Music Notes

Birth Anniversary of Herbert von Karajan

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Herbert von Karajan (5 April 1908 – 16 July 1989) was an Austrian conductor. He was the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic for 34 years. During the German renaissance, the National Socialist era (1933-1945), he debuted at the Salzburg Festival, with the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Berlin Philharmonic.

During the Second World War, he conducted at the Berlin State Opera. Generally regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, he was a controversial but dominant figure in European classical music from the mid-1950s until his death.

Part of the reason for this was the incredibly large number of recordings he made and their prominence during his lifetime. By one estimate, he was the top-selling classical music recording artist of all time, having sold an estimated 200 million records.

When asked where did his talent come from the Austrian-German musician and conductor was forthright: ‘I was given special tools, special talents. I never had any doubts that my talents came from the Creator. My duty to Him is to exploit them to the fullest. My ambition is to make music as perfectly as possible and reach as many people as possible.’

Many regard him as the greatest conductor ever to mount the podium, the greatest translator of Europe’s classical music. He was simultaneously one of the most versatile and accomplished sportsmen of all time. His youthful passion for mountain climbing and fast motorcycles resulted in a number of spectacular accidents which blighted his health throughout his life. His spinal injuries (and broken ankle) stemmed from a 75-foot fall when as a twelve-year-old he was rock climbing locally.

Despite many close encounters with the Grim Reaper, he took up scuba diving and excelled. He was an accomplished water skier. From his fifties, he developed a passion for flight, learned to fly and piloted his own aeroplanes and helicopters which he flew with considerable panache.

He loved gliding and adored snow skiing. At the age of 54, when most men are looking forward to retirement, he descended Mont Blanc on skis. He spoke four languages fluently. Italian, French, English and of course German. An exceedingly skilled yachtsman his pride and joy were his 77-foot Helisara which required a crew of 25. He raced it to perfection and to acclaim.

Were these the indulgences of a rich and successful musician; toys for boys who can afford them? Not at all. He skied with Stein Ericksen, drove fast cars with Nikki Lauder, dived with Jacques Costeau, and sailed with Gary Jobson. Such men do not associate with self-indulgent playboys.

Herbert von Karajan joined the National Socialist Deutsche Arbeit Partei (NSDAP) within two months and eight days of Chancellor Adolf Hitler being elected on January 30, 1933, to lead Germany. His membership card carries the number #1 607 525. In fact, he had the distinction of being a member twice over as he also carried a German issue NSDAP card (#3 430 914).

As an Austrian, it was illegal for him to do so. His admiration for Adolf Hitler was to endure and nothing, not even the passage of time, would temper it. Never once did he deny his membership. His integrity further inflamed the professional jealousy of Furtwangler who despite profiting from National Socialist patronage never himself joined the NSDAP and indeed tried afterwards to distance himself from it. The irony is that after the defeat of Germany Karajan was cleared to work again before Furtwangler was.

The ‘von’ in Karajan’s name is a family title – Knight of the Holy Roman Empire; his father, Dr Ernst von Karjan a noted physician and accomplished pianist and clarinettist inherited it.

Herbert von Karajan reached the summit of musical accomplishment. By his early fifties he was the Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic, artistic advisor of La Scala, artistic director of the internationally acclaimed Salzburg Festival, and simultaneously of the Vienna State Opera, and Music Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra: ‘General Music Director of Europe’.


His Faith in the Almighty Spirit and His was unshakable. ‘You don’t need faith to believe in God, because there are plenty of signs available of His existence. Mozart wrote a symphony as a child. Heredity cannot account for this. There is only one explanation: the Creator chooses people as His instruments to produce some beauty in a world that is all too ugly.’  – Herbert von Karajan.

‘We see and hear him now (von Karajan) at the height of his powers, superbly able to keep a Bruckner symphony spinning not like a top but rather like some celestial sphere – massive, glowing, and infused with cosmic power.’ ~ Denis Stevens describes the final von Karajan recording of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony in April 1989. The maestro of maestros passed peacefully three months later. ~ Michael Walsh


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