BBC fails to find the real Karajan

Herbert von Karajan was born on April 5, 1908. So, unsurprisingly, most celebrations of the conductor's centenary took place in April this year. But BBC Radio 3 has decided, for reasons that escape me, to celebrate all things Karajan in the second week of July.

The BBC's centenary tribute kicked off on Saturday with The Real Karajan, a programme fronted by James Jolly that promised "to get under the skin of this controversial musician ... and (tell) how the Second World War affected his early career". Now Jolly is one of the less-awful of the current BBC presenters. (As I type these very words his fellow presenter Petroc Trelawny promises us, and I quote exactly "Mahler's Eighth Symphony, the Resurrection" tomorrow evening). But Jolly's day job is editor-in-chief of Gramophone, a magazine that has been the mouthpiece of the classical recording industry for decades and which comes from a publishing group whose other titles include Classic FM, PR Week and a slew of BBC magazines. So Radio 3's choice of James Jolly to get under the skin of a best-selling but surprisingly unpopular conductor was hardly visionary.

Predictably the resulting programme unearthed nothing new, but instead gave a number of industry talking-heads the opportunity to reassure us that the 'real Karajan' was just a nice guy with a taste for the simple things in life. (Like his executive jet seen in my header photo?). In Tim Winton's superb new novel Breath the narrator makes the penetrating observation that 'people are fools, not monsters'. The talking heads on the Real Karajan would have made their eulogy a lot more credible if they had admitted that although Karajan may not have been a monster he was, like many other great musicians, sometimes a fool.

For some reason nobody on the programme told the story that I published here back in 2005, so no excuses for repeating it. Karajan was conducting at Bayreuth at the same time as Hans Knappertsbusch. Backstage in the Festspielhaus there were just two lavatories at the end of a long corridor. Karajan's personal secretary, it is said, put a notice on one, 'For the exclusive use of Herr Karajan'. An hour later a notice appeared on the other one written by Knappertsbusch, 'For all the other arseholes'.

Talking of the Second World War Siegfried Lauterwasser was briefly mentioned in James Jolly's programme as "Karajan's personal photographer". The background music may have been the funeral march from Götterdämmerung, but none of the talking heads were allowed to rain on Siegfried's parade.

Photo credit of HvK with his Falcon 10 jet at Salzburg Airport to photographer Emile Perauer and comes from my Ein Heldenleben article. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


sgfnorth said…
Well in so far as we can all be fools then I think you've probably made the same point as the programme did. He wasn't super human and no one is. Its hardly a classical music headline. I thought James Jolly's obit of Karajan in Gramophone was about right: he said IIR that HvK had relatively few real failures especially amongst his 800 plus recordings. No doubt the performance of the Gershwin Piano Concerto, the audio recording of Turandot and his ridiculous late video of the Bach Magnificat could be wheeled out as moments when he went wrong, I'll let those go against some of the things I heard on record and in the concert hall which were simply life enhancing.
Kathy said…
In college, when we were studying different conductors my professor said, "you are about to see GOD," and then pressed the play button on the VCR, and played some PBS piece about Von Karajan. He only ever said that about one other person, and that was Mozart.
Wasn't Gods and Monsters a movie with Ian McKellen? Hm...I think McKellen would make a superb Von Karajan in a movie, perhaps titled "Monsters and Fools" :-)
Dennis said…
I've always wondered to what extent the animosity directed toward Karajan is more about his personality and political past (and also envy over his sales and marketing savvy) than it is strictly about his actual music-making. Though critics such as Lebrecht claim to be motivated by revulsion toward his conducting style, it always seems to me that extra-musical consideration are always lurking nearby. Odd that so-much is said about Karajan's political past, while left-wing artists who evinced a deeper commitment to Communism and Stalinism than Karajan ever did to Nazism are given a free pass by so many critics.
Anonymous said…
@Dennis: Possibly for the same reason Leftism has pervaded Western culture since WWII: because we were allied to the Commies up until 1945 (our enemy's enemy, and all that) which is why the Nazis - socialists, of course - were painted then, as now, as being "far Right," and which is why anything remotely right-of-centre has been portrayed by the intelligentsia as being somehow fascist. A classic illustration of how simple abuses of language can direct our thoughts. But this is probably the wrong forum for such discussions!

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