20 April 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Gundula Janowitz – famous last songs

“I learned to sing by singing with Karajan.”

Gundula Janowitz

Like Schwarzkopf, Price and Ludwig one of the truly indispensable female voices in Karajan’s career, Gundula Janowitz was born in Berlin 1937 and grew up in Austria. The lyric soprano started her career in her early twenties and soon performed with every superlative conductor of her time from Klemperer to Carlos Kleiber.

Karajan worked with her for over 18 years, almost the entire 1960s and 1970s. He cast her especially for the German repertoire – in the opera for Beethoven and Wagner (Sieglinde, Eva, Gutrune, smaller parts in Tannhäuser and Parsifal) in concert for the great sacred works of Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms. One of the most celebrated Karajan recordings of the 1970s was dedicated to Strauss’ “Four Last Songs”.

“Like that certain book, this is one album that I give to friends and acquaintances continually. Although Eleanor Steber and Lisa della Casa do fine interpretations of this monumental work, Janowitz’s performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs has been described, rightly, as transcendental. It aches with love for a life that is quietly fading. I know of no other piece of music, nor any performance, which moves me quite like this.”

David Bowie in Vanity Fair, 2003

When Janowitz was only 40 years old, Karajan stopped working with her (she assumes that it was because of her performing Leonore with Bernstein instead of him). “He kissed my hand and said: ‘Farewell!’”

The first ever Easter Festival in 1967 started with Gundula Janowitz as Sieglinde in “The Valkyrie”. The rehearsals went well, but Janowitz fell on stage and had to be taken to hospital. She was not badly hurt. Many years later she told Richard Osborne:

“Two old ladies had been sitting in the out-patients:

FIRST LADY: Do you remember Karajan, the famous consultant? He treated me here.

SECOND LADY: He’s been dead donkey’s years. (Long pause) They say the two boys are still alive.

FIRST LADY: (Even longer pause) Didn’t one of them go into the music business?”



We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan and Janowitz. Listen to them here.


Some fotos of a unique collaboration:

Janowitz as Marzelline in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in 1962


as Drusilla in Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” in 1963


Karajan and Janowitz in 1964


rehearsing Wagner’s “The Valkyrie” in 1967


the last project: Brahms’ “German Requiem” in 1978


Richard Osborne “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

Vanity Fair, 20 November 2003

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