One of the oldest classical-music jokes is thought to have been told originally about Herbert von Karajan. A Viennese cabbie picks up the Austrian conductor. “Where to, sir?” the driver asks. “It doesn’t matter,” Karajan replies. “They want me everywhere.”
From the mid-50’s on, the joke was almost true. In those decades before his death in 1989 at the age of eighty-one, Karajan was closely associated with three orchestras: the Berlin Philharmonic, of which he became principal conductor in 1955; London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, in whose early success he played a key role; and the Vienna Philharmonic, which he led in operatic performances and symphonic concerts during most of his adult life, serving as director of the Vienna State Opera from 1957 to 1964. Other orchestras and opera houses clamored for his services, and his recordings for EMI and Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (DGG) sold in vast quantities.1
But even though Karajan’s name figures prominently on every list of major conductors of the 20th century, many critics—and many of his colleagues—have been reluctant to call him a truly great artist. While he is universally respected for his technical skills, his interpretations have been viewed with skepticism by a voluble minority of listeners who regard him as a phenomenally gifted but ultimately superficial virtuoso of the baton, almost an Austro-German counterpart of Leopold Stokowski.
Moreover, Karajan is widely held in contempt for his conduct during World War II. He joined the German Nazi party in 1935 and thereafter performed at official government functions, and the specter of his party past haunted him until his death. Indeed, it is not infrequently suggested that Karajan’s aesthetic sensibilities were poisoned by politics—that he was in some elusive but fundamental sense a “Nazi artist.”
Characteristic of this point of view was a famous 1948 review by Sir Isaiah Berlin, the English political philosopher, of a pair of concerts Karajan gave with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival:
Karajan seems to conceive music as a series of self-contained episodes, and these he articulates one by one with a clarity of detail and a strictly calculated imperious organization of tempi and dynamics which moves with the remorseless accuracy of a dive-bomber intent upon its prey.
Even those unprepared to go this far have contended that Karajan’s relentless drive for musical perfection was rendered morally suspect by his equally relentless will to personal power. Upon his death, one English obituary described him as “a bad man and in the final analysis a bad conductor as well.” Sir Isaiah put it more adroitly when he called Karajan “a genius—with a whiff of sulphur about him.”
But what, if anything, do such criticisms mean? Are they descriptive of actual musical events, or merely of Karajan’s personal behavior? And to what extent should that behavior be held against Karajan the artist? These questions are addressed in exhaustive but absorbing detail in Richard Osborne’s Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music, published last year in Great Britain and now out in the U.S.2
Osborne, an English music critic, writes as a discriminating admirer of Karajan’s conducting and as a no less open-eyed friend. In this book he has provided the first reliable account of Karajan’s relationship with the Hitler regime, and the clearest discussion to date of how he emerged from the rubble of the Third Reich to become postwar Europe’s most powerful musician. Into the bargain, he has produced perhaps the best biography ever written of a conductor.
Herbert von Karajan was born in Salzburg in 1908, the younger son of a surgeon and amateur clarinetist. He led a student orchestra for the first time in 1927, and made his professional debut two years later; around the same time, he first heard Arturo Toscanini, an experience that would leave a permanent mark on his own conducting style.
A short but handsome man with a gravelly voice, an aquiline profile, and a strikingly elegant manner of conducting, Karajan was the very model of the musical matinée idol. He quickly worked his way up the ladder of regional opera houses, and in 1935 the German city of Aachen offered him the job of general music director of its orchestra and opera company. Ordered to join the Nazi party as a condition of employment, the 27-year-old conductor complied unhesitatingly. Then and later, he had no discernible political convictions, and, Osborne convincingly shows, there is no reason to suppose his decision to join the party—which he would later dismiss as a “formality”—was anything other than an act of the purest opportunism. It certainly paid off: Karajan would debut in 1938 with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin State Opera, and make his first commercial recordings that same year.
Karajan’s emergence was, ironically, well-timed. Noted Jewish conductors like Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter had been forced into exile, and of those artists who stayed behind, only Wilhelm Furtwängler enjoyed an international reputation. Opportunities thus abounded for a talented newcomer—especially one who, like Karajan, was open to cosmopolitan influences. For, by 1938, the Austro-German musical world had become hopelessly provincial. Richard Strauss and Paul Hindemith were the only remaining German composers of the first rank; most of the region’s leading instrumental soloists were Jewish and had fled; and most of the world’s major orchestras were by then located in the U.S.
Younger than his German colleagues by as much as a quarter-century, Karajan represented a new style of musical thinking. Early exposure to Toscanini’s Italian dynamism had created in him a taste for a leaner, less “metaphysical” approach to the Austro-German classics. Unlike Furtwängler, he was aware of and interested in musical modernism, and saw recording not as a chore but as an opportunity. Given his singular gifts, it was perfectly logical that he should have shot to the top of the German-speaking musical world.
But Karajan failed to reckon with the paranoia of Furtwängler, who regarded every other conductor as a threat, and a handsome young virtuoso as the biggest threat of all. So great was Furtwängler’s loathing for Karajan that he refused to speak his name aloud, referring to him only as “K,” and intrigued incessantly against him. Events conspired in Furtwängler’s favor when, in 1942, Karajan married a woman (the second of his three wives) who had a Jewish grandparent and his career promptly stalled; causing still greater difficulties for the young virtuoso was that Adolf Hitler, who followed classical music in Germany closely, disliked his conducting and made no secret of the fact.
At war’s end, Karajan returned from Germany to Austria. That he was known to have been in disfavor with Hitler worked to his advantage, as did his marriage to Anita Gutermann: in 1946, he was “denazified” by an Austrian tribunal and permitted to conduct in public. Shortly afterward, the English record producer Walter Legge heard Karajan rehearsing the Vienna Philharmonic and immediately signed him to an exclusive contract with EMI.
The hugely influential Legge, who also ran London’s newest orchestra, the Philharmonia, was looking for a young, vital conductor who could polish this still-raw ensemble; unlike many of his colleagues, moreover, Legge was indifferent to Karajan’s Nazi past (so much so that he would later marry the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, another ex-party member, to whom he was introduced by Karajan). Both men passionately admired Toscanini, and both, though primarily German in their musical sympathies, were interested in modernizing the moribund German tradition.
Under Karajan’s baton, the Philharmonia became not merely London’s outstanding orchestra but one of the finest the world has ever known. His recordings for Legge with both the Philharmonia and the Vienna Philharmonic made him a star (and a wealthy man), thus giving him the bargaining chips he needed to take charge of his professional life. When Furtwängler died in 1955, the Berlin Philharmonic appointed Karajan its principal conductor—he insisted on lifetime tenure—and he signed a recording contract with DGG. Two years later, he took over the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival as well, thereby supplanting Legge as the most influential figure on the European classical-music scene.
From the 50’s onward, Karajan performed much of the standard operatic repertoire and most of the 19th-century classics, plus the music of Bach, Mozart, and Haydn (only the last-named of whom he conducted consistently well). In addition, he regularly programmed a select group of 20th-century works, among them Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps and Symphony of Psalms, Honegger’s Third Symphony, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, the later symphonies of Sibelius, and the more popular pieces of Debussy and Ravel. Over time, he learned to perform these non-German works convincingly and idiomatically, a stylistic achievement equaled by no other Austro-German conductor of his generation.
Karajan’s conducting embodied apparently contradictory traits that in his middle years were successfully held in balance by his potent personality. Undemonstrative on the podium, he nonetheless exuded a charisma that some saw as studied and self-conscious. His interpretations had a forward thrust and clarity of line reminiscent of Toscanini, but with a greater emphasis on lyricism, sometimes to the point of enervating languor. He regarded music as a disembodied essence—he invariably conducted symphonic concerts with his eyes shut—but also showed an acute grasp of the practical aspects of music-making, and he was, when it suited him, a miraculously intuitive accompanist.
Those who dislike Karajan’s conducting typically cite what one critic called “a quality of ruthlessness . . . that repels.” And indeed no one has ever doubted Karajan’s ability to hypnotize an orchestra into doing his bidding, whatever that might be. Gareth Morris, a longtime principal flutist of the Philharmonia, has left behind a vivid word portrait of Karajan conducting Ravel’s Bolero:
With the eyes closed and the hands barely chest high, 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 the power of that final climax was absolutely colossal.
As this description suggests, Karajan was used to getting his own way. The Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson, when asked what made the conductor angry, tersely replied: “resistance.” In Nazi Germany, he had met with nothing but resistance; later on, at least for a while, he had to collaborate on more or less even terms with his peers, and for the most part did so effectively. But the moment finally arrived when it was no longer necessary to collaborate with anyone. He thereupon painstakingly shaped the Berlin Philharmonic into an instrument totally responsive to his will. Surrounding himself with an entourage of loyalists and toadies, he heard no artistic opinions contrary to his own. Eventually, he achieved a state of near-absolute power over his own creative life.
But in music as in every other sphere, absolute power, as Lord Acton noted, tends to corrupt absolutely. Karajan began to divert his formidable energies into undertakings to which his gifts were less well suited. He squandered millions of dollars on making visually dull films, which he edited himself, of his symphonic conducting. Always fascinated by the stage, he directed (and lit) his own operatic productions, which became increasingly turgid and lifeless. Unwilling to hire older singers with minds of their own, he instead cast young, pliant voices in overly demanding roles, and soon acquired a reputation for burning them out.
Before long, Karajan’s conducting, too, began to show signs of self-indulgence. Though he endlessly recorded and re-recorded his core repertoire, the results rarely shed new interpretative light; more often, it seemed he was playing the life out of the pieces he loved best. As Richard Osborne writes:
Even the greatest talent, pushed a hair’s breadth in the wrong direction, can end up seeming like a parody of itself: the maniacal Toscanini, the blockish Klemperer, Gielgud crooning, Olivier ranting. Karajan’s Achilles’ heel would be a tendency to over-refinement and an excess of smoothness, the downside of his highly cultivated art.
This tendency became more pronounced as the 70’s gave way to the 80’s. Though capable of giving first-rate performances to the end of his life, Karajan became highly erratic in his last years when chronic ill health dogged him virtually without cease and he deteriorated visibly. The Berlin Philharmonic finally rebelled against his tyrannical ways, refusing to hire Sabine Meyer, a woman clarinetist who was a favorite of the conductor; in April 1989 he resigned his post, dying three months later.
Eleven years after his death, Karajan remains a touchstone of a certain kind of musical perfection. As the critic Tim Page wrote of his final New York performances with the Vienna Philharmonic:
At intermission, when the last notes of the Schubert symphony had died away . . . I turned to a music-student friend of mine and said: “Never forget what you have heard here tonight. Never forget that an orchestra can play with such unity, such subtlety, such luxuriance of tone. You may never again hear such playing, but now you know that it can be done. We will remember. And Karajan set the standard.”
Yet it was just this kind of perfection that other listeners have persisted in seeing as problematic. Is it possible, they ask, for orchestral playing to be too beautiful? The phrase itself suggests that something has gone wrong with a musical performance—that tonal refinement has been exalted at the expense of musical sense. As the Berlioz scholar David Cairns once complained: “so much beauty on the surface and so little music below it.”
This does occasionally happen with Karajan, particularly in the music of Beethoven, where his conducting can become (in Osborne’s phrase) “polished and tensionless.” But at other times what one hears is more like what the Sibelius scholar Robert Layton observed:
I think it is true that the kind of cultured, perfectly tuned, and perfectly blended aural image that Karajan was capable of producing could excite a negative response in some people. . . . I confess that when I first heard [his] 1965 version of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony I reacted to it in exactly that way. It was like the Finnish landscape perceived through the windows of a limousine; there was a feeling of being insulated from experience. And yet when I went back to the performance in later years, I didn’t feel that. . . . That sense of something coming between the music and the listener had completely disappeared.
In the minds of some listeners, the “negative response” to which Layton refers came to be confounded, understandably enough, with the means, both musical and personal, by which Karajan produced such exquisite sounds. “Conducting tends to spoil the character,” the violinist Carl Flesch once observed, and there can be little doubt that, in the long run, Karajan spoiled both his character and his art by seeking a degree of power over others that eventually proved self-destructive. His cynical response to the rise of Hitler shows him to have been infected early on with the seeds of opportunism; in his maturity, his utter certainty that he was a genius led on more than one occasion to less than genius-like results.
I suspect it may never be possible for sensitive listeners to hear Karajan’s recordings without feeling a twinge of guilt. For there is no getting around the uncomfortable fact that at his best, he was all but supreme in a remarkably wide variety of music. Nor were his performances always tainted by his hypertrophied ego; sometimes, in fact, they were almost eerily selfless. To listen admiringly to this Karajan—the truly great Karajan—is to strike a Faustian bargain of one’s own. How much is beauty worth? Is there a statute of limitations on the sins of an artist? That such questions can seriously be asked about Karajan is eloquent tribute to his seductive, morally equivocal art.
Herbert von Karajan on CD: A Select Discography
Karajan recorded profusely from 1938 until shortly before his death in 1989, making as many as five different versions of the key items in his repertoire. All but the most popular go in and out of print frequently and unpredictably, and some of the finest—such as the 1947 Strauss Metamorphosen, the 1966 Shostakovich Tenth Symphony, and the 1975 Stravinsky Le Sacre du printemps—are currently unavailable in the U.S.
With that caveat in mind, here are ten recordings, all currently in print, that show Karajan at his very best:
1947: The first recording of Brahms’s German Requiem, with the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the bass-baritone Hans Hotter, and the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna Singverein (EMI 61010).
1956: The first recording of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, with Schwarzkopf, the mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus (EMI 56113, three CD’s). Also, the first recording of Verdi’s II Trovatore, with the soprano Maria Callas, the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, and the La Scala Orchestra and Chorus (EMI 56333, two CD’s).
1962: The first recording of Puccini’s Tosca, with di Stefano, the soprano Leontyne Price, and the Vienna Philharmonic (London 21670, two CD’s).
1965: The third recordings of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63, and Symphony No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 82, with the Berlin Philharmonic (DGG 57748, two CD’s).
1969: Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B Flat, Op. 100, with the Berlin Philharmonic (DGG 37253).
1973: Honegger’s Symphony No. 3, Liturgique, with the Berlin Philharmonic (DGG 47435).
1978: Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, with the mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, the baritone Richard Stilwell, and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI 67168, three CD’s).
1981-82: Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G Major (Surprise) and Symphony No. 101 in D Major (Clock), with the Berlin Philharmonic (DGG 39038).
1982: The live recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, with the Berlin Philharmonic (DGG 39024, two CD’s).
Each of these items can be purchased online by viewing this article on COMMENTARY’s website:
1 Some of Karajan’s best recordings are listed in the discography at the end of this essay.
2 Northeastern University Press, 851 pp., $35.00.