There is a tendency for prominent figures in classical music, particularly conductors and composers, to become easily caricatured. The stereotype of the perfectionist conductor that rules with an iron fist is a deeply rooted part of musical legend, as is the story of the break-through concert that rockets an individual onto the world stage. Unfortunately, tales of powerful personalities being guilty of opportunism and complicit in terrible events would also bedevil many of the icons of the 20th century, from composer Richard Strauss to conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. A man such as Austrian-born Herbert von Karajan, with his larger-than-life personality, could easily be shunted into any of these categories. However to only focus on one aspect would be to do a disservice to the complexities of such a great and flawed individual who happened to become one of the finest conductors of the 20th century.
Karajan displayed prodigious musical abilities from a very early age, with his first focus and love of the piano gradually giving way to conducting as he commenced his formal education. By his mid-20s he was leading orchestras as prestigious as the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, achieving great acclaim with breakthrough performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Young and undeniably ambitious, Karajan began developing something a rivalry with the older Wilhelm Furtwängler, who at the time was the most prominent conductor in Germany if not the entire world. Karajan and Furtwängler where perhaps the two most prominent musicians that would chose to remain in Nazi Germany for most of the war, a move which would haunt each of them for years to come.
In a move largely seen today as opportunistic, Karajan joined the Nazi party in 1933. While there is no question that he profited professionally from the political and institutional support they provided, by the end of World War II he had largely soured on the Nazi party, or vice versa, and fled Germany for Milan in 1944. Karajan’s true motivations are difficult to discern, since he was generally tight-lipped about political matters both before and after World War II. The composer was acquitted of any wrongdoing after the war by the Austrian denazification board, although the fact that his post-war reputation got off relatively easily compared to his peer Furtwängler is perhaps mostly due to his 1942 marriage to Anna Maria Sauest, who was one-quarter Jewish.
With past controversies behind him, Karajan settled into an incredibly prolific post-war period, best remembered for his 35 years as “conductor for life” for the Berlin Philharmonic and for record sales that topped 200 million. However, his legacy has taken a hit since his death in 1989. His autocratic conducting style, once renowned for its signature legato sound and instrumental beauty, has since become anachronistic, with many criticizing him for his failing to distinguish between the contrasting styles and sonorities of disparate composers. Simon Rattle, the outgoing conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, has even gone so far as to say that Karajan’s conducting “slightly repelled” him. In our modern era in which political activism and social awareness are often valued on par with technical skill, Karajan represents a relic of what, depending on one’s viewpoint, can represent either the golden age of classical music or all that is wrong with the genre.
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