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Dominic Lawson: The lesson of Karajan: there is no connection between great art and good character
Friday, 1 February 2008

Should we join in the celebrations of the life of an ex-Nazi? One thing is sure, we won't be able to avoid them. As I write these words, shops across the world are preparing to unleash a tidal wave of memorabilia, CDs, and books commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Herbert von Karajan, the most successful 20th-century conductor. As far away as Japan, posters are going up, proclaiming: "Remember! Karajan '08!" What, though, should we be remembering? On Monday, the Berliner Morgenpost criticised the first of many celebratory television documentaries which, it claimed, "wiped off the table" the awkward issue of Karajan's membership of the Nazi Party. The newspaper reminded us that he joined the Salzburg branch of the NSDAP as early as 1933; then, showing a certain determination in the matter, he joined again in Aachen in 1935. After the war, Karajan was restricted in his work by the Allies' "de-Nazification" committees; somewhat paradoxically, he fetched up in London, where he became the principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1948 and rebuilt his career with spectacular effect. Yet there was, in fact, no paradox. Karajan was a supreme opportunist – or careerist, if you prefer. Some have seen his early affiliation to the Nazi Party as an indicator of strong political belief in the doctrines of Adolf Hitler. In fact, Karajan's only faith was in himself and his ambition to become Germany's – and later the world's – dominant interpreter of classical music. There is no evidence that he had any interest in politics, other than the politics of personal achievement in the always brutally competitive world of classical music. In other words, he used the Nazis as much as they used him. Indeed, he once admitted that he "would have sold my grandmother" to get the orchestral appointments that the cultural commissars of the Nazi Party had it in their gift to award him. Norman Lebrecht wrote a characteristically stirring article in the London Evening Standard a couple of days ago, damning the classical music business for launching the celebrations: "It amazes me to see Karajan's demagogic pose in Paris, where he conducted the Horst Wessel Lied during Hitler's occupation. It astonishes me no less to hear the self-made Valery Gergiev and Simon Rattle claim Karajan as a mentor, as if they secretly covet his power." Well, perhaps they do, although no conductor will ever again wield the power that Karajan exercised. Apart from anything else, it is hard to imagine any modern orchestra tolerating the dictatorial behaviour he inflicted wherever and on whomever he conducted. Surely, however, what the likes of Sir Simon Rattle worship is not Karajan's character but his musicianship. Lebrecht describes him as "a moral and creative nullity" but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he believes the first part of that accusation leads inexorably to the second. It doesn't follow. Much as we would like it to be the case, there is no connection between good character and good art – in music as in anything else. Bobby Fischer, who died a fortnight ago, regularly expressed a violent and abusive anti-Semitism which would not have been out of place in Der Stürmer; but Fischer's best chess games have an elegance and creativity which compares with a Mozart symphony. He had, in that sense, a beautiful mind. He was also a hateful person. Unlike Karajan, Fischer really did think "Hitler was right about the Jews". Yet we should still celebrate his artistic achievements at the chessboard. A closer parallel with Karajan is the career of Richard Strauss – whose works he conducted (most commercially, the recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra used by Stanley Kubrick in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey). Josef Goebbels appointed Strauss to the presidency of the Reichsmusikkammer in 1933. In gratitude, Strauss dedicated the song "Das Bachlein" to Goebbels. It ends with the peroration: "He, I believe, will be my leader". The "He" was meant by Strauss to be taken as a reference to Hitler himself (although the song is actually of a poem attributed to Goethe); the words "Mein Führer" are repeated ecstatically. As Michael Kennedy, Strauss's greatest biographer, observes, it is, musically, "a delightful song".

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It is worth pointing out that Kennedy fought in the Second World War. He has no illusions about what the Nazis wrought. Yet it has not coloured his view of the sheer beauty of Strauss's music and, similarly, he does not believe we should shun commemorations of Karajan's artistic achievements, crassly commercial though much of the packaging might be. In the wider sense, I share some of Lebrecht's misgivings about the classical music industry. The cult of the conductor is often tiresome and meretricious. It is the composers themselves whom we should always celebrate – that is where greatest gratitude is owed. No one more than Karajan exemplified the cult of the conductor. He had an astonishing personal vanity, which could be seen in such trivia as the immense fastidiousness of his coiffure. The great showman would conduct with his eyes shut in public performances (thus appearing profoundly spiritual), although in rehearsals he would, like anyone else in the business, actually take the trouble to look at the orchestra. Part of his vanity – and his passion for innovation – was that he was the first conductor regularly to film rehearsals. There is one available on YouTube – a somewhat grainy film from the 1960s of a rehearsal with the Berlin Philharmonic of Schumann's 4th Symphony. In many ways, it is completely phoney. The Maestro begins by saying: "Gentlemen, this is the last rehearsal before the recording we are making for Deutsche Grammophon." At this point, it is clear that the film of the rehearsal is purely designed to plug said recording – Karajan was a brilliant salesman, along with his other skills. Yet once you get over that crude hucksterism, there is a marvellous musical education contained in this film alone, available for future generations. Yes, it glorifies Karajan, as he no doubt intended, but it also glorifies the music itself and explains its magic with an extraordinary clarity. In the months leading up to his death in 1989, Karajan was frantically investigating the possibilities of having himself cryogenically frozen, so that at some later date technology would enable his corpse to be brought back to life. Few men have craved immortality as much as did Herbert von Karajan. Yet the immortality he sought was not that of being thought a good man – which was just as well. It was fame he wanted, combined with an absolute identification with the music that he loved and promoted. An unloveable (and more than slightly camp) old rogue he might have been – but this form of immortality is his due; and, by God, is he getting it now. d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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