Brand identity. Karajan and Deutsche Grammophon
by Martin Baker

Herbert von Karajan’s contract with Deutsche Grammophon in 1959 created a ripple, the effect of which, especially in terms of marketing, still has a significant effect today. The Company’s marketing of Karajan’s second complete Beethoven symphony cycle in 1962 was innovative, each LP came with a voucher that entitled the purchaser to acquire a quite sumptuous box (for the time), when all eight LPs had been bought. The design of this box was a landmark in the mass-marketing packaging of records, the full colour front was dominated by a dynamic photograph of Karajan in a central strip framed each side by a gold Greek key border. He looks down upon hand drawn lettering. The portrait had something of a Sistine Chapel prophet about it. The yellow Deutsche Grammophon cartouche overlaps the photograph and border on the right. The whole announced quality and still draws attention.

In record shops Deutsche Grammophon’s yellow label recordings stood out. The design of their sleeves were constant: at the top a cartouche in yellow contained the lettering - as like as not Stempel Garamond, the most elegant cut of this classic face - and the DG tulip crown. The image that covered the sleeve was either a superb portrait photograph or an appropriate illustration or painting. The invaluable Archiv Produktion series were authoritatively packaged in a classic typographic style that reflected traditional German book design. It was imitated, though never equalled, by other early music labels. Few will forget the tactile experience of holding an Archiv boxed set: bound in a beige fabric with calligraphic lettering embossed into the texture. By comparison the other major labels, those of HMV, Decca, Philips, etc., were mostly dull and, because there was no redeeming house style, had little value in creating a brand identity. Only CBS in the United States showed any creative respect for their product.

Strangely in the UK the advertisements for Deutsche Grammophon that appeared in Gramophone and Record Review in the 1960s lacked the design distinction of their German counterparts; also the LPs that were manufactured in Britain often contained factory induced hisses and scratches (England, after all, is a land without music!).

In 1971 I began an enjoyable association with Deutsche Grammophon, initially creating the monthly advertisements for the two classical record magazines. The first was for Karajan’s recording that included 6 Vivaldi concertos. Years before I had been riled by a musical aesthete’s comment that the Red Priest wrote 1 concerto – 445 times and used the phrase, tongue-in-cheek, as a dialectic headline. In the recordings, anachronistic or not, I don’t think that there’s a more exquisite example of an orchestral sostenuto than in Karajan’s version of the B minor Sinfonia.

The photographers Karajan favoured indubitably consolidated the strength of the conductor’s iconography. The most important was Siegfried Lauterwasser and the early photographic sessions in the Jesus Christus Kirche in Berlin, where Karajan first recorded under his new contract with DG, captured the vitality and dynamism of the conductor and became the template for all subsequent visual treatments. Lauterwasser created the image of Karajan with dramatic use of backlighting and flattering long focus lenses. The videos and DVDs maintained this, albeit with some slightly questionable editing sleight of hand. I used one of Lauterwasser’s portraits as the basis of a drawing I made for the 1972 Berlin Philharmonic concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, London. The idea was to ‘frame’ the conductor with images of composers that formed the central core of his repertoire, the illustration was used on the cover of the Gramophone and also as an advertisement where readers were invited to guess the names of all those featured.

In 1974 the New Viennese set was released. I remember the astonishment at the Polydor offices just off Oxford Street in London when we heard the apocalypses in the Berg Three Pieces, and the orchestral finesse and delicate balance of the Webern Passacaglia was immediately seductive. I doubt that it seduced any of the diehard and radical modernists, however the recordings certainly gave a new radical credibility to Herbert von Karajan. “The New Generation of Karajan recordings” signalled new directions to coincide with their creation in the new Philharmonie in Berlin. The set needed no hyperbole and in the advertisement I decided to let the conductor’s words speak for it alone. Note: Click on the image below to view a larger, more readable version.

A recording of Prussian and Austrian marches appeared with a hurriedly revised double sleeve cover. Karajan had originally requested that it contained flames, Teutonic militaria, (and, apocryphally, Nazi regalia). When the set was advertised in The Soldier a degree of irony was used for the headline.

1977 was the official centenary for the recording of music. I wrote a corporate advertisement for Deutsche Grammophon that claimed rights for it being the first Company in the field. It was a very effective advertisement, alluding to the 3 great conductors of the BPO, Nikisch, Furtwängler and Karajan as examples of its longevity. There were threats of legal action from John Patrick of EMI when he pounced on me during the interval of a concert. I think that Nipper barked a bit too. History is always a grey area, especially when companies change ownership as often (and unhappily) as those in the record industry. In any case the Deutsche Grammophon advert was pre-emptive, confirming what most record buyers already believed, that the German company held an authoritative pre-eminence over the competition. Even if some of the areas of provenance resisted close scrutiny.

The two Wagner advertisements focussed on Karajan’s Nibelung cycle. There is this dichotomy with Karajan: where his interpretations of Wagner might be expected towards Bavarian tub-thumping rhetoric, he creates, instead, a transparent aural stage where the light and shade in the music has an almost forensic quality. Musically the Karajan Ring cycle has a visceral intensity that, especially in the subterranean scenes, hints at the sinister mythologies that informed Germany’s recent history and is probably closer to the heart of the narrative’s darkness than any other recording. The advertisement, A Conducted Tour, while featuring the Ring, catalogued all other DG complete Wagner opera recordings.

Herbert von Karajan created enormous profits for Deutsche Grammophon, much of which enabled the Company to produce recordings of unusual or historic repertoire, or launching young musicians on stellar careers. Young musicians today have little opportunity to reach a record buying audience, or indeed apprentice themselves over time, as the young Karajan did, to learning a professional discipline. Following Abbado’s and Barenboim’s exceptional collaborations with the Berlin Philharmonic, there has been no obvious successor among the younger generation as inheritor of Karajan’s baton; and even the most vehemently anti-Karajan critic must have been bemused by the Berliners’ choice of Simon Rattle, although possibly it might just have been the Berliners desire for the narcotic effect of the double-bed after the hurly burly of the chaise-longue.

Martin Baker May 2008

Note: With grateful thanks to Martin Baker

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