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Herbert von Karajan

Herbert von Karajan (April 5, 1908 - July 16, 1989) was conductor who was prominent in the postwar period. Von Karajan led the Berlin Philharmonic for many years.

Early years

Von Karajan was born in Salzburg, Austria. From 1916 to 1926, he studied at the Mozarteum Conservatory in Salzburg, where he was encouraged to study conducting.

In 1929, he conducted Salome at the Festspielhaus in Salzburg.

From 1929 to 1934, he was first "Kapellmeister" at the Stadttheater in Ulm, Germany. In 1933, he made his debut at the Salzburg Festival, conducting the music for the "Walpurgisnacht Scene" in Max Reinhardt's production of Faust. The following year, he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time, also in Salzburg.

From 1934 to 1941, he conducted opera and symphony concerts at the Aachen opera house.

In 1935, von Karajan was appointed Germany's youngest "Generalmusikdirektor" and was a guest conductor in Brussels, Stockholm, Amsterdam, and other cities.

In 1937, von Karajan made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin State Opera with Fidelio. He enjoyed a major success with Tristan und Isolde and was hailed by a Berlin critic as "Das Wunder Karajan". He received a contract with Deutsche Grammophon; his first recording was the Magic Flute overture, made with the Staatskapelle Berlin.

Postwar years

In 1946, Karajan gave his first post-war concert, in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic, but he was banned from further conducting activities by the Russian occupation authorities because of his war record. That summer, he participated anonymously in the Salzburg Festival. The following year, he was

In 1948, Karajan became artistic director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna. He also worked with the Philharmonia Orchestra, London, and conducted at La Scala, in addition to Milan.

In 1951 and 1952, he conducted at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

In 1955, he was appointed music director for life of the Berlin Philharmonic as successor to Wilhelm Furtwängler. From 1957 to 1964, he was artistic director of the Vienna State Opera. He was closely involved with the Vienna Philharmonic, London Philharmonic and La Scala in Milan. He continued to perform, conduct, and record prolifically until his death in 1989.

Karajan played an important role in the development of the Compact disc digital audio format. He championed the format, lent his prestige to it, and appeared at the press conference announcing the format. The first CD prototypes had a playing time limited to 60 minutes; and it is frequently asserted that the longer 74-minute capacity was chosen in order to encompass Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and that Karajan's recordings and wishes played some part in this decision. (See [1] the Snopes urban reference legends page for detailed discussion).


Although one of the most successful conductors of the era, Von Karajan was not uncontroversial. As was the case with soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, his joining the Nazi Party during the war years -- albeit for opportunistic rather than ideological reasons -- cast him in an uncomplimentary light when revealed later. Von Karajan was also criticized for ignoring contemporary music, in contrast to his many illustrious predecessors. Von Karajan is also seen by many critics as primarily an orchestral technician; he knew how to extract beautiful sound from an ensemble. As the American critic Harvey Sachs wrote:

Karajan seemed to have opted instead for an all-purpose, highly refined, lacquered, calculatedly voluptuous sound that could be applied, with the stylistics modifications he deemed appropriate, to Bach and Puccini, Mozart and Mahler, Beethoven and Wagner, Schumann and Stravinsky... many of his performances had a prefabricated, artificial quality that those of Toscanini, Furtwängler, and others never had ... most of Karajan's records are exaggeratedly polished, a sort of sonic counterpart to the films and photographs of Leni Riefenstahl.

Some critics, particularly British critic Norman Lebrecht, charge von Karajan for initiating a devastating inflational spiral in performance fees. During his tenure as director of publicly-funded performing organizations such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Salzberg Festival, he started paying guest stars exorbitantly, as well as racheting up his own renumeration:

Once he possessed orchestras he could have them produce discs, taking the vulture's share of royalties for himself and rerecording favorite pieces for every new technology until he died (digital LPs, CD, videotape, laserdisc). In addition to making it difficult for other conductors to record with his orchestras, von Karajan also drove up the prices that he would be paid and thus other conductors wanted. [1]

Finally, Karajan also had a megalomaniac streak. When he conducted Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera, He raised the conductor's stand to place himself in the line of sight of the audience; in operatic recordings of Verdi, he changed the balance so as to bring the sound of the orchestra forward in the final mix, all to emphasize his role in the music-making. Critics compare him with Leonard Bernstein, pointing out both conductors were unequaled in their mastery of podium histrionics.