Karajan was well aware of the workings of power. It was all the more difficult for him to cope when the orchestra reflected on its basic rights in 1982 and did not want to do the maestro’s bidding and appoint clarinettist Sabine Meyer for a probationary year. Worse still: when he tried to break the musicians’ spirit with threatening actions, including cancelling television productions, the Philharmoniker refused for their part to perform under Karajan in Salzburg and Luzern and terminated the media agreements. Certainly this resistance, not at all compatible with his absolutist self-image, disturbed him deeply. Yet he believed to the bitter end that he was in charge. Upon submitting his resignation as principal conductor on 24 April 1989, three months before he died, his aim was probably to push through his controversial demands for more power. That, however, his resignation was accepted and no one attempted to persuade him to reverse his decision – that must have been the greatest defeat for him.

For interpretative musicians, Friedrich Schiller’s opinion generally applies: “Posterity binds no garlands about the actor’s head.” Herbert von Karajan, however, broke through this law, as his successor Sir Simon Rattle stresses: “When Karajan was in town, the entire orchestra, every single musician, had to be there as well. He worked with them again and again on the same pieces, and he understood their joint interpretations as a process that could take years. But this is precisely how he not only achieved an unprecedented homogeneity, but also shaped the orchestra’s unmistakeable personality. We are still profiting from that today, though in the meantime there are only a few members of the Philharmonic who themselves played under Karajan.” And there’s one more thing Rattle knows: “There will never be, there can never be a second Herbert von Karajan.” Who would want to contradict him there?

Didn’t he always pride himself on living in tune with the times and clairvoyantly anticipating the future, not least as concerned developments in technology and the market? Early on, Karajan recognised the opportunities of audio-visual media: his first music films came out in 1965; in 1966 he founded the company Cosmotel together with movie mogul Leo Kirch, who captured several of his opera productions on celluloid; and starting in 1982 his company Telemondial recorded Karajan’s work for eternity on laser disc. As his own director, he showed himself in a favourable light, which is why the recordings were not made in concert, but rather reproduced under studio conditions. Karajan painstakingly ensured that even the visualisation satisfied his ideal of beauty, and arranged the musicians on his virtual film stage as would not have been possible live: dozens of violins positioned in a row, all of whom had to wield their bows exactly in parallel. The master in turn celebrated his art of conducting specially for the camera to the pre-recorded soundtrack … One can dismiss this approach as affectation or falsification, and yet the artificial aestheticizing of these recordings develops a peculiar attraction. 

A highly concentrated and explosive combination of artistic vision and personal ambition, instinct for power and unwillingness to compromise in all musical and aesthetic questions – that was the fiery mixture that drove Karajan’s life. The Berliner Philharmoniker, which he led for 34 years from 1955 to 1989, benefited for the most part from these ambivalent character traits. Karajan strongly believed that an orchestra that he left his mark on had to be the best ever. So he formed the Philharmonic according to his will, realised with them a sound such as he had always dreamed of: transparent, homogeneous and meticulously balanced among the different instrumental groups. It was a splendid celebration of beautiful sound and perfection. The high standard with which they made music then is still astonishing when you hear live recordings from the early sixties. The fine-tuning of how they play together is breathtaking; no ballast, no sharp edges, no friction placed a strain on the interpretations; they boast fluid tempi and a style characteristically oriented towards the melodic line. Everything breathes one spirit, one thing organically follows the next.

Karajan’s accomplishments in cultural policy should not be underestimated: without him, Hans Scharoun’s visionary Philharmonie would hardly have been built. After Scharoun’s concept had almost fallen victim to local political intrigues, Karajan presented himself to mayor Willy Brandt and cut the Gordian knot. Without Karajan there would never have been the Salzburg Easter Festival and no fame in opera for the Berliner Philharmoniker; at his own entrepreneurial risk, without a penny of subsidies, he founded the festival in his home town in 1967, opening it with the Ring of the Nibelung, the most elaborate and expensive opera project of all. And he created, moreover, a new Wagner ideal of almost chamber music-like transparency that transformed even sceptics into Wagnerians. Without Karajan’s intercession, finally, the Philharmoniker’s salary model, which applies through the present day, would certainly not have come into effect. 

What appeared to some pure wizardry on the part of Karajan, the “magician of sound”, was in reality the result of an intensive rehearsal process. Again and again even familiar works would be refined, every nuance fathomed, the phrasing and articulation between the strings and the wind and brass soloists subtly synchronised, until everyone could completely trust themselves even if the “master”, as Karajan was called, closed his eyes and fell into a trance at the evening concert. Karajan’s ambitions included not only full-scale performances of the standard repertoire, no, he also worked obsessively on works of the Second Viennese School, which he placed on the rehearsal schedule even when they were not on the concert programmes. Even Adorno could not help but praise the Webern interpretations of the Berlin orchestra together with their director in his Introduction to the Sociology of Music, whereby he refrained from mentioning the conductor’s name: to praise the hot shot Karajan, who was prominent even in the yellow press, was apparently not proper for a trailblazer of the avant-garde … 

 “The Conductor”: in just two words, the title of the obituary of Herbert von Karajan published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine on 18 July 1989, two days after he died, said more than a long eulogy would have. Karajan’s name had long since become synonymous with an entire profession; he was considered the highest authority in the musical life of the 20th century, on which he put his stamp like no one else did. No one from the classical music industry produced more recordings and had higher sales, no one recognised and exploited the aspects of consumer electronics, marketing and commercial promotion of culture more clear-sightedly. And who else but Karajan knew how to meet the needs of the post-war society with his aesthetics and his aura? As an elegant man of the world, a charismatic magician with the baton and omnipotent sovereign over legions of musicians, he corresponded perfectly to the contemporary ideal. Theodor W. Adorno once called him the “maestro of the German economic miracle”.