Anton Karas

Anton Karas (7 July 1906 10 January 1985) was a Viennese 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.[1]

Early life

Born in Vienna, one of five children of a factory worker, Anton Karas was already keen on music as a child. He wanted to become a band leader, which because of 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.

On the order of his father, he undertook an apprenticeship as a tool and die maker at the age of 14, while also taking evening courses in music at a private institution. He successfully finished his apprenticeship in 1924, and worked in a car-factory until becoming 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 wine bar, typically with a garden, usually selling the year's new wine) and soon found himself earning more income than his father. He continued his studies until 1928.


In 1930, he married, with the birth of his daughter following three months 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 from war action, but always managed somehow to find another one.

The Third Man

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 given the task of showing the director around the city. On the second day they stopped at a Heuriger, a wine tavern where growers offer their own wines for sale directly, and heard Karas playing the zither in the background. This is described in Karas' L.A. Times/Reuters obituary which states that:[2]

Reed, desperately searching for a theme tune ... chanced on the tavern in Vienna's Grinzing wine-growing district. Struck by the simple zither melodies, Reed asked a stunned Karas if he would compose the music for the film. Karas protested, saying he had never actually written music. As Karas later told the story, 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.[3] 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.[4]

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 10 March 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.[5] 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. He later stated, "I never was a star, and never felt like one. It is because of that film that I was pushed from one place to the other ... My only desire was to be back home again." However, 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, he 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, explaining, "I'm not a tourist guy, and what I did there had hardly anything to do with 'Vienna Heuriger'."


  1. The Third Man on YouTube
  2. Anton Karas, 'Third Man'Theme Composer, Dies - LA Times "From Reuters", 1985-01-10
  3. "Wherever the film is shown you can almost see the procession from cinema to gramophone shop. In its first three weeks sales have reached 100,000." (The Continental Daily Mail quoted by Ulrike Granögger, p. 84.)
  4. Karas's biography Archived 2008-10-30 at the Wayback Machine by Peter Payer, p. 13.
  5. "Der Sieveringer Zithervirtuose hat den Streifen kompositorisch untermalt und ersetzt mit seinem Instrument wirkungsvoll ein Orchester. Er beherrscht die Zither mit einer Virtuosität, die aller Anerkennung würdig ist." (Die Presse, 1950-3-11) Rough translation: "The zither-virtuoso from Sievering has composed his accompaniments for the film and effectively replaces, with his instrument, a whole orchestra. He plays the zither with a virtuosity that is praiseworthy."
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