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Herbert Von Karajan: A Life in Music by…

Herbert Von Karajan: A Life in Music (1998)

by Richard Osborne

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    Maestro: Encounters with Conductors of Today by Helena Matheopoulos (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Long, informative and well-written chapter on Karajan. Biographical details may be dated, but otherwise an illuminating, sympathetic and accurate portrait. Contains also fine chapters, though shorter and less substantial than in Karajan's case, on quite a galaxy of conductors: Maazel, Muti, Kleiber, Solti, Levine, Bernstein, Previn, and others. Most of them are quoted extensively from interviews the authoress had with them. Well illustrated with black-and-white photos.… (more)
  2. 00
    Herbert von Karajan - A Tribute in Pictures by Klaus Geitel (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Magnificent pictorial quarto, far better than the albums published in 2008 for Karajan's Centenary. The quality and choice of photographs are impeccable. Originally issued with a then-recent LP with Tchaikovsky. Long out-of-print but can still be found second-hand in fine condition and at decent price (if without the LP). Contains little text printed in four languages; rather indifferent.… (more)
  3. 00
    Conversations with Karajan by Richard Osborne (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: A short book of ''musical table talk'' that offers concentrated insight into Karajan's life and work that is somewhat diluted in the same author's magisterial later biography. Contains an important introduction about some misconceptions often associated with Karajan. Lavishly illustrated with black-and-white photos.… (more)
  4. 00
    Herbert Von Karajan: A Biographical Portrait by Roger Vaughan (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Fascinating biographical portrait by a non-musician. Offers a compelling snapshot of Karajan's life and work in the early 1980s, including unforgettable descriptions of his vast entourage as well as rehearsals of Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer. Nowhere near as detailed and scholarly as Richard Osborne - the historical chapters to be read with caution - but stylishly written and extremely perceptive about Karajan's personality and musicianship. Be sure to get the hardcover Weidenfeld & Nicholson edition: it contains some rare photos taken by the author himself; other editions usually omit all photographs.… (more)

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Richard Osborne

Herbert von Karajan:
A Life in Music

Pimlico, Paperback, 1999.

8vo. xi+851 pp. Foreword by the author [x-xi]. Appendices A-C [pp.733-750]. Notes [pp. 760-824].

First published by Chatto & Windus, 1998.
Pimlico edition, 1999.


List of Illustrations

PART I: 1908-1945
1. An atmosphere of war
2. Sunday's child
3. Teacher's boy
4. A Salzburg education
5. Vienna
6. A leader of suggestive power
7. A young bandmaster from Ulm
8. Swastikas in the sky
9. Nearly in the dust
10. 'Tell me, now: are you happy with me?'
11. Chess moves
12. General Music Director, Aachen
13. 1938: The promised land
14. 1938: Das Wunder Karajan
15. Peace and war
16. 'More Diogenes than Alexander...'
17. Down, down I come
18. City terrors and mountain vigils
19. Flight to Italy

PART II: 1945-1956
20. Captain Epstein's dilemma
21. Interrogation
22. An Englishman abroad
23. A capacity for taking trouble
24. New music: a tantrum and a tiff
25. London
26. A tale of two Berlins
27. Furtwängler: a showdown in Chicago
28. Getting and spending
29. The hypnotist
30. Hanging on to Karajan
31. Wiener Symphoniker and return to Germany
32. Bachfest
33. Milan, Paris, and Bayreuth
34. Working with the Philharmonia
35. On recording
36. Crossing the Rhine
37. The girl with the flaxen hair
38. Tristan and Lucia
39. Brandy in Les Baux
40. Death and succession
41. American journey
42. Trouble at mill
43. A resignation and three recordings

PART III: 1957-1964
44. Riding high
45. Incessant traffic
46. Three courtships and a marriage
47. Vienna and London 1959-60
48. Salzburg shenanigans
49. Controlling interests
50. Vienna: the phoney war
51. Karajan's circus
52. Berlin philharmonic
53. A strange marriage
54. Pet Savage
55. Farewell, Vienna

PART IV: 1964-1975
56. Fresh woods and pastures new
57. Pilgrimage to Jarvepaa
58. Towards the Easter Festival
59. Henri Georges-Clouzot
60. The Easter Festival
61. Carmen and Pagliacci
62. An urge to educate
63. Mr Andry plays his ace
64. Brave new worlds
65. A question of image
66. Disc trouble

PART V: 1976-1989
67. Easter 1976
68. Close encounters
69. The man with the golden jug
70. Phoenix
71. Carpe diem
72. Pleasant diversions
73. 1982: Anniversary
74. Pressing matters
75. 1982: Division of the kingdom
76. The Erlking
77. War and peace
78. Soldiering on
79. Trouble over Taiwan
80. Resignation
81. A necessary end

Appendix A: Herbert von Karajan, 'The Rehearsal'
Appendix B: Karajan's membership in the NAZI Party and the trail of misinformation
Appendix C: Karajan's deposition to the Austrian denazification examining board, 18 March 1946

General Index
Index of Performances, Sound Recordings and Films


This magisterial book is currently far and away the most complete and thoroughly researched biography of the legendary Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989), probably the most prolific musician on record and certainly one of the most influential and controversial figures in the musical history; "legendary" is indeed a kind of trite understatement. There had been many attempts for a biography of this elusive, enigmatic and engrossing personality before Mr Osborne, and there have been several since, but none of these comes even close to his level of scholarship and comprehensiveness. And let me immediately give you a valuable piece of advice: don't make my mistake of acquiring the book in paperback; it's a most cumbersome affair.

One of the chief reasons for Mr Osborne's success is no doubt the fact that he was in excellent position to tackle what is surely a most daunting enterprise. He attended numerous concerts and opera performances (and few rehearsals, too) conducted by Karajan and in 1977, as a musical critic working for Gramophone, he interviewed the conductor about his then new complete recording of Beethoven's nine symphonies. Moreover, in 1988 Mr Osborne had several long and rather more personal interviews with Karajan. These became the basis of his wonderful little book Conversations with Karajan (1989), first published shortly after Karajan's death as it turned out. With commendable honesty Mr Osborne informs us, in his Acknowledgments, that the present biography was neither commissioned nor approved by the Karajan Estate; on the other hand, there were no hindrances posed and, indeed, Mr Osborne received a good deal of help from the Estate.

So this is not an "official" biography. Yet it is definitive, or at least as close to definitive as anyone has ever come to. The main reason for this is Mr Osborne's stupendous research. Apart from reading probably every book, article or review concerning Karajan, he interviewed pretty much everybody of any consequence who had worked with Karajan and was still alive in the early 1990s. These interviews include priceless conversations with some important long-time collaborators, such as the stage designer Günther Scheider-Simsen and the producer Michel Glotz, with Karajan's family, his third wife Eliette and his two daughters, Isabel and Arabel, and with who's who of the singers' pantheon, including many of Karajan's favourite singers through the years: Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Jon Vickers. 65 pages of notes meticulously document every word quoted and, sometimes, add a whole new dimension to the main text by relating additional incidents and opinions.

The most important result of this well-nigh impeccable scholarship is the demolition of quite a few foolish myths about Karajan that somehow have, not just been created, but stuck in the popular consciousness. Mr Osborne is by no means uncritical of Karajan's personal and artistic faults - nobody needs hero worship and genius of Karajan's magnitude certainly deserves better than that - but, on the whole, the author's attitude is commendably positive, even if he has lost some of the empathy with his subject since the time of Conversations. About the faults of Mr Osborne's book more later. Now a few words about some of its monumental merits.

By far the most notorious aspect of Karajan's life is his membership in the Nazi Party. This unfortunate historical detail, in itself of minor importance, has created quite a few troubles for Karajan. For the first two years or so after the end of the Second World War he was officially banned from conducting by the Allies, until the process of the so-called "denazification" was completed. During his first American tour with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1955, in front of the Carnegie Hall slogans like "Nazi go home!" could be seen. Indeed, one of Mr Osborne's most disturbing passages is that the same stupid prejudice reigned supreme even during Karajan's last American tour, with the Vienna Philharmonic in the beginning of 1989. What's more, in the summer of this year there were serious proceedings to declare Karajan an "undesirable alien"; his death on July 16 put an end to that.

Since 1989, time and again, Karajan detractors have scourged the conductor for being a committed Nazi who joined the Party twice, the first time just a few weeks after Hitler's coming to power, obviously out of great sympathy with, and enthusiasm for, the Nazi ideology. Karajan's silence on the matter during his lifetime didn't help the matter. But if you want to beat a dog, you are sure to find a stick. There are some people who still seriously believe that in 1942 Karajan married the one-quarter Jewish Anita Gütterman for the sole reason to deliberately discredit himself in the eyes of the Nazis. From reading some of the writings of the most virulent Karajan critics, such as Norman Lebrecht for instance, one is left with the impression that the conductor was all but solely responsible for "The Final Solution", too. The truth, however, is quite different.

Mr Osborne has put the record straight once and for all in his scrupulously researched Appendix B. The facts are these: Karajan joined the Party once, in 1935 and in Aachen, as he always claimed. One day a Party official came to him and said : "Herr von Karajan, you are about to become Generalmusikdirektor but are not member of the Party. This is unacceptable." So he signed. In the very few instances when he talked about that in later years, Karajan emphatically denied that he joined the Party for any other reasons but to advance his career. Whatever your opinion of opportunism and careerism may be, one thing is absolutely certain: Karajan never was a committed Nazi. Of course he signed his official letters with "Heil Hitler"; that was function of his times, not of his outlook (he never signed his personal letters like this). It is terrifyingly easy to judge with the benefit of hindsight, and it is always done by people who never had to live under such circumstances. Few stop to think that, when the Nazis came to power, Karajan was but 25 years old, still completely unknown and trying to make a name for himself in the tiny Stadttheater in Ulm. He couldn't have left Germany as many much more prominent conductors did. Nor could he have allowed himself to stay in the country but refuse the Party membership, as Wilhelm Furtwängler, a chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic for more than a decade and world famous, actually did.

There are also additional extenuating circumstances - if such are needed - also marvellously explored by Mr Osborne. By the time he was appointed to the post in Aachen, Karajan had been penniless and jobless for months, having been sacked from Ulm. He was desperate and, in his own words, would have killed for the post. All he had to do is to sign a piece of paper and give an occasional "official" concert for the Party functionaries. Nothing more, nothing less. And the post in Aachen was a tremendous step forward for the young conductor. Here he had a much bigger and better orchestra than in Ulm, an excellent choir and a virtually complete freedom to choose the repertoire, both symphonic and operatic. Of course he would sign a trifle formality like the Nazi Party membership. Because for him it was just that: a formality. Many people still find it hard to accept Karajan as a completely apolitical individual. In fact, he was not that. He couldn't, much as he wanted to. In his later years in Berlin and Salzburg he often had to negotiate mammoth financial deals with many a politician. But by that time he himself had become the most powerful conductor in the German-speaking world, if not in the whole one, and this was naturally coupled with certain amount of politics. The case in the 1930s was completely different and nowhere near as politically orientated as some writers would have us believe.

As for Karajan's "double membership", this is yet another fairy tale demolished by Mr Osborne's Appendix B. The official version for many years was that Karajan joined the Party first in Salzburg, in the beginning of April 1933, and then, just a few weeks later (May 1st), again in Ulm. Strangely enough, Mr Osborne wonders, nobody ever bothered to examine his two membership numbers. The difference between them suggests that the Nazis must have recruited some 600 000 people a week! They were on the rise all right, but they were not that popular. Furthermore, Karajan's second number belongs to a much later batch, April 1935, which actually fits his own claim that he joined the Party in Aachen. The explanation of the confusion is very simple indeed: Karajan's membership card was backdated to May 1, 1933. This Mr Osborne proves by painstaking analysis of the card itself, in combination with the equally thorough research of Gisela Tamsen to whom the Foreword of the book is entirely dedicated in gratitude. As far as Karajan's first membership is concerned, it is not entirely imaginary. In Salzburg in 1933 he did pay a small fee which enabled the opening of the procedure. But then he left for Ulm and never paid the rest of his membership, nor did he collect his card. This "membership", together with its corresponding number, was later declared null and void by the Nazis themselves.

The "trail of misinformation", Mr Osborne continues, started in 1957 when an American magazine commissioned an article on Karajan to their correspondent in Berlin. He wrote a fine piece, but he got badly mixed up while examining the archive material; not a very unnatural thing since the Nazi bureaucracy was huge and anything but well-organised. Then it was a question of repeating the same error for some forty years, Karajan's nearly complete silence on the matter being of course interpreted as his admission of guilt. But the fact is that Karajan neither ever denied his Nazi membership nor lied about it. On the other hand, he never apologised or showed any remorse. For my part, he was perfectly right. For one thing, he had nothing to apologise for; for another, he knew only too well that people will always believe what they want to believe. It is sad that even today, especially in Germany, of all places, there should be people who dismiss Mr Osborne's research and still consider Karajan the proverbial Nazi aficionado. It is equally sad that great artists like, for instance, Arthur Rubinstein and Itzhak Perlman refused to perform with Karajan because of his membership in the Party.

It is worth noting that Mr Osborne also addresses the incident described by Roger Vaughan in his fascinating biographical portrait, first published in 1986. Though a compelling writer of considerable psychological insight, Vaughan was a very poor researcher. He dealt with the Nazi conundrum in the easiest possible way: he just repeated the well-known story. When he confronted the great conductor with a copy of his own membership card, Karajan was exasperated enough to reply, foolishly and on the spur of the moment, that the document is a forgery because it is not signed. "There", the Karajan enemies later gleefully remarked, "he lies about his membership, to say nothing about his stupidity: didn't he know that the membership cards were valid without signature?" As Mr Osborne finely says, the documents were not forgeries; they simply had been misinterpreted. Karajan's reaction was silly, certainly, but it was not unnatural that he should be angered by yet another fuss about so old and so insignificant a detail.

Mr Osborne's Appendix C is also notable. The written testimony which is included in it, as well as the transcript of Karajan's interrogation in Chapter 21, are published here for the first time. In the latter document, interestingly and unusually, Karajan several times admits that he has committed an error and is ready to accept the consequences. I must say that I find such humility on his part disappointing. In later years, fortunately, he was more self-assured than that. Is it an ''error'' to be dedicated to your profession and to demand the best possible conditions for it?

While we are on the subject of appendices, Appendix A consists of a most intriguing piece on conducting written by Karajan himself. It was supposed to grow into a book on the subject but it was never developed further than these few pages, most probably because of time limitations. Those who still think that Karajan was nothing but a superficial showman really should read this precious excerpt. Although Karajan, thank Heavens, never was what is usually called "intellectual musician" (if that's not an oxymoron, I don't know what it is), he always did think a good deal about what he was doing, how to improve the results and how to develop himself further.

Leaving aside ad hominem attacks, Karajan has been subject to a simply staggering amount of artistic criticism in regard to virtually every facet of his artistry: his perfectionism, his passion for technology, his choice of singers, his obsession with beauty of sound, his desire to be in charge of every aspect of a production, anything. I am excessively pleased that Mr Osborne regularly attacks these issues in his biography and he usually has formidable arguments to support his refutation. Without exception, yet without lapsing into goofy adulation, Mr Osborne is invariably on Karajan's side. Take for example the notorious beauty of sound which, mind you, Karajan was so addicted to, that he sacrificed dramatic intensity to achieve it on every possible occasion, especially in his late years. Yet there are numerous singers to back up Mr Osborne that this was not the case at all. Especially in opera pure sound, unless put to service of the character and the drama, meant nothing to Karajan. Nor is Karajan's sometimes bizarre choice of singers so indefensible as it might look. Jose Carreras is arguably too small a voice for the part of Radames, yet his intense lyricism may remind us, as Charles Osborne has, that Verdi's Aida, for all its pomp and circumstance, is a very intimate opera.

As for the symphonic repertoire, and Karajan's "smoothing the edges" as well as his "obsession with beauty", Mr Osborne provides a most illuminating quotation from Peter Philips, the founder of Tallis Scholars and a musician who has been accused of perfectionism himself, which I think hits nail right on the head. According to Mr Philips, the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan was for some listeners:

...incapable of expressing the nastier turns in programmatic music. The objection loses its force if music is heard to be a succession of unspecific emotions, ebbing and flowing, carrying its audience to another world where to apply labels (like devotion, love, pity, and patriotism for example) is to trap or reduce it.

Two points about this quotation deserve comment. First, similar charges against Karajan have been levelled many times as regards his recordings and concert performances of ''absolute'' music as well, that is music which - theoretically! - is not supposed to express anything in particular, or at least we have no clue under the form of programmatic explanations what the composer wanted to express. Such ''absolute'' music is of course the main part of the symphonic repertoire and it does express one and only one thing, albeit with unparalleled range and subtlety: emotions. Nevertheless, the validity of the major point is intact. Karajan's aestheticism in terms of sound and interpretation may not be to your taste, it may even repel you, but nobody can possibly make a coherent case that his aural vision, if you excuse the oxymoron, is any more or less legitimate than any other approach (e.g. rougher execution and/or faster tempi in general). And second, Mr Philips is quite wrong in calling the emotions expressed by music ''unspecific''. Quite to the contrary! Nobody has, to my knowledge, summed the issue better than Felix Mendelssohn (as quoted by Alan Walker in his An Anatomy of Musical Criticism, 1968)

There is so much talk about music, and yet so little is said... Words seem to me ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison with genuine music... The thoughts expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.

As for Karajan's equally notorious orchestral despotism, wielding of enormous power on and off stage, glittering stardom due to numerous recordings, and other such sweet issues, I cannot resist a comparison with Somerset Maugham which seems to me more than apt. The truth is that both Maugham and Karajan did strive for the single most important thing every true artist does need: artistic independence. Strikingly similar, both were self-made millionaires who worked hard for years before achieving the privilege to do what they want and how they want. In Maugham's case, when he was but 34 years old, it was the stage that "set him free" of financial worries and potboilers until the end of his life, some half a century later. In Karajan's case, the process was rather slower and more painful, but the ultimate result was pretty much the same, though necessarily on a grander scale.

One of the major delights of reading Mr Osborne's meticulous study, discussing Karajan's life year by year, is to appreciate his tremendous industry, dedication and determination. This is something rather more elusive and difficult to investigate than the musical genius which you can easily experience on hundreds of LPs and CDs. Karajan has for several generations been the very embodiment of the conductor as superstar. So much so that many people often forget, or simply don't know, that he started very humbly indeed. And he had to work for decades to achieve his artistic independence, of which stardom was of course but a by-product. Mr Osborne puts it rather differently, but we seem to agree that Karajan's ''megalomania'', as often described by his detractors, was nothing more than a strong compulsion to realise an inner and essentially non-verbal artistic vision, be it orchestral lollipops or Wagner's music dramas. Yet I am still awed when I reflect on the vicissitudes and the accomplishments of Karajan's career.

Consider the following. Until after the Second World War Karajan was nothing more than another promising youngster, his posts were in small German towns like Ulm and Aachen and despite his many successes he was not considered a candidate for legendary glory. As is now known, lucidly explained by Mr Osborne, the famous "Wunder Karajan" article in 1938 was nothing more than political order; at any rate, critics write lots of nonsense constantly. Karajan's stardom started when he was not 26 as today's superstars, but 46: in 1954 when Furtwängler died and he succeeded him as Chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. And Karajan himself demanded that if he was to accept the post, it had to be for life. What arrogance and audacity, some say. What commitment and integrity, I say.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the famous ''Generalmusikdirektor of Europe'' entered the dictionary of all interested in classical music and Karajan. He was the boss in Berlin, and in Vienna (Staatsoper), and in Salzburg (for the Summer Festival), and one of the principal guest conductors in La Scala. (From this time is the famous taxi-driver joke: "Where to, Mr Karajan?" "Doesn't matter. I'm in demand everywhere.") But he was not satisfied. He wanted to be in full artistic control because he could not abide the sloppiness and mediocrity that constantly surrounded him. So he did exactly what Wagner had done almost a century before: he created his own festival where he conducted and staged the opera productions, supervised the lighting and the costumes, not to mention the choice of, and rehearsals with, orchestra and singers; as the eminent Munich critic Joachim Kaiser wittily observed: ''it's a wonder he doesn't sell tickets and usher people to their seats''; of course he conducted all symphonic concerts (that was to change during the 1980s, but only due to his health problems). Just like Wagner, Karajan built his own theater, and his own concert hall as well; he was largely responsible for both the huge stage of the Salzburg's Festspielhaus and the futuristic Philharmonie in Berlin to come into existence, in 1960 and 1963 respectively.

Karajan's real stardom started then, in 1967 when he was 59 years old and the single reason for the Salzburg Easter Festival to be created. Until the end of his life, 22 years later, he enjoyed artistic freedom without precedent in the field of classical music. And I think this is the chief reason why Karajan (and Maugham) was, and still is, so much hated by so many people: because he made a work of art out of his life, while they made a terrible hash out of theirs. But it was Karajan himself who worked like a dog to achieve all this freedom, and he worked almost 40 years for that - since his debut in 1929 until he found the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1967; not to mention the fabulous sound of the Berliners to whom, scandals and all, he remained faithful for more than 30 years and left discography whose quality is very often underestimated only because the quantity is staggering, and many people simply cannot accept that such productivity can be coupled with original artistic personality - yet it happens to be true; not to mention his interpretations and how they constantly changed through the years in the search of the most perfect one.

But the most remarkable thing is yet another feature that is so characteristic for those who have, not just tons of talent, but a real genius. Having once tasted artistic freedom not only did Karajan not stop working, but he worked harder than ever leaving towering audio and video legacy that needs at least one life to be explored and assimilated, if that's possible at all. And then some people sneer maliciously that Karajan was filthy rich and had villas, apartments, houses, yachts, cars, planes. Well, he earned every cent of them.

Today young and immature superstars are rushed to conduct the Berliner and the Wiener Philharmoniker in their twenties thinking they know everything about Richard Strauss' symphonic poems or Bruckner's symphonies, not to mention Mozart and Beethoven whose complete works they knew by heart back in the high school. Then follows the glorious jet life conducting everybody and everywhere. Nobody cares to dedicate himself to one orchestra and create something special, nobody cares to set high artistic standards and create something that can safely be called a masterpiece. Perhaps the young generation of artists simply lack the capacity, the application and the integrity to do so; perhaps they lack the talent, the personality and the character. And then they tell me Karajan was not the end of an era, but the beginning of a new one. Yeah, sure; and I am Mickey Mouse.

Coming back to the book after this long digression, there is hardly an aspect of Karajan's rather complex personality on which Mr Osborne, with a controversial opinion or with an amusing anecdote, is not in some way perceptive. A fine example is Karajan's innate shyness and his constant shunning of parties of any kind. His detractors will tell you that all his life he craved for publicity. The truth is exactly the opposite: publicity craved for Karajan; he avoided it. One of my favourite anecdotes is rather telling in this respect. In the beginning of 1955, during Karajan's first American tour with the Berlin Philharmonic, he was ''rescued'' by an old friend who took him to dinner with some friends of his, promising quiet evening and no parties. There were few guests on the table and one of them asked the conductor: ''What is your name, please?'' Karajan beamed with happiness and replied most kindly: ''My name is Karajan; I'm a conductor.''

On a more technical level, another reason for Mr Osborne's spectacular success in this book is that he is a fine writer. Considering Karajan's mind-numbingly multifarious activities - orchestral and opera performance and recording, filming, yachting, skiing, driving, family - it must be hell of a job to give a comprehensive yet coherent account of such life. Yet Mr Osborne has somehow managed to follow the music "leitmotiv" without excluding any additional themes and variations. The vast number of producers, directors, various officials and who not is masterfully handled as not to interfere with the narrative; only the most important names are supplied with short biographical sketches, again adroitly interwoven with the main text. As a general rule Mr Osborne writes in a very engaging and entertaining style, regularly employing a charming sense of humour; thus we are reading at one place how the eminent musical magazine Gramophone "lapsed into colloquial style" by describing a Karajan recording as "smashing" or about the video recording of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto directed by Ake Falk reminding one of a "late-night jam session". Amusing anecdotes abound, but in almost all cases they are relevant, revealing and well-researched.

An interesting detail about Mr Osborne's style, perhaps due to the fact that he read English in the Bristol University for many years, is that his text is peppered with references to, or quotations from, a number of writers: from Shakespeare to Henry James and D. H. Lawrence. Sometimes he also has an amusing way for employing deliberately misleading titles. You might be tempted to think that ''A Tale of Two Berlins'' is a Dickensian discussion on East and West Berlin. In fact, the German capital is joined by the English philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the author of the famous, and quoted in the beginning of the book, description of Karajan as ''A genius - with a whiff of sulfur around him.'' This is one of those descriptions that have always struck me as, to borrow a phrase from the eminent Lisztian scholar Leslie Howard, ''intellectually pusillanimous''. Also, I can't help thinking that, since they drank their tea together in the Athenaeum, Mr Osborne was apt to regard Mr Berlin's opinions of Karajan with a somewhat inordinate amount of admiration.

Mr Osborne also has a most charming way of introducing a flippant remark or a visionary way of evoking the past now and then. This makes the reading rather more enjoyable without ever degenerating into trivia for trivia's sake. So, for example, Eliette Mouret, Karajan's third and most permanent wife, being a model, was ''seventeen for an awfully long time'', and that's why her age doesn't help us to determine the exact year in which she and Herbert first met. If this merely made me smile, at the story about the pigeons in the concert hall I laughed outright. Apparently, during a concert in New York from the historic 1955 American tour of the Berlin Philharmonic, some lunatics released three pigeons inside the Carnegie Hall by way of protest against Karajan's notorious Nazi membership. Two of the birds were coaxed out peacefully, but the third took position on the proscenium above the orchestra beyond the reach of any wingless creature where ''it proved a model listener, attentive and unmoving throughout the larger part of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.'' As for Mr Osborne's powers of depicting pre- and immediately post-war conditions in Germany and Austria, they are superbly evocative. Even in the Great Hall of Vienna's Musikverein, such amazing things could happen:

This was a time, so cold were the unheated war-damaged halls, when it was not unusual for choruses to disappear from sight in a swirl of self-generated mist the moment they began to sing.

Only occasionally does Mr Osborne allow dullness to creep between his pages, perhaps inevitable since he had to deal with lots of intrigues indeed: contractual obligations, royalties, backstage tensions, secret memorandums, shady politics, etc. The amount of information on these matters is sometimes a little excessive, but maybe it's better to know as much about the truth as possible. One thing that strikes me forcefully while reading is how often men like John Culshaw and Walter Legge, arguably some of the most powerful producers (for DECCA and EMI, respectively) in the world of classical music during the 1950s and 1960s, actually appear as mere pawns in the hands of corporate directors whose great financial power is rivaled only by their stupendous musical ignorance. For the greater part of his life Karajan was an indispensable part of the recording industry and we, the posterity, are very fortunate that his musical genius and indefatigable industry were coupled with a rare strength of character and a good deal of ruthlessness. Karajan's inflated ego is yet another favourite topic of the Karajan detractors. But for my part, and apparently for Mr Osborne's as well, the results in this case fully justify the means - which, indeed, were hardly in any way questionable.

Another beautiful thing about A Life in Music is that Mr Osborne discusses succinctly many, though by no means all, of Karajan's most important recordings. Now this is extremely important for at least two reasons. First, Karajan was more occupied with recording than any other conductor in history. He started in earnest in 1946 and he continued to record constantly until his death in 1989. Just a brief overview of his vast discography makes me wonder when he found time to eat, sleep and spend some time with his family, to say nothing of his equally extreme extra-musical passions for fast cars, big yachts and jet planes (he was a competent helmsman and pilot; in his late years he learnt to fly helicopters, too). Second, whatever memories there are in the heads of those who were fortunate to hear him in the concert hall or in the opera house, these are nowhere near as permanent as recordings. Besides, most of us have never had this priceless opportunity and we have to satisfy ourselves with Karajan on record, no matter how inadequate substitute for the real thing that may be. In fact, it is perhaps safe to assume, that audio and video recordings were every bit as important to Karajan artistically as live performances. Thus Mr Osborne's discussion of the essence of this fabulous recording legacy adds a very important new dimension to his book which fully justifies its title.

There are, however, several caveats that must be discussed as well. I am delighted to report that on this second reading I have found the book more satisfactory than the first time. This is the curse of the great readability: one devours the pages with gusto, but one misses many subtle nuances. And this is the virtue of re-reading: you become aware of things you didn't know were there.

My major complaint is that a little too often Karajan the man, and to some extend the musician, is left in the background. This may be hard to avoid but it is none the less regrettable for that. It is not often, but sometimes Mr Osborne lapses into somewhat mechanical recitation of performances and recordings without bothering too much to analyse their artistic merit or their place in Karajan's career. The Unitel films from the 1960s and the 1970s are a case in point. They were largely experimental, certainly, but that does not fully justify Mr Osborne's rather perfunctory treatment: he doesn't even mention half of them, and the rest he disposes of in a few short paragraphs.

Speaking of Karajan's Unitel videos, now available almost complete on DVD, sometimes Mr Osborne, as befit the musical critics, is nauseatingly high-handed and grossly prejudiced. For example, his contemptuous dismissal of Karajan's first video recording of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony as "bad dream" is a trifle too harsh. Directed by Hugo Nibeling, the movie reminds one of a 35-minutes long video clip and remains highly controversial to the present day; it is difficult to imagine what a shock it must have been in 1967. Yet it is well worth an occasional viewing. I, personally, find Nibeling's imaginative use of close-ups, blurred passages and rapid changes not at all without merit, as in the depiction of the storm for instance. Mr Osborne is particularly virulent about the last part, to which Beethoven gave the title "Feelings of relief after the storm". But I find the screen behind Karajan's back showing a magisterial Alpine landscape rather to the point. It is a fitting tribute to both Beethoven's and Karajan's boundless love of nature.

As far as audio recordings are concerned, Mr Osborne could have done better, too. Karajan's renditions of Liszt's symphonic poems suffer rather badly: Tasso is barely mentioned in a footnote, Mazeppa not at all. Yet both recordings, in addition to being some of the finest in the catalogue, were one-offs and of works that are not to be found in Karajan's concert register. It says a great deal of Karajan's innate musicianship and impeccable taste that he could make recordings as close to definitive of works that are so often misrepresented on record, and without having ever conducted any of them in the concert hall at that. Mr Osborne finely says that Karajan's complete recordings of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, made in Milan during the 1960s, have divided the history of Italian opera, including in Italy itself, to two parts: pre- and post-Karajan. Yet he doesn't bother in the least to say what makes these recordings so special. Similarly, though he is far more appreciative of Karajan's audio and video legacy from the 1980s, Mr Osborne often skates on the surface, passing unforgettable movies with but a few words in a footnote and ignoring magnificent audio recordings without a single word (e.g. Karajan's stupendous digital remakes of Brahms' four symphonies).

Even about the recordings he does discuss Mr Osborne is often far too subjective to be of any use for the reader. In some cases he explores different recordings of the same work, how Karajan's attitude changed or what place in his repertoire a given work has, which may be of some help for those who want to deepen their appreciation, but in most cases his comments on recordings are the usual drivel written by the critics. By the way, another fully-deserved criticism is that Mr Osborne does quote his colleagues a little too often and a little too extensively. Very minor proportion of these quotations are worth reading; I certainly could do without the incoherent ranting of Bernard Gavoty's "reviews" and "open letters". Nor is Mr Osborne's treatment of these pieces always beyond criticism. At one place, for instance, he quotes Bernard Shaw's famous description of Verdi's Il Trovatore as a musical masterpiece of extreme passions entirely devoid of intellectual appeal, but then declares that Karajan, though he would have agreed about the music, probably would have been baffled by Shaw's distinction between intellectual and non-intellectual. The author supports this by Karajan's words that the opera is an embodiment of Jungian archetypes: love, hate, fear. But that seems to me to agree completely with Shaw's opinion. You may reflect about such things intellectually, and endlessly, but the fact remains that this is no explanation of them, still less a substitute for feeling them.

(Not only Mr Osborne's quotations of critics are questionable. A whole page of rambling by Isaiah Berlin, ostensibly a first-hand account of a Karajan's concert but really something of a blatant caricature, might be skipped without any loss for the reader.)

Going back to Karajan's unique personality and musicianship, Mr Osborne discusses the latter at length, if intermittently, but he somehow neglects the former. Even when he doesn't, he can occasionally be a little nasty. One notable example is the suggestion that Karajan recorded Mahler's Fifth Symphony mostly because he was fascinated with Visconti's recently released movie Death in Venice which had made the famous Adagietto a powerful commercial force. Now, let us be a little more careful when attaching unworthy motives, shall we? To be sure, Karajan had a keen eye - far keener than many eyes in the recording companies - for exploring the market, but still - to record a mighty symphony just because one part of it has a great commercial potential is a trifle too fanciful, not to mention scurrilous as regards Karajan's artistic integrity. At more than one occasion Mr Osborne also tends to overestimate Karajan's ''negative'' qualities, such as his describing him at one place as ''power-conscious, condescending and coolly manipulative''. All that Karajan was, and working as he did in a nest of poisonous wasps such as the recording industry (not to mention the policies of festivals and opera houses, full of intrigues) we are fortunate that he was all that; for which reason I think the adjective ''negative'' should be in quotation marks. But Karajan was a great deal more than that. And Mr Osborne knows it. That's why he might have skipped trivia of no importance such as, for example, Karajan's usual tantrums before renewal of his recording contracts.

Despite all that, I am again mightily pleased - and indeed much more than I was during my previous reading - that in the end Mr Osborne always takes Karajan's side, including some of the most notorious scandals he ever was involved in. Typical example is the lots of bad blood that was spilt between Karajan and his beloved orchestra in the mid-1980s. What can men quarrel about? About a woman of course. Karajan wanted the 23-year-old clarinetist Sabine Meyer in the orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic wanted her out. Mr Osborne makes no bones that the great conductor was not exactly courteous or patient in this case, and the Berlin Philharmonic did have a good reason to feel hurt by his attitude. But two can play at this game. For the attitude of the orchestra was by no means beyond reproach. Indeed, within certain factions resentment reigned supreme and a lot was done to arrange Karajan's resignation. Finally, however, and significantly, it was Karajan who stepped back and offered a truce, for his own sake certainly, as he still had many unfinished video and audio projects, but also out of great respect and admiration for the orchestra which he had trained to utmost perfection for the last thirty years. The bitter truth - bitter for the Berlin Philharmonic at any rate - is that without Karajan this is not the same orchestra, neither in terms of sensuous sound nor in terms of commercial power.

Mr Osborne is wary of making judgments, but he seems to agree with Michel Glotz that Karajan could always replace the Berlin Philharmonic with the Vienna Philharmonic. In fact, this is what happened. During the 1980s, partly because of the aforementioned scandal, Karajan recorded more prolifically with the Vienna Philharmonic than he had done since the early 1960s. Many of these recordings are among his finest. That seems to me to confirm beyond any reasonable doubt Karajan's genuine greatness. This was not a function, as often suggested by superficial folk, of great orchestras, skilful recording engineers, shrewd producers or powerful recording companies. It run much deeper than that and dated back to Karajan's apprentice years in Ulm and Aachen, although it did take many years to be perfected. Business flair and technical precision were only parts of the story. Karajan's make-up was a great deal more complex. In addition to unique artistic vision and, of equal importance, the character to realise it, there were bits of Buddhism, yoga, science, technology, nature and who knows what else. In his stupendous book Mr Osborne has captured, if not every aspect, at all events the essence of the Karajan phenomenon.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that, with but few exceptions, Mr Osborne's magisterial biography clearly supersedes pretty much every other attempt in existence, from the early one of Ernst Häusserman (1968, never translated into English) to the fairly recent one of Paul Robinson (2007, short and rather superficial, though with very helpful disco- and videography in the end). What Mr Osborne's book does not supersede is his own Conversations with Karajan (1989) as well as Roger Vaughan's penetrating Herbert von Karajan: A Biographical Portrait (1986). These two books offer a concise wealth of fascinating insight into Karajan's personality and music-making which in Mr Osborne's biography must be sifted through a great deal of less important stuff. Not an easy thing to do, especially when the index is somewhat perfunctory. Nevertheless, for facts and figures coupled with rigorous scholarship Mr Osborne remains the closest approximation to a ''Karajan Bible'' we have. In this respect it is not likely that he will be surpassed. Whatever reservations one may have about Mr Osborne's opinions of Karajan's personality, he is a man to be reckoned with. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Jan 25, 2012 |
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Obwohl dieses Buch keineswegs eine Gemeinschaftsarbeit ist, hätte es ohne die sorgfältige Aufarbeitung der frühen Karriere Karajans durch die schwedische Schriftstellerin und Wissenschaftlerin Gisela Tamsen (1922-1995) in der vorliegenden Form nicht geschrieben werden können.
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One of the greatest and most celebrated performing artists of the twentieth century, Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) dazzled, intrigued, and intimidated the music world. As the young Karajan told his brother, "Whether it's conducting, skiing, or motor racing, I simply want to be the best." Richard Osborne draws on his own extensive conversations with Karajan, interviews with those who knew the conductor, and a treasure trove of primary sources to bring into focus the flamboyance and flaws of an extraordinary musician as well as the turbulent international music scene over six decades. The author debunks many legends about Karajan, particularly those relating to his membership in the Nazi Party, which he opportunistically joined in 1935 to obtain a conducting appointment. While the decision haunted him throughout his life, Karajan's career flourished after the war. A jet-setting superstar, he once held, simultaneously, six of the world's most prestigious musical posts, including director of the Salzburg Festival, artistic director of the Vienna State Opera, and conductor for life of the Berlin Philharmonic. After signing with legendary producer Walter Legge, Karajan achieved international fame through his best-selling recordings. He also embraced the challenge of adapting to rapidly changing technologies, and quickly mastered each new medium -- television, vinyl LPs, tapes, and CDs. This comprehensive, well-balanced, and objective biography will stand as the definitive work on this exceptional maestro.… (more)

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