Plácido Domingo once said of Herbert von Karajan: "With Karajan, you suddenly experience music with new ears." The conductor garnered the envy of none other than Margaret Thatcher because people actually did what he requested. His New York Times obituary called him "probably the world's best-known conductor and one of the most powerful figures in classical music."
"Das Wunder Karajan" grew up in Salzburg, Austria, a town whose rich musical history had been somewhat lackluster ever since Archbishop Colorado had evicted Mozart from his court with an unceremonious boot to the backside. But many of the great conductors of the pre-war era, such as Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini (the subject of my previous column), found their way there. Such musical luminaries were an inspiration to the young Karajan, who was known to hide in the organ loft whenever Toscanini was rehearsing. Karajan, in fact, might well have emerged as the heir to the lyrical Toscanini throne, had it not been for the enormous, dark shadow of the Third Reich.
Karajan was an ambitious young musician — eager to make great music with the most beautiful symphonic ensemble he could find. For better or worse, all of these ensembles were located within the "greater Germany" that had been created by Hitler's Anschluss. Such troubled and chaotic times tested everyone's motives and loyalties, and a talented opportunist like Karajan was a perfect vehicle through which the Nazi propaganda machine could promote the dominance of both German music and Aryan stock (never mind the fact that Karajan's chiseled good looks were the result of a Slavic mother and a Greek father).
And so the Third Reich rewarded him with plum directorships in Aachen and Berlin. By the time the war was over, Karajan found himself conducting orchestras in Vienna and Berlin. He was also at the vanguard of an emerging recording industry that was to make his immediately recognizable sound the standard by which all others would be judged.
By the end of his life in 1989, Karajan had made 900 records and sold 115 million copies. He recognized, early on, the importance of this new industry and cultivated it with the care, constant attention, and patience of a master gardener. In recording sessions he was mesmerizing. "He would caress the air with the middle finger of his left hand to obtain smoothness, the texture of velour — and you heard it," observed Riccardo Chailly, conductor of the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Berlin during Karajan's last years. This sumptuousness was to be Karajan's hallmark. It was perfect for the new medium. Home audio consumers loved the way he made their hi-fis sing. But there was a cost.
While this sumptuousness made for gripping and magical performances of evocative, romantic works like Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Rimsky-Korsakov's Shéhérezade, it made Baroque masterworks sound trite and smoothed all the essential grit and fire out of Schoenberg and Webern. "With Karajan," wrote music critic Edward Rothstein, "the struggle is already over by the time the music is heard."
So on the one hand, Karajan seems single-handedly responsible for bringing classical music into more living rooms and cars than anyone else. On the other, his mass appeal seems to have been at the cost of the risk-taking passion that makes great music speak to us as emotional beings. But hasn't it ever been thus? The seesaw between popularity and artistic integrity is in constant motion in a world of Grammy Awards and ticket sales. Conductors, like all music lovers, have an ideal for which they are constantly striving. But beware the moment when we think we have reached that ideal — it is precisely at that point that art starts to lose its relevance.
Next time, I'll be putting the spotlight on a conductor whose entire life seemed to be an exercise in keeping music relevant for future audiences: Leonard Bernstein.
Jamie Allen is the Director of Education for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.