Herbert von Karajan’s issues with facial hair

In a response to a Slipped Disc post, the television director Rodney Greenberg recalls the maestro’s obsession with personal appearance before the cameras rolled.

Karajan eyes shut

What I remember about the Karajan event (Beethoven 9th live from the Philharmonie, New Year’s Day 1978) is how the schedule had him standing on the podium an hour before transmission while the lighting supervisor angled his lamps to best effect to achieve the most precise and flattering lighting on Karajan’s face. I don’t know of any other maestro personally ordering this ritual, certainly not Bernstein, but in Berlin they were used to it. It ties in with your comments about his highly-contrived films for Unitel – made under his total control, to the extent of fixing cardboard audience cut-outs in the balcony at the Philharmonie to disguise the empty seats on camera, if it wasn’t a public concert. A lot has been said about the look of the all-male extravaganzas he later filmed with fearsome precision in his own studio, with their back-lit phalanxes of players (including the word “fascistic”).

Your words “individual sections set up in a single line” are spot-on. It was a device pioneered by K for Unitel, whereby small units of the orchestra (the flutes and oboes, or a row of horns, or four violins) were brought back days after the concert specially for artfully-lit close-ups, miming to a playback of the relevant music. These segments were then spliced in. Unitel were proud of this technique and carried it forward into the Bernstein films. A music student would be brought in to beat time out-of-shot. He went home and told everybody he’d conducted the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverien.

The best story about these close-up sessions is when HvK decided to enforce a ban on facial hair (bald players were given wigs before the cameras rolled). His much-admired principal flute, James Galway, would have to shave his neat beard off. Jimmy tells how he stunned the maestro by resigning. “That’s it then Herbie, I’m off.” The irony being that the close-ups were so tight you only saw the instruments and the fingers. Players might just as well have been wearing Christmas hats and Santa Claus beards.


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  • When I watch these films I usually close my eyes and listen to the magnificent performances by Karajan, the BPO and the VPO. Some of them are better than the purely audio recordings made before or after them.

  • I find it extraordinary that he did not do what is consistently done in the world of commercial films – have a stand-in double for all the lighting rehearsals. He could then have sat in the hall or the control room checking and fine-tuning the results, thereby saving a lot of time.

  • The whole enterprise of making such films is utterly ridiculous….. and these HvK films now look crazy and completely outdated. They represent exactly what is wrong about classical music performances: the fakeness and the egotheatre, and fortunately such attitude is increasingly left behind.

        • Thank you John.
          What an absolute joy to see, and listen, to this music making!
          Interesting to note that the director of this film, Horant Hohlfeld, worked with all three: Carlos Kleiber, HvK, and Leonard Bernstein!

          • Good to see you’ve brought Horant Hohlfeld into our circle. I learned a lot from him on the HvK Beethoven 9th at the Philharmonie (video cameras, not film) and Bernstein’s Beethoven Symphonies filmed at the Musikverein. These and HvK’s films were shot on six cumbersome 35mm film cameras resembling 1940s Hollywood. Each film reel ran out after 10 minutes, so planning the shoot was a nightmare to keep things going. The reels had a hilarious habit of suddenly snapping and pouring film all over the floor like spaghetti, referred to by the cameramen as “making salad.”

            Horant used to say the silver nitrate negatives were stored with HvK’s somewhere in a Bavarian vault, and that any uninvented future technology could go back to them. This was visionary. There was no such thing as “digital” video in the 1960s and 70s and it’s the reason why, on the pristine DVDs we buy today, these concerts look as they could have been filmed last week.

            He used to say the “close-ups filmed to playback” idea essentially raised the visual impact of Unitel’s productions above all others. Of course not everybody goes along with this, as seen on this thread. He lamented the fact he couldn’t get Kleiber to do more concerts, let alone more filming. He was also on to Harnoncourt when he was just making an international name. He had a lot of faith in him. He was delighted to see Nikolaus and the VPO baffling a Musikverein audience with a Schubert 4th Symphony full of unconventional ideas:


            We later made a Unitel film at the Concertgebouw with Nicholas Kremer playing Mozart concertos.

            A few belated replies: To Petros Linatross – Michael Schaffer has effectively answered your query regarding the release of Celibidache’s videos compared with his audio recordings, so saving me the trouble – thanks. To Peter – cellos on the right gave him a big mass of violin sound on the left. Maybe he didn’t regard Bruckner as being in the “classical orchestra” mould where (in Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert etc) phrases are tossed antiphonally between 1sts and 2nds (thrillingly towards the end of Beethoven 7th). To Michael Shaffer on “how much the city paid” Celi – that’s cute, cash in little suitcases … that’s new to me. But I do remember the huge black Mercedes the company had freely bestowed on him. He rolled up to the Gasteig hall with his chauffeur in some style.

          • I doubt it was a Mercedes. Pretty sure it was a BMW 7L, we are talking about Bavaria. 😉

  • Very telling that it was Galway, the ultimate classical music showman, who balked at Karajan’s “aesthetics”. A clash of two veritable self-marketing egos.

    And it’s hard to say, looking back now at their output of the 80s, who was cheesier. Each was cheesy in his own way. Galway was Miami Vice, Karajan was Dynasty.

    • Both very famous and influential musicians, and both very accomplished notwithstanding the barrage of criticism heaped on them. Karajan was rivaled only by Bernstein in his ability to propel the record industry of his era. Galway popularized the flute and did much to dispel the stuffiness in classical music so many people today complain about. I am no 100% fan of either man, but I recognize what they did for the music industry in their day.

      Reasons for the decline that has overtaken the field since their heyday are many and complex, as Norman has talked about in his books. I have a couple of those Karajan videos, and like another commenter, I just don’t watch when the production gets too precious. But the performance values are always there, at least with the DVDs that I own.

      • I assume something akin to employers setting stricter grooming standards for their employees to follow, with the intention of presenting a “sharp and professional” image.

    • I would have loved to be a witness too the fictional scene, where Karajan after a TV recording of a Brahms Symphony forbids the composer to enter the podium, unless he shaves his beard.
      Or another TV recording of Bruckner 8, after which Karajan edits out the composer taking his bow on stage, because he refused to wear a wig…
      Stresemann, quoting Bruno Walter, was quite right about HvK: “a strange man.”

    • Mahler too, was known for his exactitude; but in 19th century Vienna, in which most gentlemen wore facial hair (in that era as fashionable as pince-nez eyewear, or the monocle), Mahler sported a shaven face. He remarked that his absence of facial hair was to ensure there was no miscommunication with respect to his wordlessly conveyed performance standards.

        • Yes, Peter! A rather bushy and full one, too. Must have caused a communication gap … as it was gone in a flash, never to return again, except a little facial hair during the summer months when Herr Mahler was not conducting.

  • and in the rehearsal footage of those Beethoven 9 performances, he admonishes the players to keep their jackets buttoned for the performance, because otherwise their “bellies will poke out” on camera. Really!

  • See 29:04 to approx. 30:15 of the video “Being James Galway” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6rh4I_fSEw ] for Galway’s version of why he left.

    • Not very credible, unfortunately. Galway wasn’t the first nor the the last member of the BPhO who pursued other interests (soloing, teaching) outside his “day job” with the orchestra. For which having a position as principal there is actually a very good basis as they have two equal principals for each instrument. Which means that in many cases, the principals only play every other week anyway (unless there are pieces on the program which require 4 or more of each of the winds).
      So the idea that he had to quit because he couldn’t get a week off (or even “a day off”, as the commentator says immediately afterwards) is not very credible.
      But I guess the whole “I stood up to Karajan but I was so awesome that he even asked them to beg me to come back” thing is part of his personal mythology.

      • Fair point, and I find it a little far-fetched that Karajan would have had a strong preference for Galway vs. Andreas Blau playing in the accompaniment for a concerto. Though I’ve heard a few anecdotes from longtime/former members who indicate they were much more deferential to Karajan’s whims back in the day than they are today, when the two principals presumably divide the season well in advance, and that’s it.

        • No, they weren’t. It worked in essentially the same way back then. The quarrels between Karajan and the orchestra that erupted in the early 80s tell you a lot about how not so very “deferential” many in the orchestra were even back then when it came to their self governing as far as personnel affairs were concerned. There had been frictions about that long before, it only came to the “clash” at that point, for various reasons.

          Also, Karajan often doubled the winds in repertoire calling for just 2 each of the woodwinds, so when he was in town, often both principals were on duty. Plus, his many recording and filming activities were not part of the regular services of the BPhO members, they were private undertakings for which the members were paid extra, and very handsomely. I bet Galway didn’t mind that. During that period, the orchestra was probably the best paid in the world, due to the prolific recording and filming and also because Karajan had used his influence to get them several significant pay rises from the city of Berlin so their base pay was higher than that of any other German orchestra (and probably in the world, too). I bet Galway didn’t mind that either.

          Whether or not there is a solo concerto on the program does not matter, one of the principals of each section has to be there – or should, because they did and still do occasionally invite guest principals when their basic services are exceeded. The Schönberg violin concerto that Galway mentions is a very demanding piece anyway but again, that doesn’t matter, and as you mentioned, the idea that he would have been indispensable over Blau is not credible either.

          However, Karajan never performed that violin concerto. The piece on the program was actually the Schönberg orchestral variations – I found the reviews which mention that Karajan was booed by some in the audience because he had replaced it with the Mozart A major piano concerto. But – the main piece on the program was Schönberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, and that did still get played. It calls for 4-5 of each of the woodwinds, so Galway would have been on duty anyway.
          And that was during the Berliner Festwochen in September of 1974 during which the orchestra was very busy, playing big programs before and after this one, with Berg, Webern, Mahler and Karajan conducting the Missa Solemnis just a few days later (for which the winds would have been doubled, of course).
          Plus – Galway only left the orchestra a year later, at the very end of the season.

          So the story is BS. A little sad actually that he needed to cultivate that kind of personal mythology. But as we can see here, many people buy that kind of story…

          • A fascinating thread, and the truth is in there somewhere. Galway left the BPO and pursued a solo career as the “man with golden flute”. I attended his Wigmore masterclasses in 1979 – a whole week of brilliant performances and Irish jokes. He was always just better than the rest, never heard a dropped note in those days, and I was listening intently. He practised and practised. Then came the motorbike that nearly ended the flute legend. My knowledge of the Irish these days includes there prolific drinking and no doubt there was a lot of drink consumed in the Galway hangers on camp. Fortunately, we have amazing recordings from HvK and JG, et al. This really was a golden age, and Video allowed a different dimension. Wigs? Sean Connery wore a wig as JB, so don’t be surprised that BPO, HvK wanted cosmetic enhancement in this film media.

  • What is being discussed here ? An artistic aesthetics which prevailed 45 years ago ??? No reason to lose words on this. By the way, Rodney Greenberg NEVER worked with Karajan. Can anyone prove the opposite ?

    • Yes I did. I was joint television director with Humphrey Burton at the Berlin Philharmonie on New Year’s Day 1978, a live transmission. I’ve already said that on the thread about concert halls linked to this. We brought a videotape copy back to London which was shown on BBCTV.

      Karajan had technical meetings with us and got into a temper when a video recording of a rehearsal of the Beethoven 9th which Unitel made on the old Philips N1500 video recorder kept squeezing the volume down as the music got louder. I was surprised he didn’t seem to know that, being a domestic machine, it had a limiter/compressor inside which sat down on the audio signal, to prevent distortion on the recording. (Classic FM have been doing this since day one to boost the quiet parts and make listening easier in taxis, kitchens etc. There are DAB radios where you can turn this off. Normally Ravel’s Bolero is a strange experience; it doesn’t effectively build to a shattering climax because the limiter spends the whole piece squashing the dynamic. This does not bother its millions of listeners and lots of radio stations use compression).

      One evening Karajan took us both to his favourite restaurant. He was relaxed and full of good stories. He became fatalistic in a humorous way and wanted us to know that when the time came for him to die he’d like to be flying his plane, hit a dense fog, and crash straight into an Alpine mountain.

      Can YOU prove the opposite? Why do you come on here and tell everybody you know better? Do you think I’ve nothing better to do than fake my own career?

      • Thank you for your comments.
        I am watching right now (for the first time) the 1978 concert on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, and I can report that the clarinetist is indeed not shaven in his solo of La Forza del Destino (at about 4’30). Having said that, it seems one possible esthetic choice to have the “little army” of musicians looking roughly the same, head to tow, so as to enable us viewers to concentrate on the music (and the conductor… of course! 🙂 )

      • Mr. Greenberg,
        it is a pleasure to read your first hand memories, please do not get discouraged by some critical comments.
        Regarding the Celibidache concert in Berlin, do you recall if Celi ever saw the final edit of the video? Did he actually care for this?
        We have this filmed Egmont overture, filmed in the ruins of the old Berlin Philharmonie, where a young dashing Celibidache is all the actor and vane genius conductor impersonator himself, just like Karajan 20 years later. But much later in life Celi claimed he was “above” such trivialities. I wonder if that was actually true…

        • Thanks … I’m not discouraged, just disappointed that someone enters a civilised SD discussion and complains that to talk about “artistic aesthetics” of 45 years ago is a waste of time. Then for some reason accuses me of inventing my memories and asks readers to back him up.

          Yes, I was told by Sony that Celi had watched the Bruckner 7th and was pleased how it looked and sounded. He actually had the right of preventing it from being issued otherwise (not for the first time in his sparse recording career).

          Looks as though the Galway resignation has more than one origination. In the well-made documentary quoted above by Bruce (“Being James Galway”) the final straw is indeed a thoughtless change by HvK in the repertoire schedule which wasted Jimmy’s time. In a concert interval on TV from the Brighton Festival I remember he said the beard was the problem and he wouldn’t be told to get rid of it. There is something on this in a Facebook item about the release of his “Ich war ein Berliner” CD in Sept. 2014:

          “Earlier this week flautist Sir James Galway was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Gramophone Awards in London. Galway was Karajan’s Principal Flute in the Berlin Philharmonic between 1969 and 1975 and despite having some spectacular run-ins with ‘Herbie’ (as he liked to call him) Galway had a wonderful time. ‘Beards and the Irishman’s dress-sense apart, there was a bond of mutual admiration between Galway and Karajan that survived until ‘Jimmy’ tendered his resignation in August 1974’ (Richard Osborne, ‘Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music’, p.568).”

          Celi was certainly the “vane genius” conductor in his youth as you say. The “Egmont” film (and other footage of the time) shows the wildness of youth. All this had mellowed by the time I met him in the early 1990s, but his Bruckner rehearsals in the Gasteig were nonetheless probing and intense. The Munich Philharmonic seemed to hang on every word and the atmosphere was more that of a temple, with the high priest sitting on his throne (very necessary, he could no longer conduct standing up). But what he could do with a raised eyebrow, or a smile to encourage an oboist before a tender solo, showed the old magic was still there.

          • Mr. Greenberg, I can’t resist asking you a question about Celibidache. Why do you think he allowed the release of his videos but not of his sound recordings?

          • And why, oh why, did he have the Celli on the right, and not the 2nd violins? Someone who declared himself the sole enlightened disciple of Bruckner on earth, no less? Another “strange man”, to say it with Bruno Walter. 🙂
            I miss these strange men dearly. Our times do not create these “lux in tenebris” characters anymore.

          • “Why do you think he allowed the release of his videos but not of his sound recordings?”

            That question is very easy to answer: because he knew he had talked himself into a corner with his rejection of recordings which wasn’t really based on the complex (and mostly BS) philosophical and acoustical “reasons” he gave for that anyway, but because he wanted to slight the achievements of other conductors who were well known through their recordings (first and foremost Karajan, of course).
            But he was also a very vain person himself who wanted to be admired, too, and who spent *a lot* of time talking about how super enlightened and so much better than everyone he was. And anyone who knows a thing or two about Zen and all that knows that it’all about *doing*, not about *talking*, and not about telling everybody just how great you are.

            So when the new medium came along in the 80s, he saw a chance to get out of that corner because and he babbled about how the videos are a completely different thing because they add the extra dimensions of visuals (especially of him, of course…), so that’s why he could now allow them.
            The irony is that the sound quality on those VHS cassettes was quite a bit less good than it was (potentially) on CDs.
            The other irony is that Celibidache spent much of his career working for radio stations (in Stockholm, for the RAI, in Stuttgart) – so a lot of what he did was recorded anyway.
            And pretty much all of his concerts in Munich were also recorded and broadcast (by the BR, and that’s where EMI sourced the recordings from they later released, just like DG got a lot of the material from Stockholm and Stuttgart). That was part of the gig. But I guess the man had to pay his bills, too. And he liked to be paid just like everyone else, too. There was even a little crisis in the city government in Munich in the 80s because of just how much the city paid him (and much of that was paid in cash, in little suitcases).

      • Interesting anecdote. Typically for the egomaniac he wanted to die “heroic” and “like a man”. Hitting a high mountain in fog, piloting his airplane.
        In reality he died in his bed, while discussing his visual inheritance, the future marketing of his video productions, with Sony CEO Norio Ohga.

  • It’s presentation and showmanship. Trying to make the experience for the audience watching on TV as compelling as for the audience that is in the hall.

    The toupées sound a bit much but he perhaps figured he was competing in an age where appearing middle-aged was out of style. Beatles, rock-and-roll, disco… all that.

  • George Szell (1897-1970) was ahead of his time in comparison with HvK. The musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra had to be clean shaven, hair be neatly trimmed, socks extend over the calf, and coats and ties be worn at all times while on tour. I seem to remember a story that Szell, who was bald, went through a phase in Cleveland that at men who were balding were also suspect musically. Cleveland toupee shops’ business picked up accordingly. While Szell was at it, he chose the brand of toilet paper used in Severance Hall as well as picked out the color scheme throughout the hall.

    • But George Szell did not probably look at the vidéo of a rehearsal , and did not see the black nails of the oboist ( Great conductors of the past)

      • There are only a handful of videos of Szell conducting, most of which, I believe, may be seen on Youtube.

        I suspect there is a Szellism somewhere to the effect that, “people are being trained to listen to music with their eyes rather than ears”.

  • None other than George M. Steinbrenner imposed restrictions on the New York Yankees about facial hair and general appearance. Gotta do what the Boss says…he is the boss.
    ****But, to my understanding Steinbrenner never joined the Nazi party twice….not even once.

  • There is nothing more pathetic than male vanity in its various stages of decrepitude.
    HvK for all his vanity face lifts still ended up as do all , with the worms .

    • Por que ?…when you touch the” nerve of truth ” it is much like the fox in the hen house
      all that squawking ,and bluster , two bit pontification dared being questioned or commented
      on drives the world of Andreys’ to protect the world of banality

  • Claustrophobic and a tad over choreographed it may be, but his film with Weissenberg of Tchaik 1 doesn’t look like it was made in 1967. Utterly extraordinary!

  • Where is the documentation for the so-called facts in this criticism of von Karajan. I doubt most can be produced. I’m especially interested in the comment about what James Galway said when he quit the Berlin. I’ve heard Galway speak of his years there with great admiration for von Karajan. I’ve also seen Galway’s face in many of the old Unitel films. I don’t remember him even having a beard at that time. Proof?

  • If HvK wanted less beards, he should’ve hired more women. ; )

    To be fair, he did try, ending with Sabine Meyer as principal clarinet and his own resignation when the very bearded orchestra vetoed her and rebelled against him.

    April 4, 2016 at 12:33 pm
    I doubt it was a Mercedes. Pretty sure it was a BMW 7L, we are talking about Bavaria.

  • None of this makes any difference to me: the sound and energy he captured is fantastic. Karajan had a squint, a ‘deformity’, in a way. (There are superstitions about that in German folklore) That’s why he conducted with closed eyes many times when being filmed. Close up shots would have shown this too overtly and he would rejected himself visually: hence his charismatic persona.

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