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Franz Welser-Möst part 2: We must shun cultural ‘superiority’

Here’s the second part of FW-M’s keynote on the state of classical music 2012. In the first half, he attacked Asianisation and tabloidisation. Here, he seems to reject cultural supremacism and calls for more risk, more ‘exceptional’ art.

A word about art and, above all, the music of today: to those who are so fond of wrongly and mistakenly calling on Adorno with reference to contemporary music, appointing themselves guardians of modernism itself, let it be said to them: Pierre Boulez, whom I greatly admire, said 20 years ago in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that a tree has many branches!

I’d like to add to this the following: arrogance is uncreative and crippling. Music in its most artful form has also always nourished itself from sources such as popular music and nature. And today, with us having been “globalized” and also acting that way, it would be a contribution to the decadence of our culture if, in the field of new music, we were to retreat into the ivory tower of cultural “superiority.” The connection of intellect and emotion, which music needs and without which it would not survive, can only be experienced when dealing with the audience. And all too often, over the past decades of programming new music, we have seen not conviction but rather political correctness and the currying of favor with self-proclaimed high priests of modernism, and instead of curiosity we have seen fig leaves. Far too often, this has constrained creativity, indeed often choking it off entirely.

Some philosophies of our era would assert that science has superseded religion. If this applied to art, this would entail art’s abandonment of its very self. And that would rob us of our dreams!

So just where is this journey headed?

In our culture, we still need individuals and institutions who do not shy away from being elites, but also do not withdraw to the ivory tower—simply put, those who are prepared to forge ahead. The exceptional will always be viewed as suspect at first, but later on be regarded as visionary and, indeed, celebrated.

I would wish for my beloved Musikverein, for this city, this country, Europe, and the Western word, an unerring sense for quality in our culture. That we might not only maintain it, administrate it, or—in the worst case—take it for granted, but above all show openness, curiosity and courage toward the new and other.

Hegel said, “The freedom of art condemns it to be subjective.” What he meant, of course, is that in art, as well, freedom is to be found within order—this is something that every musician knows. But if one reads his sentence differently, namely from the standpoint of cultural policy, it is a fatal statement—the contradiction of which must be a challenge for all of us to take up.

Creativity only arises in places where self-satisfaction is not predominant. Art leads us to deal with our very being, to go in-depth, and it is also the attempt to penetrate to the core our individual existence. On this journey into the fog of the future, one seems to go in circles—this is, in fact, a spiraling path that leads into the depths, toward the core of knowledge itself. The energy for this is the investment we must make in creativity. Every society, every country, every institution must take on to this task of intellectual investment and innovation. Only in this way can the journey actually proceed onward. The story of this society and this institution’s founding showed us this, and it must show us this more than ever in the future.




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  1. Joep Bronkhorst says:

    Like the Boulez quote, this address reads as though it was written 20 years ago! Young composers take their inspiration from different cultures, jazz and pop, and modernist works in equal measure. What needs to happen is more pro-active commissioning and support of these fine young talents – and why FWM doesn’t bother to mention this is beyond me.

  2. I really like this part of his statement: “I would wish for my beloved Musikverein, for this city, this country, Europe, and the Western word, an unerring sense for quality in our culture. That we might not only maintain it, administrate it, or—in the worst case—take it for granted, but above all show openness, curiosity and courage toward the new and other.”

    Words like that send a strong message to the hide-bound orchestral world of Vienna. Austria has so much to give to the future, but spends so much time looking in the rear-view mirror. I also like his observation that self-satisfaction causes stagnation. To use a homely analogy, art is like riding a bicycle. It can’t stand in place or it falls over. Art must always go forward to new worlds or it dies.

    Thanks for posting his talk. Very interesting.

    • “Austria has so much to give to the future, but spends so much time looking in the rear-view mirror.”

      Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear!

  3. Daniel Farber says:

    I agree entirely with Joep Bronkhurst: this battle for a more diverse creativity in contemporary music was won quite some time ago and so find FWM’s text to be something like using an axe to get through an already-opened door. In the 60′s when I was in graduate school, composers were, or at least felt very strongly that they were, compelled to write twelve-tone music, and at some of these schools students of significant ability who did not adhere to the line “suggested” by their professors either found their works going unperformed or else were asked to withdraw from programs and find a different venues. I am informed, reliably I hope, that no such dogmatism any longer exists in what FWM is calling the ivory tower.

    • Composers in the USA have embraced a post-modern aesthetic that embraces a wide range of styles, but in continental Europe modernism still dominates contemporary music. Exceptions exist, and things seem to be changing a bit, but the rule of modernism still holds.

  4. I strongly believe that the reason classical music, especially symphonic music, has lost its “main stream” culture appeal in the modern society is largely due to the “culture snob” phenomenon, the idea that great music does not need to be explained. It is so dumb and short sighted and has taken this great art to the edge of future extinction. Conductors, critics, and administrators are mainly to be blamed here. A lot highly educated and intellectually curious people don’t give a crap about classical music these days not because they are too stupid, rather because the classical music is not easy to understand and resonate with. They are the potential market for this great art form and vastly out number those who, by the luck of draw, have connected with the genre.

    • Nick,
      During the rehearsal for his last string quartets with Schuppanzigh, someone ask Beethoven why that music was so difficult that the majority could not understand, and the composer replied: “It do not belong to this generation, but to the future ones”. Perhaps, He was talking about us on 2012. Do you think Stravinsky was really easy for his contemporaries, kind of Rite of the spring premiere? There are many cases where a simple popular folk music inspired a composer to produce something more complex, for example Mozart and Turkish music, Liszt along Gipsy, Bartok with Hungarian and Villa-Lobos Brazilian music roots among many other. I don’t think the problem is regarding that we must explain everything and make things too easy, but maybe because people don’t want to spend too much time to understand something. Everything must be disposable, just for instantaneous and superficial pleasure. Your comment could be compared with someone saying that no one understand movies of Von Trier, Amos Gitai, Terry Gilliam, Nicole Holofcener, Daniel Burman etc. And that’s the reason why they do not have too much audience. Does Bergman was a blockbuster on the 60’s such a Jerry Lewi’s movie? So, should these directors change the approach in order to be accessible such a Batman movie? Or should the audience keep a little patience and real intention to really use their brain a little and disclosure by themselves the findings? And not just fill it with adrenaline through physical emotion and obvious plot? How an art can produce benefits without producing substantial results?

      • LA Musician says:

        I think you are confusing what thoughts Nick is trying to convey. I think he is not proposing dumbing down the creative process,. The industry needs to work harder to make the sophisticated beauty and insight of music much more accessible in a way that is effective so average educated people can connect with easily. On this modern age, with so many different forms of entertainment to compete with, most people will not give much time to spend on things that one does not understand. How much has been dedicated in R&D for this?

        • LA,
          In this case, what should be the changes the industry should work harder to make music more accessible and easily connectable now-a-days?

          • I would like to advocate the industry to invest in R&D of new user experiences in listening/watching music. Not merely the delivery part, ie Internet streaming or in cinema HD, but the essence of hearing, understanding and appreciating music. Simple watching and listening to classical music in traditional way can not compete with other entertainment forms today. For example, Youtube is full of great classical videos, and yet, they get pathetic traffic statistic compare to other types of videos. The reason of this is people don’t find interesting to spend time on things that they don’t understand. If free experience can not even attract serious public attention, how can paid one?

          • Agree with you Shenyeh, But what would be done in order to make classical music understandable? I think you talking about quantity when you said “serious”, no? If YouTube was operating during the 30′s, who do you think would receive more traffic? Toscanini or Glenn Miller? No doubt the later would be a knock-out. If other “entertainment” forms today spend so much in R&D for communication channels, why classical music cannot do the same. Agree. However, do you really think that even if they use all tools of other kinds of culture or even develop new ones dimensioned to classical M specific purposes, that It will increase audience? (They are already using a lot from Pop Culture – Cute faces saying silly things). Now-a-days with all communication devices and internet, many reliable resources for free, different from any time in the history, do you think that people got less opportunities to understand something than in the past? People just don’t want to spend too much time thinking and reflecting about anything, because as you said, it is just entertainment. That’s what I was trying to say to Nick, two comments above. I’m not against changes, but it must be something accurate to produce the expected results.

    • Victoria Clarke says:

      I think you can safely say there is a wealth of great classical music out there, most of which you can have for free on Youtube, but in a celebrity obsessed society, you can guess who gets the traffic.

  5. Good Art thrives in good patronage

  6. Victoria Clarke says:

    The ‘public’ in this country has no idea about what constitutes good or bad art. We tend to live in a society miseducated to believe that commercial success equals excellence. It doesn’t. We have been sold a pup by the capitalist record labels Universal and Sony, who control what we listen to by making us choose from the options available to us. To most people, the decision to listen to classical music is influenced by what they have heard prepackaged on Classic FM, or what is available at the checkout in Tesco. Celebrity is a much stronger sales factor than competence, which is why Il Divo can be awarded the Brit for best artist of the decade, Kaff can get her own show, and Andre can fill cinemas across the country. The people buying this stuff are not stupid, they are fooled by the PT Barnum show into supporting cheap art and cheating well meaning, working musicians who have trained hard to be the best at what they do. No-one wants the best anymore, mediocrity is far more lucrative.

    • I agree with your first sentence but the reference to “capitalist record labels” reminds me of student days.

      Surely the education system, which turns out kids with virtually no knowledge of classical whatsoever (or jazz, for that matter), must share some of the blame, along with the non capitalist BBC TV, which does b****r all for most of the year.

      Lastly, although I cringe at Classical FM’s definition of classical as anything with violins, at least some people who would never buy a classical CD are listening to the real stuff some of the time.

  7. Pardon me, but what a bunch of arrogant phony baloney coming from someone who’s supposed to be speaking against the very thing!

    No wonder the arts are in trouble throughout the western world. All that prominent artists seem able to do is launch drivel, which is completely detached from the real world. And then they’re so very surprised that nobody, politicians included takes them seriously except for the approx. 4% of the population that attends symphony orchestras.

    What is wrong with recordings? They have brought a far wider repertoire before people than symphony orchestras have been able to do over the past 150 years. Universal and Sony are just lame elephants trying to sell classical music through sex and crossover. The creative labels, like NAXOS, Hyperion, Chandos et al. bring forgotten symphonic works back to life in a way that Welser-Most never has or will.

    Of course, it is very generous of Welser-Most to have the courage to speak (in very veiled terms) against the Darmstadt school of composers, but he knows all too well that so long as this school and its clones are installed at music schools in the western world, not much is likely to change about contemporary music. Does he think that a composer – on another branch of the tree – is going to start composing neo-romantic music so increasingly illiterate audiences aren’t scared from the concert hall?

    Wishful thinking, cultural elitism and nonsense all the way through the interview. If Welser-Most thinks this will cut it among those that make decisions about culture in his world, he is hopelessly misguided. But now, at least, we know that his speeches are about as uplifting and interesting as the concerts he conducts.

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