The death of the conductor Herbert von Karajan at the age of 81 unleashed a torrent of vitriol that surprised even those who, during his lifetime, found themselves resistant to his style of conducting. That the majority of criticism was directed at his life rather than his art suggests that the cultivation of an image as strong off the podium as on it, ultimately worked against him. It laid him open to abuse from the non-musical public quite as much as those who understood what he did. His life, now that it can be seen complete, was a remarkable study in ambition and a confirmation of the maxim that anything can be attained through willpower. Seen in a different light it was an extraordinarily efficient life – little was wasted, few mistakes were made. But the ‘mistake’ that was made has surfaced to darken his supreme achievements as a musician.
The feeling that Karajan was self-taught, that what he achieved he got by himself, established itself early in his life. His study at Vienna’s Hochschule für Musik was supplemented, or as he claimed supplanted, by his experiencing at first hand the conducting of Arturo Toscanini, Clemens Krauss, Richard Strauss, Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler. The concert he organised in Salzburg in 1929, having had little opportunity to conduct in Vienna, led immediately to his appointment at the small opera house in Ulm where, again, he taught himself through trial and error very nearly all he knew about opera, from the music itself to the stage-lighting. Ulm led to Aachen where he conducted the opera from 1934-41 when the director, perspicacious enough to recognise outstanding talent purposely failed to renew Karajan’s contract, causing the young conductor to seek a new post. In 1938 he conducted an historic performance of Tristan und Isolde at Berlin’s State Opera; it was the turning point in his career and established his reputation decisively in Berlin. He also conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for the first time in 1938 and knew immediately that he would return to conduct it again.
Karajan’s Nazi party membership, the stigma that has surfaced with a vengeance, is a hotly debated issue and difficult to comprehend, ironically, particularly with 50 year’s hindsight. Even de-Nazification in 1948 failed to lay the ghost of this association once and for all and, unlike other musicians who were known Nazi party members, it clung to him for the rest of his life (and, many would say, seriously hampered the development of an American career). After the war it was Walter Legge who bypassed the Allies’ ban on Karajan performances by making a series of now legendary recordings first with the VPO and then the young Philharmonia. Many would claim this to be the freshest and most inspired period of Karajan’s musical career. The Brahms Requiem, Strauss’s Metamorphosen with the VPO, Falstaff, Der Rosenkavalier, Cosi fan tutte, the Beethoven symphonies with the Philharmonia are remarkable achievements by any standard. But Berlin called. With the death of Furtwängler, and the end of a rivalry as much fomented by the politicians as cultivated between the two men, Karajan ascended to the Berlin throne with the demand that it be a position for life (and but for a few months it was). It began one of the most remarkable musical collaborations this century has seen; a collaboration that seemed to epitomise the second half of the 20th century and the rise of electronic media. By 1960 Karajan could with some justification be referred to as the Musical Director of the World – he had the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Festival and La Scala in his sway.
The programme of recordings he and his orchestra embarked on with Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and EMI was phenomenal in its scale and breadth. Few conductors, let alone conductors with a Viennese training, could so idiomatically direct Verdi and Wagner, Puccini and Richard Strauss, Ravel and Beethoven, Honegger and Shostakovich. He recorded the Beethoven symphonies complete four times – although the latest DG cycle (for the benefit of digital technology) does not compare well with his earlier two for DG. Nor did his obsession with re-recording to refine and consolidate his earlier interpretations always offer finer accounts, particularly in the field of opera where, to a large number of vocal connoisseurs, he simply miscast singers. A devotion to beauty of sound often found a lyric artist in a dramatic role – his Radames and Turandot, for example. But in the symphonic repertoire he could achieve miracles by virtue of a nearly infallible sense of a work’s architecture – his Bruckner, his Mahler Sixth and Ninth (the latter an extraordinary reading and one which Karajan actually admitted to having exhausted) are magnificent. His technique of working on a piece of music for about a year before offering it to the public meant technical perfection but, to many ears, something soulless. His films illustrate not so much the actual creation of music before the eyes and ears as the public viewing of an act of re-creation that has all been prepared beforehand; there was little sense of the struggle that Klemperer, say, could so superbly achieve in Beethoven. Universal brotherhood in the Ninth was seen by Karajan from the stance of its being a foregone conclusion; for Klemperer it would be fought for as we listened.
But it is easy to belittle his achievements. As an exploiter of modern sound technology and mass marketing Karajan brought classical music to a hitherto inconceivably huge audience. People would go into a record store knowing that Karajan’s name on the sleeve would guarantee a certain standard of performance – and he had few real failures. As a musician he can never be replaced – his style and power could not be assumed by anyone else; he was the last musical dictator in an increasingly democratic profession. He will be missed and mourned.