Herbert von Karajan: Tutored by Goebbels, he pursued power, technology and wealth
There is one 2011 anniversary that I have kept strictly to myself. It is 20 years since the appearance of my book The Maestro Myth, which transformed the public image of the orchestral conductor from mystical leader to power player. It sold a quarter of a million copies, more than any classical music book of recent times, and it pointed to a future — perhaps now — when maestro rule would ultimately be broken.
My commission, and this shows how far back it goes, was to write about "Great Conductors". In the late 1980s such dinosaurs still roamed the earth. The best-known of the species were Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti, heirs to a grand tradition that stretched back to the dawn of musical creation. The trail of evidence, however, led me to a different assessment of their guild.
Karajan, tutored by Joseph Goebbels, pursued power, technology and wealth. He dominated the music world to an extent that anyone who crossed him — Nikolaus Harnoncourt, for instance — was barred from the summits of Salzburg and Berlin. Bernstein and Solti, less megalomaniac, were nonetheless treated as living gods. The Maestro Myth examined the ways they played politics, career and markets in tandem with their inarguable achievements at producing an indelible musical experience.
Greeted with establishment revulsion — "this may be the most disgusting book I have ever read" began a TLS review by a Nietzschean philosopher from Cambridge — its uptake by musicians was instant and universal. Samizdat copies circulated in Russia years ahead of the official translation. Students read it on their first day at conservatory. Vladimir Jurowski, now music director at the London Philharmonic, told me it made him want to give up the baton — until he decided next morning that he could run his life on different lines.