Herbert von Karajan: 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the legendary conductor

A fan of the latest technology and fast cars, a filmmaker and a businessman, Herbert von Karajan was first and foremost one of the most important orchestral conductors of the 20th century.

Herbert von Karajan: 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the legendary conductor
Herbert von Karajan: 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the legendary conductor, © Getty / Ernst Haas

Herbert von Karajan remains a formidable figure in the world of classical music. Without a score, his eyes shut, he conducted many of the greatest orchestras and performers (Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti, Glenn Gould, Yehudi Menuhin…), and recorded the entire symphonic works of Beethoven and Brahms, not to mention over 600 other works of the classical repertoire.

However, there looms over the maestro a dark shadow, cast by his notoriously difficult and authoritative character, and his membership to the Nazi Party.

Here is a black and white portrait of one classical music's key figures. 

Herbert von Karajan en avril 1962.
Herbert von Karajan en avril 1962., © Getty / Erich Auerbach

First, the piano

Herbert von Karajan's first wish was to become a pianist. A virtuoso pianist, naturally, due to his innately ambitious and competitive character. However, he abandoned the idea at an early age (before his 20th birthday), choosing instead to pursue a career in orchestral conducting. 

Had he understood that he would never reach the level of the greatest performers of his time? Or did orchestral conducting reveal to the young musician a hitherto undiscovered passion? Or was his decision motivated by medical reasons (he often suffered from recurring tendinitis in his hands)? 

Whatever the reason, his decision was the right one: at only 21 years old, Herbert von Karajan conducted his first operas: Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in Ulm and Strauss's Salomé in Salzburg. 

Karajan au piano pendant un concert à Lucerne (Suisse), en 1969.
Karajan au piano pendant un concert à Lucerne (Suisse), en 1969., © Getty / Keystone

The shadow of Nazism

In the early 1930s, the young and promising Herbert von Karajan moved to the small German town of  Ulm where he worked as the conductor of the municipal opera. Thus began his long and brilliant career as an orchestral conductor, but also perhaps the darkest chapter of his career. 

In January 1933, Hitler was named chancellor of Germany. That same year, Karajan made an official request to join the Nazi party. Initially rejected, his request was finally accepted in 1935, and several months later the young conductor was awarded a particularly prestigious position: musical director of the Theater Aachen, in Germany. 

Blamed by Hitler

By conducting numerous important concerts in Berlin, and by his position at the Theater Aachen, Herbert von Karajan was able to quickly impose himself as one off the principal figures of German music. Though he was highly respected and sought after, he was not in Hitler's good graces, in particular after the Meistersinger "fiasco"... 

In June 1939, Karajan conducted the German chancellor's favourite opera: Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. However, a mistake was made by one of the singers during the performance. Rather than ignoring such a small detail, Karajan decided to stop the entire performance, an interruption considered unacceptable by Hitler, sat in the audience that night.

Karajan on trial

Karajan's membership to the Nazi party was often debated and contested: was the musician truly aligned with the party's far right-wing convictions, or was this simply out of ambition? Recent research attempts in Vienna by the professor Oliver Rathkolb seem to confirm both hypotheses… 

During his trial at the Allied tribunal, Karajan defended himself by claiming to have followed only one objective, to have answered to only one authority: music. Following his trial, the conductor was "denazified" in 1947. Yet, he never expressed any regret or remorse, and such a dark chapter in the musician's past remained indelible for many, notably musicians and audiences.

Manifestation à l'encontre de Karajan devant le Carnegie Hall de New York où le chef était pour la première fois invité à diriger en 1955.
Manifestation à l'encontre de Karajan devant le Carnegie Hall de New York où le chef était pour la première fois invité à diriger en 1955., © Getty / Bettmann

The man of many records

The name and reputation of Herbert von Karajan was largely saved by his countless recordings. A technology buff, he followed closely the latest technological innovations in the world of recording. Thus, between 1940 and 1980, the conductor was able to gradually immortalise many of the classical repertoire's greatest works.

Karajan's deals with the records labels EMI and Deutsche Grammophon cemented his reign over the (classical) record industry. Operas by Mozart, the complete Beethoven symphonies, Baroque music... around 600 recordings exist to this day conducted by the great Herbert von Karajan.  

Karajan penché sur une platine vinyle.
Karajan penché sur une platine vinyle., © Getty / Hulton-Deutsch Collection

Conflict with the Berlin Philharmonic

In 1955, Karajan fulfilled his greatest dream: to conduct one of the world's most prestigious orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He even demanded that his nomination be permanent! His dream, however, did not to go untarnished, as the conductor's (extremely) authoritative nature was not appreciated by the whole orchestra, and his choices were rarely unanimously accepted.

One of the great disputes to take place during Karajan's career remains the arrival of the solo clarinettist Sabine Meyer - a chapter that allows nonetheless to reveal a different facet of the conductor's notorious character. In 1982, Karajan defended the admission of the female clarinettist, despite the vehement protests from the musicians: in their opinion, the Berlin Philharmonic was a traditionally "masculine" ensemble...

Karajan dirigeant l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Berlin, en 1957.
Karajan dirigeant l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Berlin, en 1957., © Getty / Ullstein Bild

Karajan and the world of cinema

Fascinated by the evolving technology of radio and television broadcasting, Herbert von Karajan became interested in cinema in the late 1950s. His idea? To film the great opera productions, on stage or in a studio. In 1964, he created his own production company - Cosmotel - and in the same decade he built an editing studio in his large Austrian house near Salzburg. 

His collaboration with the French cinematographer Henri-Georges Clouzot is of particular importance in the history of filmed music. Between 1965 and 1967, le director of Le Corbeau (1943) and Quai des Orfèvres (1947) produced five televised shows with Karajan, exploring the role of the conductor and filming the specifics of conducting and orchestral performance.

Karajan sur un plateau de télévision en 1965.
Karajan sur un plateau de télévision en 1965., © Getty / Imagno

A great sportsman

A determined perfectionist, Karajan undertook everything as if it were a competition. Unsurprising, given that the musician was also a passionate sportsman since he was a teenager: a passionate skier and swimmer, he even followed a daily yoga ritual.

Herbert von Karajan was also a great sailing and car enthusiast, in particular an amateur of Porsche. He commissioned a unique and tailored model en 1975, a 911 Turbo which still carries his name to this day. At sea, the conductor won several regattas aboard his racing yachts baptised Helisara

Karajan pilotait aussi de petits avions... Ici à Salzbourg en 1964.
Karajan pilotait aussi de petits avions... Ici à Salzbourg en 1964., © Getty / Keystone


Though Herbert von Karajan knew how to shape his public image, control his own legend, those close to the conductor described him as a reserved, calm, and even shy individual, notably his third and final wife Eliette Mouret in her 2008 autobiography, My Life At His Side

The conductor first met the young French model Eliette Mouret, during the summer of 1957 in Saint-Tropez. A year later, their relationship resulted in the birth of two girls, Isabel and Arabel von Karajan, and a new image for the German maestro: a caring father and family man.  

La petite famille Karajan en Autriche, en 1968.
La petite famille Karajan en Autriche, en 1968., © Getty / Ullstein Bild

An eternal link with Salzburg

More than in London, New York, Paris, and even Berlin, nowhere was the name Herbert von Karajan more cherished and celebrated than in Salzburg. Born in the Austrian town in 1908, it was also the site of his first success after conducting Strauss's Salomé in 1929, and his last concert, conducting Bruckner's Symphony no.7, in 1989.

Herbert von Karajan was also director of the famous Salzburg Festival for over thirty years, from 1956 to 1988, all the while simultaneously creating his own musical event, the Salzburg Easter Festival. Forever associated with his hometown, Herbert von Karajan drew his last breath near Salzburg on 16 July 1989.