The Berliner Philharmoniker first played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under the direction of Herbert von Karajan on the occasion of the orchestra’s 75th birthday in April 1957. It was also the work with which Karajan and the orchestra inaugurated Berlin’s new Philharmonie concert hall in October 1963. With its message of the brotherhood of man, the symphony had long carried its own special significance, not least in Berlin during the city’s years of division between West and East. New Year’s Eve performances of the symphony were broadcast live from Berlin in 1967, 1970 and 1977. Karajan’s decision to film the 1977 concert was influenced in part by his belief that the orchestra’s sound had taken on a new power and reach, not least in passages such as the great string recitatives which open the symphony’s finale. After recovering from a serious spinal illness which had nearly cost him his life in the winter of 1975-76, he himself was also returning to the work with a renewed intensity.
The director of the 1977 telecast was the 46-year-old British television producer Humphrey Burton. Karajan approved Burton’s shooting script but insisted on going through it in close detail, keen to ensure that the camera-work was at one with the music’s rhythm and line. “There was no taint of egocentricity here,” Burton recalls. “Karajan’s only concern was the music.”
The broadcast was part of Karajan’s continuing mission to bring great music to a new global audience. Speaking to the orchestra after the performance, he noted with satisfaction that the broadcast had been seen by over 100 million viewers in Europe, Japan and elsewhere. He described the act of music-making as a symbol of harmony, and expressed happiness that he and the orchestra had presented the Ninth as they believed it to be.