Herbert von Karajan
Table of contents
He was born in Salzburg, Austria, as Heribert Ritter von Karajan in a Aromanian family that has its origin in Ioannina, Greece. From 1916 to 1926, he studied at the Mozarteum Conservatory in Salzburg, where he was encouraged to study conducting.
In 1933, he made his debut at the Salzburg Festival, conducting the music for the "Walpurgisnacht Scene" in Max Reinhardt's production of Faust. The following year, he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time, also in Salzburg. 1933 was also the year that Karajan joined the Nazi Party; this took place on April 8, 1933 in Salzburg, two months after Adolf Hitler took power in Germany.
In 1937, Karajan made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin State Opera with Fidelio. He enjoyed a major success with Tristan und Isolde and was hailed by a Berlin critic as "Das Wunder Karajan". He received a contract with Deutsche Grammophon; his first recording was the Magic Flute overture, made with the Staatskapelle Berlin.
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 Russian occupation authorities because of his Nazi party membership. That summer, he participated anonymously in the Salzburg Festival. The following year, he was allowed to resume conducting.
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. He 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. He continued to perform, conduct, and record prolifically until his death in 1989.
Karajan and the compact disc
Karajan played an important role in the development of the compact disc digital audio format. He championed the format, lent his prestige to it, and appeared at the press conference announcing the format. The first CD prototypes had a playing time limited to 60 minutes; and it is frequently asserted that the longer 74-minute capacity was chosen in order to encompass Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and that Karajan's recordings and wishes played some part in this decision. (See the Snopes urban reference legends page for detailed discussion).
As was the case with soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Karajan's membership in the Nazi Party from 1933 to 1945 cast him in an uncomplimentary light when revealed later, despite the apparent fact that he joined the party to advance his career rather than for ideological reasons. Musicians such as Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman refused to play in concerts with Karajan because of his Nazi past.
There is widespread agreement that Karajan had a gift for extracting beautiful sound from an orchestra. Where opinion varies concerns the greater aesthetic ends to which the Karajan sound was employed. 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.
This all-purpose style struck many listeners as yielding different degrees of success in the music of different eras. Web data suggest that of Karajan's numerous recordings, those of the mainstream nineteenth century Romantic repertory often attract great admiration (and that many regard his 1962 recording of the Beethoven symphonies as the yardstick for all other performances of these pieces), but there is little affection for his work in Baroque music or that of the Classical period.
Two arguably representative reviews from the widely-read Penguin Guide to Compact Discs can be taken to 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 ... an excellent first choice."
- 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."
As for twentieth century music, Karajan was criticized for having little of it in his oeuvre (mostly works of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Stravinsky, although he did record Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 twice).
Some critics, particularly British critic Norman Lebrecht, charged von Karajan with initiating a devastating inflational spiral in performance fees. During his tenure as director of publicly-funded performing organizations such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Salzburg Festival, he started paying guest stars exorbitantly, as well as racheting up his own remuneration:
- Once he possessed orchestras he could have them produce discs, taking the vulture's share of royalties for himself and rerecording favorite pieces for every new technology until he died (digital LPs, CD, videotape, laserdisc). In addition to making it difficult for other conductors to record with his orchestras, von Karajan also drove up the prices that he would be paid and thus other conductors wanted. 
Finally, Karajan was held by some to be excessively egotistical. When he conducted Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera, he raised the conductor's stand to place himself in the line of sight of the audience; in operatic recordings of Verdi, he changed the balance so as to bring the sound of the orchestra forward in the final mix, all to emphasize his role in the music-making. Critics compare him with Leonard Bernstein, pointing out both conductors were unequaled in their mastery of podium histrionics.
Norman Lebrecht Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power (2001) Citadel Press, ISBN 0806520884