Austrian conductor Herbert van Karajan built up a star reputation in record time and became one of the most admired conductors of the 20th century. Known for his ability to bring richness of sound to his dynamic performances, the works he conducted were praised across the globe and were perhaps the defining reason he was so successful in his career.
Born in the same hometown as Mozart, Karajan studied piano at an early age, proving to be a child prodigy. He graduated from Salzburg Mozarteum and Vienna University and Conservatory but was noted for a premiere conductorship which developed from his astounding musicianship and self-taught work ethic studying the greats, including Toscanini and Strauss.
His debut in Salzburg was in 1933 with the opera Fidelio and not long after, he moved to Aachen, Germany and became the city’s youngest music director. It was around this period that he joined the Nazi party and momentarily halted his ability to further his career until he was forgiven for all associated activity in 1946. His inclusion in the Third Reich and post-war Europe would later identify him with Shostakovich and other composers harrowing works such as Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony and Mahler’s 6th.
During that time he debuted with the Berlin Philharmonic, creating his first gramophone recording and the following year became music director of the Berlin State Opera from 1939 through 1945. Karajan would go on to conduct and record many stage operas and film score.
The relationships he built through his conducting career lasted through his entire tenure with top orchestras including the London Philharmonic Orchestra via their founder Walter Legge who became a key advocate for Karajan, as well as notably being appointed opera director for life with the Vienna State Opera, and he was admired in Milan for conducting Italian repertoire, notably with La Scala.
In 1967, Karajan founded the Salzburg Easter Festival at which he staged and conducted his own performances and later in 1981, it would be at this festival that Karajan publicly endorsed the compact disc. Also in 1967, Karajan debuted with the Metropolitan Opera of New York City conducting Richard Wagner’sDie Walkure.
Karajan’s most notable achievements though, would be during his 35-year tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic, from 1955-1989. It would only be contract negotiations that would separate him from his beloved Berlin Philharmonic just shortly before his death.
Over the course of Karajan’s life he had several achievements for which he is remembered, including becoming the first conductor to amass an extensive collection of film scores in collaboration with film directors. His emphasis on accuracy of rhythm and sound to create beautiful music would inspire architects of both the Festspielhaus in Salzburg and the Philharmonie in Berlin.
His final concert and recording would be with the Vienna Philharmonic conducting Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. Today, Karajan has sold over 200 million copies of the recordings in his impressive catalogue of conducted works and collaborations.
The Karajan Foundation was established to study the therapeutic use of music and the stress associated with composing. This was inspired by his love for skiing and developing a lifestyle with focused on activities for strengthening the brain. Karajan was also a strong advocate of music in youth and education.
In Walter Legge’s words, Karajan "knew the psychology of an orchestra probably better than anybody alive."
Carlos Kleiber noted, "The strange thing is that he doesn’t appear to “interpret” the music. He simply plays the notes. It’s a kind of black magic."
"This is the real great satisfaction in my life," Karajan said, "was that I was allowed to bring music to so many people."