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Karajan Dies; ‘Last Great Conductor,’ 81

Times Staff Writer

Herbert von Karajan, controversial icon of the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic, the Salzburg Festival, the Vienna State Opera and world recording studios, died Sunday at his home in Anif, Austria, of apparent heart failure. He was 81.

Although ill, Karajan had planned to conduct the opening opera of the Salzburg Festival, Guiseppe Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera,” on July 27, and had regularly conducted rehearsals, according to festival president Albert Moser.

“A musical epoch has ended with the death of the last great conductor of our time,” said Bernd Gellermann, spokesman for the Berlin Philharmonic.

Praise From Chancellor

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Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitsky said the music world has “lost in him one of its very greatest.”

Karajan is survived by his third wife, Eliette Mouret, a former French model, and two daughters, Isabelle and Arabelle. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Once scorned for his wartime Nazi membership, Karajan rose to legendary status and was considered by many to be the finest conductor alive, marshaling the Berlin orchestra into the world epitome of ensemble performance.

Times music critic Martin Bernheimer called him “the last of the old-school European supermen of music . . . a genius on the podium.”

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“Even those who could not forgive, much less forget, his cooperation with the Nazis,” observed Bernheimer, “had to admit that he was a great conductor.”

Made “conductor-for-life” of the Berlin orchestra in 1954, the revered musician considered by some to be a greedy megalomaniac had railed:

“As long as my arm can hold a baton, you won’t get rid of me. . . . Discussions of my successor can begin the day after my death.”

Last April, however, acceding to increasing spinal disability and, some believe, to increasing strife over his reduced appearances with the highly independent orchestra organized by musicians in 1882, Karajan reluctantly resigned from his Berlin post.

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“The results of the medical examinations I have been undergoing for several weeks indicate that I am not in the position to fulfill my duties as I understand them,” he said in his letter of resignation, which followed a stroke and three spinal operations.

His back problems, which required him to be helped to the podium and occasionally to conduct while resting on a hidden bicycle seat, were said to date from 1920, when he injured himself at the age of 12 while climbing with friends.

Karajan left the board of directors of the Salzburg Festival last August and during the last year reduced his guest conducting performances.

Appeared at Hollywood Bowl

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He last appeared in the United States on Feb. 25 at Carnegie Hall, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. He brought the Berlin Philharmonic to Southern California twice, in 1956 and 1982, and directed the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 1959.

Those who never saw Karajan in person came to appreciate him through his more than 900 recordings--four times as many as his idol, the late Italian composer and conductor Arturo Toscanini, produced. His recordings have sold more than 150 million copies around the world and made Karajan a multimillionaire.

As colorful in his private life as on the podium, the silver-maned maestro piloted his own jet plane, raced his 76-foot sailing sloop and drove his sports cars among homes in Vienna; Anif near Salzburg, Austria; St. Moritz, Switzerland, and St. Tropez, France. He obtained his license to pilot helicopters at the age of 75.

Fascinated by technology, Karajan helped pioneer the compact disc and video compact disc and insisted on visiting Silicon Valley during his 1982 American tour “just to get in touch with those people.” One of his hobbies was acoustical research, and he credited his prolific recording career partly to advances in recording technology.

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Hypnotic Style

A devotee of yoga and Zen Buddhism, Karajan characteristically conducted scores completely from memory with his hypnotic blue-gray eyes tightly closed as if in a trance.

He insisted in an interview in 1982 that the pose was not an affectation.

“It has to do with the gap between what you want and what you hear and how it becomes narrower,” he explained.

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“When I was very young and started conducting, I had to train myself to listen to music as it came out because the orchestra of a provincial town was simply noncompetitive with what I had in my ear,” he said. “Now, this is the point where you begin. And then you take one step and then another, and the gap begins to narrow.

“And then later, when a day came that I had a performance that was even better than what I had thought, I knew that I had made it,” he said.

“It was very, very, very rewarding and filled me with an enormous joy.”

Herbert von Karajan was born April 5, 1908, in Salzburg, the scion of a clarinet-playing surgeon, Ernst von Karajan, and Martha Cosmac.

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Musician at Age 3

The child prodigy took piano lessons at the age of 3 and made his first concert appearance, a charitable event, at 5. He studied piano and conducting at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and then at the Vienna Academy of Music, where he made his debut as a conductor Dec. 17, 1928.

Karajan first worked at the Ulm Staattheater in Ulm, Germany, where he conducted his first opera, “The Marriage of Figaro,” a month before his 21st birthday. He remained in Ulm from 1929 until 1934, when he was fired by concerned directors who feared they were curbing his career.

He next moved to Aachen, where he became Germany’s youngest general music director, conducting both opera and symphony concerts. He also began conducting abroad and at the Berlin Opera, winning the accolade “the Wunder Karajan” from the Berliner Tageblatt.

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Setting himself up for lifelong criticism, Karajan joined the Nazi party in both Salzburg and in Ulm, Germany, in 1933. He insisted later that his interest was career advancement or survival rather than political conviction.

Nevertheless, he performed regularly for top Nazis and included the “Horst Wessel” Nazi anthem, in his concerts.

In 1939, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler personally appointed Karajan “state conductor” in Berlin. Karajan was excused from military duty and continued conducting throughout the war.

Karajan divorced his first two wives during the war years--Elmy Holgerloef, an operetta soprano, and Anita Gutermann, who caused him trouble with the Nazis because of a Jewish grandparent.

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Banned for Two Years

The Allies “denazified” Karajan after the war, banning him from concert halls for two years.

“Then I suffered,” he told an interviewer years later. “But today, I’m happy about it because through it I learned to withstand such things.”

The Nazi affiliation haunted him throughout his life, causing certain Jewish musicians--including Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman--to refuse to perform with him. Jewish groups picketed some of his American performances.

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Ironically, during the years that Karajan was banned from public appearances, he successfully launched the recording career that ultimately made him wealthy.

When he was allowed to perform again in public, Karajan became conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

In 1948, he began his long affiliation with the Salzburg Festival and in 1956 became its artistic director. In 1955 he took on the Berlin Philharmonic, and a year later became artistic director of the Vienna State Opera.

For eight years, he simultaneously directed all three ultra-prestigious institutions with an iron fist.

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In 1964, Karajan stormily resigned the Vienna opera post after the Austrian government accused him of making excessive financial demands.

“This is a cart horse,” he said with a sneer. “I need a racehorse.”

Histrionic Battles

Karajan was considered the driving force of the Salzburg Festival and its cultural sibling, the Salzburg Easter Festival, which he founded in 1967. But his greatest triumphs and certainly his most histrionic battles occurred not in his native Austria but in Germany with his beloved Berlin Philharmonic.

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“He commanded a baton technique of extraordinary flair and virtuosic clarity,” observed Times critic Bernheimer. “He was an intellectual with a penchant for analytical interpretation. Some found him cool, but none found him uninteresting.

“He could bring chamber-music transparency to the thickest Wagnerian textures,” Bernheimer said. “He could impart supreme sensuality and profound warmth to a simple Strauss waltz. He could conduct Puccini with a semblance of sentimental Italianate passion, and he could impart noble urgency to the arching cantilena of Verdi.

“When he didn’t get too fussy or too tired, he defined Mozartean lyricism with elegance that never precluded pathos. He took the bombast--if not the grandeur--out of Beethoven.”

Considered a virtual dictator of the orchestra, Karajan created a scandal in 1982 when he insisted that a young woman, Sabine Meyer, 23, become the principal clarinetist of the men-only group. Karajan threatened to discontinue the orchestra’s highly lucrative recording work if he did not get his way. She was ultimately allowed to play with the orchestra on probation.

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Set World Standard

A tyrannical perfectionist, he built the traditionally fine orchestra into what most musicians consider the world standard, an orchestra that was envied by his contemporaries.

“I conduct the Orchestre de Paris as a favor to Danny Barenboim, its conductor,” Zubin Mehta, former director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, once commented. “I conduct the Berlin Philharmonic as a favor to myself.”

Insisting that his musicians respect a composer’s intentions, Karajan’s key suggestion about approaching any piece of music was a cryptic: “Don’t disturb it.”

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He collected innumerable awards and honorary titles, winning the Mozart Ring in Vienna in 1957, the Prix France-Allemagne in 1970, Finland’s Order of the White Rose, and in 1973 the rank of Honorary Citizen of West Berlin.

Despite failing vision, circulatory problems, the stroke and various surgeries for spinal problems, Karajan doggedly continued to mount the podium, prompting one Vienna critic to observe: “His life is a heroic exertion against illness and pain.”

Joked With Interviewer

Karajan himself intended to go on forever, once joking with an interviewer, paraphrasing Goethe: “I have so much to think and fulfill, that if my body is not strong enough, nature simply must give me another one.”

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Nature did not appear willing to comply.

“The czar has stepped down,” critic Bernheimer noted when Karajan resigned from the Berlin Philharmonic in April. “There simply isn’t another Karajan on the scene. There doesn’t seem to be one on the horizon.

“An era has ended.”


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