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Karl Böhm

Next to the all-dominant figure of Herbert von Karajan, Karl Böhm was the most influential conductor personality of the Salzburg Festival after World War II. For over forty years, he conducted operas nearly every summer, as well as many concerts – leading more than 300 performances on the Festival’s stages in total.

Karl Böhm made his Salzburg Festival debut on July 25, 1938 with Don Giovanni. Under his baton, numerous Mozart operas were performed during the following years: Die Zauberflöte, Le nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte, Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Idomeneo. He was considered the gold standard of Mozart conductors of his time. The singer ensembles he assembled were legendary.

Richard Strauss’ oeuvre was particularly dear to Böhm’s heart, Strauss being a composer with whom he shared not only a fruitful professional collaboration, but also many years of personal friendship. At the Salzburg Festival, he conducted Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, Arabella, Capriccio, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die schweigsame Frau and Die Frau ohne Schatten, inspiring audiences and critics alike to thunderous applause.

Böhm was also a champion of modernism, however. Against massive political opposition, he ensured that Alban Berg’s Wozzeck was performed at the Festival in 1951 and conducted the world premiere of Gottfried von Einem’s Der Prozeß in 1953.

1979: Herbert von Karajan congratules Karl Böhm to his 85th birthday.

On the occasion of Karl Böhm’s 85th birthday on August 28, 1979, the City Senate decided to rename the Municipal Hall “Karl-Böhm-Saal”.

Born in Graz in 1894, the conductor had begun his career at the opera house there and was appointed General Music Director in Hamburg in 1931, after stations in Munich and Darmstadt. Under his directorship, Darmstadt and Hamburg developed into centres of contemporary music. His playbills included works by Alban Berg, Ernst Krenek, Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky. Modern productions interested Böhm as much as innovative theatrical spaces and stages.

Politically, however, Böhm’s curriculum vitae was overshadowed by his role as a follower during the Nazi era. In 1933 he became a member of the “Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur” (“Combat League for German Culture”) founded by Alfred Rosenberg. In June 1934, this organisation merged with others as part of the Nazis’ social consolidation, becoming the “National-Socialist Cultural Community”. Upon Adolf Hitler’s intercession, Böhm was released from his contract as Hamburg’s General Music Director in 1934 to become the successor of Fritz Busch (1890-1951), whom the Nazi regime had forced to resign and emigrate, at Dresden’s Semper Opera.

1961: Karl Böhm conducting. Credit: Archive of the Salzburg Festival/Photo Karl Ellinger

Böhm’s career during the Nazi era was crowned by his takeover of the Vienna State Opera, where he became director in 1943 at Adolf Hitler’s wish. There, upon the intervention of Reichsleiter Baldur von Schirach, he received the “Aryanised” Villa Regenstreif in Vienna’s 18th District, at Sternwartestraße 70, whose rightful owners were compensated after the war.

In 1944, during the final phase of World War II, when many artists were recruited for active service or obliged to do labour service on the “home front”, Hitler added him to the “List of God’s Talents” as one of the 15 most important conductors, which amounted to a dispensation from military service.

Böhm’s actions during the Third Reich were ambivalent. His rise was aided by the expulsion of Jewish and politically unwanted colleagues. He profited from the Third Reich and came to terms with the system in order to further his career. Böhm was not an Anti-Semite, and his publications are free of Nazi jargon with its plump resentment and racism. Nor was he ever a member of the NSDAP, the Nazi party. However, as the historian Oliver Rathkolb has remarked, he was the artist who “had presumably been the most active non-NSDAP member to provide propaganda for the ‘movement’.” Being a follower replaced his party membership.

At the end of April 1945, the Allies removed Böhm from his director’s position because of his great proximity to the Nazi regime, and forbade him to perform, an injunction that was lifted in 1947. In 1954 he returned once more as the director of the Vienna State Opera for two years. On November 1955, he conducted Beethoven’s liberation opera Fidelio on the occasion of the reopening of the Opera House on Vienna’s Ring.

After 1945 Karl Böhm received high national and international awards and honours, including the “Austrian Decoration for Science and Art” (1970), the “Commander’s Cross of the Federal Republic of Germany” (1960) and the “Commander’s Cross of the French Legion of Honour” (1976).