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Culture

Critic Explains Allure of von Karajan, 100 Years and Counting

Ahead of the 100th anniversary of the birth of famous orchestra director and conductor Herbert von Karajan on April 5, DW-WORLD.DE talked about the maestro as a cultural icon with James Oestreich of The New York Times.

A close-up of Karajan conducting with his hands

Great, but flawed: Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989)

In 1955, von Karajan -- classical music's most prolific recording artist -- was named director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and was credited with creating its clean and distinctive sound during his 35-year tenure. He was also chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and the guiding force behind the Salzburg Festival, where he conducted for 33 years. Karajan died July 16, 1989.

DW-WORLD.DE spoke with James Oestreich, music and dance editor at The New York Times, about von Karajan's significance in music history.

DW-WORLD.DE: These days you can't look anywhere in the German media without seeing a story or documentary or article about the life of Herbert von Karajan. What's all the fuss about?

James Oestreich: He was probably the most recorded conductor of his time. It was a time when long-playing records were really taking off, and then digital recording came in and the CD came in, and he was riding that technology through the whole thing.

He recorded everything, all the time, and he re-recorded things. He recorded the Brahms symphonies three times, I believe, and the Beethoven symphonies three times. So he was simply everywhere.

To boot, he was in many ways a fantastic conductor. He had his shortcomings, as many people do. But what he did well, he did extremely well. And he had at that time one of the world's greatest orchestras, if not the world's greatest orchestra, performing for him.

Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in 1987

Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in 1987

Can you name a highlight?

His 1960s recordings of the Beethoven symphonies were classic. They were the way I, among many others, got to know the Beethoven symphonies. So they were kind of my standard, and many people's standard for those works.

What effect does a superstar conductor have on an orchestra? Is it purely good news -- more revenue and publicity -- or can it also be damaging?

Well it can be either. In this case, he and the orchestra were so closely identified after so many years, and it was the coming together of two superstar names: Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. ... A music director isn't just a conductor. He is someone who builds the orchestra in addition to conducting it. In this case, Karajan had built up this orchestra over a number of years, and made it into a sensational machine. They played beautifully for him.

To what do you attribute the ongoing interest in Karajan?

Well, there is the factor of permanence, for one thing. It helps Karajan and hurts people today. It used to be that people's vinyl LPs would wear down and become unplayable. Now, digital recordings are permanent. So there are these recordings that were the standard of their time, and they remain with us, and become standards of this time, too.

It makes it difficult for people to come up with recording projects today, because all these standards are still readily available.

In Karajan's case, there was also this international renown that he had. When Japan was warming to classical music -- to put it mildly -- 20 or 30 years ago, Karajan was almost synonymous with classical music there. So there is a built-in audience all around the world for his recordings.

Karajan had an international career, but was still very much a German and Austrian conductor. Now an Englishman, Sir Simon Rattle, leads the Berlin Philharmonic. Does nationality have a role in orchestras today?

It has become less relevant. It used to be that orchestras from different countries had different sounds -- the Russians had very piercing brass instruments, the Germans had tremendous warmth in their string sound. As conductors travel around the world, and players go from orchestra to orchestra, and sometimes from country to country, those things have greatly diminished, in the last 30 or 40 years.

That's the way of the world. But some of us yearn, to some extent, for the old days, when there were those characteristic sounds of orchestras. When nobody could play German music like the Germans and nobody could play French music like the French.

One of the most frequently debated aspects of Karajan's life is the fact that he joined the Nazi party in 1933. Modern biographers have argued it was a political career move, rather than an ideological one. Still, he conducted for Hitler and other top Nazis, who revered him. How important is this aspect of his biography?

Richard Strauss sits in a chair in a garden

German composer and conductor Richard Strauss

Well, it is a very important aspect. And he is far from alone in any of this. [German conductor Wilhelm] Furtwaengler, of course, had many of the same problems ... and [German composer] Richard Strauss was the head of the Nazi music chamber. So Karajan was far from alone.

It's a very unfortunate aspect of his biography, but it doesn't mitigate his music making in any way, I don't think. There were a lot of bad things happening in those days, and he was part of it.

If you read about Karajan in the press, it is hard to find anyone neutral. The musicians who played for him adored him, as did a large public. Yet many writers today criticize his sound as being too "cold" and technical, and take his perfectionism to task. What's your take?

Well, I don't find his music making cold. It was certainly very lush, and that was problematic in some ways. I remember a recording came out of Bach and Stravinsky, and for me the funny thing about that record is that Karajan was out of his depth on both ends. His big, lush Bach sound is totally out of date today, now that the early music movement has brought back the smallness of sound from the Baroque era. And in the case of Stravinsky -- a very angular, modern sound -- again, Karajan's sound is very lush and rich. It missed the angles and it missed a lot of the music as a result.

So, it was a style that didn't suit all types of music, but the music it suited, it suited very well. There is a recording late in his life of Mahler's 9th Symphony that is the opposite of cold. Its one of the great recordings ever made. So I'm not sure what people have in mind when they use a blanket term like cold to describe his music making.

Karajan was also known for leading an extravagant lifestyle, flying jets and driving race cars. He was also criticized by some for ostensibly forcing concert ticket prices so high that only the wealthy could attend. How did this affect the public's view of him?

Karajan steps off the jet with his wife, Eliette (left) and daughter Isabella

Karajan steps off the jet with his wife, Eliette (left) and daughter Isabella

Well, I don't think Karajan set concert prices. Karajan certainly made a lot of money and demanded a lot of money, but he wasn't alone in that. Concerts were very expensive, especially at Salzburg. But it is far from just Karajan. Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman -- all sorts of people were demanding huge amounts of money. And that's what sent ticket prices soaring.

So did his luxury lifestyle image act in his favor, or against him?

I think it humanized him. Toscanini was put on a pedestal by music lovers for a long time. In this case it brought Karajan in to a real world that people could identify with, or wished they had ... I'm sure the image was certainly part of the package.

How do you suppose Karajan will be remembered?

I think there are a lot of generalizations going around this year, and I think generalizations are always risky. I don't want to see him swamped, and go down in history with words like "cold" attached and "luxury" attached. He was many things. He was a very complex figure, and he was a great musician.

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