HERBERT VON KARAJAN by Richard Osborne


A Life in Music
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A superb biography of a great conductor who was dogged by controversy throughout his career.

Born in Salzburg in 1908, Karajan's career began to flourish in 1935. When offered his first important position, Karajan was asked to join the Nazi Party, and he did so—an action that would later cause him considerable grief. Osborne, a music journalist for the BBC, comes to the conclusion that, at worst, Karajan was guilty of ambition and opportunism but little else. Tackling the issue head-on, Osborne provides convincing evidence that Karajan, still quite young at the time of Hitler's rise, was no favorite of the Nazi elite and did little official work for the party. After marrying Anita Güttermann, who was one-quarter Jewish, he got less and less work as time went on and was, by war's end, essentially unemployed. Osborne quotes violinist Nathan Milstein, who noted that Russian colleagues David Oistrach and Leonid Kogin both joined the Communist Party but were never held accountable for Stalin's crimes. He then writes, `Political and ethical relativism is one of the reasons why Soviet artists who were party members were never pursued in the Western media the way German artists were. Way back to the time when pioneering British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb excused the mass murder of the kulaks . . . there has been a long history of toleration—even on occasion justification—of ‘Uncle Joe' Stalin's acts of genocide that would be unthinkable in the case of Hitler's.` Statements like that are bound to generate controversy, but Osborne provides a compelling case for Karajan's innocence, and he backs it with copious documentation. Controversy aside, Osborne is a wonderful biographer and offers a hugely entertaining trove of information and anecdotes about Karajan, his many colleagues, and the classical music world during most of the 20th century. Osborne also possesses that rare gift among writers on music: the ability to write about it in language that both musicians and non-musicians can understand and enjoy.

Perhaps overlong, this gem of a biography should be the standard reference on an indisputable musical genius.

Pub Date: May 15th, 2000
ISBN: 1-55553-425-2
Page count: 851pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2000


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