To the wider world he was perhaps most famously associated with the Berlin Philharmonic, of which he was principal conductor for 35 years. Although his work was not universally admired, he is generally considered to have been one of the greatest conductors of all time, and he was a dominant figure in European classical music from the 1960s until his death. Part of the reason for this was the large number of recordings he made and their prominence during his lifetime.
By one estimate he was the top-selling classical music recording artist of all time, having sold an estimated 200 million records.
The Karajans are said to have originally been Aromanian, or Greek, from the region of Macedonia. His great-great-grandfather, Geòrgios Johannes Karajànnis, was born in Kozani, a town in the Ottoman province of Rumelia (present West Macedonia in Greece), leaving for Vienna in 1767, and eventually Chemnitz, Saxony. He and his brother participated in the establishment of Saxony’s cloth industry, and both were ennobled for their services by Frederick Augustus III on 1 June 1792, thus the prefix “von” to the family name. The surname Karajànnis became Karajan. Herbert’s family from the maternal side, through his grandfather who was born in the village of Mojstrana, Duchy of Carniola (today in Slovenia), had Slovene origins according to a modern genealogical research, thus contrasting with or clarifying the traditional view which expressed a Serbian or simply a Slavic origin of his mother.
In 1929, he conducted Salome at the Festspielhaus in Salzburg and from 1929 to 1934 Karajan served as first Kapellmeister at the Stadttheater in Ulm. In 1933 Karajan made his conducting debut at the Salzburg Festival with the Walpurgisnacht Scene in Max Reinhardt’s production of Faust. It was also in 1933 that von Karajan became a member of the Nazi party, a fact for which he would later be criticised.
In Salzburg in 1934, Karajan led the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time, and from 1934 to 1941, he was engaged to conduct operatic and symphony-orchestra concerts at the Theater Aachen.
Karajan’s career was given a significant boost in 1935 when he was appointed Germany’s youngest Generalmusikdirektor and performed as a guest conductor in Bucharest, Brussels, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Paris. In 1937 Karajan made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin State Opera, conducting Fidelio. He then enjoyed a major success at the State Opera with Tristan und Isolde. In 1938, his performance there of the opera was hailed by a Berlin critic as Das Wunder Karajan (the Karajan miracle). The critic asserted that Karajan’s “success with Wagner’s demanding work Tristan und Isolde sets himself alongside Furtwängler and de Sabata, the greatest opera conductors in Germany at the present time”. Receiving a contract with Deutsche Grammophon that same year, Karajan made the first of numerous recordings, conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in the overture to The Magic Flute. On 26 July 1938, he married his first wife, operetta singer Elmy Holgerloef. They would divorce in 1942.
On 22 October 1942, at the height of the war, Karajan married his second wife, Anna Maria “Anita” Sauest, born Gütermann. She was the daughter of a well-known manufacturer of yarn for sewing machines. Having had a Jewish grandfather, she was considered a Vierteljüdin (one-quarter Jewish woman). By 1944, Karajan was, according to his own account, losing favor with the Nazi leadership; but he still conducted concerts in wartime Berlin on 18 February 1945. A short time later, in the closing stages of the war, he fled Germany with Anita for Milan, relocating his family to Italy with the assistance of Victor de Sabata. Karajan and Anita divorced in 1958.
Karajan was discharged by the Austrian denazification examining board on 18 March 1946, and resumed his conducting career shortly thereafter.
In 1946, Karajan gave his first post-war concert in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic, but he was banned from further conducting activities by the Soviet occupation authorities because of his Nazi party membership. That summer he participated anonymously in the Salzburg Festival.
On 28 October 1947, Karajan gave his first public concert following the lifting of the conducting ban. With the Vienna Philharmonic and the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, he performed Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem for a gramophone production in Vienna.
In 1949, Karajan became artistic director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna. He also conducted at La Scala in Milan. His most prominent activity at this time was recording with the newly-formed Philharmonia Orchestra in London, helping to build them into one of the world’s finest. Starting from this year, Karajan began his lifelong attendance at the Lucerne Festival.
In 1951 and 1952 he conducted at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
In 1955 he was appointed music director for life of the Berlin Philharmonic as successor to Wilhelm Furtwängler. From 1957 to 1964 he was artistic director of the Vienna State Opera. Karajan was closely involved with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Salzburg Festival, where he initiated the Easter Festival, which would remain tied to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Music Director after his tenure.
On 22 October 1958 he married his third wife, French model Eliette Mouret; they became parents of two daughters, Isabel and Arabel.
He continued to perform, conduct and record prolifically until his death in Anif in 1989, mainly with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.