Questions are raised over Karajan’s doctorate

Questions are raised over Karajan’s doctorate


norman lebrecht

August 08, 2019

Austrian media are having the vapours this morning at the discovery that the Salzburg Festival used undue influence in 1975 to procure an honorary doctorate for Herbert von Karajan.

The University of Salzburg resisted, saying the conductor had no academic pedigree whatsoever.

The Festival insisted, adding: whatever you do, don’t mention the War (or words to that effect).

Read here.

The question we should be asking is who wielded the big stick to get Karajan an honorary doctorate from Oxford three years later? My guess is Edward Heath, the former prime minister.


  • Been Here Before says:

    The University of Salzburg gained more prestige from awarding Karajan an honorary doctorate than he got from obtaining it.

    It is fascinating to observe the lengths in which the media is willing to go in order pursue a non-story.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      I totally agree. Anyone is entitled to like or dislike any artist’s work, and it’s clear NL does not like Karajan’s work. He has the right to his opinion. I just happen to disagree with it.

      I on the other hand keep listening to Karajan’s recordings and the occasional live performances I can get my hands on, and his music-making continues to astonish me. Maybe it’s because I come at Karajan through Bruckner, and in my opinion, Karajan is hands-down the greatest conductor overall of Bruckner’s symphonies, and it’s not a close call (and to my ears, Bruckner is the greatest composer of all). Yes, some individual conductors also do well with particular Bruckner symphonies – Jochum, Giulini, Furtwangler, etc., but taken as a whole, no conductor’s body of work in Bruckner has ever exceeded Karajan’s. No one. There’s a consistency of excellence which is astonishing. I really love Karajan’s 1970 Beethoven cycle. It’s pretty close to untouchable. His Wagner is also at the pinnacle of achievement, although there are others whose Wagner equally demands to be heard, such as Furtwangler, Knappertsbusch, etc. And so much of Karajan’s work in other composers is outstanding.

      Taken as a whole, in my opinion, he is the single greatest conductor of the 20th century.

      So what if strings were pulled to get Karajan a meaningless honorary degree? How many honorary degrees have not had some sort of agenda or other behind them anyway?

      At the end of the day, it’s the music-making that matters. And as I hear it, Karajan has few if any rivals. And none of his successors in Berlin are worthy of even being mentioned in the same sentence, as accomplished as they may be in certain corners of the repertory.

      • Been Here Before says:

        I disagree with you on several issues (I don’t care about his Wagner and prefer the 1963 Beethoven cycle), but agree that he was a great conductor. That’s all that matters.

      • Olassus says:

        Hear Leipzig/Blomstedt (2005–2012) on Querstand

        Amazon ASIN = B0094BDO9A

        It uses the right editions of the early symphonies and has more songfulness and dancing than Karajan. Fabulous, natural playing too.

      • Howard Dyck says:

        Here Doktor doth protest too much. Of course Karajan was a great conductor, especially in 19th century rep. His Mozart is godawful, and don’t get me started on his Bach. As for rivals, Carlos Kleiber gives HvK a real run for his money, although his rep was so limited. Abbado was a great successor to Karajan, and under Rattle, the BPO became a truly cosmopolitan orchestra. Technically, they’re now much better than they were under HvK. All that said, I’m still a big admirer of Karajan’s work.

        • John Borstlap says:

          The BPO has lost a certain radiant glow, however.

          • Herr Doktor says:

            I know this is not a popular opinion, but my ears tell me based on live performances I’ve heard that the Berlin Philharmonic can no longer be counted among the three greatest orchestras in the world. In my opinion, those would be the Vienna Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden, and Concertgebouw, in that order. I was shocked at the last two times I heard the Berliners on tour. Karajan and Furtwangler must be rolling in their graves. And as heretical as this may sound, I believe the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons sounds better than the BPO these days, which is intended more as a compliment to the Boston SO than as a slap at the Berliners.

          • Stereo says:

            I heard a Beethoven 5 many years ago BPO and Karajan from the Albert Hall on Radio 3 and it was so un together I turned it off.

      • Stuart says:

        I have been going to concerts since 1971 and collecting discs for nearly 50 years and used to collect many of Karajan’s discs as they came out. Over the years my tastes changed (matured?) and I have shed all but three Karajan recordings from my vast collection. I find most of his studio recordings too controlled, smoothed out and almost unmusical. I have retained the studio Falstaff, the 1955 live Lucia and a live Trovatore. Funny what age and experience does to some.

        • Robert Groen says:


        • Petros Linardos says:

          I don’t think it is a coincidence that your current Karajan favorites are operas: to my ears that’s where he did his best work. I too have aged out many Karajan recordings, but, like many other people in this discussion, wouldn’t question that he was a great conductor.

          • Stuart says:

            I agree that he was a great conductor. That Trovatore is wonderful. HvK doesn’t fit for me since I listen to a lot of opera, vocal and chamber music. I also listen to a lot of 20th & 21st century music (the kind for which many on this blog do not care). When I turn to Bruckner or Mahler I do not cue up Karajan (I used to have his Mahler 9). I have 3-4 go-to conductors for each Mahler symphony, 3-4 for Beethoven and 1-2 for Bruckner. No longer HvK. I attended 17 years of CSO concerts in my younger days so grew up with Solti, Abbado, Haitink, Davis, Levine, Giulini and Barenboim among others.

          • Brian B says:

            None of his studio Wagner recordings, not one, would make my final cut despite the adoration of British critics. The Rheingold comes closest. Though I wouldn’t give up the ’52 Bayreuth Tristan easily.

        • Martain Smith says:

          Very interesting observation and choice! He can be so clinical, especially in Italian opera. His Vienna Frau Ohne Schatten (also for the cast) has special ranking, as does his Callas Butterfly – not least for the leading protagonist!

        • Karl says:

          I’ve also heard his conducting described as dull and reptilian. I wouldn’t go that far, but I did find most of it too dispassionate. I liked his 1970s Beethoven and his Sibelius.

          • BrianB says:

            Sibelius is said to have admired HvK’s Philharmonia recording of his Fourth and Seventh..

        • BrianB says:

          If I were keeping only three, those would be my choices also. Though the first BPO/DG Beethoven cycle has strong points. And the Decca Fledermaus.

      • Robert Groen says:

        What about Karajan’s Strauss? His Zarathustra is still the finest on record and the other tone poems aren’t far behind. His recordings of the Second Vienna School are monumental and, in my opinion, unsurpassed. His Sibelius (especially the Fifth) was groundbreaking. His Mozart charmed me rather less but hey! Nobody’s perfect. Oh, I nearly forgot his Verdi. Anyway, the list is endless. It is for these achievements that he richly deserved his honorary degree. And for God’s sake, let’s not mention the war. We’re nearly 75 years down the road.

        • Petros Linardos says:

          I think mentioning the war is fair game, as long as we don’t equate opportunism or sheer survival with war crimes.

          • Richard Bloesch says:

            I don’t think it was a matter of sheer survival that caused Karajan to join the Nazi party. He didn’t need to do it.

          • Petros Linardos says:

            If we want to criticize Karajan’s stance during National Socialism, we can look all we want at his post-war denials.

            It is easy to moralize with hindsight. The line between survival and opportunism is much blurrier when one lives in a totalitarian government. The consensus is that Karajan was a follower, a Mitläufer. Not necessarily something to be proud of, but not criminal behavior – not even close.

        • Olassus says:

          On the subject of the Strauss tone poems, I have come to believe that Karajan’s filmed versions from 1983 to 1987 are the strongest musically, perhaps because there is less fussing. Alas, he didn’t get around to them all, and after this group he did not again conduct this composer:

          Eine Alpensinfonie, Totensonntag, Nov. 20, 1983
          Tod und Verklärung, Totensonntag, Nov. 25, 1984
          Metamorphosen, Totensonntag, Nov. 25, 1984
          Ein Heldenleben, with Leon Spierer, Feb. 20, 1985
          Don Quixote, with Antonio Meneses and Wolfram Christ, Jan. 25, 1986
          Also sprach Zarathustra, with Leon Spierer, May 1, 1987

          Filming was in the Philharmonie.

        • Olassus says:

          I was mistaken. After May 1, 1987, he conducted Also sprach Zarathustra one last time four days later in Bern, Switzerland; four performances of Eine Alpensinfonie between Nov. 1987 and April 1988; and two of Ein Heldenleben in May 1988.


        I agree with you 100% herr doctor

    • Wladek says:

      He has been dead as a door nail for some time is
      a non story…who in their right mind would care ?
      except of course those that live in the past.

  • PHF says:

    Politics as usual, a refined expertise of Karajan.

  • Mario says:

    Well, you certainly know Norman, that Edward Heath love musical conducting

    • Chris says:

      I only ever played ONCE with Edward Heath conducting (??), in Oxford, and he attempted to beat time (I cannot, hand on heart, say he conducted!) through a performance of The Lark Ascending. It was disastrous, though the orchestra and soloist DID manage a semblance of ensemble in spite of the maestro.

      • Stereo says:

        We did several concerts in Bournemouth with Heath. Absolutely useless! Unfortunately he had a very high opinion of himself.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    This man was the most powerful classical musician when I first became aware of music. His performances & recordings were often praised above all others in those days. What a change since his death. Today it is all about Abbado (even in Berlin), Carlos Kleiber (not necessarily superior to his almost forgotten father), or Bernstein.

    • Howard Dyck says:

      Re not remembering von Karajan, it’s true that people (and especially institutions) have short memories. That said, Abbado, Carlos Kleiber were undoubtedly great conductors, worthy of posthumous attention. Bernstein too, although IMO not quite in the same league.

    • Freddynyc says:

      Just goes to show you how overrated he really was and just how powerful marketing and management can be for one’s career. Just about any conductor worth his weight in those days – and even today – could have elicited decent “performances” from the Berlin band…….

    • HugoPreuss says:

      A week ago the new museum “House of the Weimar Republic” opened in Weimar. I was and am involved with it. There are 38 lockers in the museum, and we named them after lesser known celebrities from the Weimar Republic.
      I insisted that one locker is named after Erich Kleiber. And his 1956 Nozze di Figaro is still one of the best!

      • Tristan says:

        How wonderful! Kleiber’s recording of Figaro is the first I heard, and introduced me to one of my very favourite works of art. His conducting has aged remarkably well.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Well deserved!
        It hurts to think of Erich Kleiber as lesser known, though this may be true outside classical music circles.

  • Alan says:

    I thought the point of at least some honorary doctorates was to honour people who had achieved great success without going to college due to their launching straight into their careers. A thing of nothing if you ask me.

  • Caravaggio says:

    If one takes a close look around, these honorary doctorates are increasingly handed out like candy, often undeservedly to people (“media celebrities”) decidedly less merited or gifted than the late Herr Karajan. Oprah Winfrey and such, for ex. Kim Kardashian cannot be far behind.

  • John Smith says:

    Karajan’s achievements outweigh any “ivory tower” based recognition…

  • Novagerio says:

    As Caravaggio points out, these honorary doctorates and other degrees are easily handed out like candy. One only needs to be very famous. Paul McCartney has even a doctorate degree from Yale and even Elton John, Kanye West, Rihanna and Dolly Parton have honorary degrees from various universities!
    And yes, Edward Heath must have been instrumental in getting not only Karajan but also Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau a doctorate from Oxford, so what?

  • John Borstlap says:

    I don’t get it. Honorary degrees have nothing to do with academic achievement. Haydn, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Ravel got honorary degrees, for their music, and not for their academic prowess. Even Simon Rattle got a honorary degree.

  • Howard Dyck says:

    The honorary doctorate issue is a non-story. There’s absolutely no doubt that HvK deserved both the U of Salzburg and Oxford honours. Who cares if pressure was exerted? Happens all the time.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      What was the connection with Oxford?

      Universities normally give them to people who have some connection to either the university making the award, or to the local community.

  • sam says:

    Universities handing out honorary PhDs to non-academics makes as much sense as orchestras handing out honorary first chairs to non-musicians:

    “The Berlin Philharmoniker is proud to present an Honorary Principal Timpani to Dr. Angela Merkel!”

    • John Borstlap says:

      Her handling of the timpani sticks behind the screens of official politics is, as everybody knows, quite effective. She especially dislikes the triad AFD, a type of minor chord which has become the shame of the country.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        She also is opposed to the democratic aspect of the BPO, where individual members get to vote on changes which will affect the orchestra. When somebody wants to authorize the arrival of new members of the orchestra, without any known talent, they object through a democratic process. No, Dr. Merkel definitely doesn’t like that.

    • Robert Groen says:

      Are you calling Mufti a tub-thumper?!

  • M McAlpine says:

    Just to inform people that an ‘honorary degree’ is just that – ‘the degree is typically a doctorate and may be awarded to someone who has no prior connection with the academic institution or no previous postsecondary education. The degree is often conferred as a way of honouring a distinguished visitor’s contributions to a specific field or to society in general.’ If the University of Salzburg resisted saying Karajan had no academic pedigree whatsoever, then they obviously didn’t know what an honorary degree was. You don not have to have academic qualifications for an honorary degree. That is the point! It is to honour someone’s achievements. In Karajan’s case one would think they are pretty obvious. The sheer stupidity of these sort of reports is baffling!

  • SVM says:

    Honorary doctorates do not require any distinction academically. Karajan’s achievements at the very top of the conducting profession make him an eminently reasonable choice. Having said that, I think there is a serious issue of accountability in how institutions select recipients (in general — I am not referring specifically to Salzburg). In many cases, selections seem to be made by a committee with almost no input from or consultation with the university’s academic staff.

    And there are certainly some very problematic honorary degrees. For example, an honorary doctorate “for services to philanthropy” sounds like a euphemism for “bought”. I am also horrified to read of honorary doctorates given to famous people of questionable morals, such as politicians who have committed war crimes (e.g.: Tony Blair) and the senior managers of companies with unethical tax arrangements (e.g.: Tim Cook of Apple). But the nadir has to be the RCS awarding an honorary degree to Susan Boyle, an unforgivable insult to its own students and staff (just about any *student* singer at any élite conservatoire is better than Boyle).

  • DennisW says:

    I don’t get the “no academic pedigree whatsoever” argument against an honorary degree. That’s the whole point of honorary degrees. They are recognitions of one’s status, achievements, or contributions in one’s field, but not of “academic accomplishment” in the sense of an ordinary degree candidate.

  • Bruce says:

    At this late date, does anyone care?

  • MJA says:

    As far as questions are concerned, this is a transparently questionable story that simply doesn’t add up. Several people have pointed out that honorary degrees are precisely that – honorific, rather than correlating (necessarily) with academic achievement. And regardless of that, I’m not sure why Norman infers that a “big stick” was wielded in Oxford in 1978. Having been there at the time, I can confirm both that there was no “big stick” and that the university would not in any case have responded well had anybody tried to wield one. I suspect this is just yet another spasm in NL’s interminable and rather sad feud with HvK, which does him no credit.

    • Mercurius Oxoniensis says:

      Exactly. A committee of senior dons decides who gets honorary degrees. The idea that they would have accepted Ted Heath’s word on the matter is risible. It’s a long time ago, but I expect that the members at the time were particularly impressed by HvK’s commitment to helping young musicians (the Karajan Academy usw) and his interest in the relationship between music and medicine.

      In any case, we must be grateful that the University gave him the degree. He was gracious enough to reciprocate by bringing (some of) the BPO to the Sheldonian for a charity concert in 1981. The performance of *Metamorphosen* with which that concert concluded remains unforgettable nearly forty years on.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Thor Johnson, an excellent conductor but, yeah, not in Karajan’s league, once observed that in music, the ONLY degrees that matter are the honorary degrees.

    • Chris says:

      It is CERTAINLY true that no matter the number of diplomas degrees or other pieces of paper one may have, when trying for a post as a player, if you can’t play (adequately) you (usually) don’t get the job!

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Generation Woke will stop at nothing. Who authorized a Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama 3 minutes after getting the Presidency?

    • Bill says:

      That’s easy: the Norwegian Nobel Committee, authorized by the Norwegian Parliament, authorized by Alfred Nobel’s will. If you have a complaint about their decision-making, I’m sure they will give your carefully-reasoned views the deference which they deserve. You clearly have an internet connection, so tracking down contact information for them should not be difficult for someone of your obvious intelligence. Do keep us informed, please.

  • Gustavo says:

    What’s an academic title, these days?

    Karanjan’s story is all about fake doctor titles, anyway.

    I like his Dresden Meistersinger with Kollo, by the way.

    I hated his Alpensinfonie on vinyl which was like coitus interruptus.

  • miles away says:

    the PR fiasco couldn’t happen to 2 nicer (dead) people.
    One a nazi party member, the other a paedo.

    Says it all about academic institutions really,- never mind the BEEB and their Jimmies and Rolfs.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    there are several motivations for honorary degrees: genuine recognition of achievement, not necessarily academic, but sometimes in those who already have multiple degrees; recognition of donors; attention seeking by the institution, though hardly necessary for top rank universities. I am not an unqualified admirer of von Karajan’s music, let alone some of his other activities, but he would surely qualify in terms of achievement.

  • Lord Bus Stop says:

    This is an interesting story of political influence in light of the man’s early efforts to join the Nazi Party, and his almost instant “denazification” in 1946. Also interesting is how much this is ignored while the discussion is shifted to musical stylistic matters.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Huh? He wasn’t “instantly denazified”, although he was cleared more quickly than at least some of the other leading Nazi era conductors. This was partly because he married someone considered Jewish during the war (and he had a Greek name), and he never believed in it ideologically.

      But what it has to do with Karajan receiving an honorary degree from Salzburg?

  • Jack says:

    And HvK died HOW many years ago?

  • Edgar Self says:

    He was born with one title, Heribert (sic) Ritter von Karajan, in Austria-Hungary, when titles mattered. At his conservatory graduiation he played a concerto by Pancho Vladiguerov, “the greatest Bulgarian comoposer” — of COURSE. The family had Balkan roots. His friend Alexis “Sigi” Weissenberg played and recorded Vladiguerov and was an actual Bulgarian.

    His brother Wolfgang von Karajan toured with his Orgel-Trio, “Karajan” in larger type than “Wolfgang” on posters and programmes.

    Karajan played keyboards and Baroque continuo occasionally. and accompanied Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in a Lieder recital in Algiers, as his predecessor at the BPO, Honorary Dr. Wilhelm Furtwaengler , did later in Salzburg. In his biography,Richard Osborne tells of Karajan’s sitting in on piano with an Asian hotel ensemble playing Strauss waltzes. Osbornes book is surprisingly sympathetic.

    Karajan wasn’t a favourite of mine. but I heard him, and his achievements are real. He was a different man in Vienna. I like Haydn’s “Creation” and “Paris” symphonies with VPO more than his Mozart, except a striking Adagio and Fugue in C minor with BPO strings.

    He joined the Party three times, to make sure as a careerist. Wasn’t his first wife Jewish? Naturally he divorced her.

  • muslit says:

    Anyway, he was nothing more than a so-so conductor.