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. Fortunately some of its members were less than discreet. The final portrait presents the conductor as tycoon, impressive but not endearing; a perfectionist, ruthless and sometimes even gratuitously cruel; humorless, though given to sardonic jokes and rather threatening outbursts of joviality. The charm turns on like headlights, and a Porsche engine throbs where his heart should be. The impression is softened only by an elegiac tone. When Vaughan first met him in 1978, Karajan had already suffered a stroke. It kept him from the podium only for a few weeks, but he had to struggle to hide his limp when getting there. It put an end to the skiing and climbing which had been his passions—more even than sailing, flying his own jet, and driving ultrafast cars. None of these pursuits had been a hobby; Karajan was always out to excel in every single one: “It is possible that the concept of play is quite foreign to Karajan.”

Vaughan was in attendance when Karajan underwent a major emergency operation because an old and painful injury to his neck suddenly threatened total paralysis. He came through that too, only to face the revolt of the Berlin Philharmonic—his child for thirty years—over his protégé, the clarinettist Sabine Meyer. She was certainly not Cordelia, but until the final reconciliation with the orchestra, Karajan began to look like Lear: a grand old tyrant thwarted and brought low by his children.

Karajan was born in Salzburg, a notoriously stuffy and reactionary little town in spite of its music. His father was one of the worthies, an eminent surgeon. Karajan felt fiercely competitive about his brother, determined to excel him in everything, although, or because, he himself was slightly younger. He became a child prodigy on the piano, but when he had finished high school his parents persuaded him to attend a technical college in Vienna and study music on the side. The compromise did not last long, and he soon entered the Academy for Music and the Performing Arts in Vienna to study conducting. Two hundred and twenty candidates applied for places, perhaps eighteen were admitted, and three graduated. Karajan was one of the three. Kurt Stern, a classmate who “can be found most evenings playing popular classics on the piano in the Palm Court Lounge of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan,” told Vaughan that Karajan “wasn’t offensive, but no one could get close to him. There was a buffet downstairs where we all ate. Karajan would arrive, eat his sandwich quickly, and disappear. At that time he had only one desire: to make a good career.” Every student had to write a string quartet to be played by his fellows. Karajan’s was “a very traditional composition. He was determined to do everything just right.” Just right, but more so, would make a slogan for his music.


Like many tycoons, he began his career by raising a little capital from family and friends. Acting as his own impresario, he financed a concert for himself with the Salzburg orchestra and made sure it was attended by the intendant of the little opera house at Ulm, who was looking for a music director. Karajan got the post. This was in 1929, when he was not quite twenty-one. He stayed five years in Ulm, then moved to Aachen, where the orchestra had eighty players as against Ulm’s twenty-two, and a lot more prestige besides.

In 1935, Karajan advanced from music director of the Aachen opera to general music director of the city. At this point pressure was put on him to join the Nazi party, and he did. “Once we went to a certain mountain in Switzerland, where they told me that I could not ski with my [Austrian] guide unless I joined the local Swiss Alpine Club and also hired a Swiss guide. I wanted to ski the mountain, so I said to hell with it, and I took a membership and hired the guide. For me the Nazi party thing was just the same.” This is Karajan’s story, but in 1957 an article in High Fidelity magazine said that he had joined the party not in 1935 in Aachen, but in Salzburg in 1933. It was confirmed in 1982 by the German musicologist Fred Prieberg in his book Musik im N.S.-Staat. In 1933 it was actually illegal (though quite common) for Austrians to join the party; so Karajan’s act suggests a certain amount of enthusiasm. Whether it’s worse to be misguidedly enthusiastic at twenty-five or opportunistic at twenty-seven seems a moot point, especially if you think of Klaus Mann’s book Mephisto (and István Szabó’s film of it) with its pseudonymous portrait of the actor-director Gustav Gründgens.

The fact that the portrait is unfair is neither here nor there in the present context: Mann condemned Gründgens for artistic opportunism; and East European viewers of Szabó’s film read it as a parable of artistic morals behind the Iron Curtain. However, Karajan brushed aside the documentary evidence cited by Vaughan and dug himself in on the 1935 date. “Given that he has never tried to hide his membership in the Nazi party, why does Karajan stick with such tenacity to guns that seem to have lost their pins?” Vaughan wonders. Well, he himself shows what an obstinate man Karajan is, and how determined never to lose face.

During his time at Aachen Karajan began to make his name as an interesting young conductor, with guest performances in more prestigious cities. In 1937 he auditioned to replace Furtwängler at the Berlin State Opera; Furtwängler had resigned because Hitler, who didn’t like Hindemith’s music, had personally canceled the première of Mathis der Maler. Furtwängler had fallen foul of the Führer by protecting Jewish musicians, among other un-Nazi activities, but he was too much revered to be deposed, and he remained director of the Berlin Philharmonic. Karajan got the opera job and combined it with the one he already had: four days in Aachen, three in Berlin, and two nights on the sleeper. The strain told: he began to lose his concentration. This was when he took up yoga. It worked for him.

Vaughan next has to deal with the confused and confusing events on the Berlin music scene in the late Thirties. Goebbels was the German minister for culture; but Goering was prime minister of Prussia, and as such controlled the Berlin State Opera. The two men were rivals. One of the ways they fought out their rivalry was by backing rival conductors. Furtwängler was Goebbels’s favorite; Karajan became Goering’s. The older Furtwängler was driven wildly jealous and stopped Karajan giving guest performances with his orchestra. Karajan told Vaughan (who doubts him) that he was never aware of any political intrigues. Vaughan investigates them as best he can from the crumbly evidence available. I found his account slightly confusing, and may have misrepresented it.


This is the second obfuscated episode in Karajan’ career. The first is his entry into the Nazi party. The third is the period between 1940 and 1944. Vaughan points out that, apart from his second marriage (the first, in Aachen, lasted six months), Karajan’s official biographical handout contains no entries for these years. By early 1945 he was in Italy for an engagement in Milan, and soon hiding from the partisans and advancing American troops. Back in Austria after the armistice, he was not denazified, and therefore not allowed to conduct publicly, until the late autumn of 1947. But he got his musical career back on the rails in several other ways: he participated in the 1946 Salzburg Festival as an “adviser”—doing most of the work but not actually conducting the performances; he gave a highly successful concert in neutral Switzerland; and he became artistic director to the Vienna Musikfreunde, a private but enormously prestigious concert society which hired the Vienna Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic orchestras to play in its magnificent hall.

Perhaps the most important thing that happened to Karajan at this time was being discovered by Walter Legge, who had come to Vienna as talent scout for the British recording company EMI. He gave Karajan a contract and they began recording in the Musikfreunde hall. Since then, Karajan has made more recordings than any other conductor. “It was recording that laid the groundwork for Karajan’s superstardom” by making him known to a worldwide public. Besides, he was a natural: “The amateur scientist and technician appreciated the miracle of recording. He made it his business to understand what was going on in those…machines.” Vaughan’s accounts of recording and film sessions, as well as his interviews with Karajan’s recording producer Michel Glotz, are perhaps the most informative sections of his book.

It is not only his technological bent that makes recording an ideal way for Karajan to display his talent. His strongest point is the physical beauty of the sound he draws from his orchestra. “Sound,” writes Vaughan, “was what Karajan had to sell…[and] sound was suddenly a most marketable commodity…. The vast majority of the listening audience are not all that perceptive. The easiest element to appreciate in any recording is the sound of it.” Still, many people think that Karajan’s recordings rely too heavily on technical manipulation. “Mixing isn’t manipulation,” Glotz argues. “It just augments what he did on the podium. In art, the quest is for perfection, more beauty. The purists want it as it comes, not more beautiful or lush. But to me it should always be more moving, more beautiful.”

After 1947 Karajan’s career took off into superstardom. In 1954, Furtwängler died and Karajan succeeded him as director of the Berlin Philharmonic, the orchestra he had “lusted” after since before the war. He became artistic adviser to La Scala; artistic director of the Salzburg Festival; artistic director of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra; and music director of the London Philharmonia (a spinoff from his work with Legge, who founded this orchestra). During the 1950s and 1960s he toured the world. From the 1970s onward, more of a grand old man now, he has stuck mainly to his two capitals, Berlin and Salzburg. Salzburg is where you see his power expressed in stone—in the shape of the gigantic Festspielhaus built “for his pleasure.” During the summer and Easter festivals everything else in the town seems to go underground, and Karajan rides high like an Egyptian king-god, the opera house thronged with his worshipers in sable and diamonds.

His budget is amazing, scandalous: the German and Austrian press feeds on the figures. His style is part film star, part dictator. When Vaughan observed him, the dictatorial side was especially in evidence during the Easter festival; he conducted every work himself—nine performances in ten days. The opera performed then had been recorded in the previous year, a brilliant piece of labor-intensive planning, because in rehearsal the singers could concentrate on movement and acting while they listened to themselves on tape. They were personally cast by Karajan, who was stage director as well as supervising the lighting, scenery, and costumes, and keeping an eye on publicity; an Austrian journalist wondered why he didn’t sell the programs and show people to their seats. To get one of those you had to be a festival sponsor, which cost $200 per couple (there is a waiting list); and you could then buy your ticket which could cost as much as $150. Democracy was catered for by allowing families and friends of the staff, cast, and players to attend dress rehearsals.

Vaughan is as good at describing all this brouhaha as he is on Karajan’s production methods. When it comes to the product—music—he leaves evaluation to critics and musicians with many, very well-chosen, quotations. I think they are fairly chosen too, though a criticism prevails which could be vulgarly summed up under the tag: Never mind the depth, feel the quality. After hearing the Berlin Philharmonic in 1976, Andrew Porter wondered why

Karajan’s interpretations leave me admiring but unstirred. How can I be so grudging? Why do not I simply cheer executions more polished than I am likely to hear?

…At the thought of Toscanini and Beethoven’s Ninth, or Toscanini and Verdi’s Requiem, the Karajan readings dwindle to beautiful but hollow shells, mere sounds. Toscanini took one to the heart of the work. Karajan presents an immaculate surface.

Bruno Weil, the young director of the Augsburg State Theater, a protégé of Karajan’s and his assistant at the Easter festival, gave Vaughan a kulturgeschichtlich interpretation:

The prewar years, dominated by Furtwängler, were characterized by a humanistic approach to music. Furtwängler was intellectual, philosophical, emotional. He knew Goethe. His father was an archaeologist. He had an understanding of history. Musically he was in quest of the big, great idea. World War II issued in a cold, modern approach to music—neutral, unemotional. The old German tradition became suddenly old-fashioned. Karajan changed later on, became more humanistic himself. But in the 1950s he was aligned with the mood of the times.

David Cairns, another critic, said: “A symphony is a drama, and truth arrived at by argument. Karajan, the Superman of the musical establishment, does not like argument, and sees to it that awkward facts…are safely smoothed over.”

In all these assessments, even Weil’s, there is a faint hint of moral censure. This is not a common feature of music criticism.

This Issue

May 29, 1986