TO EVERY AGE ITS GIANTS
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Herbert von Karajan (5 April 1908 – 16 July 1989) is regarded as the greatest ever orchestral conductor. A consummate musician, Karajan 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 were the results of a 25 meter fall when rock climbing as a twelve year old.
Despite many encounters with the Grim Reaper the Austrian German took up water skiing and excelled at scuba diving. When in his fifties he developed a passion for flight. Von Karajan piloted his own airplanes and helicopters and flew with considerable panache. He loved gliding and adored snow skiing. At the age of 54, when most men are looking forward to retirement, the dirigent descended Monte Blanc on skis. The gifted maestro spoke Italian, French, English and of course German.
An exceedingly skilled yachtsman his pride and joy was his 77 foot Helisara which required a crew of 25. Karajan skied with Stein Ericksen, drove fast cars with F1 ace Nikki Lauder, dived with oceanologist Jacques Cousteau and sailed with yachtsman Gary Jobson. Due to sports related injuries Karajan at the age of 78 was obliged to undergo major surgery on his spine. Although the operation was successful he had to learn to walk again. The virtuoso swam; suffered long agonizing walks, had massages and physical therapy, yet throughout always mounted the podium and enthralled audiences.
Karajan’s start in life was no different from that of any other Austrian born to the new century. It was a period of chaos, unemployment and mass starvation. By the time the gifted youngster was ten years old, The Hapsburg dynasty after holding Central Europe together for 700 years was dismantled by the Allies after World War One. Austria was now little more than a province.
At the age of four Karajan was taking lessons from Franz Ledwinka, the well-known teacher and impresario. He performed for his first concert at the age of five. By then he had already taken up skiing, climbing, football and solo sailing. The focus however remained on music and the learning of his art by today’s standards was arduous.
His career actually started as a pianist. Such was his prodigious talent that the noted pianist Professor Josef Hofman said Karajan’s ability required eight hands rather than eight fingers; he should consider a career as a conductor. In order to study conducting at the Academy for Music and Performing Arts in Vienna an aspirant already knew that of the 220 talented youngsters only perhaps eighteen would be selected and only three would graduate. His was such a consuming passion that at the age of fourteen he mounted his bicycle and peddled 200 miles to experience a concert.
His rise to prominence whilst phenomenal was based on the most unrelenting effort and guile on his part. This included raising funds to personally put on concerts. The first was in Salzburg when he was twenty-one years old.
It was a period dominated by Wilhelm Furtwangler and Toscanini. Many have drawn the parallel with another rising personality of the same period. Adolf Hitler, by applying a similarly focused tenacity, would shortly achieve the chancellorship of central Europe’s pivotal-nation. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich’s Minister of Propaganda exclaimed; “Culture is a poster for the Third Reich.”
Von Karajan was an ardent National Socialist. Roger Vaughan, the conductor’s biographer tells of the time the two drove through Berchtesgaden and up through the winding forested roads to Eagle’s Nest, Adolf Hitler’s mountain home. As they neared the ruins; bombed, looted and later dynamited by U.S armed forces, the man regarded as the world’s greatest conductor expressed a deep sadness. “There is no monument to him.”
Herbert von Karajan joined the National Socialist Deutsche Arbeit Partei (NSDAP) within weeks of Adolf Hitler being elected Chancellor. The conductor’s membership card carried the number #1 607 525. The distinguished conductor had the distinction of being a member twice over as he also carried a German issue NSDAP card (#3 430 914).
Following the military defeat of the Workers Reich Herbert von Karajan was interrogated by the occupying forces. Like millions of others the great musician was denied work.
Much of the period between autumn 1944 and December 1948 was spent at St. Anton patiently waiting for the return to the normality. He was otherwise difficult to find in a remote wooded area north of Milan where partisans, had they known of his existence, would have murdered the outstanding conductor. Karajan’s enthusiasm for National Socialism neither troubled him nor drew an apology. He wouldn’t discuss the matter other than by declaring, “I would not change anything I have done.”
It was said that no matter what inducements or threats von Karajan never once renounced his beliefs, never once criticised Germany’s National Socialist system or its leaders. His biographer, Roger Vaughan writes: “Throughout the long drawn-out de-nazification process there is not the slightest sign of contriteness from Karajan. He told the authorities what he had done and he told them with his head held high and his voice in full timbre. He voiced no apologies, no regrets. Here is the story: so be it. And when he was challenged he didn’t defend himself, he attacked.”
Herbert von Karajan was the ultimate hands-on professional. A philharmonic or operatic performance is a team effort by handpicked professionals in set design and effects, casting, costume down to fabrics and colours. Scores of experts are involved. They include stage director, lighting director, and recording studio and camera professionals. The conductor will normally confine himself to managing the orchestral sound to his own interpretation.
Karajan trusted no one. He personally selected everything from singers, soloists, music, costumes, the exact cuts of films; he even decided on the breed of dog in the Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier. He finalized all deals, scrutinized contracts, and arranged tours, television specials and films. Ever the perfectionist, all were subordinate to his wishes. One harried official at the Salzburg Festspielhaus was heard to mutter, “I am surprised he doesn’t sell tickets and show people to their seats.”
The National Socialist Salzburg Festival cost him a $300,000 investment but grossed $2,660,000. The last giant of the orchestral podium he was the only conductor who never felt it necessary to attend post-orchestral soirees. Karajan instead preferred solitude; he was working on the next performance or swimming in the near freezing lake fronting his home.
By his early fifties Herbert von Karajan had reached the summit of musical accomplishment. He was Music Director Berlin Philharmonic, artistic adviser of La Scala, artistic director of the internationally acclaimed Salzburg Festival and simultaneously Vienna State Opera; Music Director of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, General Music Director of Europe.
Occasionally one will note that Karajan closes an orchestral performance by clasping his arms across his chest. It may be just a coincidence that one of the former German chancellor’s quirks was to close a speech with the same gesture. It may also have been a signal that was and will be understood by unrepentant National Socialists.
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