Slovenian village of Mojstrana

The Shared Slovenian Ancestors of Herbert von Karajan and Hugo Wolf

By Branka Lapajne—— Bio and Archives--April 4, 2008

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On 5 April 2008, the music world will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Herbert von Karajan, considered by many to be the most influential conductor in musical history. This is an appropriate time to make public the results of years of genealogical research.


What are the chances that two world-renowned men of music could trace some of their origins to the same small Slovenian village? What are the chances that these same two men would actually be distantly related? Very small, possibly even infinitesimal. Yet such appears to be the case with the world famous lieder composer Hugo Wolf and the equally famous conductor Herbert von Karajan. Both men are descended, through their mothers, from the northwestern Slovenian village of Mojstrana.

The paternal ancestors of Herbert von Karajan have been traced to Greek Macedonia, from where his great-great-grandfather emigrated to Germany. He later moved to Vienna, where succeeding generations were born. Little is known about Karajan’s maternal origins and what has been written about them has been incorrect. Karajan’s maternal ancestors have been identified variously as Slovak and Serbian. Franz Endler (Karajan. Eine Biographie, Hamburg 1992) described Karajan’s mother Martha Kosmatsch (Marta Kosmač) as good and musical, but does not mention her origins. It is most surprising that her origins are not documented in the exhibit in the recently opened Karajan centre in Salzburg, where she is simply described as being of Slavic origin.

This is particularly surprising, as today it is evident that Karajan knew Slovenian, a fact confirmed by his very good friend and conductor Carlos Kleiber. On a visit to Ljubljana in the spring of 1993, Kleiber reported that a congratulatory telegram written in Slovenian was sent to Karajan on his 75th birthday from Zasavje (the central part of Slovenia and the home of Kleiber’s wife, the ballerina Stanka Brezovar). Evidently he did not hide his Slovenian origins through his mother, if Kleiber knew about them. However, this fact is not widely known in Austrian cultural circles.

The maternal origins of Hugo Wolf were a matter of record at least as early as 1940, when Dr. Walter Rauschenberger researched Wolf’s family tree for his Ahnentafeln beruhmter Deutscher. Ahnentafel des Komponisten Hugo Wolf, Leipzig 1940. In this book Rauschenberger revealed that Kaspar Nussbaumer, the grandfather of Hugo Wolf’s mother Catharina, was born Kaspar Orehovnik in Mojstrana, in the then Habsburg province of Carniola (Kranjska). Nussbaumer is the German translation for Orehovnik and was probably adopted by Kaspar when he moved to Wolfsbach near Malborghet in Carinthia, today Valbruna near Malborghetto in Italy. Catharina’s mother’s surname, Stank, also indicates a Slovenian origin.

Though Rauschenberger, and subsequent Wolf biographer Frank Walker, claimed a predominantly German origin for Wolf’s paternal ancestors, recent scholarship has confirmed that Hugo Wolf is thoroughly Slovenian, on both maternal and paternal sides. His paternal grandfather was born Vouk/Vovk in Šentjur near Celje. When he moved to Slovenj Gradec (Windischgraetz), in the present-day Slovenian province of Štajerska (Styria), the name was germanized to Wolf in the official church records. Jože Leskovar, director of the music school in Wolf’s birth-house in Slovenj Gradec, revealed this information in 1987. The following year this data was published by Kurt Honolka in his monograph on Wolf (Kurt Honolka, Hugo Wolf. Sein Leben, sein Werk, seine Zeit, Stuttgart 1988).

I first became aware of Karajan’s Slovenian origins at the time of his death in 1989, when news of his death appeared in the Slovenian daily Delo, (July 17, 1989). For some inexplicable reason I overlooked the exact place of origin until a rereading of the clipping in 1997, prior to another visit to Slovenia. When Karajan’s maternal grandfather’s name and place of birth was noted, it immediately sparked the thought of a possible relationship between the famous conductor and the composer Hugo Wolf.

Towards the end of 2005, I learnt of an article by prof. Dr. Heinz Schöny, long-time custodian and advisor in the history museum in Vienna, who wrote about Karajan’s Slovenian origins in that same daily, March 20, 1985. As a genealogist of artists, including some Slovenian, and musicians, he asked the custodian of the National Gallery in Ljubljana, Dr. Ksenija Rozman, to search Slovenian archives for information about Karajan’s ancestors from Mojstrana. He then revealed this information in detail, in the aforementioned article in Delo. He also wrote about Wolf’s maternal ancestors from the Kanal valley and from Mojstrana, with the original surname Orehovnik and germanized Nussbaumer, and expressed the thought that the two musicians might be related. This has been shown and confirmed to be the case. Unaware of his article, I came to the same conclusion and confirmed his, to me unknown theory, with the help of the available documents.

Just the fact that both men have ancestors originating from the village of Mojstrana increased the possibility of a kinship between them. Not particularly large even today, the parish of the combined villages of Dovje and Mojstrana had a population of 1018 people in 1827, twelve years before the birth of Karajan’s grandfather Michael Kosmatsch (Mihael Kosmač). In 1755, ten years before Hugo Wolf’s great-grandfather Kaspar Orehovnik was born, the population was just 926. Going back to 1501 the area had only 35 homesteads and twelve cottagers, of which only five homesteads were located in Mojstrana. This noticeably increased the odds in favour of a relationship between the Kosmač and Orehovnik families.

In order to establish whether there was a common lineage, it was necessary to check the local church records to determine the family trees of both men. In the Status Animarum, a record of parishioners kept according to household, the date of birth and names of the parents of Mihael Kosmač were located. His position as a minor government official in Graz and his marriage date were similarly recorded. Counting Mihael, a six to seven generation family tree was prepared from the existing church records. Unfortunately, some marriage dates were not found because of lack of time, while the marriage records prior to 1710 are no longer available, lost over the years. This made a number of the female lines impossible to track down. A slightly shorter family tree was prepared for Kaspar Orehovnik. While his father’s first marriage was found easily, the subsequent marriage of Kaspar’s parents initially was impossible to locate. When eventually discovered it was registered as Thomas Robitsh vel [or] Orehounik. The Robitsch/Robič name, while a surname, appears in this case to have been the ‘house-name’.

In rural Slovenia there is a custom, going back a number of centuries, whereby each house has a name which may or may not be the same as that of the family living there. This name appears to be that of the person who first built the house. Through subsequent generations, regardless of whether the farm or house was inherited by the male or female line, or even sold to an unrelated individual, the house-name remained the same. Even today neighbours will refer to each other by this house-name and it is not unusual for them to be ignorant of each other’s surname.

An examination of the two family trees indicated that one surname was common to both. Kaspar’s maternal grandmother was a Barbara Lauteshar (Lavtežar) born in 1699, while Mihael’s paternal grandmother was a Maria Lautisher (Marija Lavtižer) born in 1766. Tracing these branches as far back as records go, it was determined that the women were descendants of two sons of Johann and Magdalena Lauteshar, a Jakob born in 1676 and a Joannis born in 1679 respectively. A relationship between Hugo Wolf and Herbert von Karajan was definitely established. In the original research conducted in 1997, only one Lavtižar family was located in the records for Dovje / Mojstrana during the 1670’s. However, a subsequent examination in 2006 of the christening index (1676–1784), prepared in the 19th century, located three other couples from 1678 onwards. The original christening books from 1676 to 1760 were not available at this time due to poor binding. However, despite this fact, there were no other Jakob or Joannis born to any other couple in over twenty years. This is very unusual, particularly with the name Joannis / Janez, which until around WWII was one of three names (Jožef (Joseph) and Marija (Maria) being the other two) which were a must in nearly every Slovenian family.

The 1754 census records show four Lavtižar families in Mojstrana/Dovje, the same number as during the period 1678 to 1688. Among others was the family of Valentin Lautischer 48 years old, Magdalena 39 years, son Mathia 10, Andrea 5, Maria 17 and Valentin’s mother Magdalena as “alte hauswurthin” (old housekeeper) 83. Matija Lavtižar born in 1744 was the great-grandfather of Mihael Kosmač. An examination of tithe books from 1622 and 1625 showed that there was no Lavtižar family in Dovje/Mojstrana at that time. This indicated that the family came from elsewhere, most probably the neighbouring parish of Kranjska Gora, where this surname is relatively common.

Circumstances in 1997 did not permit an inspection of its records, which go back to 1638 for marriages, prior to the writing of my first article published in Slovenia. Later research located the marriage record of Joannis Lauteshar and Magdalena in Kranjska Gora. According to the entry, on October 6, 1669 Joannis Valthesar (Lavtežar), legitimate son of Clementis Valthesar from Cronau (Kranjska Gora) married Magdlum (Magdalena) legitimate daughter of Clementis Potoznik (Potočnik) from the parish of Lengfeldensis (Dovje). However, it appears very likely that the actual marriage itself took place in Dovje. There are two reasons for this assumption. Firstly, marriages normally occurred in the home parish of the bride, not the groom. Secondly, the entry is rather brief, with no witnesses recorded. In the research of other parishes I occasionally have come across similar entries in the groom’s parish when the original marriage, together with witnesses, was recorded in the parish of the bride. If this is the case, then we are doubly fortunate, as without this entry a confirmed connection to Kranjska Gora would not have been possible.

Though only one set of common ancestors has been confirmed from available sources for Wolf and Karajan, there is a strong probability that more would have been discovered if the marriage records, going back another fifty to one hundred years before 1710 still existed. At present, further research is being conducted on the records which were unavailable until last year, for more extensive family trees on both men. It may be possible to find other connections for the as yet unknown families on the female lines. Nothing can be excluded.

My interest in searching for a connection between Hugo Wolf and Herbert von Karajan is based on personal as well as academic interest. As both a genealogist and historian, as well as a serious student of music, I have a personal association with Mojstrana, the place of origin of one branch of my family. Furthermore, while my connection to Hugo Wolf has yet to be positively confirmed (there appear to be one or two possible linkages), I was able to document at least five separate connections to different ancestors of Mihael Kosmač and thus Herbert von Karajan, including three sets of common ancestors. 

While biographers indicate that von Karajan inherited his musical talent from his father, this genealogical connection to Hugo Wolf indicates another possible source, the Lavtižar family from Mojstrana and Kranjska Gora.

Historian, genealogist,  political observer / commentator and researcher, as well as photographer, Branka Lapaine received her BA from the University of Toronto; PH.D. from University of London, England. Publisher of The Phoenix, a political publication which ran from 1986 to 1991, she is the author of several booklets (CUSO and Radicalism, etc.) and numerous articles. Branka is also the author of a genealogical guidebook.


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