|The statue of von Karajan|
|The maestro in typical pose|
|Von Karajan's birthplace in Salzburg|
It might be wrong to say that he was feared but without doubt those who played under his baton knew that their conductor would accept nothing but the best – and the best was exactly whatever he decided it would be! Von Karajan brooked no criticism or opinion different from his own! No shrinking violet was he! - there was only one maestro, the supreme von Karajan, and he expected people to know it and accept it! To von Karajan it was simply the natural order of things - and although his musical peers and fans were aware of his egotistical and petulant style, they totally respected, admired and looked up to him for in the end, they knew, he brought something to his music, his orchestra and his audiences that no other conductor of the time could even begin to do. He was simply "the maestro".
|Two musical giants: von Karajan and the great cellist Rostropovich|
Von Karajan with his third wife Eliette, a
French model - they married in 1958 and
stayed together until his death in 1989
As a result von Karajan's fame spread through the musical establishment like wild fire and he quickly received a contract with Deutsche Grammophon - a relationship which lasted virtually throughout his life – and which was mutually beneficial. It made von Karajan a multi-millionaire and at the same time put Deutsche Grammophon on the world map and the company at the peak of classical music recording industry. It has been said that in post war Germany when the country was struggling to get back on its economic feet Deutsche Grammophon's success based upon von Karajan's recordings was a critical factor in boosting the country's economic turn around.
A much loved recording: von Karajan,
Deutsche Grammophon and Karajan's great child prodigy
and, later, muse the then thirteen year old Anne-Sophie Mutter -
now a superstar in her own right
|With Maria Callas|
A popular quip in those days was that when von Karajan took a taxi and the taxi driver asked where the maestro wished to be taken von Karajan's reply was always "It doesn't matter - they want me everywhere!" A quip, maybe, but in essence the truth. There were downsides. His membership of the Nazi Party in his youth was a feature that dogged him throughout his life but that apart his towering intellect, work ethic, musical talents, charisma, desire for musical perfection and the ability to make front page news ensured that he was unchallenged as the world’s greatest conductor and the Berlin Philharmonic indisputably the world's finest orchestra.
|In 1950s jet setting style, at the wheel of his Porche|
Von Karajan’s reputation as a hard task master and as a man who did not suffer fools gladly ensured a wealth of stories – many of them apocryphal – but all adding to the myth that was and still is Herbert von Karajan. One of my favourites is one told by the world famous flautist James Galway who was principle flute player at the Berlin Philharmonic under von Karajan. Galway told of a night when the orchestra were playing a concert and half way through there was an electricity failure and the hall was plunged into total darkness. “The orchestra” said Galway "never missed a beat despite gasps from the audience”. They carried on throughout the long piece, stopping, as usual, at the end of each movement and beginning the next in perfect time despite not being able to see their conductor's baton - the hall still being in complete darkness. Every member of the orchestra knew the work by heart so they just carried on although they could not see a thing. “Suddenly” said Galway “as the final few moments of the piece came the lights came back on and, to a man and woman, every orchestra member was on the same correct page of the score. In the dark they had all been turning the pages of the scores over even though they could not see them – and von Karajan was still conducting exactly in time and place with his orchestra!” Such was the discipline instilled and expected by von Karajan; no-one argued with him! In modern day terms one might suggest that when von Karajan said "jump" the answer was not "why" but "how high!"
|Von Karajan Platz outside the great Opera House in Vienna|
Other stories have poked a little gentle fun at the maestro. I like particularly the joke that tells of a musician who dies and finds himself sitting in an orchestra composed of all the greatest performers who have ever lived. Looking at the cello section he recognizes Casals, Rostropovich and Tortelier. And then at the violinists where he doesn't initially recognize the first violinist so he asks his seatmate. "Oh, that’s Paganini” says his companion “and next to him Yehudi Menuhin and then David Oistrakh ". And so it goes on – wherever he looks he sees the greatest musicians the world has ever known sitting around him. The man then notices there is a piano and sitting at the piano waiting to play is Glenn Gould whilst in the wings waiting their turn he can see the unmistakable figures of Maria Callas, Beniamino Gigli, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Enrico Caruso, Kathleen Ferrier and Luciano Pavarotti - the world's greatest operatic names. He's flabbergasted--there's never been a greater orchestra or assemblage of musical talent and, it seems, he's playing in it! Suddenly the truth dawns upon him - he has died and gone to HEAVEN! Just as he realises this the door opens and the conductor, baton in hand, enters and strides purposefully up to the podium; his chiselled visage stern with command, his silver hair gleaming as shafts of heavenly light stream down upon him from the beautiful stained glass windows . The great orchestra, and above them the angels, and the cherubim and seraphim floating over the assembled musicians, fall silent in expectation and reverence. The conductor mounts the podium, looks around and then lifts his baton dramatically in readiness for the downbeat, his eyes piercing into the very souls of each and everyone of his players........and the musician, who cannot now contain himself any longer, turns to his seatmate and, stumbling to get the words out, whispers "Is that... is that...is that....... " His seatmate puts his finger to his lips and whispers "Shhh...... No, my friend, it's not the maestro von Karajan, it's only God........it’s a very sad case. God just THINKS he's von Karajan. It is all he desires - he dresses up to look like him and the angels cut his hair in the same style as the maestro. It's all God ever dreams of, he practises day and night to be like the maestro. All God wants is to be as famous, as all powerful and as loved as the maestro!"
|And so over the glittering bridge to Salzburg and Mozart|
So, looking back at that small, easily missed statue of this very great musician, we turned and set off across the bridge, the sun beating down upon us, as we passed a million metal locks shimmering in the August brightness. As we crossed the bridge I wondered what the sophisticated and petulant von Karajan might have thought of the cheap locks outside his front door and fastened to the bridge in this most classical and urbane of cities? From what I know of this brilliant but autocratic man I don't think he would have been impressed by the triviality of it all. But then again, I reflected, the maestro had spent his whole life conducting the music of the great operas and bringing to his adoring audiences the inevitable operatic tales of the gods and of great love stories and lost love so maybe he would have understood lovers' trysts without perhaps approving! How could you bring the great love arias such as those from Madame Butterfly, Turandot, Carmen, Norma, The Pearl Fishers, La Traviata and a thousand others and at the same time bring tears to the eyes of millions of von Karajan's fans without having some romantic streak in you? Surely, I reasoned as we walked across that bridge, von Karajan would have understood - indeed, maybe he would have found a suitable piece of music to accompany the lovers as they made their promises and turned the key in the lock before casting it into the current! With this thought in mind we continued on our way across the bridge, in front of us Salzburg – home not only to the great Herbert von Karajan but to another Austrian musical giant, perhaps even greater than von Karajan and a reason for our being there at all, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – a composer of whom it was once famously said “It is his music that is listened to by the angels in heaven as they go about their daily duties”. Our musical odyssey had begun.