Herbert von Karajan was born in Salzburg in 1908, to parents of Austrian and Croatian ancestry. He showed great musical promise at an early age and studied the piano, later attending the Mozarteum in his home city. He was soon encouraged to turn his attention to conducting and made his podium debut in January 1929 conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, a Mozart piano Concerto and Strauss’s Don Juan. In March that year he made his opera debut, conducting Le nozze di Figaro in Ulm.
His first conducting post was as Kapellmeister at the State Theatre in Ulm where he worked from 1929 to 1934. (During this period he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic and, in 1933, became a member of the Nazi party, an act that was to dog his later years.) His next position was as Generalmusikdirektor at the Opera House in Aachen, and very soon he was being engaged for numerous guest conducting jobs: debuting with the Berlin Philharmonic and appearing at the Staatsoper in Berlin where a 1938 production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde drew the now iconic headline from one of Germany's newspapers 'Das Wunder Karajan'. He was now being hailed as one of Germany's leading conductors. In 1938 he made his first recording – Mozart's Magic Flute Overture – for Deutsche Grammophon, the label with which he would be most closely associated from the late 1950s until his death in 1989.
His second wife Anita Gütermann, whom he married in 1942, was of Jewish descent and this, as well as Hitler's supposed dislike for Karajan, slowed down his meteoric career path. When the war ended Karajan and his wife fled to Italy with help of the Italian conductor Victor de Sabata. He attended a denazification tribunal in 1946 and was able to resume his conducting activities. His first recording after the war was for HMV, it was of Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Hans Hotter. During the early 1950s his career centred largely on London where Walter Legge engaged him to perform and record with the newly created Philharmonia Orchestra, and together they would record many works of the symphonic, concerto, choral and operatic catalogue including a cycle of the Beethoven symphonies, operas by Richard Strauss and Mozart (often with Legge's wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf among the cast), and a classic disc of the Mozart horn concertos with the Philharmonia's legendary principal horn, Dennis Brain. In 1951 and '52 he appeared at Bayreuth and he also started his association with La Scala, Milan.
In 1954, he succeeded Wilhelm Furtwängler as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, a role that was awarded 'for life'. It started one of the great musical relationships of the 20th century, during which they would record and re-record a huge repertoire that resulted in the statistic that at Karajan's death in 1989 he had sold over 200 million discs. Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic became a 'brand': every disc would sell, every concert sell-out within hours, every tour would fill the concert-halls. In the recording studio (and from the late 1960s onwards, Karajan would record in the orchestra's home, the Philharmonie in Berlin), he showed a canny business skill in balancing the overtly commercial (Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Respighi tone-poems, Holst's The Planets) with more esoteric fare (music of the Second Viennese School, Honegger symphonies, and symphonies by Bruckner and Mahler). And he would record at least one opera each year (invariably pre-recording the work he would present at the Salzburg Festivals).
His conducting style emphasised beauty of sound, and in the Berlin Philharmonic he created an instrument of great power and intensity, yet his rhythmic instincts were well developed and he could conduct music that required a certain ferocity of approach with great skill (Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, or Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring). He was a sensitive accompanist and singers greatly appreciated his support.
His patronage could be enormously important to young artists and among the many musicians to benefit from his attention were conductors like Okko Kamu and Mariss Jansons, singers such as Gundula Janowitz, Leontyne Price, Agnes Baltsa, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Katia Ricciarelli, Paata Burchuladze, and instrumentalists who included Alexis Weissenberg and Anne-Sophie Mutter.
His cycles of major symphonic repertoire, including multiple sets of Beethoven and Brahms, remain monuments of the catalogue - but in our recommended recordings section we point you to three recordings which really demonstrate his craftsmanship and vision.
Not unexpectedly, he featured heavily in our pages throughout his career: below, you can read major profiles and interviews from 1978 and 1989 by his biographer and Gramophone critic Richard Osborne, his obituary by James Jolly, as well as a more recent assessment by Peter Quantrill of what his legacy means today.
Karajan: a tribute by Mariss Jansons
'I first heard Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1969 and at the same time joined a masterclass he gave in St Petersburg. Later I studied with him in Salzburg, working with him from 9 in the morning until 11 at night. It was a wonderful education and enormously inspiring because, being close to such a personality, you see every small nuance of what he’s doing. When he liked somebody and believed in his talent – whether it was a conductor or a singer or a soloist – he was very supportive.
'Karajan was a unique conductor. I can’t think of another who had such a broad repertoire. He conducted practically everything, and always at a very high level – and he had a great ensemble of musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s really unique when somebody can do everything so fantastically. You expected great things from his Brahms, Richard Strauss, Wagner, Verdi, but he did Stravinsky beautifully: his Sacre du printemps was unbelievable! He was really great in opera and this is why he started to make his own productions as producer. I always say he was like a bird who is flying over the world: as he flies he has a much wider perspective than those of us on earth – and that’s how it was with Karajan for me. He was a man with worldwide ideas and possibilities and talent. Everything he did was really very international and at a very high level.
'He made conducting not popular but a very known profession. You could stop someone on the street and they would recognise Karajan even if they didn’t have any clue about music. Karajan was a kind of symbol of what it was to be a conductor. In all of history, he was one of the most important conductors, and one of the most wonderful. People like that don’t come along very often: they are very special cases.'