Herbert von Karajan's Symphonic Obsessions Karajan shot to the top of the classical music scene in the 1950s, remaining supremely powerful until he died in 1989. He left a legacy of gorgeous recordings, as well as a fair amount of controversy.
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Herbert von Karajan's Symphonic Obsessions

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Herbert von Karajan's Symphonic Obsessions

Herbert von Karajan's Symphonic Obsessions

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Before CDs and MP3s, fans of classical music would flip through record bins looking for a bright yellow banner that read Deutsche Grammophon. It was like a seal of approval. The tremendous success of the yellow label, as people called it, was due largely to one musician, Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan. He sold more than 50-million records for Deutsche Grammophon.

NPR's Tom Huizenga remembers the brilliant, but controversial, conductor who was born 100 years ago today.

TOM HUIZENGA: There's enough drama in Herbert von Karajan's life to make a movie. In Hollywood, the pitch might go something like: Ingenious young conductor from Mozart's hometown joins Nazi Party to further career and bulldozes his way to the top, conducting Europe's powerhouse orchestras.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER (Violinist): There's this wonderful joke where apparently he landed in Berlin, and he took a cab and the cab driver asked him: Where to, maestro? And he answered: Oh, it doesn't matter. They need me everywhere.

HUIZENGA: Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter had read all about Karajan's glamorous lifestyle by the time she auditioned for him in 1977 at age 13 — the fast cars, yachts, airplanes and his immense musical empire. Karajan had a keen nose for talent, and he launched Mutter's international career.

(Soundbite of music)

HUIZENGA: Karajan bolted to the top in the mid-1950s, when he took over three monumental institutions: the Salzburg Festival, the Vienna State Opera and, most importantly, the Berlin Philharmonic, with a contract he demanded for life, but Karajan wasn't amassing power for power's sake. Anne-Sophie Mutter says he was obsessed with making sound that was perfectly beautiful.

Ms. MUTTER: And with beauty he didn't mean Botox beauty, he meant beauty of soul, beauty of art.

HUIZENGA: Karajan rehearsed his orchestras for hours on end, and when it came time for a concert or recording session, he could simply stand on the podium and conduct the musicians with his eyes closed, as if in a trance. Some compared the sheen and elegance of the so-called Karajan sound to a Rolls Royce.

Ms. MUTTER: If you talk about Rolls Royce, you should not forget the Ferrari underneath. If I think about the low strings, the double basses and the celli, it's just amazing how these guys could blow your hair off.

(Soundbite of song, "A Hero's Life")

That's Richard Strauss' tone poem called "A Hero's Life," and on many levels, you can think of it as Karajan's own musical autobiography, especially the section Strauss titled "The Hero's Adversaries."

Mr. RICHARD OSBORNE (Author, "Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music"): There were always people who felt Karajan was too powerful.

HUIZENGA: Richard Osborne wrote the book "Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music." He says that as Karajan's strength grew, so did the list of his enemies.

Mr. OSBORNE: They demonized him, and the demonization really became quite serious in the late 1970s and early '80s. And then, of course, after he died and the laws of libel no longer applied, the most appalling things were said about him.

HUIZENGA: Fuel for the fires of hostility naturally came from Karajan's Nazi Party membership. He joined in 1935 to advance his blossoming career, but he wasn't interested in politics, and Hitler disliked him. Yet one might ask why Karajan stayed in Germany.

After the war, bogus information was circulated stating that Karajan had joined the party twice. Karajan's concerts were banned in Detroit and picketed in New York.

Yet for all the stories of greed and egomania, Karajan was a master conductor. And like a film director's magic touch with actors, Karajan inspired his musicians.

Mr. JAMES GALWAY (Principal Flutist, Berlin Philharmonic): I always played better for him than anybody else, I think, when I was in the orchestra.

HUIZENGA: James Galway became the principal flutist for the Berlin Philharmonic in 1969.

Mr. GALWAY: He brought out the best in you all the time. The orchestra sat on the front of their chairs. If you watch any movie of the Berlin Philharmonic, nobody sits back.

(Soundbite of music)

HUIZENGA: Karajan had control over the Berlin Philharmonic for life. But his success and autocratic attitude slowly generated resentments within the orchestra. A series of rancorous battles over power in the early 1980s even resulted in a lawsuit. Karajan finally stepped down in April 1989, only three months before he died.

His final concert and recording that very same month was with his other orchestra: the Vienna Philharmonic. The music was close to Karajan's heart, Anton Bruckner's "Symphony No. 7," a shimmering monolith of sound.

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony No. 7")

HUIZENGA: So here we are, 100 years after Karajan's birth, and the record companies are again trotting out hundreds of reissues for one of their heroes. Whether Karajan was a hero will always be debated. What is undeniable, as you can hear from Karajan himself, is the man's singular quest to make beautiful music.

Mr. HERBERT VON KARAJAN (Conductor): The real great satisfaction in my life, that I was allowed to bring music to so many people.

HUIZENGA: It's been estimated that Karajan has sold over 200 million LPs, CDs and videos, and you can bet that number will only keep growing.

Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

STAMBERG: You can see Herbert von Karajan conduct Beethoven, find a list of his top five recordings and hear an extended interview with his protege, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, all at our Web site, npr.org/music.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is back next week. I'm Susan Stamberg.

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