Monday, February 23, 2009


"No music is vulgar, unless it is played in a way that makes it so." Herbert von Karajan

I remember the first time I saw Stanley Kubricks science-fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Most notably, it was my first introduction to Johann Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube Waltz,’ where Kubrick animated the sequence to match the prerecorded music, the opposite of the usual practice for soundtracks then. The popular effect of this unconventional use of the music was such that the music became more identified for subsequent generations with space stations, primitive men, alien artifacts and such, than with the original waltz.
Kubrick used Herbert von Karajn’s recording of the Waltz and was so impressed with it that some years later, Kubrick again used Karajan's recordings, this time Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in the movie classic: “The Shining.” Further, the finale we hear at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, is Karajan's famous 1963 recording of Beethoven’s Ninth..
So what? I hear you ask. So what, if 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,” or if he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for thirty-five years, or indeed, if he is the top-selling classical music recording artist of all time, with an estimated 200 million records sold? Firstly, he was was infinitely more stylish than the daggy 1980’s anachronistic classical peddler Andre Rieu, and secondly, he was of Greek origin. I know this, because I had a heated argument with my violin teacher when I was in grade five about him. On the basis that Karajan sounds perilously close to Karagiannis, I deduced that he must be Greek and from my mother’s village, there being in residence there, a family of homonymous name. My teacher refused to accept this, as she had fixed views upon the ability of Southern Europeans to enjoy or acquire profficiency in classical music
Herbert Ritter von Karajan born in 1908 was the son of an upper-bourgeois Salzburg family. He was decended of a Vlach family from Macedonia. His great-great-grandfather, Georg Johannes Karajanis, was born in Kozani and emigrated to Vienna in 1767, eventually moving to Chemnitz, in Saxony. He and his brother participated in the establishment of Saxony's cloth industry, and both were ennobled for their services by Frederick Augustus III in 1792, this permitting them to add, thus the prefix "von" to the family name.
Karajan was a child prodigy at the piano. From 1916 to 1926, he studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, where he was encouraged to study conducting by his teacher, who noticed his amazing talent and ability. 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. The following year, and again in Salzburg, Karajan led the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time, and from 1934 to 1941, Karajan conducted opera and symphony concerts at the Aachen opera house.
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.
In 1935, Karajan's career was given a significant boost when he was appointed Germany's youngest Generalmusikdirektor and was a guest conductor in various European capitals. He enjoyed a major success in the Berlin State Opera with Tristan und Isolde and in 1938, his performance of the opera was hailed by a Berlin critic as Das Wunder Karajan (The Karajan miracle), claiming that his "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.” On 26 July 1938, he married his first wife, operetta singer Elmy Holgerloef. They would divorce in 1942.
Despite his popularity, Adolf Hitler, a dictator with pretensions to artistic taste, did not appreciate Karajan's performance of Die Meistersinger on 2 June 1939, according to Winifred Wagner, a descendant of the famous composer because Karajan, who was conducting without a score, lost his way, the singers halted and the curtain was rung down in confusion. According to Wagner, Hitler decided that Karajan was not ever to conduct at the annual Bayreuth festival. However, as a favourite Nazi number 2, of Hermann Göring he would continue his work as conductor of the the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera, where he would accompany about 150 opera performances in total.
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 his skill 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.”So was he an Andre Rieu precursor after all? Possibly. Of his recording of Tristan und Isolde, a canonical Romantic work, crtics wrote "Karajan's is a sensual performance of Wagner's masterpiece, caressingly beautiful and with superbly refined playing from the Berlin Philharmonic" However, about Karajan's recording of Haydn's "Paris" symphonies, the same critics 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.” Obviously, they were just jealous.
On 22 October 1942, at the height of the war, Karajan married his second wife, Anna Maria Sauest,, the daughter of a well-known sewing machine magnate, and who, having a Jewish grandfather, was considered Vierteljüdin (one-quarter Jewish). By 1944, Karajan was, by his own account, losing favor with the Nazi leaders, but he still conducted concerts in wartime Berlin. In the closing stages of the war, Karajan relocated his family to Italy. After the war, 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.
Indeed, Karajan's membership in 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 own career, critics have pointed out that other prominent conductors, such as Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber and Arturo Toscanini, fled from fascist Europe at the time. However, British music critic Richard Osborne argues that among the many well-known conductors who worked in Germany throughout the war years, Karajan was in fact one of the youngest and least advanced in his career. Some have argued that careerism could not have been Karajan's sole motivation, since he first joined the Nazi Party in 1933 in Salzburg, Austria, five years before the Anschluss. In The Cultural Cold War, published in Britain as Who Paid the Piper?, Frances Stonor Saunders noted that Karajan "had been a party member since 1933, and opened his concerts with the Nazi favourite 'Horst Wessel Lied.'" However, he had a history of avoiding political or nationalistic gestures at performances wherever possible.This notwithstanding, Jewish musicians such as Isaac Stern, Arthur Rubinstein, and Itzhak Perlman refused to play in concerts with Karajan because of his Nazi past. Richard Tucker also pulled out from a 1956 recording of Il Trovatore when he learned that Karajan would be conducting, and threatened to do the same on the Maria Callas recording of Aida, until Karajan was replaced. Some have questioned whether Karajan was committed to the Nazi cause given his wife’s Jewish origin. Evidence suggests that he received several threats to his career as a result of the engagement, and had attempted to resign from the Nazi Party when questioned about it. Other Commentators have suggested that music, and access to making music, over-rode everything for Karajan, and that may have led to him making amoral decisions such as Nazi membership in order to get what he wanted with regard to music. Karajan was discharged by the Austrian denazification examining board in 1946, and resumed his conducting career shortly thereafter. He appointed musical director for life of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1955 Apart from doing much to make classical music accessible to the masses with his flamboyant style, 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 is a story that this was due to Karajan's insistence that the format have sufficient capacity to contain Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on a single disc. In 1980, von Karajan conducted the first recording ever to be commercially released on CD: Richard Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie. The recording is often acclaimed as one of the greatest of this work.Some critics, particularly British critic Norman Lebrecht, condemned Karajanfor some of his more mercenary tendencies. 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 ratcheting 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: 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.” Were Karajan a company, the ACCCC would have had a field day. Nonetheless, in his capacity to popularise a genre of music widely held to be elitist, Karajan well deserves kudos. One of my pipedreams, as a teenager, was to , by means fantastical and underhanded, to have great Greeks abroad feature on the coins of the states in which they lived or produced masterpieces. Proving that pipe-dreams do not just end up in smoke when lit, Herbert von Karajan was recently selected as a main motif for a high value collectors' coin: the 100th Birthday of Herbert von Karajan commemorative coin. The nine-sided silver coin, in the reverse, shows Karajan in one of his typically dynamic poses while conducting. In the background is the score of Beethoven's Ninth.Elitist, complex and brilliant all at the same time, we leave you know with a parting shot from the great Greek maestro himself, with a quote, that suitably altered, could echo the opinions of many on their Greek identity: "Someone once said to me, 'You are surely not founding an elitist system?'--that's a word that seems very unfashionable these days. I said, 'No, my system is not elitist; it is super-elitist.' All I say is, if someone cannot play in rhythm and has not music within him, we cannot admit him." Take that fifth grade violin teacher.


First published in NKEE on 23 February 2009