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Herbert Von Karajan

A Life in Music

by Richard Osborne

Hardcover, 851 pages, Univ Pr of New England, List Price: $60 |


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Richard Osborne

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Excerpt: Herbert Von Karajan

Chapter One

An atmosphere of war

May you be born into interesting times.
Old Chinese curse

It was shortly before eleven o'clock on the morning of 28 June 1914 thatthe leading car in the motorcade inexplicably turned off Appel Quay intoFranz Josef Street.

    The Governor, who was travelling on the jump seat of the royal car,shouted that they were going the wrong way. The chauffeur brought theblack open tourer to an abrupt halt by the kerb in front of Schiller's delicatessen,the very place where Gavrilo Princip happened to be standing.

    Princip later said that he aimed indiscriminately, bewildered by thesudden unexpected appearance of the car, and the fact that it was theDuchess Sophie, not the Archduke, who was on the side nearest to him.

    By what malign chance, then, did both bullets find their mark? The firstpierced the door of the car and the Duchess's right side; the second passedthrough the Archduke's collar, severing his jugular vein before lodging inhis spine.

    The assassination had been elaborately planned and might have succeededearlier that same Sunday morning in Sarajevo had the bomb lobbedby one of Princip's accomplices not rolled off the folded-down hood of theroyal car into the road, damaging the car behind.

    It remains one of the most bizarre of twentieth-century assassinations,and the most momentous.

* * *

The two Karajan boys watched the battleship Viribus Unitis thread itsway through the narrow channel near the small island on which theywere holidaying. Funeral-bedecked, escorted by destroyers, the battleshipwas bound for Trieste. There the bodies of Franz Ferdinand and his wifewould be transferred to the royal train for the final stage of their return toVienna.

    The small island on which the Karajans were staying was owned by theKupelwieser family of Vienna. In an era before the advent of mass tourism,it was still possible for a well-to-do family to acquire an island or two for itsprivate use. The Kupelwiesers — heirs to Schubert's great friend the painterLeopold Kupelwieser and long-standing friends of the von Karajans — hadpurchased the island across the water from the fashionable resort of Brioni,had planted and irrigated it, and turned it into a small paradise.

    The Karajan boys had arrived there with their mother, Martha vonKarajan, for an extended vacation away from that unpredictable mix oftorrid heat and torrential rains which is Salzburg in high summer. Wolfgangwas rising eight, gangling and slightly unkempt. Heribert was six, smallerand sleeker, with a certain gamin charm. He had not previously seen thesea and declared it to be `enormously impressive'.

    The family had barely settled into their rooms when Martha's brotherunexpectedly arrived with a message from her husband, Dr Ernst vonKarajan. He had remained at home in Salzburg attending to his medicalduties. Now `something serious had happened'. It was imperative that hiswife and children leave Brioni for a safer place.

    Before they left, the family watched the water-borne cortège pass throughthe Fazanski channel. Karajan would later recall:

When my uncle saw these ships — I couldn't imagine why — he said: `Nowthere'll be a war.' The word `war' meant nothing at all to me, but I had quitea strange feeling all the same. In the way children do, I probably grasped theatmospheric feeling of the word rather than the drama itself. I noticed thatthe adults were afraid, and that communicated itself to me.

    The boys' uncle proved to be more prescient than many of hiscontemporaries. In Vienna, reaction to the Archduke's assassination wasmuted. He was not universally, or even widely, liked; and his morganaticmarriage to the Duchess Sophie was a complicating factor when it cameto the State obsequies, which were brief and low-key.

    Yet Franz Ferdinand's death was a catastrophe in more senses than one.He had long been a moderating influence in the Austrian government,arguing that war with Serbia would mean war with Russia, the break-upof the fragile Austro-Hungarian empire, and the end of the monarchy. Now,ironically, his assassination threatened to provoke the very thing he mostfeared. Though Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II had shared Franz Ferdinand'scircumspection, he now shifted ground, urging a resolute response by theAustrians to Serb aggression, offering full German military backing in theevent of Russian intervention.

    The people, too, seem to have been hungry for war. Through the longdays and balmy nights of the unusually fine summer of 1914, crowdsmassed in the streets in increasing numbers. The German Chancellor,Bethmann Hollweg, had feared that neither he nor the Kaiser would beable to carry public opinion with him in the event of Serb rejection of theAustrian ultimatum of 23 July. He need have had no qualms. On the eveningof Saturday, 25 July huge crowds milled about the streets of Berlin awaitingthe Serb response. When it finally came — a resolute `no' — the crowdswent wild. `Es geht los!' the cry went up. `It's on! The war is on!' Hugemasses moved through Berlin's main thoroughfares singing Austrian andGerman marching songs. The Austrian embassy was besieged; the Austrianambassador, Szögyény-Marich, was serenaded with a blustering renditionof `Ich hat' einen Kameraden'.

    On 30 July, the Russians mobilised. The following day at 1.00 p.m. theKaiser announced a state of drobende Kriegsgefahr (imminent danger ofwar). The crowds again went wild.

* * *

After leaving Brioni, the Karajan boys did not immediately return toSalzburg. They travelled north to Styria, `the green heart of Austria' asit is sometimes called, to the small town of Knittelfeld north-west of Graz.This was Martha von Karajan's home country. Her mother, KatharinaAxterer, had been born there, and was to die there in 1944, aged 96.Martha's Serbian-born father, whom she barely knew (he died aged 46when she was only three), was an agricultural accountant in Graz. Hersister had also settled locally, marrying Baron Leutzendorff, the ownerof Schloss Prankh, a small estate near Knittelfeld. But she, too, had beenwidowed early. The baron had died in 1913.

    The widowed baroness seems to have been as thrilled to have the Karajanboys staying with her as they were by the freedom the estate afforded them.They were halcyon days:

Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day tomorrow as today,
And to be boy eternal.

For Heribert, though, happy days were accompanied by troubled nights.Though the word `war' evoked as yet only `atmospheric feelings', the ideaof marauding Russian invaders was all too pressingly real. During his stayat Schloss Prankh, he fancied he heard shots in the woods at night. Theassurance of the boys' nanny that if the Russians did arrive they wouldnot advance beyond the Gasthof Dietrich was, not surprisingly, of littlecomfort to him.

    The Russians didn't arrive. Yet fear of them was to haunt Karajan untilwell after the Second World War. In 1948, the year of the Berlin Airlift,he was actively making plans to bail out of Europe altogether.

    One of the Baroness's recent acquisitions at Schloss Prankh was anewfangled player-piano. Heribert had started learning the piano properat the age of three. Sibling rivalry had caused him to lurk, incubus-like,behind the curtains of the room in which Wolfi was already taking lessons.By the age of four, Heribert had (in his own estimation) overtaken hisbrother; certainly, he was good enough to play in public, beguiling acharity audience in a Salzburg restaurant in 1912 with a pert renderingof a Mozart rondo.

    Yet his aunt's player-piano, with its accompanying piano rolls, wassomething other. It was a Hupfeld Phonola, an 88-note cabinet playerthat would have been pushed up against the keyboard of the Baroness'sown piano. This would not have allowed Heribert to listen to what onewriter has described as `original recordings by Rachmaninov and othergreat and important composers'. The Phonola, unlike the much rarerHupfeld DEA, was not a reproducing piano; nor were Rachmaninovpiano-roll recordings commercially available at that time. There were,however, hundreds of recordings being manufactured in the `hand played'or `machine cut' categories. These were relatively simple affairs. Theyreproduced the notes and allowed the player to pedal in a limited rangeof dynamic nuances. Here there was Rachmaninov in abundance: the Csharp minor Prelude and much else besides, music for which Karajan wasto develop a lifelong passion.

    `It goes without saying,' Karajan later observed, `that I spent many hourswith this amazing apparatus.' Throughout his life he would talk of the latestadvances in technology in a way that was almost proprietorial.

    Fascinating as the player-piano was, the estate possessed another machinewhose power was even more overwhelming to Heribert's six-year-oldconsciousness. In the grounds of Schloss Prankh there was a hut by awaterfall. In the hut was a generator, a water-driven turbine that providedpower for the estate. Walking with the estate manager to unlock the hut(Heribert solemnly carrying the key) and switching on the turbine (Heriberthelping plunge down the great lever) was an adventure beyond compare.The roar of the generator, light flaring out of darkness: a single gesturecreating so powerful an effect. Even as an old man, Karajan would tellthe story, as if still hypnotised by the memory. But, then, the old manknew what the six-year-old child could barely guess at: the existence ofa profession in which a not dissimilar gesture could create epiphanies ofsound and light as splendid as any known to man.

Copyright © 1998 Richard Osborne. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-55553-425-2