted from May 1933 to March 1937, was 3262698. However, during the freeze, various functionaries, diplomats, and others were issued cards bearing an NG, or Nachgereichte, designation. These cards were, by convention, backdated to the start of the freeze: 1 May 1933. Karajan's Aachen membership was an NG card, and its number accords with batches issued in 1935, the year Karajan had always identified as the one in which he was asked to join the Party.

Karajan's prominence increased from 1933 to 1945, which has led to speculation that he joined the Nazi Party solely to advance his music career. Critics such as Jim Svejda have pointed out that other prominent conductors, such as Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, Erich Kleiber, and Fritz Busch, fled from fascist Europe at the time. However, Richard Osborne noted that among the many significant conductors who continued to work in Germany throughout the war years— Wilhelm Furtwängler, Ernest Ansermet, Carl Schuricht, Karl Böhm, Hans Knappertsbusch, Clemens Krauss and Karl Elmendorff—Karajan was one of the youngest and thus one of the least advanced in his career. Karajan was allowed to conduct various orchestras and was free to travel, even to the Netherlands to conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra and make recordings there in 1943.


There is widespread agreement that Karajan had a special gift for extracting beautiful sounds from an orchestra. Opinion varies concerning the greater aesthetic ends to which The Karajan Sound was applied. The American critic Harvey Sachs criticized the Karajan approach as follows:

Karajan seemed to have opted instead for an all-purpose, highly refined, lacquered, calculatedly voluptuous sound that could be applied, with the stylistic modifications he deemed appropriate, to Bach and Puccini, Mozart and Mahler, Beethoven and Wagner, Schumann and Stravinsky ... many of his performances had a prefabricated, artificial quality that those of Toscanini, Furtwängler, and others never had ... most of Karajan's records are exaggeratedly polished, a sort of sonic counterpart to the films and photographs of Leni Riefenstahl.

However, it has been argued by commentator Jim Svejda and others that Karajan's pre-1970 manner did not sound as polished as it is later alleged to have become.

Two reviews from the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs illustrate the point.

  • Concerning a recording of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, a canonical Romantic work, the Penguin authors wrote, "Karajan's is a sensual performance of Wagner's masterpiece, caressingly beautiful and with superbly refined playing from the Berlin Philharmonic".
  • About Karajan's recording of Haydn's "Paris" symphonies, the same authors wrote, "big-band Haydn with a vengeance ... It goes without saying that the quality of the orchestral playing is superb. However, these are heavy-handed accounts, closer to Imperial Berlin than to Paris ... the Minuets are very slow indeed ... These performances are too charmless and wanting in grace to be whole-heartedly recommended."

The same Penguin Guide nevertheless gives the highest compliments to Karajan's recordings of the two Haydn oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons. Respected Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon, who wrote the notes for Karajan's recordings of Haydn's 12 London symphonies, states that Karajan's recordings are among the finest he knows.

Among 20th century musical works, Karajan had a strong preference for conducting and recording pre-1945 works ( Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartók, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Puccini, Pizzetti, Honegger, Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel, Hindemith, Nielsen and Stravinsky), but he did record Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony (1953) twice and did premiere Carl Orff's De Temporum Fine Comoedia in 1973.

Awards and honours

Karajan was the recipient of multiple honours and awards. He became a Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic on 17 May 1960 and in 1961, he received the Austrian Medal for Science and Art. He also received the Grand Merit Cross (Großen Bundesverdienstkreuze) of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

In 1977 he was awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize. On 21 June 1978 he received the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music from Oxford University. He was honored by the " Médaille de Vermeil" from the Académie française in Paris, the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, the Olympia Award of the Onassis Foundation in Athens and the UNESCO International Music Prize. He received two Gramophone Awards for recordings of Mahler's Ninth Symphony and the complete Parsifal recordings in 1981. He received the Eduard Rhein Ring of Honour from the German Eduard Rhein Foundation in 1984. In 2002, the Herbert von Karajan Music Prize was founded in his honour; in 2003 Anne-Sophie Mutter, who had made her debut with Karajan in 1977, became the first recipient of this award. He was voted into the inaugural Gramophone Hall of Fame in 2012. He has received the Picasso Medal from UNESCO.

In 1997 the "Herbert von Karajan Whitsun Festival" was inaugurated at the Baden-Baden Festival Theatre.

Karajan is an honorary citizen of Salzburg (1968), Berlin (1973) and Vienna (1978).


  • Kleinert, Annemarie (2009). Music at its Best: The Berlin Philharmonic. From Karajan to Rattle. Norderstedt: BoD. ISBN  978-3-8370-6361-5.
  • Mischa Aster,"Das Reichsorchester", die Berliner Philharmoniker und der Nationalsozialismus.Siedler Verlag, 2007, ISBN 978-3-88680-876-2.
  • Layton, Robert; Greenfield, Edward; March, Ivan (1996). Penguin Guide to Compact Discs. London; New York: Penguin Books. ISBN  0-14-051367-1.
  • Lebrecht, Norman (2001). The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power. New York: Citadel Press. ISBN  0-8065-2088-4.
  • Lebrecht, Norman (2007). The Life and Death of Classical Music. New York: Anchor Books,. ISBN  978-1-4000-9658-9.
  • Monsaingeon, Bruno (2001). Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations. Princeton University Press. ISBN  0-571-20553-4.
  • Osborne, Richard (1998). Herbert von Karajan. London: Chatto & Windus. ISBN  0-7011-6714-9.
  • Osborne, Richard (2000). Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music. Boston: Northeastern University Press. ISBN  1-55553-425-2.
  • Raymond, Holden (2005). The Virtuoso Conductors. New Haven, Connecticut; London: Yale University Press. ISBN  0-300-09326-8.
  • Zignani, Alessandro (2008). Herbert von Karajan. Il Musico perpetuo. Varese: Zecchini Editore,. ISBN  88-87203-67-9.

Selected Discography


  • 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."
  • "Those who have achieved all their aims probably set them too low."
  • Isaiah Berlin referred to Karajan as "a genius, with a whiff of sulphur about him".
  • A New York City taxi driver asks him where to go, Karajan replies "No matter - I am in demand everywhere."
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