How Herbert von Karajan lost his London job

I’ve heard a version of this story from Neville Marriner, who was a close friend of the rebellious Peter Gibbs. But this account comes from a very young player whose career was almost cut off by the bust-up. Read on here.

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  • Anonymus says:

    “During the tour von Karajan had behaved quite unprofessionally at most of the smaller, less important concerts. He seemed to think it beneath his dignity to take more than one bow at the end and the orchestra was left sitting, embarrassed, while the applause grew and grew until Manoug Parikian, the leader, eventually led us off the stage…”

    This stories begs for more background information why Karajan behaved that way, assuming it is a true witness account. It is not common behavior for Karajan during his career. Something might be missing to understand this story. Was he taking “revenge” for some bad press he had received in America before or during his tour, that might have focused on his involvement with the Nazi regime? Was it revenge for the humiliating behavior of the American promoters at his first tour with the Berlin Phil in the 1950s, where he was presented like a puppet and had to repeat sentences into the microphone that were premeditated by his handlers in front of the press?

    • Anonymus says:

      The Karajan tour with the Berlin Phil was March-April 1955. The tour with the LSO was only a few months later October-November in the same year. So I wonder, if his strange behavior on this second tour could be explained with his reaction to some fallout from his first tour. Anybody can shed light?

  • Philip says:

    Karajan’s last concert with the Philharmonia was, in fact, on April 1 1960 and was nothing to do with this incident which seems to have taken place on the 1955 USA tour. The headline attached to this story is therefore inaccurate.

    The Gibbs episode is related on pages 396-397 of Richard Osborne’s biography of Karajan.

  • mr oakmount says:

    HvK could be very nice to other people, musicians and non-musicians alike, but only as long as his god-like status was not being questioned. If it was, he could be ridiculously vindictive in a mean and nasty way. It’s what we Austrians call “kleinlich” and it does not become the great.

    • Polly says:

      Well said, Mr. Oakmount. Thank you for your insight and excellent summation (you write very well, by the way). You’re quite right. Herr Von Karajan should have taken a course in manners from Sir Thomas Beecham!

  • Philip says:

    The notion that Karajan ‘lost his job’ because of this episode is ludicrous, especially as HvK had the power of Walter Legge behind him, The truth is that Karajan’s work with the orchestra was gradually diminishing as the lure of Berlin and Vienna took hold.

    Really, the Gibbs story is well known with the facts readily checkable so repeating it here with a false headline just looks like an easy way to have a cheap shot at one of the great conductors.

    Why am I not surprised?

    • Anonymus says:

      Not surprising indeed. This blog is notorious for not sparing us even the faintest opportunity to shoot low at Germanic influenced culture and its proponents.

      • Susan Trexel says:

        Besides his “Germanic” connection, von Karajan was the very model of a superstar maestro, a breed the editor of this blog hates passionately. I can only assume the epithet “puppy-murdering” was left off the headline to this piece due to reasons of length.

  • Herrera says:

    Thank god for unions. Szell would have personally fired the player. Toscannini would have cursed the player out in good Italian vernacular. Bohme would have kept the player on just so he could psychologically torture him for the rest of his career (“No, you are early, again, can’t you count?”)

    • Anon says:

      Because the union did exactly what, in this case? It is hardly becoming of a player to seek to interrupt a rehearsal with a grievance made public with the purpose of getting a response from the conductor. If the orchestra had something they wished to remonstrate about, they union rep. should have taken it to management directly.
      This all reads as a violinist who was desperate to have a pop at HvK taking his chance to do so publicly after a few conversations with fellow players; unprofessional behaviour. (You may well argue HvK’s provocation was unprofessional too, but two wrongs etc.)

  • Robert Kenchington says:

    This incident was first documented on the BBC Radio 3 programme, ‘The Price of Perfection’ which was originally broadcast in 1987.

    The tensions between Karajan and the Philharmonia arose during their 1956 tour of the USA. It was during a concert in Portland, Maine that Karajan appeared to conduct too quickly to get the evening over with – a feeling of haste compounded by the fact that he left the podium after one bow and didn’t return. Apparently, the orchestra had noticed this behavioral pattern when they were playing in locales like Portland where Karajan assumed that – unlike New York or Chicago – no eminent critics would be there and so there was little point in making much of an effort either musically or socially.

    After the Maine concert an audience member berated Gibbs saying, ‘So this is how British musicians behave!’ To which Gibbs replied: ‘We are British, Madam, our conductor is not’.

    Gibbs – an ex-fighter pilot who hated Karajan for obvious reasons – used these episodes as an excuse to defy him. The next day, during a rehearsal in Boston, just as Karajan raised his baton to begin Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony – Gibbs said :’Herr von Karajan! Now is your opportunity to apologize for your disgusting behaviour throughout this tour’. Upon which Karajan froze like a statue, baton remaining aloft. Not a quiver.

    Walter Legge shouted from the stalls: “Mr Gibbs, leave the hall at once!”

    Gibbs replied: “I will leave in just a moment but not until Herr von Karajan apologizes for his disgusting behaviour throughout this tour!” Whereupon Karajan left the stage and the orchestra disbanded.

    It was during the night of the Boston concert that Karajan kept the audience waiting until he finally appeared and apparently conducted an outstanding performance. It was indeed after the tour that Karajan’s solicitors sent the letter demanding the apology – which he didn’t recieve. However, despite that, a few weeks later Karajan appeared back in London for a recording session in the Kingsway Hall and was charm personified – the Maine incident was never mentioned.

    It was by no means the end of Karajan’s reign with the Philharmonia as he continued to work with the orchestra until 1960, having already been with the Berlin Philharmonic for five years (along with the Vienna State Opera). Indeed, many years later, during the height of the Sabine Mayer affair, Karajan seriously considered returning to the Philharmonia as a kind of conductor emeritus. If Karajan was so hostile to the orchestra, I don’t think he would ever have contemplated such a return…

    • Herrera says:

      Oh, it was Portland, Maine. That explains everything. One can’t conduct fast enough to get out of Portland, not even the early music specialists. Maybe that explains Beethoven’s metronome markings…just for performances in places like Portland.

      I am just kidding, I love Portland, Maine.

  • Raymond Clarke says:

    Despite my admiration for Karajan’s work in London, I was amused by the mention in Richard Osborne’s biography (p. 308) of a Philharmonia rehearsal which was so tedious that the principal cellist, Raymond Clark (no relation) stood up, saying “that’s it, I’ve had enough”, and left. Is there anyone here who can point me in the direction of any information about Mr Clark, with whom I was confused several times early in my career? He is the cellist on the finest recording I know of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 (Giulini/Arrau) but apart from that I know nothing about him (please drop me a line on Facebook).

    • Hi Raymond.
      Raymond Clark joined the newly formed Philharmonia Orchestra as principal cellist in 1946 (sharing the desk for the first few years),he stayed in this position until the late 1960s. Before he joined the Philharmonia he was in the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He was highly regarded by his section as well as by the cello fraternity in the UK.
      There are quite a few references to him in Alexander Kok’s book ” A Voice in The Dark” which is available online.
      Best wishes,
      Mike Hurwitz

  • Susan Trexel says:

    Surely a general rehearsal, with the maestro poised to give a downbeat no less, is no time to air grievances. Were the Philharmonia touring with no management at all present? Was their no committee of the orchestra vested with the responsibility of addressing member grievances? Was Mr. Gibbs incapable of drafting a letter?

    An orchestra member who attempts to provoke a conductor into a shouting match at a general rehearsal deserves to be sacked on the spot.

    • Polly says:

      This took place at a rehearsal.

      Orchestras are made up of people, not serfs.

      Von Karajan made an audience – please note, an audience wait. He left the public disappointed and confused, and the orchestra in a very embarrassing situation, by refusing to take more than one bow. I think it bears repeating that these things happened in public.

      Martin has already made the excellent point that musicians at the time were often on a very sticky wicket when it came to airing grievances. ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.’ It makes a difference.

      Even the greatest conductor on the planet is merely waving a stick in thin air if he has no orchestra. And the members of those orchestras happen to be people. As such they have views, personalities, rights, and other features not belonging to the automaton.

      It isn’t disputing someone’s talent to simply and objectively say that sometimes their behaviour might be unprofessional. Von Karajan was as human and fallible as Gibb. The hagiography and the hatchet are equally silly.

      Personally I admire Gibb for speaking up. For a musician to do something similar today would be quite different.

  • Philip says:

    A search on the web (type in Peter Gibbs Philharmonia) seems to bring up as many different versions of this story as those telling it, though in all essentials they are the same.

    More on Peter Gibbs here:http://www.byersmusic.com/resources/Peter%20Gibbs%20info.pdf

  • Martin says:

    The headline on this posting is completely inaccurate. Karajan had already accepted the Berlin job by the time of this American tour, and as Richard Osborne points out in his biography (which contains a thorough account of events in Portland), it was inevitable that he should reduce the number of his engagements with the Philharmonia. It is equally incorrect, as an earlier commenter points out, to suggest that this was the last time he conducted the orchestra: he both recorded and performed with the Philharmonia for a few years after this incident.

    Incidentally I have had detailed conversations with one of those present at this Portland rehearsal, and on the basis of what I’ve been told, Osborne’s account is accurate and fair in its assessment of those aspects of the story which will always be open to doubt.

    Susan Trexel asks why the player felt the need to raise this in an open rehearsal. Do not judge yesterday’s players by the standards of today. The Philharmonia was no democracy and the rank and file had no part in governance; while contemporary players have many ways of airing a grievance and being listened to, in the 50s this was not the case. Most of the orchestra – including many of the principals – admired Gibbs for his courage in confronting Karajan in this way. I don’t think it’s in dispute that he had behaved very badly towards them and, more seriously, the American audiences. And it was only by airing this in public that GIbbs, and others, felt they could shame him into an apology or – at the very least – making the depth of their displeasure known.

    • Polly says:

      Hear, hear, Martin. You are quite right in your observation about judging people who worked under dramatically different circumstances.

      From everything I’ve ever heard or read about this incident, someone needed to speak up. Gibbs had every right and, as you so succinctly point out, at the time this was probably the only way it could be done. And it was a rehearsal, after all, not a public performance.

      Thank you for being a voice of reason.

  • Robert says:

    Peter Gibbs had form. He was notoriously outspoken in rehearsals (or just plain rude) especially when it came to conductors. He later became leader of the BBC Scottish Orchestra when Norman Del Mar took over as Principal Conductor in the early 60s. They seem to have had a stormy though mostly fruitful relationship. On one occasion, the orchestra was rehearsing Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival in the presence of the composer. Gibbs told Del Mar he was conducting the first movement too slowly but Del Mar didn’t agree and asked the composer for his opinion. Shostakovich said the tempo was OK but he’d like the other movements faster. Gibbs piped up: “that only goes to show he’s as unmusical as you are”. He used to fly light aircarft and crashed in the Hebrides. His plane was found in the sea and his body was discovered on land some distance away.

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