10 Dinner Party Facts about “Der Chef” Herbert von Karajan

Firstly, he wasn’t a chef in the culinary sense, but rather “The Boss,” or “Der Chef” in his native German. Whilst his butler was whipping up the masetro’s favourite spaghetti aglio e olio, Karajan was busy being one of the most important and controversial musicians of the twentieth century. A conductor extraordinaire, The Boss lived in spectacular high-definition. But how much do we know about the man behind the camera? Here are 10 things you may or may not know about the maestro…

©  Eliette and Herbert von Karajan Institute

1)   It was trademark Karajan to conduct entire symphonies with his eyes closed. He would regularly get up at 4 am to learn the scores of by heart. Here’s a 2-minute excerpt from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique—10 points if you spot him opening his eyes! (Spoiler: he doesn’t.)

2) For a small man he had very big hands. According to his third wife Eliette Mouret he also had two left feet; “the music was in his mind, not his body.”

3) Eliette and Karajan had two daughters. Karajan loved spending time with Arabel and Isabel, but had little time for his elder brother, the organist Wolfgang von Karajan.  This was more than a simple case of sibling rivalry—Wolfgang took all the childhood plaudits with his organ playing, and it seems that Herbert never really forgave him.

©  Eliette and Herbert von Karajan Institute

4) Karajan was not only an honorary citizen of Salzburg, the city where he was born, but also of Berlin (as of 1973), and of Vienna (1978). When he succeeded Karl Böhm as director of the Vienna Staatsoper in 1957, having conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1938, people started calling him “the Generalmusikdirektor of Europe!” He earned numerous other nicknames along the way to international fame, including “Le bon dieu,” “Wunder Karajan,” and “The Emperor of Legato,” a title for which he makes a strong case in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5:

5) The formidable conductor was a self-confessed introvert. His belief in the transformative power of concentration was bolstered by studying Zen Buddhism and practicing yoga. He would withdraw from the city to his country retreats at every opportunity, seeking peace and quiet in his private life in a way he couldn’t on the public stage.

©  Eliette and Herbert von Karajan Institute

6) Karajan’s fascination with technology by no means stopped with the latest recording techniques. He had a private pilot’s license and was a frequent flier of his own Cessna and Dassault Falcon 10. At Salzburg Airport, the Herbert-von-Karajan-General-Aviation-Terminal is even named after the airborne conductor! Karajan also enjoyed sailing his St Tropez yacht and driving fast cars, sometimes on private race-tracks—he was one of the few celebrities to own a Porsche 959, of which only 300 existed! When he wasn’t practising yoga he was a bit of a daredevil.

7) He loved Westerns. His friends recall how they would watch the same films over and over, and Karajan would say, “When I have a whisky glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other I feel like John Wayne.” He was, however, NOT a fan of Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. to the point that Karajan told his team to cancel the landmark meeting planned between him and the great director.

John Wayne

8) Karajan’s problematic membership of the National Socialist Party is well-documented, but less well-known are the moments where he fell foul of the Nazi regime. In June 1939, Hitler blamed a blemish in the State Opera’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger on Karajan’s conducting without a score. Not only did Karajan ignore orders to use a score in future performances, but he also continued to program music by foreign and Jewish composers. In 1940 Goebbels proclaimed that “the Führer has a very low opinion of Karajan and his conducting.” Perpetually losing favor with the Nazis, Karajan was not clearly destined or willing to become Hitler’s cultural poster boy. At best, Karajan’s was a case of pragmatism, at worst of opportunism, but never of conviction.

9) Unlike Bernstein, his theatrical American contemporary, Karajan would never sweat on stage. In November 1958, Bernstein invited Karajan to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Their two styles could hardly have been more different/ whereas Bernstein’s conducting was passionately uninhibited and political, Karajan’s was disciplined and carefully primed, like the man himself. The maestro was not invincible, however. Evgeny Kissin’s 1988 performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Salzburg brought him to rare tears. Kissin too was deeply moved, recalling how “Karajan’s presence opened some hidden potential in me.”

10) Despite being voted Vienna’s best dressed man in his lifetime, Karajan was buried in a tracksuit. Being constantly in the media spotlight required a perfect coiffure—Karajan made sure he had a personal stylist to help him keep up appearances. But when the end came, it was Karajan’s express wish to be buried in a tracksuit. The life-long aesthete told his butler Francesco Orsomando that the tracksuit: “makes me feel a freer man.”


There’s clearly a lot more to the maestro than meets the eye. If you haven’t been keeping up with our exclusive Karajan series, there’s still time to catch up. With 43 never-before-seen remastered Karajan videos, we can promise you many more unforgettable moments.

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