Sunday, May 13, 2007

Herbert von Karajan

The other night, while surfing Youtube, I happened upon a video of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony conducted by Herbert von Karajan. I hadn’t listened to Beethoven for some years, and as I watched the video I was reminded of how rollicking this symphony is, and how whistleable. And von Karajan’s trademark, conducting with eyes shut throughout, is seen to good effect, as shown here:



I hadn’t thought much about Herbert von Karajan for some years, either, but, as I watched the video, and allowed the spirit of van Beethoven and of von Karajan to take me over, I remembered a book I’d read in the early 1980s about the famous conductors, and that it had included Herbert von Karajan. Did I still have it?


When I trolled through my bookcase, there the book was. I fished it out and, after wiping away the accumulated dust of many years, I could once again read its title, “Maestro - Encounters with Conductors of Today” and the name of the writer, Helena Matheopoulos. I need hardly add that, because the book was published 25 years ago, the “Conductors of Today” would better now be described as “Conductors of Yesterday”, since many are now dead, including Herbert von Karajan.

In this, the early twenty-first century, where the current stars and starlets in our contemporary pantheon of gods and goddesses, like Brad Pitt, Britney Spears and those others whose names escape me, whose photographed and videoed faces and torsos assault our sensibilities from out of the tabloids and TV screens wherever we look, wherever we live, the notion that Herbert von Karajan was once a comparable god is difficult to imagine. But he was.

Herbert von Karajan was the ultimate in sophistication and chicness among the classical-music set. Women went gaga over his slim good looks and mesmeric light blue eyes. He was voted the Best Dressed Man in Vienna, and men everywhere emulated his sartorial style, known as the “Karajan Style” - polo-necked sweaters, an additional sweater casually knotted over the shoulders, masses of colourful socks, and watch worn facing inwards.

He flew planes, skied, mountaineered, raced yachts, drove fast cars, did yoga, practiced Zen, was a voracious reader, had a passion for all the newest technology, machines and gadgets, owned houses with swimming pools at St Moritz, St Tropez, and Salzburg – all this, in addition to being the world’s foremost orchestral conductor.

Herbert was ferociously independent, a control freak unable to compromise or bend his will to those of other men. He presided over a veritable “Karajan Empire”, which comprised the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra - of which he was Principal Conductor for Life – the Salzburg Easter, Whitsun, and Summer Festivals, films, video-cassettes, the Karajan Foundation and recordings, over which he had total control. For instance when in the recording studio he would micro-manage the sound-mixing and dubbing to ensure the finished recorded product sounded exactly the way he wanted it. In this, he was accused of manipulation. But Karajan said that music manipulated electronically was no more manipulated than music manipulated through the baton of any conductor. Who’s to argue with that?

The polished burnished orchestral sounds in von Karajan’s recordings are testimony that they are the product of electronic refining and sound-mixing to the enth degree. Speaking for myself, I think von Karajan’s sound was perfect for the lyrical melodic music of the likes of Mozart or Haydn. But essence of the raw jaggedness of Beethoven’s later symphonies isn’t caught sufficiently through the von Karajan sound.

I also think von Karajan’s tempos were often much too fast, leaving me the impression he couldn’t wait to finish. Playing allegros and allegrettos as fast as possible is all well and good, but adagios and andantes should be taken nice and slow. If you listen again to the second adagio movement of the Beethoven 7th Symphony as interpreted by von Karajan, you may feel, as did I, that slowing it down would have done wonders.

But then, what do I know? I may be on the level of the vacuous king of the German principality, as portrayed in the film “Amadeus”. When asked by Mozart how he liked one of his pieces, the king, to show he wasn’t as dumb as he looked, said, “It has too many notes”. When Mozart asked which notes he should throw out, the king said, “Oh, any few, then it’ll be perfect”.

It’s something George Bush might say.

You, who looked at the video of Karajan conducting the Beethoven 7th, may have been struck, as was I, that the orchestra was all-male. Had I watched back in 1977 when the video was made, I wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss. Interestingly, the author of “Maestro”, Helene Matheopoulos, a woman, is silent about the all-maleness of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the norm for most other orchestras when (in 1982) her book was published. When we look at today’s orchestras we see what a difference a mere twenty-five years makes. It was only when they began holding auditions behind screens so that those being auditioned couldn’t be seen by their prospective employers, that orchestras began looking different.

Returning now to Herbert von Karajan himself, it was Zen Buddhism which guided most his approach to conducting. He could only be satisfied when he felt that he and the orchestra had become One - best expressed in a passage from Eugene Herrigel’s “Zen In The Art Of Archery”:

“The Master no longer seeks, but finds. As an artist, he is the hieratic man. As a man, the artist into whose heart, in all his doing and not-doing, working and waiting, being and not-being, the Buddha gazes. The man, the art, the work – it is all one. The art of the inner work, which unlike the outer, does not forsake the artist, which he does not ‘do’ but can only ‘be’, springs from depths, of which the day knows nothing.”

We shouldn’t be surprised that von Karajan conducted with eyes shut, for he wanted to feel, not look. As he explained to Helene Matheopoulos, “…….I want to see the music stretched out before me. And I am much more with the musicians if I have my eyes shut. I feel it if someone is nervous about their entry or someone is short of breath in a long passage, and I can help them – my hand which is trained by long experience, will respond and accelerate. I never know what my hands do at the time, but the next day, a player will come and say: ‘How did you know that I was nervous or short of breath at that particular passage?’ I can never answer that………I just feel
it…….”.



* * *



Heribert Ritter (Herbert) von Karajan was born on April 5, 1908, at eleven o’ clock at night, in Salzburg, Austria. His father was Dr Ernst von Karajan, chief surgeon at the main hospital in Salzburg, and, in the words of Helene Matheopoulous, a man “……….whose exceptional devotion to duty and human contact with his patients are still talked about in that institution. He once told his son (Herbert) that ‘what matters ultimately is what you give as a human being’ and the boy never forgot these words………….”.

You’d think that having a chief surgeon for a father, as Herbert’s father was, would be distinction enough for anyone, let alone for a famous conductor. But, here’s more. Herbert’s great-great grandfather, Georg Johannes Karajannis – a name of Greek provenance - was made a Knight of the Holy Roman Empire (described by many cynical historians as neither holy, Roman, nor an empire, and which comprised what is now Germany). This honour propelled him to change the family name from Karajannis to Karajan, and to add the aristocratic “von” in front.

George Johannes’s son, Theodore (who would have been Herbert’s geat-grandfather) became Professor of German Literature at the University of Vienna, President of the Antiquarian Society, and Director of the Imperial Library. Not only this, he
“…………was also a passionate music lover who frequently hosted chamber music concerts at home……….”.

But Theodore, despite being most distinguished, was nonetheless a victim of prejudice, being passed over for the Deanship of the University of Vienna because of his Greek Orthodox faith. This didn’t sit well with him, so he resigned in disgust from all his posts at the University. But Theodore’s son, Max (Herbert’s grandfather) saw on which side his bread was buttered, and accordingly converted the family to Roman Catholicism.

Max von Karajan was no slouch either, for he was professor of classical literature at the University of Graz and, later on, Director of all of Austria’s public health institutions. This raises the question: How does being a professor of classical literature qualify one to be director of public health institutions? You’d think being a medical doctor might be a better qualification. But perhaps Max was a medical doctor all along, and that classical literature was merely a second string to his bow?

I have already related that Herbert’s father, Ernst, was a surgeon. But he only went into medicine because his father, Max, insisted he do so. Had Ernst been left to his own devices he would have become an actor, but because the actor’s life was so insecure, he allowed himself to be cajoled into medicine. But Ernst didn’t turn his back on the world of thespianism entirely, for he was a keen amateur actor all his life, and, amazingly (for he was a busy surgeon, after all)
“………a clarinettist with the Salzburg Chamber Society which gave weekly concerts in the von Karajan home by the Salzach, next to the Oesterreicher Hof Hotel………”.

So, music was seeped into Herbert’s very marrow from the moment he was born. His musicality came also from his mother, Martha, Slovenian-born, and who, we are told, Herbert in many ways resembled. Martha particularly liked romantic music, especially that of Wagner.

But Herbert’s path into musicianship was, nonetheless, not easy, because, as a child, he was always in the shadow of his older brother, Wolfgang, who later became an organ-builder and player. Wolfgang began on the piano at age five, and Herbert followed in his footsteps, fuelled by the desire to out-perform his brother, which, we must suppose, he eventually did, for who of us has ever heard of Wolfgang von Karajan? But Herbert von Karajan? Need I say more?

Herbert was, in fact, a child musical prodigy. At age five he was judged good enough to play a Mozart Rondo at a charity concert despite not being big enough to reach the piano pedals, and at nine he gave his first public concert. He eventually found the piano too confining for his restless genius, so he took up the conductor's baton. Time and space don’t allow me to expatiate much on Herbert’s progress up music’s ladder, except to say that it was sometimes quite bumpy, inasmuch as going up ladders can be said to be “bumpy”.


Commons: Bundesarchiv

Image from Wikipedia

As one might expect, Herbert didn’t find things easy during World War 2 and in the years immediately after. To get a post as Kapellmeister of an orchestra in Nazi-era Germany, he had been required to take out a Nazi party card, despite being completely uninterested in politics, for he was devoted solely to music. His possession of this card was why the American occupiers barred him from practicing his musical craft during Germany’s and Austria’s post-war de-Nazification processes, which lasted over two years. However, this gave Herbert the time to study musical scores, and master them in preparation for when he would again be allowed to work.

And when he was, he found his path blocked, and his career plateaued, through the intrigue and machinations of the doyen of German conductors, Wilhelm Furtwängler - jealous that the much-younger Herbert might overtake him as numero uno among conductors. This was as good an example as any that politics and nastiness don't stop at the water's edge of the orchestral world.

Incidentally, I found on Youtube a short video of Furtwängler conducting the last few minutes of the Beethoven Ninth in Berlin in 1942 before an audience of bigwigs, many in Nazi and military uniforms, some visibly bearing the scars of war:




When Furtwängler died in the early 1950s, the way was clear for Herbert to ascend to classical music’s pinnacle. The rest is history.

Herbert von Karajan died on July 16th 1989 in Salzburg, the city where he’d been born 81 years earlier. When he breathed his last, did he feel his life’s work complete? Consider the following statement he once made:


Tomorrow I would like to be the companion of him who will know how to propose opera, music and poetry to the most remote and least privileged of beings on this earth. We are at zero point of a new adventure, at the stammering beginnings of a grandiose audio-visual machinery. We have not yet left harbour, and the great future is fantastic. Will I do what heaven commands me or will I need another life in order to continue the march?

Herbert von Karajan, wherever he may be now, can rest assured that the music he brought to life will live on in his videos and CDs, for the delectation of classical-music lovers everywhere 1,000 years from now, thanks to the technology to which he was in thrall.