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  • Born

    5 April 1908

  • Born In

    Salzburg, Salzburg, Austria

  • Died

    16 July 1989 (aged 81)

Herbert von Karajan (5 April 1908 – 16 July 1989) was an Austrian orchestra and opera conductor. To the wider world he was perhaps most famously associated with the Berlin Philharmonic, of which he was principal conductor for 35 years. Although his work was not universally admired, he is generally considered to have been one of the greatest conductors of all time, and he was a dominant figure in European classical music from the 1960s until his death. Part of the reason for this was the large number of recordings he made and their prominence during his lifetime. By one estimate he was the top-selling classical music recording artist of all time, having sold an estimated 200 million records.

Karajan was born in Salzburg, Austria-Hungary, as Heribert Ritter von Karajan. He was a child prodigy at the piano. From 1916 to 1926, he studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, where he was encouraged to concentrate on conducting by his teacher, who detected his exceptional promise in that regard.

In 1929, he conducted Salome at the Festspielhaus in Salzburg and from 1929 to 1934 Karajan served as first Kapellmeister at the Stadttheater in Ulm. In 1933 Karajan made his conducting debut at the Salzburg Festival with the Walpurgisnacht Scene in Max Reinhardt's production of Faust. It was also in 1933 that von Karajan became a member of the Nazi party, a fact for which he would later be criticised.

In Salzburg in 1934, Karajan led the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time, and from 1934 to 1941, he was engaged to conduct operatic and symphony-orchestra concerts at the Theater Aachen.

Karajan's career was given a significant boost in 1935 when he was appointed Germany's youngest Generalmusikdirektor and performed as a guest conductor in Bucharest, Brussels, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Paris. In 1937 Karajan made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin State Opera, conducting Fidelio. He then enjoyed a major success at the State Opera with Tristan und Isolde. In 1938, his performance there of the opera was hailed by a Berlin critic as Das Wunder Karajan (the Karajan miracle). The critic asserted that Karajan's "success with Wagner's demanding work Tristan und Isolde sets himself alongside Furtwängler and de Sabata, the greatest opera conductors in Germany at the present time". Receiving a contract with Deutsche Grammophon that same year, Karajan made the first of numerous recordings by conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in the overture to The Magic Flute. On 26 July 1938, he married his first wife, operetta singer Elmy Holgerloef. They would divorce in 1942.

On 22 October 1942, at the height of the war, Karajan married his second wife, Anna Maria "Anita" Sauest, born Gütermann. She was the daughter of a well-known manufacturer of yarn for sewing machines. Having had a Jewish grandfather, she was considered a Vierteljüdin (one-quarter Jewish woman). By 1944, Karajan was, according to his own account, losing favor with the Nazi leadership; but he still conducted concerts in wartime Berlin on 18 February 1945 and fled Germany with Anita for Milan a short time later. Karajan and Anita divorced in 1958.

In the closing stages of the war, Karajan relocated his family to Italy with the assistance of Victor de Sabata. Karajan was discharged by the Austrian denazification examining board on 18 March 1946, and resumed his conducting career shortly thereafter.

In 1946, Karajan gave his first post-war concert in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic but he was banned from further conducting activities by the Soviet occupation authorities because of his Nazi party membership. That summer he participated anonymously in the Salzburg Festival.

On October 28 1947 Karajan gave hist first public concert following the lifting of the conducting ban. With the Vienna Philharmonic and the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde he played Johannes Brahms' A German Requiem for a gramophone production in Vienna.

In 1949, Karajan became artistic director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna. He also conducted at La Scala in Milan. His most prominent activity at this time was recording with the newly-formed Philharmonia Orchestra in London, helping to build them into one of the world's finest. Starting from this year, Karajan began his lifelong attendance at the Lucerne Festival.

In 1951 and 1952 he conducted at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

In 1955 he was appointed music director for life of the Berlin Philharmonic as successor to Wilhelm Furtwängler. From 1957 to 1964 he was artistic director of the Vienna State Opera. Karajan was closely involved with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Salzburg Festival, where he initiated the Easter Festival, which would remain tied to the Berlin Philharmonic's Music Director after his tenure.

On 22 October 1958 he married his third wife, French model Eliette Mouret; they became parents of two daughters, Isabel and Arabel.

He continued to perform, conduct and record prolifically until his death in Anif in 1989, mainly with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Karajan and the compact disc

Karajan played an important role in the development of the original compact disc digital audio format. He championed this new consumer playback technology, lent his prestige to it and appeared at the first press conference announcing the format. The maximum playing time of CD prototypes was sixty minutes but the final specification enlarged the disc size and extended the capacity to seventy-four minutes. There are various stories regarding this, one of which is that this was due to Karajan's insistence that the format have sufficient capacity to contain Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on a single disc. Kees Schouhamer Immink, a Philips research engineer directly involved with the invention of the CD, denies the Beethoven connection.

In 1980 von Karajan conducted the first recording ever to be commercially released on CD: Richard Strauss's "Eine Alpensinfonie" (1915), produced by Deutsche Grammophon.

Through the 1980s von Karajan re-recorded many works such as Beethoven's Nine Symphonies with Deutsche Grammophon's CD booklet introduction saying that he wanted to preserve his legacy digitally. He also pioneered the Digital Compact Cassette though that format was not particularly successful. His 2007 "Gold" compilation contains the longest known running time disc. Disc two of this collection clocks in at 81:21."


There is widespread agreement that Herbert von Karajan had a special gift for extracting beautiful sounds from an orchestra. Opinion varies concerning the greater aesthetic ends to which The Karajan Sound was applied. The American critic Harvey Sachs criticized the Karajan approach as follows: "Karajan seemed to have opted instead for an all-purpose, highly refined, lacquered, calculatedly voluptuous sound that could be applied, with the stylistic modifications he deemed appropriate, to Bach and Puccini, Mozart and Mahler, Beethoven and Wagner, Schumann and Stravinsky … many of his performances had a prefabricated, artificial quality that those of Toscanini, Furtwängler, and others never had… most of Karajan's records are exaggeratedly polished, a sort of sonic counterpart to the films and photographs of Leni Riefenstahl."

However, it has been argued by commentator Jim Svejda and others that Karajan's pre-1970 manner did not sound polished as it is later alleged to have become.

Two reviews from the "Penguin Guide to Compact Discs" can be quoted to illustrate the point.
Concerning a recording of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, a canonical Romantic work, the Penguin authors wrote "Karajan's is a sensual performance of Wagner's masterpiece, caressingly beautiful and with superbly refined playing from the Berlin Philharmonic" and it is listed in first place on pages 1586-7 of the 1999 Penguin Guide to Compact Discs; 2005, p. 1477.
About Karajan's recording of Haydn's "Paris" symphonies, the same authors wrote, "big-band Haydn with a vengeance … It goes without saying that the quality of the orchestral playing is superb. However, these are heavy-handed accounts, closer to Imperial Berlin than to Paris … the Minuets are very slow indeed … These performances are too charmless and wanting in grace to be whole-heartedly recommended."

The same Penguin Guide does nevertheless give the highest compliments to Karajan's recordings of the selfsame Haydn's two oratorios, "The Creation" and "The Seasons". However respected Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon wrote the notes for Karajan's recordings of Haydn's 12 London symphonies and states clearly that Karajan's recordings are among the finest he knows.

Regarding twentieth century music, Karajan had a strong preference for conducting and recording pre-1945 works (Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartók, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Puccini, Pizzetti, Honegger, Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel, Hindemith, Nielsen and Stravinsky), but he did record Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 (1953) twice and did premiere Carl Orff's De Temporum Fine Comoedia in 1973.

Awards and honours

Karajan was the recipient of multiple honours and awards. In 1977 he was awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize. On 21 June 1978 he received the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music from Oxford University. He was honored by the "Médaille de Vermeil" in Paris, the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, the Olympia Award of the Onassis Foundation in Athens and the UNESCO International Music Prize. He received two Gramophone Awards for recordings of Mahler's Ninth Symphony and the complete Parsifal recordings in 1981. He received the Eduard Rhein Ring of Honor from the German Eduard Rhein Foundation in 1984. In 2002, the Herbert von Karajan Music Prize was founded in his honour; in 2003 Anne-Sophie Mutter, who had made her debut with Karajan in 1977, became the first recipient of this award.


The Vienna Philharmonic (in German: Wiener Philharmoniker) is an orchestra in Austria, regularly considered one of the finest in the world.

Its home base is the Musikverein. The members of the orchestra are chosen from the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. This process is a long one, with each musician having to prove his or her capability for a minimum of three years' playing for the Opera and Ballet. Once this is achieved the musician can then ask the Board of the Wiener Philharmoniker to consider an application for a position in the Vienna Philharmonic.


The orchestra can trace its origins to 1842, when Otto Nicolai formed the Philharmonische Academie; which was a fully independent orchestra and which took all its decisions by a democratic vote of all its members. These are principles the orchestra still holds today.

With Nicolai's departure in 1847, the orchestra nearly folded, and was not very active until 1860, when Karl Anton Eckert joined as conductor. He gave a series of four subscription concerts, and since then, the orchestra has given concerts continuously.

From 1875 to 1898 Hans Richter was subscription conductor, except for the season 1882-1883 when he was in dispute with the orchestral committee. During Richter's tenure, the orchestra gave the premieres of the 2nd and 3rd symphonies of Johannes Brahms, and the 8th symphony of Anton Bruckner.

Gustav Mahler held the post from 1898 to 1901, and under his baton the orchestra played abroad for the first time at the 1900 Paris World Exposition. Subsequent conductors were Felix Weingartner, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Clemens Krauss.

Since 1933, the orchestra has had no single subscription conductor, but instead has a number of guest conductors. These have included a great many of the world's best known conductors, including Richard Strauss, Arturo Toscanini, Hans Knappertsbusch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, John Barbirolli, Carlo Maria Giulini, Georg Solti, Erich Kleiber, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Carlos Kleiber, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Pierre Boulez, Lorin Maazel, Mariss Jansons, Daniel Barenboim and Valery Gergiev. Three conductors, however, were particularly associated with the post-war era: Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm, who were made honorary conductors, and Leonard Bernstein, who was made an honorary member of the orchestra. The orchestra made their first US tour in 1956 under the batons of Carl Schuricht and Andre Cluytens.

Each New Year's Day since 1 January 1941, the VPO has sponsored the Vienna New Year's Concerts, dedicated to the music of the Strauss family composers, and particularly that of Johann Strauss II.


The Vienna Philharmonic was named as Europe's finest in a recent survey by seven leading trade publications, two radio stations and a daily newspaper. Subscription ticket demand for the Vienna Philharmonic at their home, Musikverein, is currently listed on the orchestra's website as being on a waiting list. The waiting list for weekday concert subscriptions is six years and thirteen years for weekend subscriptions. Casual tickets however, are available in small numbers and can be bought via links from the VPO website, to various ticket resellers. It is also possible to book package deals which include transport, hotel accommodation and meals and tickets to concerts.

The orchestra is so popular and famous, that it has been the motive of one of the world's most famous bullion coins: the Vienna Philharmonic coin. The coin is struck in pure gold, 999.9 fine (24 carats). It is issued every year, in four different face values, sizes and weights. It is used as an investment product, although it finishes almost always in the hands of collectors. According to the World Gold Council, this coin was the best selling gold coin in 1992, 1995 and 1996 world wide.

In 2006 Austrian Airlines was outfitted with a livery featuring the gold coin and logo of the Wiener Philharmoniker. The long-range Airbus A340-300 aircraft was flown primarily between Vienna and Tokyo for approximately one year serving as promotional tool for the orchestra and the Philharmoniker, 24 karat gold coin issued by the Austrian Mint.

Sound and instruments

The characteristic sound of the Vienna Philharmonic can be attributed in part to the use of instruments and playing styles that are fundamentally different from those used by other major orchestras:
- The orchestra's standard tuning pitch is A443, where the pitch A is generally considered at a frequency of 440 Hz.
- The VPO uses the German-system clarinet. By comparison, the Boehm-system clarinet is favored in non-German speaking countries.
- Likewise, while the Heckel (German) bassoon is now the norm for most orchestras around the world, in the VPO the Heckel bassoon is played almost completely without vibrato.
- The rotary-valve trumpet is used, but this is also popular in other German and Austrian orchestras.
- Like its counterparts elsewhere in Austria, Germany and Russia, the VPO favors the F bass and BB-flat contrabass rotary-valve tuba, whereas the CC piston-valve tuba is preferred in most American and some British orchestras.
- The trombone has a somewhat smaller bore, but this is also true of the trombone used in many German orchestras.
- The timpani use natural goat hide instead of synthetic hide.
- The double-bass retains the traditional theater-placement in a row behind the brass. The VPO uses 4- as well as 5-string double basses, with the bow always being held underhand (german bow).
- The Wiener Oboe is, along with the Vienna horn (see below), perhaps the most distinctive member of the VPO instrumentarium. It has a special bore, reed and fingering-system and is very different from the otherwise internationally used Conservatoire (French) oboe.
- The Vienna horn in F uses a Pumpenventil, roughly similar to a piston valve. Unlike the rotary valves used on most other orchestral horns, the Pumpenventil contributes to the liquid legato that is one of the trademarks of the Viennese school. The bore of the Vienna horn is also smaller than more modern horns—actually very close to that of the valveless natural horn. The Vienna horn has remained virtually unchanged since the mid-nineteenth century—as a result it is arguably well-suited to the Classical and Romantic repertoire at the core of the VPO's programming.
- The string section is unique in that the instruments belong to the orchestra, unlike other orchestras in which each string player uses his or her own instrument. Although not of a particular pedigree, the Vienna strings have been carefully chosen over the centuries and they are largely responsible for the orchestra's well-loved string sound. They are meticulously cared for and, in case one is worn beyond repair, the process of finding a replacement instrument is equally painstaking. The Oesterreichische Nationalbank currently loans four violins made by Antonio Stradivari to the VPO.

These instruments and their characteristic tone-colors have been the subject of extensive scientific studies by the Associate Professor Magister Gregor Widholm of the Institute for Viennese Tone-Culture at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien.

Subscription Conductors and Guest Conductors

The Vienna Philharmonic has never had principal conductors. Each year they chose an artist to conduct all concerts of the respective season at Vienna's Musikverein. These conductors were called Abonnementdirigenten (subscription conductors) as they were to conduct all the concerts included in the Philharmonic's subscription at the Musikverein. Some of these annual hirings were renewed for many years, others lasted only for a few years. At the same time the Vienna Philharmonic also worked with other conductors, e. g. at the Salzburg Festival, for recordings or special occasions. With the widening of the Philharmonic's activities the orchestra decided to abandon this system in 1933. From then on there were only guest conductors hired for each concert, both in Vienna and elsewhere.

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