25 years after the death of Herbert von Karajan, we examine the man who came to define classical music.

When Herbert von Karajan died on July 16, 1989, the classical record industry died a little too. Gone was a musician who had the power that could ensure that classical music stayed on the radar, who guaranteed that classical record sales could rival those of pop and rock music, and, above all, gone was someone who fascinated the musical public with the aura he’d built up over a lifetime. He had become one of the great brands of the second half of the 20th century and his absence was felt very quickly.

Karajan, who was born and died in Salzburg, the city of Mozart, continues to divide opinion – and those divisions are as much personal as musical. For the naysayers, it is Karajan the egotist, Karajan the power-crazed, even Karajan the Nazi. To the musicians who worked with him, there was a very different Karajan, a shy man, a man of humanity, and of great personal generosity, and a man who took classical music to the four corners of the globe. To the wider music-loving audience today he remains an iconic figure, the quintessential maestro, undoubtedly vain, who combined the mystique of the podium with all the trappings of a glamorous lifestyle (French ex-model wife, fast cars, yachts, numerous houses and so on). When Gramophone launched a Hall of Fame three years ago to honour the major players in the world of classical music, Herbert von Karajan shot into pole position by thousands of votes.

I first saw Karajan conduct in May 1981; he’d been awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University in 1978 and returned to the city, as a thank-you, with a ‘chamber-sized’ Berlin Philharmonic to play Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto, Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto (with Anne-Sophie Mutter) and Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen. The first surprise was how frail he looked: he walked slowly and was clearly in great discomfort, but, as I would learn from later concerts, the moment he took to the podium, the years and the pain just seemed to fall away. The highlight of the evening – indeed, one of the highlights of my concert-going life – was Metamorphosen. Eyes closed (I was sitting above the orchestra with a direct view down at him), Karajan wove the fabric of the piece as if pulling strands from the air – it was almost an act of mime. How the orchestra followed the ‘beat’ I’ve no idea, but they clearly did; it was a performance that seemed to distill the essence of this utterly bereft and emotionally raw piece. (The recording that emerged shortly after the Oxford concert was of a comparable intensity.)


I heard Karajan live three more times – in 1985 (Beethoven and Richard Strauss), 1987 (Brahms) and 1988 (Schoenberg and Brahms) – and each time it was to be confronted with orchestral playing of a level higher than any I’d ever experienced before, and London is hardly short of great ensembles. If I had to single out one performance from those concerts it was of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Karajan was in great pain. He walked through the orchestra, leaning on the players’ shoulders as he got to each desk, but again a strange kind of rejuvenation occurred once he was on the podium. The opening of Ein Heldenleben, with its deep double-bass climb into the light, was astonishing, sounding as if it were coming from hundreds of feet underground, and the string tone that blossomed was full and amazingly flexible, seemingly able to turn on a dime from colossally loud to the barest of pianissimos. And that sound – the orchestra playing softly – remains with me for its fullness and intensity; it was a like a Rolls Royce engine, capable of immense acceleration but coasting with all that power under check. It was, quite simply, one of the greatest examples of orchestral playing I’ve heard.

The young Karajan learned the hard way, but had amassed a huge repertoire by the end of WWII.

Karajan was born in 1908, which, in the words of his biographer Richard Osborne, was “the wrong time”. One of his first memories was watching the funeral cortege taking the bodies of the assassinated archduke and his wife from Sarajevo in July 1914 to Trieste. As Osborne recounts, “His uncle, standing behind him watching the convoy go past said, ‘This means war’. And Karajan had never heard the word before and sensed a great feeling of unease amongst the adults, his mother and his uncle. And what he didn’t know was he was destined to live through that war, through the Second World War and through the Cold War and he would die shortly before the Berlin wall came down.” The experience of living through war would leave its scars, and yet arguably infused some of his greatest performances: Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Prokofiev’s Fifth, Honegger’s Liturgique, Shostakovich’s Tenth and Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen.

But being born in 1908 also meant that Karajan reached some major personal milestones at exactly the right moment in world history. The war may have been deeply traumatic but when hostilities ceased in 1945, he was 37, an age when a conductor still counts as young but, if he has learned his craft properly, has a large repertoire under his belt. Karajan had undertaken his prentice years in Ulm and Aachen, both provincial cities and both musically ambitious and (probably tellingly) under-resourced. He learned the hard way, but he certainly learned, and had absorbed a repertoire of some 50 operas and a huge amount of symphonic literature, including a substantial amount of contemporary music (something people tend to forget given his later focus on the great ‘core’ symphonic repertoire). 

One of the major milestones in his career was a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Berlin at the State Opera in 1938, from which the critic Edwin von der Nüll of the Berliner Zeitung am Mittag coined the phrase ‘Das Wunder Karajan’ (The Karajan Miracle). Glowing comparisons were made with two of Europe’s greatest living conductors, Victor de Sabata and Wilhelm Furtwängler. That year, 1938, also saw him make his first recording for Deutsche Grammophon, the label with which he was most closely associated from the late 1950s until his death; it was of the Overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute and it united him with the Berlin Philharmonic, who were destined to be his instrument from 1955 to his death, some 34 years later. They would prove a key to Karajan’s future fame.

The 1950s, perhaps the key decade in the forming of the Karajan brand, was also the decade of huge technological innovation. Few musicians understood its potential as well as Karajan. As Osborne said, “He was absolutely the right man at the right time, because although there were a number of other great conductors from the previous generation whom he revered – like Furtwängler, Toscanini, Bruno Walter and so on – they were not recording as they might have done if they’d been around when LP and tape came along. And so he was perfectly placed. He lived through LP, stereo and the arrival of digital sound.” 

Ironically it was Germany’s wartime adversaries who proved Karajan’s greatest ally during the 1950s. The EMI producer Walter Legge, a keen Germanophile and a natural (if not practising) musician, had A&R instincts second to none. Apart from Karajan, he brought to disc a new generation of conductors that included Giulini, Klemperer, Cantelli and Sawallisch. Legge’s mission was to build a record catalogue for the post-war age, recording – in the new media of, first, LP and then stereo – the core repertoire in quality that would stand the test of time. A glance through his productions shows he did just that. He was the midwife to many of the classic recordings from the 1950s, and many were conducted by Karajan.

Karajan, a passionate pilot, was invited to examine the latest US helicopter at Tempelhof in 1960.

Again, timing was all: war had taken its toll on many of the great European orchestras, and Legge needed an ensemble to work with in the studio. His creation was the Philharmonia Orchestra, assembled in 1945 from the crème de la crème of London’s orchestral players. As Richard Osborne points out “by the middle 1950s the Philharmonia Orchestra, as put together by Legge and Karajan, was probably the best orchestra in the world.” 

The Philharmonia years were important not just for the high-quality of the music-making – the elegance of, say, Karajan’s Der Rosenkavalier or Die Fledermaus remains wondrous – but they brought into existence the notion of performing for the gramophone record. Sure, the industry had already been around for half a century, but in the 1950s many of the impediments had been overcome (78rpm side lengths, mono sound, restricted dynamic range) and a modern age was ushered in. Multi-microphone placing could ensure that balance could be optimised for disc and operatic recordings could be given a theatricality of their own, rather than merely a truthful representation. But more than that, a whole aesthetic approach could be taken, one aided by a genuinely natural recording quality that embraced the full dynamic range as well as the depth of sonority. 

Having whipped the orchestra into shape (and what shape!) Karajan and Legge systematically set about recording what today tends to be the ‘core’ repertoire, indeed one might argue that they helped construct this ‘core’ repertoire. Top of the pile must be the Beethoven symphonies. Though not conceived as a cycle, these recordings nevertheless make for fascinating listening. The most striking thing about them is their freshness and ‘modernity’, with crispness of accent and rhythmic vitality that might be more closely associated with the period-instrument movement. 

If EMI benefitted from a string of recordings that would no doubt help their bottom line for years to come, Karajan learned the art of recording. His rehearsal technique, which appealed to the musicians in that it didn’t waste time and only focused on the tricky passages, was closely allied to his approach to recording. The key to his approach, and which many musicians have commented on, was fixing a ‘sound’ for a particular piece. 

The conductor Mariss Jansons, who worked as an assistant with Karajan in Salzburg, recalls that  “the rehearsals were very much about attention to the sound. Of course, the [Berlin] orchestra was of an unbelievably high level and played with him so long that he could concentrate very much on the sound and atmosphere. He would let one group get the right sound. For example he ask them to just to play first note of the phrase – just the first note! – until he found the right sound and then he said ‘OK, now play full phrase’ and it sounded completely differently. He was magical at creating enormous atmosphere in music. The sound was, I would say broad, very deep, very profound. He hated the bar lines! He said the music should always flow and have no bars lines, it should be in very long lines which are completely uninterrupted.”

Rainer Sonne, who joined the Berlin Philharmonic as Concertmaster in 1976, remembers unusual rehearsals of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with Karajan. “For the first 20 or 30 minutes of the rehearsal he picked out a couple of phrases, very short phrases or passages and then he worked for a very long time on them in order to get his sound, his atmosphere, his intensity. He especially liked to work on piano and pianissimo passages. And afterwards the rehearsal went on without many interruptions.” 

Fergus McWilliam, who joined the Berlin Phil as a horn player in 1985, is more specific: “It was more an issue of articulation, and legato was a key element. There was an intensity of sound across the entire spectrum not only at the fortissimo level but also in pianissimo. There was a very intense pianissimo – very, very quiet but very very intense, with very long bows. Sometimes the rhythmic structure suffered a little bit because he wouldn’t let go of a chord until every drop had been squeezed out of it; there was a tendency to squeeze or extrude. Sometimes you saw it in his hand motions almost as if he was kneading dough. Something he was literally moving with his hands as if to physically move an object in space. Music was very tactile, at least his gestures were very tactile. Another thing I remember was that the sound of the orchestra was very muscular, very sinewy, very strong internally.”

Taking his third wife Eliette Mouret for a spin.

It is this signature Karajan sound, the density of the aural picture, that his musical detractors have problems with. (Ironically, under Simon Rattle, Karajan’s successor-but-one in Berlin, the orchestra has reclaimed something of its former ‘weight’; Abbado, Karajan’s immediate successor, cultivated a lither, more flexible sonority.) Karajan certainly does not align with current taste when it comes to music of the Classical period, but in Bruckner and later Romantic and modern repertoire the Berlin sound still impresses. The best-selling compilations of Baroque fare – including the Pachelbel Canon and the Albinoni Adagio – make for curious listening these days, but it’s not hard to understand their allure to people not steeped in the repertoire and its current performance practice. Bach as Bruckner? A lot of people liked it.

In 1955 Karajan succeeded Wilhelm Furtwängler as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic; he would stay in the role until 1989 and during those 34 years would create one of the most solid orchestra-conductor relationships the world has ever seen. (Only Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia and Evgeny Mravinsky in Leningrad can rival it in terms of longevity.) If the 1950s saw Karajan establishing his reputation through his EMI recordings, and international tours with both the Philharmonia and Berlin Philharmonic, the 1960s (during which time he also headed up La Scala in Milan and the State Opera in Vienna) found him burnishing the Karajan brand, with Deutsche Grammophon a more-than-willing partner. 

The 82-CD DG box-set Karajan: The 1960s is testament not only to the colossal energy but also to the vast range of music in Karajan’s repertoire. Mariss Jansons points out that no other conductor covered as much ground as Karajan. Take the year 1964… February saw him complete his Rite of Spring recording, as well as tape Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique and Brahms’s Haydn Variations; in March he recorded Dvorak’s New World and his celebrated Debussy/Ravel programme (La Mer, the Second Suite from Daphnis and Chloë and Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune). In May he recorded Brahms’s Violin Concerto (with Christian Ferras) and the German Requiem. In August he recorded Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites as well as Mozart’s Symphonies Nos 29 and 33, and in September and October he recorded Schubert’s Unfinished, three Beethoven overtures and Sibelius’s Tapiola, Violin Concerto (Ferras) and Finlandia. In December Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was taped. All in all an astounding amount of music across a huge range of styles, and a fair number of discs that have stood the test of time remarkably well. 

What is unusual, and in today’s world, utterly unheard of, is the amount of music-making Karajan and the BPO undertook while out of the public eye: they spent many more days in the studio than in giving public performance. 

Peter Alward, a former Vice President of A&R and President at EMI, knew Karajan well. “The man was very commercially savvy and he knew very well that his success in the marketplace was due to the fact that he was the purveyor of all types of music from the most serious to the most popular. Don’t forget he recorded national anthems and things like that. He balanced his career very cleverly between art and commerce. He recognised he could only reach just so many people through his performances, particularly also given the fact that in Salzburg the ticket prices were such that only the elite could afford to go to them. In Berlin the Philharmonie isn’t that big and, of course, he only gave so many concerts. So he realised he could reach an enormous audience through recordings.”

Evgeny Kissin, one of the many young artists mentored by Karajan.

With the recordings came power, and with power came criticism. Some people believe that Karajan was at his best in the 1950s with the Philharmonia, but you’ve only got to listen to the 1962 Beethoven symphony cycle – made after conductor and orchestra had established a working relationship of unusual sympathy – to realise that this wasn’t a brand build on sand. There was a powerful musical personality there and the BPO were willing participants. When, later in his career, details of his Nazi party membership emerged, commentators were only too willing to view the Karajan career through a kind of ‘back-dated’ Nazi agenda. The Swedish scholar Gisela Tamsen and Karajan’s biographer have laid out the details of Karajan’s Nazi membership in great detail. At worse it was a cynical ploy by an ambitious and highly talented musician at a time when nothing could be achieved without some form of official affiliation (and millions of Austrians and Germans, it should be pointed out, did it too); at best it could be seen as naivety. 

EMI’s Peter Alward is clear on this point: “His aim in life was that he wanted to have the best, he wanted to have the greatest orchestra, he wanted to be at the top of his career. In order to do that, he did not have to go and murder Jews, but he had to have a stamp on a certain piece of paper to be able to get access to the orchestras, to the people that would put him in those certain situations. Never, ever, in all the years I worked with him did I hear one single word which could possibly interpreted as either fascist, Nazi, anti-Semitic or whatever and and don’t forget my mother was Jewish. Also don’t forget that he constantly surrounded himself with a number of Jews. I mean, his Konzertmeister Michel Schwalbé – Jewish – his record producer Michel Glotz was Jewish. Had I had any of that feeling I would not have spent one second with him. It’s a very popular handle on which to hang him but I don’t believe it. No, it was opportunism and that’s an end of it.” Yehudi Menuhin, a frequent musical partner, held similar views. 

So here we are, 25 years after Karajan’s death: classical music no longer occupies the position it did even back then; world leaders are more interested in grabbing photo opportunities with rock stars than classical musicians (Karajan regularly dined with prime ministers and presidents) and the industry no longer has an evangelical and glamorous figurehead. Would Karajan have been able to stem the turning of the tide? It’s hard to say. Yes, he was ambitious, probably ruthless, certainly egotistical, undoubtedly vain, but few musicians in the post-war years did as much to take classical music to so many people, and give so much pleasure.