Norman Lebrecht: The clapped-out legacy of Karajan that impoverished classical music

The centenary of the conductor's birth is no occasion for genuine music lovers to celebrate. Hitler's poster boy offered nothing to art while ruthlessly crushing creativity

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Waking up in the morning to Herbert von Karajan on the radio, I have to rub my eyes and check the calendar to make sure that Mao Tse-tung is not alive and the Soviet Union still a world power.

There was a time, defined by dictatorship, to which Karajan provided the musical backdrop. He was ubiquitous in the 1970s and 1980s, a commanding cultural presence with admirers in high places. When he died in July 1989, I found myself on the Today programme popping balloons of adulation that came from a fawning Edward Heath. Karajan was everything a fallen politician longed to be: ultra-elegant and all-powerful.

The centenary of his birth this weekend is being marked by an outpouring of product from a music industry that he raised to prosperity and propelled to near-ruin. If the mainstream of classical recording has shrivelled to a trickle in the past five years, that is the inevitable aftermath of the Karajan glut. If classical music itself is widely (if unfairly) considered to be elitist, staid and retrospective, we have Herbert von Karajan to thank for making it a safe, corporate entertainment at prohibitively priced festivals.

These truths are pretty much self-evident, yet there are still nostalgists to be found in sections of the press defending his "greatness", a meaningless critical term, and even the once cocky figure of Simon Rattle, at the rostrum of Karajan's Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, feels obliged to pay concerts of homage to the old tyrant in his anniversary year. Who knows, there may be hope yet for a Brezhnev revival.

Karajan, as music director and profiteer, ruled the summits of Berlin and Salzburg from the mid-1950s, paying record fees to his best pals and using rehearsals with his state-salaried orchestra to double as sessions for commercial recordings. He enriched himself and his players beyond measure, leaving a tax-sheltered fortune of $500m and a pile of some 900 recordings. He manipulated the record industry by divide and rule, always working with two major labels while courting a third. At one point he accounted for one-third of the revenues of Deutsche Grammophon (DG), the largest classical label.

Almost everything Karajan conducted came out super-smooth, like cotton undershirts from a washing conditioner. Whether it was Bach or Bruckner, Rigoletto or Rapsodie Espagnole, the music followed a seamless line of artificial beauty that owed less to the composer's invention than to the conductor's intent on manufacturing a recognisable product. And unmistakable it was. I once entered a Manhattan art bookstore, high-ceilinged and wood-panelled, and asked the attendant to replace the Tchaikovsky on the sound system. "How did you know it was Karajan conducting?" he exclaimed. "He makes it so obvious," I replied.

A DG tribute set by his widow, Eliette, reveals the conductor at both his worst and his best. The first disc opens with a doubly pasteurised Beethoven Pastoral, synthetic to a fault, followed by homogenised Debussy and Ravel and a Mahler Adagietto from which all pain has been anaesthetised – a travesty of Mahler. The second disc contains extracts of oratorio and opera, some of them transcendentally moving – an effulgent "Erbarme mich" from Bach's St Matthew Passion, a thrilling "Dies Irae" from Verdi's Requiem and clips from Wagner's Walküre. The bigger the forces, the better Karajan liked it.

If he had any kind of genius, it was for organisation and opportunity. Growing up in Salzburg after the First World War, when a tiny mountain town became the second city of a shrunken Austrian state, he learned the perils of being powerless. On Hitler's rise in 1933 he joined the Nazi party not once but twice and was rewarded with a post at Aachen, the youngest music director in the Reich. Before long he was hailed by the Goebbels-controlled press as "Das Wunder Karajan" – the Karajan Miracle – in contrast to the politically unreliable Wilhelm Furtwängler. Karajan learned from Goebbels how to play one man against another, among other black political arts. He strutted his stuff in occupied Paris and Amsterdam, to all effects the Nazi poster boy.

After the war, he was suspended from public concerts pending an investigation of his Nazi past, but an EMI executive, Walter Legge, brought him to London to record with the Philharmonia Orchestra, made up of newly demobilised British fighting men. That relationship, which lasted a decade, gave Karajan training in adversarial politics and a liking for conflict. After Furtwängler's death in 1954 he became conductor for life in Berlin, using the Reich's broken capital as his bridgehead for imperial expansion. His home town festival in Salzburg was converted into a black-tie thrice-yearly assembly of industrial plutocrats, masters of the universe.

No musician in history ever sought the power that Karajan achieved in his pomp, a power that extended by emulation or submission to many of the world's concert halls and festivals. Reactionary by nature, he stuck to the classical and romantic mainstream, excluding non-tonal music and ulterior styles of performance. Christoph von Dohnanyi went so far as to accuse him of destroying the German conducting tradition by imposing his narrow tastes so monumentally on the art. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who played the cello in Karajan's Vienna orchestra, was shut out of Salzburg and Berlin once he started conducting with period instrument ensembles in a manner that contradicted the Karajan orthodoxy. Every time Karajan recorded a Beethoven cycle – and he did so five times – meant one fewer chance for alternative interpretations.

His hegemony was autocratic, brooking no contradiction. When Berlin players refused in 1983 to accept his introduction of a female clarinettist, Sabine Meyer, he shifted his activities to the rival Vienna Philharmonic. Disgruntled with DG, he was plotting at his death to join Sony. He knew no loyalty except to himself. His love of music was confined to the way he made it.

His power, unlike Brezhnev's, was founded, however, on a winning charm. Many, such as Daniel Barenboim whom Karajan had demeaned for years, found themselves tempted by a flattering late overture. On the only occasion he asked to meet me, in 1985, I decided to decline the offer of an interview, preferring to observe him at a distance, the way most musicians did. He was capable of private kindness to his players, as well as unwarranted cruelty, cutting a friend dead for no apparent reason.

Karajan's Nazi past is not incidental, though it was not of the kind that committed holocausts. There is no suspicion that he committed race crimes and his Reich career took a dip after 1942, when he married a wealthy heiress of part-Jewish extraction.

What he adopted from the Nazis was a set of values which he applied to the innocent and inefficient music industry with unwavering ruthlessness. If there was one lesson Karajan took from the Nazis, it was the supremacy of German music and the imperative of world dominance. He demonstrated that music was mostly a matter of power.

Many were, and remain, impressed. Some, like myself, found his attitude anti-musical. I have trouble listening to Karajan on the radio with any kind of equanimity.

The centenary "celebration" of his life is a last-ditch attempt by the music industry to flog profit from a dead lion. Some of the commemorations are supported by covert subsidies from a well-organised, extraordinarily wealthy Karajan estate. It is, though, more than a little surprising to find the Philhamonia Orchestra, which gave him no quarter, putting on a Karajan memorial concert at the Royal Festival Hall this week under Sir Charles Mackerras.

One aspect of the Karajan debate, raised by Dominic Lawson, is whether "we should join in the celebrations of the life of an ex-Nazi" – a man who never recanted his political affiliation. Lawson broadened the issue to discuss whether a bad man can make good art, and how we should relate to art from a tainted source. That question, relevant to Wagner, is incidental to Karajan who never created an original work.

Whether Herbert von Karajan was a bad man or a good man is immaterial. He was a brilliant organiser with the gift of tuning an orchestra to his personal sound, an ability that he exploited to extreme ends. He inflicted his ego on the world of classical music in a way that crushed independence and creativity and damaged its image for future generations. It is not the bad man he was that we should deplore but the reactionary and exclusivist legacy which is being "celebrated". For music lovers, there is not much to celebrate. Once the centenary is over, we will drop the curtain once and for all on a discreditable life that yielded no fresh thought and upheld no worthwhile human value. Karajan is dead. Music is much better off without him.

Norman Lebrecht's history of classical recording, 'Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness', will appear as a Penguin paperback in June

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