Herbert von Karajan: A Biographical Portrait

by Roger Vaughan
Norton, 274 pp., $16.95

Herbert von Karajan
Herbert von Karajan; drawing by David Levine

In 1981 Robert Vaughan went to Saint-Tropez to write an article about the Helisara, a new sailing boat in the largest class admitted for racing under international offshore rules. The article was for The Yacht; Vaughan is its editor. He had taken part in the disastrous 1979 Fastnet race during which several competitors were drowned, and had written a book about it. The book was admired by Herbert von Karajan, who owns the Helisara. He took a shine to Vaughan and asked him to write his biography. The choice seems less bizarre than it might when you discover, in the course of the book, that Karajan’s esteem—a commodity in very short supply—is reserved for experts: scientists, technicians, sportsmen, sometimes even musicians if they really know their stuff and perform well.

The Helisara has a red stripe painted on her hull: “It had to be just right,” Karajan explained to Vaughan. “The object was to make the boat look even bigger and more fearsome than it is.” Perhaps he hoped Vaughan would do the same for him. In a way he has: you sense how he was bowled over by Karajan’s phenomenal willpower, concentration, dedication to his music, courage in the face of painful ailments and injuries; by his hard work, flair, command, and, of course, his talent. He was bowled over but not blinded. This portrait has more than warts; it has a dark side.

The qualities Vaughan admired equally impressed Helena Matheopoulos when she wrote the chapter on Karajan in her collection of conductors’ profiles Maestro, published by Harper and Row in 1983, but not mentioned in Vaughan’s bibliography. What Karajan said to her about his approach to music is exactly what he said to Vaughan: you can tell, therefore, that he was not giving spontaneous answers to his interviewers, but making thought-out statements. He explains how painstaking preparation and concentration on technique eventually lead to rightness—a unique rapport between conductor, orchestra, and the work they play. Karajan is a student of yoga and Zen and equates this rapport with mystical breakthrough. He is a very articulate man, and his accounts of what he does to make the breakthrough happen are precise—neither woolly nor cloudy. All the same, what takes place at the moment critique remains elusive. Only anecdotes can illustrate it, and Karajan recognizes this by telling one about a Zen disciple who concentrated on a buffalo until he could not get out of the room he was in because his horns wouldn’t go through the door.

From 1982 to 1984 Vaughan followed Karajan from New York to Salzburg, Vienna, Saint-Moritz, and Saint-Tropez (Karajan has houses in the last four), and watched him pursue the moment of perfection in rehearsal, concert, recording session, and film studio. His accounts are vivid, full of technical information and lively sketches of artists (especially Agnes Baltsa) and of Karajan’s sizable entourage.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.