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Herbert von Karajan in 1938

Herbert von Karajan (5 April 1908 – 16 July 1989) was an Austrian orchestra and opera conductor. 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".[1] Karajan conducted the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra for 35 years. He is the top-selling classical music recording artist of all time, having sold an estimated 200 million records during his career.[2]




Herbert von Karajan was the son of an upper-middle class Salzburg family. The Karajans are said to have originally been Aromanian,[3][4] or Greek,[5] from the region of Macedonia.[6][7] His great-great-grandfather, Geòrgios Johannes Karajànnis, was born in Kozani, a town in the Ottoman province of Rumelia (present West Macedonia in Greece), leaving for Vienna in 1767, and eventually Chemnitz, Saxony.[8] 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 Karajànnis became Karajan.[9] Herbert's family from the maternal side, through his grandfather who was born in the village of Mojstrana, Duchy of Carniola (today in Slovenia), had Slovene origins according to a modern genealogical research, thus contrasting with or clarifying the traditional view which expressed a Serbian or simply a Slavic origin of his mother.[10]

Early years

Herbert von Karajan's parents, Ernst and Marta

Karajan was born in Salzburg, Austria-Hungary, as Herbert Ritter von Karajan.[11] He was a child prodigy at the piano.[12] 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. [1]

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 Aachen opera house.

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 [1] [13]. 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".[14] Receiving a contract with Deutsche Grammophon that same year, Karajan made the first of numerous recordings by conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in the overture to Die Zauberflöte. On July 26, 1938, he married his first wife, operetta singer Elmy Holgerloef. They would divorce in 1942.

On 22 October 1942, at the height of the war, Karajan married his second wife, 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 Vierteljüdin (one-quarter Jewish). By 1944, Karajan was, according to his own account,[citation needed] losing favor with the Nazi leadership; but he still conducted concerts in wartime Berlin on 18 February 1945 and fled Germany with Anita for Milan a short time later.[15] Karajan and Anita divorced in 1958.

In the closing stages of the war, Karajan relocated his family to Italy with the assistance of Victor de Sabata.[16] Karajan was discharged by the Austrian denazification examining board on 18 March 1946, and resumed his conducting career shortly thereafter.[17]

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. The following year he was allowed to resume conducting.

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[18].

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 22 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[1] in 1989, mainly with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Karajan and the compact disc

Karajan played an important role in the development of the original compact disc digital audio format. He championed this new consumer playback technology, lent his prestige to it and appeared at the first press conference announcing the format. The maximum playing time of CD prototypes was sixty minutes but the final specification enlarged the disc size and extended the capacity to seventy-four minutes. There are various stories regarding this, one of which is that this was due to Karajan's insistence that the format have sufficient capacity to contain Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on a single disc.[19]. Kees Schouhamer Immink, a Philips research engineer and fellow of the Audio Engineering Society, denies the Beethoven connection.[20][21]

In 1980 von Karajan conducted the first recording ever to be commercially released on CD: Richard Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie (1915), produced by Deutsche Grammophon.

Through the 1980s von Karajan re-recorded many works such as Beethoven's Nine Symphonies with Deutsche Grammophon's CD booklet introduction saying that he wanted to preserve his legacy digitally. He also pioneered the Digital Compact Cassette though that format was not particularly successful.[1]

Nazi membership

Karajan joined the Nazi Party in Salzburg on 8 April 1933; his membership number was 1,607,525. In June the Nazi Party was outlawed by the Austrian government. However, Karajan's membership was valid until 1939. In this 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.[22][23]

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 music career, critics such as Jim Svejda[citation needed] have pointed out that other prominent conductors, such as Otto Klemperer, Erich Kleiber and Arturo Toscanini, fled from fascist Europe at the time. However, British music critic Richard Osborne points out that among the many significant conductors who continued to work 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 one of the youngest and thus one of the least advanced in his career.[24]


There is widespread agreement that Herbert von 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.[citation needed]

However, it has been argued by commentator Jim Svejda and others that Karajan's pre-1970 manner did not sound polished as it is later alleged to have become.[25]

Two reviews from the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs can be quoted 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" and it is listed in first place on pages 1586-7 of the 1999 Penguin Guide to Compact Discs; 2005, p1477.
  • 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."[citation needed][26]

The same Penguin Guide does nevertheless give the highest compliments to Karajan's recordings of the selfsame Haydn's two oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.[27] It must also be stated that no less a respected Haydn scholar than H.C. Robbins Landon wrote the notes for Karajan's recordings of Haydn's 12 London Symphonies and states clearly that Karajan's recordings are among the finest he knows.

Regarding twentieth century music, Karajan had a strong preference for conducting and recording pre-1945 works (Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartók, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Puccini, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Arthur Honegger, Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel, Paul Hindemith, Carl Nielsen and Stravinsky), but also did record Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 (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. On 21 June 1978 he received the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music from Oxford University.[28] He was honored by the "Médaille de Vermeil" 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. 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.[29]


  • Kleinert, Annemarie (2009). Music at its Best: The Berlin Philharmonic. From Karajan to Rattle. Norderstedt: BoD. ISBN 9783837063615. 
  • Layton, Robert; Greenfield, Edward; March, Ivan (1996). Penguin Guide to Compact Discs. London; New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0140513671. 
  • Lebrecht, Norman (2001). The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power. New York: Citadel Press. ISBN 0806520884. 
  • Lebrecht, Norman (2007). The Life and Death of Classical Music. New York: Anchor Books,. ISBN 9781400096589. 
  • Monsaingeon, Bruno (2001). Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0571205534. 
  • Osborne, Richard (1998). Herbert von Karajan. London: Chatto & Windus. ISBN 0701167149. 
  • Osborne, Richard (2000). Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music. Boston: Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1555534252. 
  • Raymond, Holden (2005). The Virtuoso Conductors. New Haven, Connecticut; London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300093268. 
  • Zignani, Alessandro (2008). Herbert von Karajan. Il Musico perpetuo. Varese: Zecchini Editore,. ISBN 8887203679. 


A complete discography of Karajan's recordings is available at the website of the Herbert von Karajan Centrum.


  • 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." [30]
  • "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".

See also


  1. ^ a b c d John Rockwell (17 July 1989). "Herbert von Karajan Is Dead; Musical Perfectionist was 81". The New York Times: pp. A1. 
  2. ^ The Life and Death of Classical Music by Norman Lebrecht, p. 137.
  3. ^ Binder, David. "Vlachs, A Peaceful Balkan People" in Mediterranean Quarterly, Volume 15, Number 4, Fall 2004, pp. 115–24.
  4. ^ Letter from Karl-Markus Gauss to Austrian Newspaper Der Standard (Hungarian)
  5. ^ Kater, Michael H. The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich, p. 56.
  6. ^ Herbert Von Karajan: A Life in Music by Richard Osborne.
  7. ^ Current Biography Yearbook 1986 by H.W. Wilson Company.
  8. ^ John Rockwell (22 June 1986). "General Music Director of Europe". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-04-15. 
  9. ^ "Herbert Von Karajan-Karajan Family". Karajan Family. Retrieved 2007-04-15. 
  10. ^ Branka Lapajne (2008-04-04). "The Shared Slovenian Ancestors of Herbert von Karajan and Hugo Wolf". Retrieved 2008-05-05. 
  11. ^ Osborne (1987)
  12. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica Article for Herbert von Karajan
  13. ^ The woman in the footage is Winifred Wagner.
  14. ^ Osborne (2000), p. 114
  15. ^ Osborne (2000)
  16. ^ Andrews, Deborah (1990). The Annual Obituary, 1989. St James Press. pp. 417. ISBN 1558620567. 
  17. ^ Osborne (2000); Karajan's deposition is presented in whole as Appendix C.
  18. ^ Lucerne Festival homepage, Karajan Celebration 2008
  19. ^ "Roll Over, Beethoven". 2007-05-23. Retrieved 2008-04-30. 
  20. ^ Kees A. Schouhamer Immink (1998). "The CD Story". Journal of the AES, vol. 46, pp. 458-465, 1998. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  21. ^ Kees A. Schouhamer Immink (1998). "The Compact Disc Story" (PDF). Journal of the Audio Eng. Soc. 46 (5): 458–465 esp. 460. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  22. ^ Fred K. Prieberg: Handbuch Deutsche Musiker 1933–1945 Kiel, 2004, CD-ROM-Lexicon, p. 3545f. The author inspected the files of Karajan (as part of the Reichskulturkammer) at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin (former Berlin Document Center). This background story was first published by Paul Moor in: High Fidelity Vol. 7/10 October 1957, p. 52-55, 190, 192-194 (The Operator). In addition, Prieberg's opinion about the Karajan biographer Richard Osborne has been stated: "his knowledge of history is sadly very low" (p. 3575)
  23. ^ Karsten Kammholz (not quite with the accuracy of Prieberg: Der Mann, der zweimal in die NSDAP eintrat; in: Die Welt, January 26, 2008
  24. ^ Osborne (2000), p. 85
  25. ^
  26. ^ [these recordings are no longer mentioned in the 1999 edition of the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs.]
  27. ^ [The Creation is listed first on pp. 656-7 of the 1999 Penguin Guide to Compact Discs, and the comment reads: "Among Versions of The Creation sung in German, Karajan's 1969 set remains unsurpassed, and now reissued as one of DG's 'Originals' at mid-price, is a clear first choice despite two small cuts..."] [The Seasons is, by 1999, listed in the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs in third place on p. 661, and the text states "Karajan's 1973 recording of The Seasons offers a fine, polished performance which is often very dramatic too. The characterizations is strong ... the remastered sound is drier than the original but is vividly wide. etc. etc. ..."]
  28. ^ Herbert Von Karajan - Visits to Great Britain
  29. ^ Gramophone - News - The world's best classical music magazine
  30. ^ Brian Moynahan, 'Funeral in Berlin', The Sunday Times, 30 January 1983, quoted in Norman Lebrecht, The Book of Musical Anecdotes.

External links


Preceded by
Clemens Krauss
Music Director, Berlin State Opera
Succeeded by
Joseph Keilberth

Simple English

Herbert von Karajan (born Salzburg, Austria, 5 April 1908; died Salzburg 16 July 1989) was an Austrian conductor. He was probably the best-known conductor in the world during his time. He conducted the greatest orchestras, and made many wonderful recordings. He was the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic for 35 years.


= Early years

= Herbert von Karajan was born in Salzburg. His name at first was Heribert Ritter von Karajan. In 1916, he went to study the piano at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. There he was told he should learn conducting. By 1929, he was conducting at the Festspielhaus, Salzburg and in 1934 he led the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time. He conducted regularly in Ulm and Aachen.

In 1937, Karajan first conducted the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin State Opera He was very successful when he conducted Tristan und Isolde. In 1938 a Berlin music critic called him Das Wunder Karajan (The Karajan miracle). He started to make recordings. However, one day in June 1939 he was conducting "Die Meistersinger" at Bayreuth in front of Hitler and his guests the King and Queen of Yugoslavia when he suddenly could not remember the music (he was conducting without the score). The singers stopped and the curtain came down. Hitler was very angry and said that Karajan would never conduct at Bayreuth again. This event may actually have helped his career after World War II. Many people who had worked for the Nazis and for Hitler were not allowed to work.

Marriage, and wartime career

During the war, in 1942, Karajan married Anita Gütermann. She was the daughter of a rich man who had a business making sewing machines. His wife was partly Jewish. This caused the Nazi’s to talk about whether Karajan should still be allowed to conduct. By 1944, he was not in favour with the Nazis, but he was still conducting in Berlin. He left Berlin and went to Milan, Italy with his wife in February 1945. Karajan divorced Anita in 1958.

Although he was deposed after the war because of his Nazi connections, he started to conduct again in 1946.

After the war

Karajan gave his first concert after the war in 1946 in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic. He was banned again by the occupying Russians, but started conducting again the next year.

Karajan gave many concerts with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra for the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna. He conducted at La Scala in Milan for the 1948-49 season. From 1947, he made many recordings with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and the Vienna Philharmonic in Vienna.

In 1951 and 1952, he conducted again at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus where he changed the seating plan for the orchestra that had been compulsory since Wagner made it in 1876.

In 1955, after the death of Wilhelm Furtwängler, he was made artistic director (conductor) for life of the Berlin Philharmonic. From 1957 to 1964 he was artistic director of the Vienna State Opera.

He very often conducted the Vienna Philharmonic and gave many concerts at the Salzburg Festival. He continued to work very hard performing, conducting, and recording until his death in 1989. In Karajan's last years he left the Berlin Philharmonic after arguments with them, and concentrated on working again with the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic.

His fame and personality

Herbert von Karajan had very good musicianship and memory. He conducted without a score in front of him, very often with his eyes closed. He is remembered for being very strict (like a dictator) and always insisting on having things the way he wanted. There are many stories about him that show this. He insisted on being paid very high fees. When he was being filmed conducting an orchestra, he wanted the cameras to show him all the time. When he conducted Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera, he made the stand for the conductor higher so that the audience could see him.

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