Monday, 14 April 2008

"Das Wunder" at a hundred

As the centenary of conductor Herbert von Karajan hove into view, so there was another certainly - that Norman Lebrecht would excoriate "Das Wunder".

Reminding the world that Karajan was a deeply unpleasant, greedy, vain, musically conservative Nazi, who has destroyed classical music is at least a part-time occupation for Norman Lebrecht, as he struggles to push against the pendulum of adulation.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for critical engagement with reputations, and where necessary violent re-evaluations, but it has to be done with a larger aim in mind.

Lebrecht’s argument is that Karajan being an awful person and a Nazi, led inevitably to musical inferiority: that and his vanity led to him being over-rated: that and his greed damaged classical music for everyone else. This can be shown quite simply as:


QM is the Musical Quality
PA is Personal Awfulness
N is Naziness
V is Vanity
R is Rating of musical performance in the public’s mind
G is Greed
K is Karajan

Note that a common howler is to see the outcome of the equation as QM

Actually, a lot of what Lebrecht says is fair enough.

Karajan’s recordings of baroque music are, depending on your taste, repellent or hilariously misconceived: the gloopy Adagio, commonly ascribed to Albinoni but at least half-written by Giazotto brings forth a queasiness unmatched by any other piece of music I can imagine.

The explorations of what was once called ‘authentic performance’ before its aspirations were reined in as ‘historically-informed’, left no impact on his chromium shell. His Mozart and Haydn can seem laughably bloated, but his Beethoven, Brahms and other bits of the core German repertoire (for Lebrecht, Karajan’s concentration on this is itself a dubious choice) still worked (at least in his early days).

It’s true also that Karajan was no storm-trooper for the avant-garde – he didn’t care to help anyone ‘throw a lance into the future’. A few pieces by Carl Orff hardly count – especially as he fights his own posthumous rear-guard action against accusations of Nazidom. Though why a Nazi would want to conduct the degenerate works of Schönberg, Berg and Webern, the unacceptably nationalist Bartók, the shamefully Slavic Stravinsky, and Hindemith’s clearly anti-Nazi Mathis der Maler Symphony isn’t immediately clear.

Would Schönberg have approved of the dubious sonic experiment of reseating the orchestra through each of the Variations? Who cares?; he was dead. Stravinsky, one of the few living composers Karajan essayed, memorably and tartly remarked that his Rite of Spring was in a ‘tempo di hoochie-koochie’.

But attacking Karajan raises the same problem as attacking Wagner and Eliot for their anti-Semitism. We begin to focus on that individual as a lightning-rod of hatefulness, forgetting that there were others whose views were just as nightmarish, and so, those people get off.

The truth is that anyone who wanted to continue their careers when the Nazis rose to power had to choose from three options;

1) Enthusiastically embrace the philosophy
2) Decide to what degree they were willing to see their careers suffer rather than help the Nazis
3) Leave

Once we start to look at anyone who stuck around, we find the inevitable and necessary compromises that come with living in a dictatorship. Once the dictatorship is gone, it’s a different matter, but the genial uncle still has a dark past.

Lebrecht’s Cassandra act has been going on for over a decade: one of his most successful publications was The Maestro Myth: a sustained attack on… well, it does what it says on the tin. Stupidity, pettiness, arrogance, vanity, unfaithfulness, greed, cruelty, deviousness, blackmail, profiteering, racism, sexual perversion and above all tyranny and egomania, this catalogue of conductors’ unseemly behaviour spared few (except those who, living, might sue).

But for some reason Karajan has become Lebrecht’s lightning-rod. It’s just a shame that while focusing on the éminence-not-so-grise, and his Fafnerish wealth, he was unaware of the fact that conductor Robert King was abusing his choristers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lebrecht is a fool and, I'm delighted to say, got his comeuppance in 2007. He was sued for libel. You can read all about his humiliation by typing into your search engine the words "Norman Lebrecht + libel". The New York Times carried a splendid article exposing his working methods. Lebrecht was eviscerated. The NYT described him as 'factually challenged' - and a lot more!

My advice to anyone interested in von Karajan is to read Richard Osborne's biography. There they can find out what the maestro was really like. Also listen to his recordings. You can find some of them for free on the internet.

Von Karajan lives up to his legend. The more Lebrecht raves the more stupid he looks because you can easily find evidence to refute what he says. All his poisonous remarks have done is excite interest in the great conductor. His fulminations have been counter-productive exposing his own inadequacies as a critic. Meanwhile, the von Karajan legend grows and grows. Lebrecht is no more than dust beneath the conductor's chariot wheels.