Is music in Germany as brilliant as reported?

January 7, 2018 by norman lebrecht


The Financial Times, one of the last newspapers of genuine authority, has published a situation report by Richard Fairman under the headline, ‘Why Germany is classical music’s superpower’.

Fairman maintains that: ‘A glance around the international music scene in 2017 leaves little doubt that musical life in Germany has taken an unassailable lead and is only rising higher at a time when arts organisations in many countries are wrestling with dwindling financial support and audiences.’

He adds that the growth is even-handed, across east and west: ‘The unique strength of the orchestras from the east is that they preserved their traditional sound and style during the long years of isolation in the Soviet bloc when orchestras in many Western countries were starting to sound the same.’

Er, yes, up to a point.

But consider:

1 Since 1989 Germany has abolished more than 40 orchestras, most of them in the east. That is more than the rest of Europe put together.

2 German conservatoires are packed with Chinese and Korean students on full scholarships because not enough young Germans want to make music their life.

3 Fairman points out that none of today’s leading German composers, all middle-aged men, can command an international audience. He omits to mention that most of the new composer prizewinners in Germany are women. And most are not German.

Where does that leave Germany’s musical future?

Comments (32)

  1. Hilary says:

    “Fairman points out that none of today’s leading German composers, all middle-aged men, can command an international audience”
    Not strictly true. A glance at Jörg Widmann’s biography suggests otherwise. For what it’s worth (not much, as this is no indicator of the inherent value of his music): major performances in recent years in USA, Japan and U.K.
    Doubtlessly, there are other examples but he sprang to mind after attending a successful Wigmore Hall premiere last Thursday.

    1. Olassus says:

      But Widmann is awful — patchy, shallow, borrowed, immature.

      1. Hilary says:

        rather nondescript solo clarinet piece aside (an early piece, in any case), what I heard
        didn’t strike me as less potent than say Julian Anderson. If anything , more so, in the way it cleverly ducked and dived out of tonal reference points.

        1. John Borstlap says:

          Widmann’s touching of tonal reference points demonstrates the ‘Berührungsangst’ in German composers in relation to their own tradition. Every glimpse of something possibly ‘tonal’ is punished by its negation. He is a charlatan, in my opinion, an excellent player who has understood how easy it is to play the German establishment game.

          1. Olassus says:

            Charlatan is too harsh. He is a sweet guy with good, easy relationships, including with bureaucrats who dole out commissions. As a composer yourself, you know how these things snowball.

  2. Paul MacAlindin says:

    I’m only somewhat qualified to opine, after spending 15 years in Germany. The issue of Asian students in German conservatoires is not specific to Germany. Conservatoire business models are, generally speaking, about income, expansion and survival, like every other academic institution. If the UK only had home grown students, where would we be? Germany does have more orchestras than it can afford, particularly in the cash strapped East, where orchestral mergers between two towns have been one solution. This is still a vastly stronger scene than elsewhere in Europe, except maybe Finland.
    As for international recognition, who cares? Orchestras and opera houses in Germany are deeply linked with the civic life of one or two towns. That, historically, is the whole point. Many German musicians may not particularly be worthy of international recognition, but that’s because they’re too busy serving their key stakeholders, their local and regional communities.
    And this leads to my final point. In Germany, artists do not need to justify their existence. They are an accepted and embraced living part of society, partly because Germany has a strongly traditional concept of society and identity on a local and regional level. Living in Cologne, a city of just under one million, sitting on the Rhein, I could expect to see 15 orchestras on average tour through the Kölner Philharmonie each month as they chugged along the Essen, Düsseldorf, Köln, Bonn, Frankfurt artery. This kept everyone in touch with diverse international standards, as touring through mainland Europe is relatively easy. And here in the UK, outside London maybe, where can I get that?
    So, it’s somewhat duplicitous to suggest that international success can only be measured in terms of the English speaking world when there are many hugely successful artists who just can’t be bothered visiting us; their connections are simply elsewhere.

    1. Valentin says:

      Didn’t see your post as I was busy writing my own, couldn’t possibly agree more. Just one thing, Cologne has passed the one million mark in the beginning of this century;-). Greetings from this very city…

    2. Scotty says:

      Greetings from a Yank in Cologne. Do German conservatories charge tuition? My impressions was that they don’t, even to foreigners.

      And Valentin, it’s true that Cologne claims over a million residents, but that claim is controversial. Where do all of these people live? I think the count includes the tourists who stop by to take selfies at the Dom.

    3. Chris b says:

      Outside of London?
      Try the City of Birmingham. Two world class concert halls and the cbso

      1. Una says:

        Germany has 50 odd opera houses with independent orchestras. Still far more paid work there Inspite of German cutbacks.

        1. RW2013 says:

          Actually about 80.
          “Walküre in Detmold” (Bollmann) is an amusing read about all of them.

  3. Valentin says:

    It’s neither black nor white.
    1) Of course every orchestra, that has been abolished, is one too much. But don’t forget that there are still more than 120 fully paid orchestras in Germany, not mentioning the vast variety of freelance ensembles.
    2) That is actually quite a point, but I wouldn’t worry about Chinese or Korean students, I’d rather worry about why classical music has become such an unpopular profession to pick in Germany. Changes in the school system, fewer jobs and falling or stagnating wages are some of the things that need to be watched and altered.
    3) Widmann, Pintscher, Eggert only to name a few. I don’t see a problem with succeeding women composers, wherever they may come from.

    Summing up I wouldn’t use the term ‘superpower’ but I’d rather talk about being the country that still provides classical music in almost every corner. So, yes, it is the still the world’s leading country for classical music. But many things have to become better. Still I wouldn’t worry about musicians being not german but rather about the declining infrastructure of classical music

    1. Gennady says:

      Musicians being not German is a part (one of the reasons) of the declining infrastructure of classical music. It’s more difficult for the musician of non-Eupean culture of origin to compell the European audience (I don’t mean the technical perfection)

      1. Scotty says:

        So you’re in favor of all-Aryan orchestras?

        1. John Borstlap says:

          Aryans are the best! Evelyn Lear, Nathalie Dessay, Leon Fleisher, Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Emanuel Ax, Daniel Barenboim, MIsha Dichter, Louis Kentner, Murray Perrahia, Evkeny Kissin, Victor Borge, Bruno Walter, WIllem Mengelberg, Leonard Bernstein, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Fritz Kreisler, Arthur Schnabel, and then the composers: Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Schönberg, Schreker – they all kept the German flame burning!! It was Schönberg who said that his beautiful system would “ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” And so it did!!


      2. Bruce says:

        I dunno. There are plenty of uninteresting German/ European musicians, and plenty of interesting musicians from all over.

        For instance, here’s a rather wonderful Schumann Liederkreis:

  4. Sue says:

    What an interesting discussion!!!

  5. John Borstlap says:

    The main reason why ‘German composers’ are not often heard abroad (with the mentioned exceptions of particularly awful products), is that in Germany, postwar modernism is still the established aesthetic norm. Where everywhere else, most composers have understood the self-destructive nature of its ideologies and the eroding influence upon the art form as a whole, and desperately seek relief from pop, world music, or electronic mixes of left-overs from other genres, in Germany modernism is still the stamp of moral approval, of being on the ‘right side of history’. The annexation by the nazis of the German classical tradition, with its Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner, and R. Strauss (for convenience’s sake also annexing Austrian composers), has – in many ears – stained that tradition by association. Reinforced by the associations of R Strauss, any composer who would dare to delve in tradition, immediately invites the accusation of nazi sympathies and cultivating extreme rightwing politics. A figure like the well-known British composer David Matthews, who developes the tradition of Benjamin Britten into a lush, postromantic garb, is unimaginable in Germany. Matthews has never been accused of rightwing sympathies because of his aesthetics, but had he lived in Germany, he would simply have been completely ignored and would never be performed – he would have had to emigrate to compose at all.

    As long as festivals like the Donaueschingen and the summer school at Darmstadt (what’s in a name?) cultivate an aesthetic which is a time capsule of the sixties, these ‘shop windows’ of ‘new music’ will continue to attract the misfits of music who can indulge in their juvenile fantasies:

    1. John Borstlap says:


      German institutions sometimes advocate the opposite of cultivating their own culture, and treat classical music as a customer service:

      The best of German musical culture is through-and-through European, and its annexation by the nazis has perverted that idea:

      The British philosopher and musicologist Roger Scruton, author of ‘The Aesthetics of Music’ which analyses, among other things, modernism thoroughly and without any bias, had been invited at Donaueschingen to talk about modernism, which caused quite a stirr and made lots of people angry by merely questioning modernism’s eternal validity:

      Meanwhile the festival goes on with building its time capsule:

      The man who perfectly symbolizes Germany’s neurotic frustrations about new music, is Helmut Lachenmann:

      No doubt, there will be a time when new generations of European-minded Germans will be able to overcome their parent’s neurosis and surely the current immense gap between the central performance culture where the ‘old’ repertoire is presented, and new music, will be narrowed.

  6. John Borstlap says:

    Also in Germany do many young people want to leave history behind and ignore the treasure trove upon which they are sitting. I often noticed some shame about being German, and embracing international pop Americana seems to be an antidote to the things that seem to characterize their parents and grandparents. The result is an increasing tendency to a museum culture, where ‘the past’ can safely be enjoyed in the glass box of history and where the listeners can feel reassured they ‘are different’.

  7. Anon says:

    sloppy reporting.

    to point 1: yes, many orchestras have been abolished or entered fusions with another orchestra. But it all came from a very high density of orchestras, a density unknown anywhere else in the world, so it’s all relative.

    to point 2: it’s true to a degree, but that’s the situation anywhere in the world, it’s not specific to Germany. Also these students do not get scholarships. Simply university education is without any tuition cost in Germany, aside from a small administrative fee (a few hundred $/EUR max.). Also Germany (and Austria) always have attracted students from all over the world, for as long as its conservatories exist. Anyone who wanted to get a good music education went to Germany/Austria in the 19th century.

    to pojnt 3: not true. bit of a straw man argument. which modern composer internationally can command an international audience? there are few, but among them also a few Germans in all age categories.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      To point 3: especially psychopathology is exported and enjoyed abroad as a welcome addition to already existing pathology:

      Strictly speaking, this man is Austrian, but culturally it does not make much difference when pathology is considered. After all, much of modernism was Austrian in origin:

      1. Mike Schachter says:

        And who invented much of the study of psychopathology? Also, to what extent do composers in Germany stop bothering about audiences since they bget subsidies even if no-one can be bothered to listen?

      2. Anon says:

        Mr. Borstlap, you really do not have to make your ONE point about twelve times in the same discussion thread. It’s reaching the level of spam.

        1. John Borstlap says:

          Mr Anon, if you think it’s only one point, you have not read carefully enough. In that case, a nr 13 would be superfluous.

          1. Sue says:

            Why do you assume it’s “Mr. Anon”? I know of at least one “Ms Anon”.

          2. John Borstlap says:

            To Mrs Sue: ony a man can say something so careless and unfocussed.

          3. Scotty says:

            It’s “Mister Sue” to you pal!

  8. herrera says:

    China is western classical music’s superpower because there’s where the consumers are, and will be in the next 25 years (until the Chinese move on to the next Big Thing or finally shake the legacy of Maoist cultural revolution and come to their own with their own music).

    The dominance of western classical music in Germany will fluctuate in direct relationship with its immigration policy.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      Concerning China: isn’t that sad? A population who finally is somewhat coming-out of a very difficult historic period embracing a Western art form while in its homelands it is often attacked for no longer being ‘relevant’ to modern times.

      If there is any Chinese reading this, I would like to know whether many Chinese consider Western classical music a symbol of progress, modernity and civilization, or rather an interesting exotic pastime, or simply a luxury entertainment that can finally be enjoyed in these days.

      There are many very interesting Chinese composers nowadays, and they let themselves be inspired by the West, where modern music establishments discourage interest in its own heritage and prefer sonic nonsense, watered-down ‘world music’ confections, or pop.

      1. PC says:

        I am a Chinese reader and I find it really hard to answer your question. I like classical music but I don’t play any instrument myself so my understanding of music is limited. What’s more it’s hard to speak for my fellows. One main reason is China is so big and there’re so many Chinese, that’s why the classical music audience seems to be sizable even though it’s still an niche (a bourgeoise thing the Chinese would say). I can say most Chinese parents who send kids to learn piano when they can hardly hold their chopsticks are after prestige. They see it as a ticket to climb the social ladder.

        And I guess many try classical music because they admire western culture as a whole. Chinese in general has suffered a critical identity crisis, manifested in a growing ugly form of nationalism, and they look upon most things from the west even though they deny it. I personally don’t think it’s a bad starting point if they really enjoy classical music in the end.

        And I’m sure many like classical music per se – why not? I forgot how, but about two years ago I just ‘clicked’ with classical music. But at the same time there’s also wonderful traditional Chinese music I admire.

        1. John Borstlap says:

          All that is very interesting… it sounds a bit like how it was in Europe in the 19th century.

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