The Best of GRReporter
flag_bg flag_gr flag_gb

The Greek roots of a great conductor or how Karagiannis became von Karajan

30 April 2015 / 15:04:24  GRReporter
6239 reads

Many commentators claim that Herbert von Karajan was the greatest conductor and the most influential person in the field of classical music in the 20th century. His talent and creativity are renowned but the general public is less aware of some facts of his life.
One of them is that the conductor is a descendant of the wealthy Karagiannis family from the Greek city of Kozani. His great-grandfather George - Ioannis Karagiannis was a textile factory owner in the city of Chemnitz. For his contributions to the throne King of Saxony Frederick August the First honoured him with the nobility title "von" in 1792 and factory owner Karagiannis became von Karajan.

The conductor’s parents Dr. Ernst von Karajan and Martha

Born in 1908 in Salzburg, Herbert demonstrated his talent in music at an early age. He performed his first piano concert at the age of five. He graduated from Mozarteum music school in Salzburg, where he received the first incentive to focus on conductorship. Herbert von Karajan conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in 1934 for the first time and had a long-term cooperation with it afterwards.

The significant rise in the conductor’s career began in 1935 when he became a member of the Nazi Party. His name could often be heard in and outside of Germany in connection with concerts in Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Bucharest. The conductor began to work with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1938 and this cooperation continued until the end of his life.

The fact that in the period 1933-1934 he sent a letter to Kozani municipality, requesting to be issued a certificate that he belonged to the "Aryan race" is not familiar either. Councillor of the time Dimitris Karalivanos states the following:

"Hitler wanted this certificate, presumably to allow him to remain at the head of the Berlin Philharmonic or for a different reason. I remember that Mayor Asterios Terpos was absent and Geroge Repanas performed his duties. Then we turned to librarian Nikos Delialis and explained to him the request of Mr. von Karajan. He immediately presented a genealogical tree that we sent to Karajan, signed by acting mayor George Repanas."

The second marriage of the conductor to Anita Giterman, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish industrialist, in 1942 cost him the confidence of the Nazis but did not affect his career. After World War II, he conducted a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1946 but soon afterwards the Soviet authorities banned him from working due to his Nazi past. The interrogations to which he was subject showed no aggravating facts and von Karajan’s reputation was restored.

Herbert von Karajan was not able to visit the town from which his family originated. In May 1979, Kozani mayor of the time Yiannis Papayiannis sent him an official invitation with the idea of honouring von Karajan as a distinguished fellow citizen of the Greek Diaspora and as one of the greatest conductors. Von Karajan replied with the following letter dated 14 August 1979:

"Dear Mr. Papayiannis, your letter filled me joy. My father told me a lot about his trip to Kozani, which was one of his most pleasant memories. Thank you warmly for your kind invitation but unfortunately, now I do not have any free time.

However, it is likely that I will attend the scheduled opening of the newly built concert hall in Athens. If this happens, we will try to schedule a visit (to Kozani - author’s note). In all cases, I will inform you in time. Kind Regards, Herbert von Karajan."

The conductor’s father Dr. Ernst von Karajan, who was the director of Saint John hospital in Salzburg, visited Kozani with his cousin Zoe von Reininghaus, the daughter of Prof. Maximilian von Karajan, in 1925. Here is what newspaper Icho tis Makedonias wrote on 31 May 1925 about his visit:

"Kozani was delighted to welcome two of its descendants, Ernst von Karajan and his cousin Zoe. They are the heirs of the great von Karajan family founded in Vienna in 1748 by Stefanos Karagiannis, which is successfully present in the Austrian Empire. The renowned surgeon and director of Saint John hospital in Salzburg visited our city to become acquainted with the land of his ancestors and to visit the hut where the founder of the Karagiannis family was born."

The conductor himself arrived in Athens in June 1986 by his private jet to receive the Olympia award of cultural foundation Alexandros A. Onassis.

One of the most successful performances of Herbert von Karajan at La Scala opera house in Milan was in 1954-1955 when he staged Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor featuring Maria Callas.


The almost unknown photograph from La Scala archives shows the Greek opera diva moved to tears by the incredible success of the opera when the curtain dropped in the middle of the performance and the apparently pleased young Herbert von Karajan.


Tags: MusicHistoryHerbert von KarajanGreek originKozani
GRReporter’s content is brought to you for free 7 days a week by a team of highly professional journalists, translators, photographers, operators, software developers, designers. If you like and follow our work, consider whether you could support us financially with an amount at your choice.
You can support us only once as well.
blog comments powered by Disqus