Anton Karas (July 7, 1906 –January 10, 1985) was a Austrian zither player and composer, best known for his internationally famous 1948 soundtrack to Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which came about as a result of a chance meeting. Born on July 7, 1906, in Brigittenau, Vienna, Austria, of Hungarian and Czech origin, one of five children of a factory worker, Karas was already keen on music as a child. He desired to become a band leader, which due to the family’s financial situation was impossible. However, he was allowed to learn to play an instrument, as were his two brothers and two sisters. He later reported that his first zither was one he found in his grandmother’s attic, at the age of 12.
As ordered by his father, Karas started an apprenticeship as a tool and die maker at the age of 14, while also taking music evening courses at a private institution. He successfully finished his apprenticeship in 1924 and worked in a car factory until being unemployed in January 1925. Having already begun to study at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna in 1924, he subsequently earned his living as an entertainer in a Heuriger (a bistro, typically with a garden) and soon found himself earning more income than his father. He continued his studies until 1928. In 1930, he was married, with the birth of his daughter following later. From 1939 to 1945 he was with German Wehrmacht anti-aircraft warfare, temporarily in Russia, where he also took a zither along. He lost more than one instrument due to war action, but always managed somehow to find another one.
In the summer of 1948, director Carol Reed was preparing to shoot The Third Man in Vienna and was staying in the Hotel Sacher along with many of the British element of the Allied Control Commission for Austria. Robert Baty, the young son of the Director of Education, C.W. Baty, was tasked with showing the director around the city. On the second day they stopped at a Heuriger, and heard Karas playing the zither in the background. Reed, desperately searching for a theme tune and struck by the simple zither melodies, asked a stunned Karas if he would compose the music for the film. Karas protested, saying he had never actually written music. The director insisted and invited Karas to England. The Austrian became homesick and asked to be allowed to return. Reed told him he could—as soon as he had written the music. Under this pressure Karas wrote his Harry Lime theme.
The film—with the music a contributing factor—was a gigantic success, and Karas’ life was changed drastically. As a result, he toured all over the world and performed for many celebrities, among them members of the British Royal family. Princess Margaret invited him to London’s fashionable Empress Club, where he played twice a week during his stay at London. He also appeared before Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, members of the Swedish royal family, and Pope Pius XII. By the end of 1949, half a million copies of “The Harry Lime Theme” had been sold, an unprecedented number for the time. The success of the score also caused a surge in zither sales.
In Austria, the film opened on March 10, 1950, in Vienna’s Apollo Kino, and it initially offended some Viennese inhabitants, as it focused on the disgrace of the destroyed city. Vienna’s newspaper critics hated the film, except for its music. When Karas returned to Austria after his first world tour in July 1950, he was welcomed by chancellor Leopold Figl and other members of the government. Most importantly, the public liked the film. In Brigittenau, where Karas was born, people queued for tickets which were sold out eight days in advance. Karas, however, disliked all of the glamour, and his soundtrack proved to be an enduring one-hit wonder. Yet, he went on tour again in 1951, travelling to Montreal and Las Vegas, followed by a number of other tours, including Japan in 1962, 1969 and 1972, where he performed for Emperor Hirohito.
In 1954, Karas opened his own Heuriger, which immediately was fashionable among cinema celebrities including Orson Welles, Gina Lollobrigida, Curd Jürgens, Hans Moser, Paul Hörbiger, Marika Rökk, and Johannes Heesters, thereby becoming a tourist attraction. However, he was still not satisfied, as he would have preferred to perform for locals who would understand him, his language, and music. Because of this, he retired and retreated from the limelight in 1966. Later he and his wife owned and operated a wonderful guest house in the internationally renowned ski resort of Kitzbuhel, Austria. Movie stars, celebrities and nobility from around the world traveled, skied, and raced there from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, to world renowned anthropologist Victor Von Hagan and Olympic Gold Medalist Tony Sailer. Karas died in Vienna on January 10, 1985.
The following work by Anton Karas is contained in my collection:
The Third Man (1949): The Harry Lime Theme.