Franz Welser-Möst, music director of the Vienna Opera and the Cleveland Orchestra, used the bicentennary of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde to deliver a reasoned, well-rounded and altogether scathing analysis of the state of classical music in 2012.
‘We in Europe,’ he argues, ‘as well as in America and the entire Western world, can no longer take for granted our claim to leadership in the cultural matters we have inherited. Quite clearly, a bypass lane has opened next to us’. So, he goes on to ask: ‘Are we faced with a phenomenon of “Asianization,” much like the “Americanization” of a century ago?’
Franz goes on to attack an event-driven culture at music festivals and elsewhere. He attacks concert administrators who feed tabloid values ahead of creative content. ‘With the “event” as defined by reports in glossy magazines becoming the sole point, and with the organizers using business success to distract themselves from poor artistic quality— (this) is testament to short-sightedness, and a contribution to the process by which art and culture erode.’
(He names no culprits but we think we may know who he means. Gidon Kremer might agree).
Here is the first half of the Welser-Möst diatribe, in a text recorded and translated exclusively for Slipped Disc. The second half, equally forthright, follows here.
200 Years of the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna
200 years ago, a group of enthusiasts was moved by their love of music to form a society which founding charter states the following: “The uplifting of music in all its aspects is the primary purpose of the Society; members’ own pursuit and enjoyment thereof are merely subordinate objectives.”
Aside from the fact that the Society’s founding took place not only out of a love for music, but also for patriotic and social reasons, it was also a great deed in terms of cultural policy. Because here, various social classes—above all the ascendant bourgeoisie—began manifesting a desire for freedom and independence, with the arts understood to be an important part of their own culture and portrayed as constituent to their identity.
It is entirely justified that such an anniversary be taken as an occasion to look back and appreciate the singular status of this institution worldwide, and to be proud of it. But I think that such a celebration should, most importantly, serve to entertain the question of just where this journey is to take us—as an institution, as a country and as a society.
For many centuries, this city has known that human beings cannot exist without dreams. Art gives rise to identity by reminding us that we are unable to live without dreams. Two hundred years ago, the establishment of this Society was a manifestation of the dream of freedom, the political and social freedom that we see demonstrated so vividly and emotionally in Beethoven’s music, which we can experience in exactly the same way today.
One hundred years ago, the dream of the unlimited ability to travel brought about an enormous acceleration of life—something which human beings still have yet to completely digest. And now, one hundred years later, we are reliving this situation with respect to the speed of communication, a challenge that looms before us like an unconquerable peak.
It is impossible to see clearly into the fog of the future, but if we desire to know not only where we are going but also how we want to shape the journey, then we must first take stock of and analyze our cultural sector, as it stands and as part of a whole. In the interest of obtaining a better view and understanding it within a larger context, we would do well to take a step back and look at the broadest-possible picture.
One hundred years ago, the art world reacted to the phenomenon of acceleration by taking up the archaic—just think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. At that time, America was just embarking on the process of ascending to its future lead role in the Western world, and European culture grew not only curious about America, beginning to integrate it into its art, but also began adopting more and more from America in a process that was slow—and made even slower by the powerful political earthquakes of the 20th century—but nonetheless unstoppable. Much in today’s Europe is “Americanized.” As a “part-time American” myself, I ascertain this without any judgmental intent.
Today, it seems to me that our Western world—including America—is once again subject to fundamental changes with regard to culture and our understanding thereof. Are we faced with a phenomenon of “Asianization,” much like the “Americanization” of a century ago? This would seem entirely conceivable when one thinks of the phenomenon of Lang Lang, which has resulted in one million children taking piano lessons and ten million Twitter followers in China alone. One must not discount this simply as a sort of pop-cultural phenomenon within classical music; it much rather shows us that we in Europe, as well as in America and the entire Western world, can no longer take for granted our claim to leadership in the cultural matters we have inherited: quite clearly, a passing lane has opened up right next to us.
In the world of Indian divinities, there are the gods Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu, the Preserver and Shiva, the Destroyer—all three of whom share equal status. Viewed in this context, we in the Western world would to an excessive extent be worshippers of Vishnu, the Preserver! The mere pursuit of maintenance, or often even just administration, paying no heed to the necessity of both creation and destruction, is enough to undermine the foundations of any culture—including our own.
Cultivation, which must be one of the foundations of any society, requires creativity. We should be giving this more thought, formulating new dreams and setting new goals—to aim for the impossible, both for ourselves and for coming generations, and to perhaps come just a bit closer to precisely that which we will never achieve. Any person who wants to accomplish something special does precisely this: he declares the impossible to be his goal, that is his motivation—failure is an integral part of the equation and, moreover, a major factor on the path of progress.
Culture’s maintenance is important, but so is its renewal. Merely broadening our scope, as we see happening with many festivals these days, entails becoming more shallow rather than opening up, as it is falsely portrayed. Art should and indeed must be accessible to everyone, but “tabloidization”—with the “event” as defined by reports in glossy magazines becoming the sole point, and with even the organizers using business success to distract themselves from poor artistic quality—is testament to short-sightedness, and it is also a contribution to the process by which art and culture erode. Art must plumb the depths as an important part of our dream-world, the world that we should dream of—but it is also, as it indeed must be, an expression of its times. We live in an age of superficiality, but precisely this what we must fight back against, showing that more exists than just quick satisfaction and the addiction to records, which I find perverse in artistic events because it degrades art into a mass-produced good. Subtlety and complex engagement with our own existence are difficult to communicate, but this communication is an essential task of the arts and of those working in the cultural field. Organizers and promoters must facilitate precisely this, rather than undermining it with “events.”