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Thread: Karajan's politics and Mahler's religion

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    Senior Member Totenfeier's Avatar
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    Default Karajan's politics and Mahler's religion

    Everyone knows that Gustav Mahler converted to Catholicism to get the Vienna Court Opera position, and I've heard the claim that Karajan wasn't really a committed Nazi, but joined the party to further his career. So how Catholic was Mahler, and how Nazi was Karajan, in your opinion? Do we view them as hypocrites or pragmatists? Were both more committed to the music that to anything else?

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    Without going into a long diatribe and getting involved in religious and racist arguments, in short, the main aims of both of them were self-advancement and self-preservation.

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    I won't get into Karajan, because that's too much a can of worms, but for Mahler--does it really matter how committed to Catholicism he was? For instance I would not condemn a Jew who hid his religion in Nazi Germany to be a hypocrite.

    R. Strauss, for instance was the ultimate pragmatist. He said something to the effect of (I'm remembering very vaguely) "I was a good composer under the Kaiser, I was a good composer under the Republic, I will be good composer under whatever follows [Naziism]."

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    Mahler was neither a committed Catholic nor a religious Christian, though he had his own idiosyncratic beliefs about God and the supernatural, related in part to his fascination with theosophy. He converted because it was necessary to take up a position at the Vienna Court Opera, simple as that.

    I'm not aware of the details surrounding Karajan, but I have no evidence that he was a devoted Nazi party member. The same goes for Strauss, as mentioned above. People say that Franz Schmidt's collusion with the Reich was a matter of political naivete, and some have suggested this for Webern, as well (though he certainly made some unpleasant comments about Hitler). It seems that the only (relatively) major composer who was particularly devoted to the Nazi cause was Pfitzner.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Totenfeier View Post
    Everyone knows that Gustav Mahler converted to Catholicism to get the Vienna Court Opera position, and I've heard the claim that Karajan wasn't really a committed Nazi, but joined the party to further his career. So how Catholic was Mahler, and how Nazi was Karajan, in your opinion? Do we view them as hypocrites or pragmatists? Were both more committed to the music that to anything else?
    I find this an odd juxtaposition; Karajan's politics and Mahler's religion. Joining a political party is, in my experience, a very different thing from changing one's religion. I'm not that familiar with the circumstances of Mahler's 'conversion' but I do find it strange that it's mentioned in the same breath as Karajan's decision to join the Nazi Party - apparently not once but twice.
    I recall coming across an old Jewish friend not that long ago. When we were close he was definitely not religious. He's now devout and observes the Sabbath etc. As someone who was baptised a Catholic but since the age of 14 a deliberately lapsed one I admit I find the notion of becoming religious in later life shocking and, to be frank, ludicrous.
    Last edited by dieter; Mar-24-2016 at 09:18.

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    I have no idea about Mahler intentions converting to Catolicism, but his theosofist ideas are present in a great deal in his musical compositions, and I believe it was for more than good.
    For Karajan. Pff. Really complicated, reading from Walter Legge's and Wilhelm Furtwängler's account. 'Herbie' was hungry for power then, and after the war he followed the tiranic way of conducting he developed in Germany, with the Philharmonia and the BPO.

    If we read from Furtwängler's side, Karajan was a rising star that was menacing his already weak status with the Berliner and the Nazi regime. If 'Furt' left Germany, Karajan would become the chief conductor of the BPO, which he would never forgive himself.
    Karajan was the toy of the Nazis to confront Furtwängler. Whether Karajan willingly played this role or not is a huge controversy.

    From Legge's side, Karajan just went too close to the Reich but he never played a major part in the Nazi culture politics. Legge lately found the shelter for Karajan in the WPO after the war. Then Karajan became smarter than Furtwängler doing lots of recordings, while he did few and without pleasure. Technology developed in favour of Karajan, he rose to the Philharmonia and it was a matter of time that he took over the BPO almost forever, as the cash machine he became in.

    Karajan, an opportunist, was then playing with fire. That is, if Furtwängler had actually left Germany before the war and Karajan had been asigned the BPO at that time, I think he would have fatally burnt his hand.
    And I would not be writing here. Listening to his discography.
    Last edited by Granate; Aug-04-2016 at 17:24.

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    Employees must always make opportunistic/career-advancing decisions and choices. Nothing's changed. In my view, this is the number one reason people choose to be self-employed. It eliminates many employed pitfalls. Unfortunately, this option rarely exists for conducting orchestras, or getting one's music played.

    Critics of such decision-making are hypocrites or hacks at worst, and armchair quarterbacks at best.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mayerl View Post
    Without going into a long diatribe and getting involved in religious and racist arguments, in short, the main aims of both of them were self-advancement and self-preservation.
    Self-preservation is important. When in an evil government unless you want to try to overthrow it you have to be careful.

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    Junior Member Fletcher's Avatar
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    There's a chapter on Karajan's denazification in Richard Osbornes excellent book Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music.

    Whilst trying to avoid opening the can of worms, HvK once signed "Heil Hitler" at the end of a letter to a local politician. (*I'd welcome a correction or clarification on this.)

    The book contains numerous anecdotes of occasions when Karajan was questioned on his political views, to which if - if correct - he changes the conversation to music. Osborne concludes that Karajan's membership was entirely opportunistic and for his self-advancement.
    Last edited by Fletcher; Aug-17-2016 at 13:44.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Fletcher View Post
    There's a chapter on Karajan's denazification in Richard Osbornes excellent book Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music.

    Whilst trying to avoid opening the can of worms, HvK once signed "Heil Hitler" at the end of a letter to a local politician. (*I'd welcome a correction or clarification on this.)

    The book contains numerous anecdotes of occasions when Karajan was questioned on his political views, to which if - if correct - he changes the conversation to music. Osborne concludes that Karajan's membership was entirely opportunistic and for his self-advancement.
    Yes, virtually everything you read about Karajan leads to that conclusion. He started as a penniless nobody, and eagerly exploited every opportunity to the fullest, first with the Nazis, and then with the victorious allies. Richard Strauss was already old and wealthy, and could afford to be aloof. In fact, Hitler gave Strauss a fancy title, but later took it away when an intercepted letter revealed Strauss considered it a joke. Furtwangler was in the middle. He had to choose between working with the Nazis whom he despised as Germany's leading musician or career suicide. (He could have succeeded Toscanini at the NY Philharmonic in 1936. Imagine the disaster that would have been.) Of course, one could argue that people like Karajan were key to the success of the Nazis.

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    Quote Originally Posted by MarkW View Post
    I won't get into Karajan, because that's too much a can of worms, but for Mahler--does it really matter how committed to Catholicism he was? For instance I would not condemn a Jew who hid his religion in Nazi Germany to be a hypocrite.

    R. Strauss, for instance was the ultimate pragmatist. He said something to the effect of (I'm remembering very vaguely) "I was a good composer under the Kaiser, I was a good composer under the Republic, I will be good composer under whatever follows [Naziism]."
    Almost identical to a quote from a Nazi counter-intelligence officer who had been career police. He said, "I was a cop under Weimar, a cop under NSDAP and I'd be a cop under Thaelmann (German Communist leader.)"

    I can understand the predicament of those affected by the Nazi regime, but Karajan and Furtwangler had options. They could have opted out, but instead chose for career instead of humanity. I wish, for the sake of music, it could have been otherwise, but both were tainted by their choice. I honor those who either left, in many cases at great sacrifice to their careers, or actively resisted.
    Last edited by znapschatz; Aug-17-2016 at 17:04.
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    Quote Originally Posted by fluteman View Post
    Yes, virtually everything you read about Karajan leads to that conclusion. He started as a penniless nobody, and eagerly exploited every opportunity to the fullest, first with the Nazis, and then with the victorious allies. Richard Strauss was already old and wealthy, and could afford to be aloof. In fact, Hitler gave Strauss a fancy title, but later took it away when an intercepted letter revealed Strauss considered it a joke. Furtwangler was in the middle. He had to choose between working with the Nazis whom he despised as Germany's leading musician or career suicide. (He could have succeeded Toscanini at the NY Philharmonic in 1936. Imagine the disaster that would have been.) Of course, one could argue that people like Karajan were key to the success of the Nazis.
    One could argue a good deal of things if the day is long. The question is whether one could CREDIBLY argue such a thing. I could argue that rainbows are the contrails of unicorn farts. I have read numerous accounts of the rise (and fall) of Nazism in general, and Adolf Hitler in particular, and no major historians on the matter, that I am aware of, have ever credited someone like Karajan as a key to the success of the Nazis. Unless you are referring to him in such a generic way - but then the point is really pointless.

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    Quote Originally Posted by DrMike View Post
    One could argue a good deal of things if the day is long. The question is whether one could CREDIBLY argue such a thing. I could argue that rainbows are the contrails of unicorn farts. I have read numerous accounts of the rise (and fall) of Nazism in general, and Adolf Hitler in particular, and no major historians on the matter, that I am aware of, have ever credited someone like Karajan as a key to the success of the Nazis. Unless you are referring to him in such a generic way - but then the point is really pointless.
    Ugh. What I meant was, many like Karajan enthusiastically joined the Nazi party and supported its cause because it was good for their careers, and likely would have done the same for any regime, because they were ambitious opportunists. Others no doubt refused to follow that path and never joined the party. Karajan could have stood on principle and remained a penniless nobody. Furtwangler, much as he despised the Nazis, wasn't willing to surrender his position at the top of the German music world and go to New York, where he would have been a distant second to Toscanini and no doubt unable to reclaim his position in Berlin after the war. Many in France had to make a similar choice when the Germans invaded, i.e., collaborate or give up successful careers. The Nazis' success depended on many choosing to collaborate once they gained power.
    Last edited by fluteman; Aug-17-2016 at 20:09.

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    Quote Originally Posted by fluteman View Post
    Ugh. What I meant was, many like Karajan enthusiastically joined the Nazi party and supported its cause because it was good for their careers, and likely would have done the same for any regime, because they were ambitious opportunists. Others no doubt refused to follow that path and never joined the party. Karajan could have stood on principle and remained a penniless nobody. Furtwangler, much as he despised the Nazis, wasn't willing to surrender his position at the top of the German music world and go to New York, where he would have been a distant second to Toscanini and no doubt unable to reclaim his position in Berlin after the war. Many in France had to make a similar choice when the Germans invaded, i.e., collaborate or give up successful careers. The Nazis' success depended on many choosing to collaborate once they gained power.
    Now that you have clarified your point, I would have thought that this was well known.

    It makes more sense than the implied suggestion in your previous post that the Nazis' success was the result of support from a key group of powerful people such as Karajan in the world of music.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Genoveva View Post
    Now that you have clarified your point, I would have thought that this was well known.

    It makes more sense than the implied suggestion in your previous post that the Nazis' success was the result of support from a key group of powerful people such as Karajan in the world of music.
    Well, nobody in the world of music had any power in Nazi Germany. Hitler was a big classical music fan and practically worshipped Richard Strauss, but the Nazis nevertheless saw him solely as a propaganda tool and had he protested their policies too vigorously no doubt would have jailed or executed him, and certainly his Jewish daughter-in-law, whom they threatened in order to keep him in line (even though Jewish spouses of prominent people were typically safe). Hans Pfizner tried hard to gain Hitler's favor, but was pretty much ignored. Hitler also recommended to Mussolini that Toscanini be executed, but the maestro fled Italy when his situation became dangerous.

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