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Herbert von Karajan | Picture: Siegfried Lauterwasser

Herbert von Karajan’s first performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker in April 1938 was a sensation – and aroused the jealousy of principal conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who from then on considered the young star his rival. Furtwängler died in 1954, and the direction of an America tour the year thereafter that had already been planned devolved to Karajan. After successful completion of the tour, Karajan was appointed principal conductor in 1956. It was the beginning of a new era.

Karajan embodied the 20th-century type of conductor: energetic, charismatic, visionary, dedicated not only to music but to the other finer things of life. He was an enthusiastic pilot, sports car driver, skier and sailor. He admired and revered Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler, two musical personalities who could not have been more different, and made it his ambition to merge the best of both to his own style.

A performance culture all of his own

One of his peculiarities was that he usually conducted concerts with his eyes closed, vexing many orchestra musicians. However, through Karajan’s intense rehearsals they were thoroughly prepared for performances. “His philosophy was that everything the orchestra needs had to happen beforehand,” the string bassist Rudolf Watzel recalled.

Under Herbert von Karajan the Berliner Philharmoniker developed their very own performance culture, characterised by a beauty of sound, enchanting legati, virtuosity and perfection. 

He preferred to concentrate on the classical-romantic repertoire: Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Strauss. In addition, he devoted himself to the Second Viennese School and leading composers of the early 20th century like Ravel, Stravinsky and Debussy, taking occasional excursions into the contemporary era with works by Messiaen and Henze, even Penderecki.

From world orchestra to global player

Under Karajan’s leadership, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra also developed into global players – thanks to spectacular tours to America, Japan and China, as well as innumerable sound and film recordings.

 Karajan was a man of the media, open for all innovations in recording engineering. With an encyclopaedic single-mindedness, he recorded his entire repertoire on records, later on CDs, and captured many of his opera and concert performances on film. The Berliner Philharmoniker’s media impact greatly increased through their principal conductor’s active productive activity.

Visible sign of the growing fame was the new concert hall: Karajan strongly advocated that it be built. In 1963 the orchestra moved into the Philharmonie on Kemperplatz designed by Hans Scharoun. The building with its new, avantgarde concert hall centred around the stage and thus the music, underscored how the orchestra and the conductor saw themselves artistically.

In 1987 the Phiharmonie got a “little brother,” the Chamber Music Hall, carried out by Scharoun’s pupil and co-worker Edgar Wisniewski.

The relationship was not always harmonious

Karajan introduced even more innovations: he founded the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1967, at which the Philharmoniker were able to also make a name for themselves as an opera orchestra; the Salzburg Whitsun Festival followed in 1973. The Herbert von Karajan Conducting Competition, first held in 1969, was springboard to an international career for young conductors like Mariss Jansons and Valery Gergiev.

Karajan promoted promising talents even beyond that, including Claudio Abbado, Seiji Ozawa and the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Concerned about the next generation of musicians, he initiated the Orchestra Academy in 1972: it prepares prospective orchestra musicians to work in a professional orchestra.

Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker were considered a “dream team.” But the later years of their working together were overshadowed by conflicts and estrangement.

The conflict that seemed perhaps the most spectacular in the public sphere was the case of the clarinettist Sabine Meyer, whom Karajan – against the objections of the orchestra – wanted to engage for the Berlin Philharmonic. In April 1989, after renewed contention, Karajan resigned his office as principal conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. He died three months later in Anif.