KARAJAN 50 FACTS


1.    The Karajan family originally came from Macedonia and bore the name Karajannis (Karajoannes).

2.    In summer 1924, the 16-year-old Heribert (his original name) was sent off with his brother from Salzburg to London for three months in order to learn English. He would later also speak fluent Italian and French.

3.    Always an avid climber, Karajan as a boy once fell 70 ft. while scrambling on Salzburg’s Kapuzinerberg. The plunge broke his leg and may have contributed to the serious back problems that he suffered from later in life.

4.    When Karajan entered the Vienna Music Academy in 1926, it had no conducting teacher. He started out his studies in the discipline he would come to dominate with an oboist (the Vienna Philharmonic’s principal).

5.    Only 21 when he took up his first conducting post – at the municipal theatre of Ulm – Karajan was already a perfectionist. During a special Christmas performance in 1931, an orchestra member threatened to assassinate him. Fortunately the violinist in question was discovered – with a loaded revolver, safety catch off –before the opera’s start, which was delayed by half an hour.

6.    Karajan’s unparalleled 50-year recording career was launched in 1939 with the release of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, played by the Berlin Staatskapelle, and it ended on 23 April 1989 with a live recording of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony from his final concert, given with the Vienna Philharmonic less than three months before his death.

7.    As Deutsche Grammophon’s conductor-in-chief after signing a new exclusive contract in 1959, he made some 330 records for the Yellow Label, mostly with his Berliner Philharmoniker.

8.    He and his Berlin orchestra made history in 1961 when they and DG embarked on the first-ever complete set of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies to be recorded and marketed as an integral cycle. Released in 1963, it proved to be one the most successful projects in classical recording history.

9.    To mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death in 1977, DG released Karajan’s second traversal of the “Nine” with the Berliners. “One of the signs of a great piece of music,” he is quoted as saying, “is that it will never come to the end of interpretation. It is like a deep well. You can dip and dip and never come to the end of it.”

10.    Another unique distinction: Karajan and his Berlin players won the prestigious “Best Orchestral” Gramophone award for two different recordings of the same work, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: in 1981 and in 1984 – a live recording which was also voted Gramophone’s “Record of the Year”!

11.    His infatuation with Mahler’s music came late in his career, not until the 1970s, but Karajan did conduct some earlier performances with the Berlin Philharmonic: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen during a 1955 US tour and Das Lied von der Erde in Berlin in early 1960 – and (with the Vienna Philharmonic) a few months later in Vienna.

12.    With the advent of digital recording and the compact disc in the early 1980s, Karajan recorded the Beethoven cycle yet again for DG with his Berlin musicians.

13.    He and his Berlin Philharmonic made DG’s very first digital recording – Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in 1980 – and were also featured in its first CD title to go into mass production, Strauss’s Alpine Symphony in 1982.

14.    A famous technology “freak”, Karajan was passionate about all new recording media, including visual. One of his objectives later in his career was documenting his most important interpretations on film.

15.    His first-ever film appearance was conducting the Berlin Staatskapelle in the concluding bars of Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture, Paris, 24 May 1941.

16.    In the 1967 film of Bizet’s Carmen that he directed and conducted with Grace Bumbry and Jon Vickers, Karajan appears briefly as a mustachioed bandit!

17.    The most famous of all Karajan recordings on movie soundtracks are heard in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey: the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra with the Vienna Philharmonic and Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz with the Berlin Philharmonic.

18.    Kubrick specifically wanted the 1959 Vienna Phil Zarathustra in 2001, but Decca licensed that tape to MGM only under the condition that it not be credited. The MGM soundtrack LP has Karl Böhm’s 1958 DG recording with the Berlin Phil.

19.    Another notable Karajan-Kubrick collaboration: the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the 1962 DG Berlin Philharmonic recording) in the 1971 film A Clockwork Orange

20.    He was associated with speed and dynamism right from the beginning of his career. A Salzburg critic wrote of Karajan’s debut in 1929: “It was like being attached to a high-tension line and having 40,000 volts shot through us.”

21.    In 1935, newly elected general music director in Aachen, the young conductor wasted no time establishing his authority. According to the orchestra’s first trumpet, “he used to enjoy driving his car through town in order to hear if we were practising at home”.

22.    Three days before the confirmation of his Aachen appointment, Karajan was told by the town clerk: “You are not a [National Socialist] Party member... However, you cannot take up a post of this kind with being a Party member.” In 1946, he told a denazification tribunal that he regretted his error: “Others were hoping to get the job, and the easiest lever was the political one...One didn’t see the consequences clearly at the time.”

23.    In 1938, he was dubbed “The Miracle Karajan” for his electrifying interpretation of Wagner’s Tristan at the Berlin Staatsoper.

24.    That year, he married Married Elmy Holgerloef, leading operetta singer at the Aachen opera house. His second wife was Anita Gütermann (married in 1942), his third, Eliette Mouret (married in 1958).


25.    In 1939, he was appointed conductor at the Berlin Staatsoper.

26.    His whirlwind activities as a jet-set maestro – probably the first – spawned this famous joke: Karajan gets into a taxi. The driver asks him where to go. His reply: “It doesn’t matter. They want me everywhere.”

27.    Karajan’s first London appearance was on 11 April 1948, conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Strauss’s Don Juan, as well as accompanying Dinu Lipatti in the Schumann Piano Concerto

28.    He toured Europe with the Philharmonia for three weeks in 1952. This ambitious undertaking was virtually unsubsidised. According to Walter Legge, the orchestra’s founder and administrator, Karajan conducted without fee, but 18 sold-out concerts in the 13 cities over 24 days left Legge £3800 out of pocket.

29.    Karajan’s first North American visit with the Berlin Phil was in February-March 1955, in which year he was appointed the orchestra’s conductor for life. Their subsequent tours were in 1956, 1961, 1965, 1974, 1976 and 1982.

30.    Karajan conducted eight concerts with the New York Philharmonic in 1958, and he appeared at the Met in 1967, 1968 and 1969, also conducting the Berlin Phil in concerts in New York in 1967 and 1968.

31.    On 2 July 1959, he appeared at the Hollywood Bowl, his only concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It contained his only performance of a work by Charles Ives – The Unanswered Question – and of the American national anthem.

32.    It is “the only orchestra I have guest conducted where I didn’t have something to say after three rehearsals” – Herbert von Karajan, congratulating Christoph von Dohnányi on his appointment as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1982.

33.    Karajan also had a famous passion for fast cars.

34.    He bought his first one in Aachen in 1934, and by 1938 owned a brand-new BMW sports car which he raced in private rallies.

35.    In 1966 he had a Ferrari, but his name has mainly been associated with Porsche. Among the other cars he owned over the years: an Austin A90 Atlantic, a Rolls Royce, a Mini, a Mercedes 500 SEL, a Volkswagen Scirocco and a Renault GT Turbo.

36.    Karajan, who had begun sailing as a young boy, bought his first yacht, the Karajanides, in 1938.

37.    In 1967, he launched the first Helisara, the boat’s name being an acronym of (H)erbert, his wife (El)iette, and their daughters (Is)abel and (Ara)bel.

38.    Karajan’s enthusiasm for flying also went back to his boyhood and remained with him throughout his life.

39.    He was 41 when he signed up for his first flying lessons in 1949 in Chile. He earned his first pilot’s licence three years later in Switzerland.

40.    After a near hit with another plane sent his instructor into a fury, Karajan went to his room when they landed and wrote out 100 times on paper “I will look around when flying”.

41.    Over the years he owned six aircraft, including a Beechcraft twin turboprop and two jets: a Lear and a Dassault Falcon 10.

42.    Rumour has it that he took the controls of Concorde more than once while on board as a passenger.

43.    In October 1993, Lauda Air named the first of its fleet of 50-seater Canadair Regional Jets “Herbert von Karajan”.

44.    On 25 March 1999 Salzburg Airport formally opened its new “Herbert von Karajan Terminal for private planes.

45.    Karajan was introduced to motorcycles by conductor and motorbike addict Bernhard Paumgartner, his teacher at the Salzburg Mozarteum.

46.    According to Karajan, it was also Paumgartner who encouraged him to become a conductor.

47.    “I cannot teach you how to conduct,” Karajan once told a group of students. “But I can show you how to rehearse in such a way that, when you come to the concert itself, you will barely need to conduct.”

48.    He maintained a lifelong devotion to the principles of Zen.

49.    “If there are discords we must always play them as beautifully as we know how. A discord is not an excuse for ugly music-making, for playing out of tune” (Herbert von Karajan).

50.    One of his greatest admirers was Glenn Gould, though their collaboration only materialized in May 1957 when the Canadian pianist appeared as soloist with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Third Concerto.