Herbert von Karajan

For years, I’ve had discussion with music fans about the importance of Herbert von Karajan, a conductor I disliked with a serious passion. In 2008, Norman Lebrecht summed up my feelings and thoughts better than I could ever have attempted in a rather polemic summary of Karajan’s life and accomplishments. Excerpts below:

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“[…] The centenary of his birth this weekend is being marked by an outpouring of product from a music industry that he raised to prosperity and propelled to near-ruin. If the mainstream of classical recording has shrivelled to a trickle in the past five years, that is the inevitable aftermath of the Karajan glut. If classical music itself is widely (if unfairly) considered to be elitist, staid and retrospective, we have Herbert von Karajan to thank for making it a safe, corporate entertainment at prohibitively priced festivals. […]

He manipulated the record industry by divide and rule, always working with two major labels while courting a third. […]

Almost everything Karajan conducted came out super-smooth, like cotton undershirts from a washing conditioner. […] If he had any kind of genius, it was for organisation and opportunity.

[…] Karajan learned from Goebbels how to play one man against another, among other black political arts. He strutted his stuff in occupied Paris and Amsterdam, to all effects the Nazi poster boy. […] After Furtwängler’s death in 1954 he became conductor for life in Berlin, using the Reich’s broken capital as his bridgehead for imperial expansion. His home town festival in Salzburg was converted into a black-tie thrice-yearly assembly of industrial plutocrats, masters of the universe. […]

Reactionary by nature, he stuck to the classical and romantic mainstream, excluding non-tonal music and ulterior styles of performance. Christoph von Dohnanyi went so far as to accuse him of destroying the German conducting tradition by imposing his narrow tastes so monumentally on the art. […]

His hegemony was autocratic, brooking no contradiction. […] He knew no loyalty except to himself. His love of music was confined to the way he made it. […]

Some, like myself, found his attitude anti-musical. I have trouble listening to Karajan on the radio with any kind of equanimity. […] For music lovers, there is not much to celebrate. Once the centenary is over, we will drop the curtain once and for all on a discreditable life that yielded no fresh thought and upheld no worthwhile human value. Karajan is dead. Music is much better off without him.”

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[Link: Norman Lebrecht: The clapped-out legacy of Karajan that impoverished classical music. Independent Online, April 6, 2008]]

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

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