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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Sunday December 07 2008

Ever since I played that DVD of Herbert von Karajan conducting Tchaikovsky symphonies last week, I have been unable to get the picture of that man’s conducting out of my head.  It was just so very unlike anyone else’s conducting, and thus bizarrely memorable.  Later, for instance, I recorded Valery Gergiev conducting Mahler 6 with LSO, one of his many orchestras scattered around the world.  Gergiev looks like a pretty scary person, one of those Russians who looks like a tramp but who totally outranks you, and I imagine his current position in the world of music owes something to that scariness, as well as to his musical abilities.  He knows how to get people in general to do what he wants, not just orchestral musicians.  But Gergiev was far more like every other conductor you see conducting.  Karajan was something entirely different.

Watching how that Gergiev performance was filmed, and watching that Karajan DVD some more, I was struck by how often Karajan’s director went out of his way to present the orchestra not as a collection of individuals, but as like a single instrument, in other words to direct just as Karajan himself conducts.  When the brass section had a big chord, you wouldn’t see a group of brass musicians, so much as a collection of brass instruments, the personalities of the mere people playing the instruments being utterly submerged into the collective whole.

As for Karajan’s demeanour, well, I can see how people found it - shall we say? - off-putting.  Karajan conducted his orchestra, as I said in that earlier posting, as if it were a single instrument, and there was something else too.  His whole demeanour was that of a man who was absolutely entitled to be making these people do exactly what he was making them do.  There was no ingratiation, no softening of the blow of autocracy, no ego massage for all these failed soloists, no eye contact, no suggestion that they were together sharing the music.  No, they were making it, by subordinating themselves utterly to the collective outcome, which was determined not by them in any way at all, other than in the sense that they played their instruments well and that the collective instrument was accordingly well tuned and functioning properly.  But Karajan was playing them.  Add to this air of individually dominated collectivism the fact that when a particular loud chord came along, Karajan would turn his non-baton-holding hand into a fist, and the parallel with Nazism is hard to resist.  I’m sure Hitler, when listening to a Karajan performance, would imitate such gestures himself.

I actually think Karajan brings something to this music that the music definitely responds to.  This is what orchestral music is like.  Orchestral music is not merely chamber music but a bit bigger.  It is different in kind from chamber music.  But, if I were, say, a Jew who had lost family during the Holocaust, or a Russian who had lost family during the horrific German attacks of 1941 and 42, I might find Karajan’s conducting, and the general atmosphere it might evoke, rather hard to stomach.  On the other hand, a German who still nursed secret Nazi tendencies and a who had a seriously nasty Nazi past might enjoy it an order of magnitude more than I do, just because of how it all feels.

I am not calling Karajan a Nazi, any more than I would call a crowd of English football supporters Nazis, merely because the behaviour of such people often has a rather Nazi-Party-rally flavour to it.  Nazism was certain evil things that were done, and believed in being done, not a mere theatrical atmosphere.  Nazism appealed to the human tendency towards tribalism and the human love of collective expressiveness, but it was what it did with that appeal that made it so evil.  Karajan was first and last a musician.  He had no truck, for instance, with the fatuous notion that, say, Mahler or Mendelssohn were in any way second-rate on account of being Jews.

But there’s no escaping that Karajan atmosphere.  I have always believed that the reason so many people have gone grubbing into Karajan’s inevitably somewhat Nazi past was not so much because of what they believed his past to have been, but because of what they felt about his present.  The proof of which is that several other conductors - such as, I believe, Karl Bohm - who were at least as politically sympathetic to Nazism as Karajan was, were left relatively unscathed by such speculations.  The point about Bohm was that although at least as Nazi as Karajan, he didn’t look like a Nazi or conduct like a Nazi.  He looked and behaved like an old-school bank manager.

It didn’t help that Karajan had very unconductorish hobbies like skiing and piloting airplanes, which made him seem like some sort of Bond villain.

Today I watched Karajan conduct Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the Pathetique.  It was that scary third movement, the allegro molto vivace, that particularly had me thinking these Nazi related thoughts.  (After that, I had no attention left to give to the final slow movement.) I now also possess a DVD of Karajan conducting Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.  I wonder what that will look and feel like.  Karajan DVDs - and this is a lot to do with the considerations outlined above – are now very unfashionable, which means I can get them really cheap in the second hand shops.

On the same trip, I also got this DVD, even more cheaply.