June 1979, Stift St. Florian in Upper Austria. Beneath the church organ lies Bruckner’s grave; in the Stiftskirche, a rehearsal of Bruckner’s music – the Eighth Symphony – is taking place. Herbert von Karajan repeatedly steps off the podium in front of the Vienna Philharmonic and an assistant takes over. Karajan navigates through the church nave and listens to the sound of the orchestra. Left, right, in the middle, at the very back. He strides up to the recording set, discussing and supervising the sound for the recording and image for the TV production. What a control freak – at least that’s how it seemed to the author of this text, still a young man at the time – as if there were no job he didn’t think he was better at than the professionals themselves, whether it was the sound engineers, recording producers, directors, or cameramen.
Considering how many jobs Herbert von Karajan was involved in throughout his life, including theater director and opera producer in Vienna, Salzburg, and Berlin (and later internationally), and the degree of precision and perfection he strived for in the media, this brief observation in St. Florian did indeed capture one of his main features. In addition to his many legendary live concerts and opera productions, Karajan was meticulous and energetic in shaping the way his work was portrayed in the media; the many film and television productions in which he either cooperated with well-known artists, or took on the duties of direction or lighting on top of his conducting, are what he viewed as his true legacy. This played no small part in making him such a brilliant and admired figure in the 20th century music world.
The truly sensational moments, however, during that 1979 rehearsal in St. Florian occurred when Karajan returned to the conductor’s podium – as if until then, the orchestra had been merely whispering, and a wave of his hand was all that was needed to change the direction of the sound from inward to outward. The horns suddenly burst forth with scintillating sound, the violins reveled in unfathomable depths. Karajan was rehearsing Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, the piece that he had conducted exactly 35 years earlier in Upper Austria, in 1944. The orchestra at the time was the Reich Bruckner Orchestra, which was to be used for the Reich Broadcaster St. Florian, and Karajan was to prepare its great future. Knowing this, and without the need for further comments, we have also touched on one of the often-discussed and contradictory aspects of Karajan’s career.