Thomas Ades: Are they serious? Some of those old German conductors just sound absurd

Thomas Ades: Are they serious? Some of those old German conductors just sound absurd


norman lebrecht

October 30, 2015

From an interview  the composer has given to our SanFran friend, Elijah Ho:

‘It’s all a little bit of an act, this idea that German is serious and other things are frivolous. It’s just another form of performance, and I think this is one of the reasons that Beethoven suffered from such ponderous performances, particularly just after the war. You have German conductors trying to convince you that, ‘Yes, we may have lost the war, but this is still the most serious music’. Whereas poor Beethoven is really a composer of fire and thunder and huge natural power, natural forces, lightning, and he becomes this rather stodgy, heavy deutsche character. And I simply think that this is wrong.

‘I wouldn’t name the conductors because I think we all know who we’re talking about(laughs), but you listen to those recordings now, and I’m afraid many of them just sound absurd, and that’s why. So it was a sort of, a little bit, if you like, German pathology of themselves,­ ‘we must be more serious’ – and it’s clearly not true. You can’t hold Pelléas et Mélisande or Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony against a Beethoven Contredanse and say the German is more serious. It just doesn’t make any sense, really, and I don’t think anyone would think like this anymore – I hope not. For the German composers’ sake, I hope they get over this idea that they have to be very heavy and serious.’

thomas ades

Read the full interview here.


  • Paul MacAlindin says:

    There’s a certain truth in Tom’s point of view. However, if we’re talking national pathology, then it’s equally plausible that the Germans were expressing grief at a war they really weren’t allowed to grieve. As we approach Armistices Day in the UK, a German friend of mine asked me to explain what the poppy meant. In Germany, there is no national day to remember their dead. After WW2, there was Stunde Null, or Zero Hour, when Germany’s culture and history was set to zero and started again – in theory. This was a formal governmental strategy, not to deny the past, but to rebuild the future from scratch. However, the heaviness of a second catastrophic defeat that Germany was not allowed to feel loss over, is equally borne out in the heaviness of all German art forms after WW2. Add to this a core German value, die Gründlichkeit, or thoroughness, and you get a picture of how deeply intellectual and emotional German culture is. Yes, Beethoven is fire and thunder. He is also a composer of rigorous intellectual power, the emotions coming from architechtonic articulation, a skill that very few conductors have the intellectual or emotional stamina to shape intelligently and, dare I say it, thoroughly.

    Even today, there are many Germans who feel the loss of WW2 is a deeply unresolved issue that their parents were taught to deny.

    • John says:

      Otto Klemperer, a Jew and a German, conducted the most ponderous and slow Beethoven performances of them all, but somehow I don’t think he had the German defeat in WWII on his mind. Mr. Ades is a distinguished composer and conductor, but I really find this line of thinking rather on the silly side.

      • Doug Grant says:

        Not all slowish Klemperer Beethoven is ponderous. Some is at the start, but the momentum from mass can be as impressive as momentum from velocity!

        Some contemporary fastish Beethoven just sounds lightweight and lacking in rhythmic balance. Chailly and Jansons judge velocity and weight well.

        To be honest, except in the 8th I still return to Karajan as my ideal. I would not like to be withoutt Klemperer.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Ades’ own music goes from moment to moment, so is very far from Deutsche Gründlichkeit in terms of architectonic rhethoric.

    • John Borstlap says:

      VERY well said, all this.

    • Andrew says:

      Paul Macalindin,

      Yes, I’m sad every day that all of those Nazis died. It effects me deeply. The Germans really do need a day to mourn for their evil ones. Poor Nazis who died.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Would it be really necessary to point-out that not all Germans in the thirties and fourties were nazis? And that there was resistance (as in Vienna)? That, as soon power structures were in the hands of criminal lunatics, many people who did not have the means to emigrate, had to find ways to survive with their families – no matter what? The children which were sent into the front lines during the last days of the war, when Germany had already lost everything, where entirely innocent, not to speak of so many other innocent lives which were lost. Current Syria is comparable.

    • JayBuyer says:

      Allerheiligen (today!) and Totensonntag make a good fist of remembering the dead, but admittedly not just the war dead.

  • Itsjtime says:

    Some of these assertions are kinda dopey. There are huge changes in interpretation during the lifetimes of some of the great conductors of that era. The war was the most incredibly emotionally profound life altering event of that era….but it coincides with the group of conductors implied that were reaching the twilight of their careers post war. These are inextricably linked.

    • Herbert Pauls says:

      Very good point about conductors who changed their interpretations. Two of the most obvious cases are Klemperer and Walter, both of whom slowed down late in life. Their earlier recordings, even those from the early LP mono era, still tended to be swifter and more full of fire (sometimes much more so) than their stereo efforts. In a separate case, as Borstlap notes below, there was also Furtwängler, who always balanced the deep metaphysical seriousness with the kind of fire that Toscanini displayed. Indeed, both of these last-named conductors had the widest possible expressive range, which to me was one of the things that made them so great.

      • John Borstlap says:

        True. And Toscanini, who has the reputation of swift tempi, performed the slowest Parsifal in its first 100 years as recorded at Bayreuth.

  • Tom Graham says:

    The interpretation of the Austro-Hungarian classics has evolved over the last 50 years. The older generation of German conductors were conducting in the tradition of the time. In my view it had nothing to do with the wars. Their interpretations were either convincing or not, as are the interpretations of younger conductors. There is room for every interpretation as long as it is convincing and in the words of Szell, the composer would have approved.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed. Thre are recordings of ‘the old’ like Fartwüngler and Mengelberg that are quick, incisive, and virtuosic. Also, there are Beethoven recordings of Karajan which can easily compete with the ‘modern’ interpretations.

  • Clarke Bustard says:

    Adès spears a straw-man in talking about “ponderous” German Beethoven interpretation, as if there were no difference between, say, the “Eroica” of Wilhelm Furtwängler and that of Erich Kleiber (to cite two recordings from the Adès’ “just after [World War II]” time frame).

    Who perpetrated the most comically ponderous Beethoven symphony on record? Pierre Boulez (New York Philharmonic, 1968). “[P]erhaps not the best thing I’ve ever done,” he admitted later. “I would probably take [it] rather faster.” (Perhaps?! Probably?!)

    Wonder why Adès chose Beethoven? He might have made a better case with Germanic Brahms interpretation. Or maybe not: The Brahms of Bruno Walter and Eugen Jochum contrasts pretty sharply with the Brahms of Hans Knappertsbusch and Otto Klemperer.

  • william osborne says:

    Actually, Pamela M. Potter has written a book length treatment of the topic entitled, “Most German of the Arts: Musicology and Society from The Weimar Republic to The End of Hitler’s Reich.” New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1998. 364 S.

    There’s a good review of the book by Celia Applegate (Department of History, University of Rochester) here:

    Potter examines the ethos of Germanic musical superiority and the role German musicologists played in creating it. Applegate summarizes the issue this way:

    “The essential feature of their work that allowed such a series of seeming re-inventions was their unchanging commitment to defining and defending a Germanocentric view of music history, one in which German musical superiority, variously understood, somehow compensated for the German nation’s political frustrations, social divisions, and even military defeats.”

    Potter’s most interesting thesis is that many of the musicologists were Jewish and came to the USA as refugees, where ironically they continued the myth of German musical supremacy. Quoting Potter, Applegate summarizes it this way:

    “Even more ironically, many of the German musicologists who had emigrated to the United States to escape Nazi persecution themselves brought ‘their German identity, their belief in the German intellectual tradition,’ and ‘their internalization of a long-standing precept of German musical superiority,’ which in turn became a central and unexamined assumption of American musicology in its post-war growth years (p. 260). ‘American musicology,’ she concludes, ‘has inherited a Germanocentric concept of music history without understanding its immediate political relevance for the times in which it was originally formed.’”

    In a similar vein, I saw this sort of unbounded musical ambition at work in Munich during the 80s when Celibidache, Maazel, and Mehta were all GMD’s of its most prominent orchestras at the same time – and each being paid millions. This ethos of cultural superiority also strongly influences the ideologies of the Vienna Philharmonic.

    The greatest misfortune is that truly wonderful composers were neglected because they were not a part of this ethos of German cultural superiority. One of the most notable is Karol Szymanowski, whose work continues to astound me, especially in light of how little he is performed.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Szymanowki did not fit in the cultural climate of the twenties and thirties, and not in the climate after WW II when the iron curtain closed him off to provincial existence. When his Stabat Mater was performed in the early seventies in Rotterdam (when I studied there), it did not leave any impression and was considered a Fremdkoerper from another planet. (It liberated me from modernism, though, for which I will be forever grateful to this unique and strange composer). In music history books he was hardly deemed worth a footnote and there were no recordings of his music. But his music is difficult to perform because you have to recreate a certain atmosphere which cannot be notated but is clearly implied. (The same difficulty with orchestral music of Debussy.) Hence the often bad recordings nowadays, too cool, too much ‘matter-of-fact’ (even Rattle’s who is a strong advocate).

      As for the policital background of 20C Teutonism: Leon Botstein has already shown that acculturation of German music was a means of integration of Jews, which however did not seem to be of much assistance. This Jewish Germanophilia goes back to Wagner who advocated dissolving of ‘Jewishness’ so that it could ‘disappear’, his antisemitism being a cultural critique of the ills of modern industrial society.

      All that does NOT diminish the intrinsic artistic qualities of the ‘German classical repertoire’ which is a gift to the whole world. Where it is used as nationalist chauvinism, its embodiment of humanistic values is distorted. Where it is criticized as politicaly-motivated, it is distorted as well.

      But indeed, German musical culture was, in the 19th century, a well-meaning compensation for inferiority complexes resulting from a splintered political landscape that was backward, provincial, and dominated by left-over bits of the ancien régime. It was also a period of cultural nationalism which was a reaction to the dominant musical cosmopolitism of the 18th century, when countries were ruled by an aristocracy which was truly European, transcending borders. The ‘Volk’ had no say in things political or cultural. The 19th century was a period of liberation from aristocracy.

      In our modern days, where frivolity, materialism, mental lazinezz (especially in contemporary art and music), postmodernism and populism reign supreme, the profundity and seriousness of the German repertoire is a welcome antidote and signifyer of what European culture really is. (This is NOT chauvinism, neo-colonialism, right-wing extremism or pegidaitis, but a defence of the core values of Europe which have become under threat by an egalitarian and materialistic world view.)

      • debussyste says:

        The end of your intervention looks like bad Oswald Splengler ! No, we don’t need particularly german culture to bring our spirits up. Every culture is serious, profound and not just the western ones.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I totally agree. So, also European classical music, of which the German/Austrian repertoire forms an important part. That is what I meant and what seems to me nothing more than common sense. There is no reason to appreciate non-Western cultures on the expense of Western, or German, culture, as there is no reason to like my neighbour’s car more than my own BECAUSE it is my neighbour’s.

          Debussy himself had a deep understanding and admiration of German music, and his defensive writings merely prove the immense influence it had on his own music. He proved that composers can undergo its influence and come-up with something entirely different, and as profound.

      • Herbert Pauls says:

        Borstlap raises a very key point in this whole discussion about German seriousness, and that is the sheer extent to which Germany in the 19th Century was struggling against the musical cosmopolitanism of that time. To me, that concern (mostly the province of historians these days) sheds much light on how concerns such as that of Thomas Ades’ have come to exist. There are very deep roots in music history. To get even more specific, the international style Borstlap mentions was actually shaped above all by Italian music which once enjoyed the kind of musical dominance that the German musical tradition was later to assume. Dent noted a century ago that what we call the Viennese classical tradition, was simply music that was being written in the general Italian style of the day. Beethoven’s piano style, for example, owed a great deal to figures like Clementi who was a generation older than him. Beethoven greatly respected Clementi. One could also compare the general atmosphere of Beethoven’s choral sound to that of Cherubini who was also much admire by Beethoven. Then, of course, there is also Mozart, whose Italianate sound and melodic flair is very obvious as well, not only in his Italian operas but also in his instrumental works.

        In a sense, the whole struggle (essentially a national one in previous centuries) between what was seen as serious and superficial musical aspects was already being enacted in the late 18th Century when Italian virtuosos were touring Europe to great acclaim. (Clementi, Viotti, and so forth). Their virtuosity and flair did not always go over well with the earnest and worthy tradition of the German Kapellmeisters who felt threatened by them, denigrated them unfairly, and sought to stand their own musical ground against this new wave which was gaining so much audience popularity in the German speaking lands (good articles have been written about this). Schumann later, and very influentially, took up the old Kapellmeister struggle, now famously framing it as a struggle against the Philistines – who represented the hugely popular French and Italian salon tradition, virtuoso concertos, and Italian opera. Hence his fight against “trivial” figures like Herz and Rossini (along with the rest of the Italian bel canto tradition). Schumann was motivated by the intense desire to raise the stature of his own national tradition – what he saw as the high and serious German art of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

        Schumann, with his powerful pen, eventually won his personal long term goal of raising the stature of German art in the face of Franco-Italian dominance and, I dare say, was even more successful that he could have ever imagined. When one combines Schumann’s success with the ascendance of the new discipline of musicology (something that musicologists freely acknowledge to be essentially a German invention because it was cultivated so assiduously in Northern Europe), the ground work was laid for how musicians and music lovers in the following generations would view music history. Thus, later Italian opera for one became seen as less worthy in the larger scheme of history. The entire bel canto tradition, and even the great Verdi, were seriously undervalued by historians for generations (Verdi has only properly recovered from this in recent years). And we won’t even begin to discuss his successor Puccini, who was almost entirely written out of 20th Century music history textbooks for generations despite his position at the pinnacle of the repertoire.

        The greatest danger, today, is that, in the face of the above, we will eventually over-react to the long-term success of German music and in the process undervalue not only it, but also (as one sees in Ades’ comment), also its splendid performing tradition. As Borstlap rightfully notes, those two aspects continue to be real cultural gift to the world.

        • John Borstlap says:

          An enlightening contribution!

          In the same way, Wagner’s virulent writings against ‘the French’ and Meyerbeer should be understood, he was acting from a sort of ‘underdog position’ which his later fame and dominance greatly distorted, comparable with his antisemitism which, from our point in history, has taken-on a meaning quite different from the context in which he used it as a polemical weapon. The German small nations had terribly suffered from French invasions – Louis XIV, to begin with, and thoroughly followed-up by Napoleon, and then the failed revolutions of 1848. German intellectuals and artists created a castle in the air, the Germany as a spiritual territory of music and philosophy, as an ideal. The founding of the Reich in 1870 quickly led to disappointment in intellectual circles, as with Wagner and Nietzsche, because the new united state was so vulgar, and militaristic, and materialistic. Musical teutonism was a form of escapism and compensation. – Quite strange, if you come to think about it: something so spiritual and artistically impressive as a compensation for a reality where all of that had no place. And later-on it takes-on the meaning of a symbol of a concrete nation.

        • william osborne says:

          The rise of cultural nationalism in classical music in the 19th century was not confined to Germany, even if it was perhaps most strongly expressed there.

    • Max Grimm says:

      The only of the three conductors you list, that was GMD in Munich during the 80s as you say was Celibidache. Maazel didn’t take over at the BRSO until 1993 and Mehta came to the Bavarian State Orchestra in 1998, two years after Celibidache’s death.

      • william osborne says:

        Correct. It was Levine, Maazel, and Mehta who were all GMDs in Munich during the period from 1998 to 2002. For the glory of the Vaterland…

      • william osborne says:

        From 1983 to 1992 in Munich it was Celibidache, Sawallisch, and Davis.

        • JanHus says:

          “In a similar vein, I saw this sort of unbounded musical ambition at work in Munich during the 80s when Celibidache, Maazel, and Mehta were all GMD’s of its most prominent orchestras at the same time – and each being paid millions.”

          now that neither the time nor the names are right, what’s your point?

    • Holger H. says:

      “the ethos of Germanic musical superiority and the role German musicologists played in creating it.”

      Please give citation of evidence of such claimed superiority in the mainstream musicology. I see this has no substance and is a straw man fallacy outright.

      “…the myth of German musical supremacy…”

      Again a straw man fallacy per excellence. Germany/Austria is the strongest, you don’t have to call it “supreme”, country when it comes to classical music. It has BY FAR the highest density of professional orchestras and opera houses per capita, as well as the public funding for it. It has BY FAR the strongest representation and real life implementation of classical music anywhere in the world. So the strength is a fact, not a myth. You just don’t have to call it “supremacy” unless you want to evoke the picture of the ugly German as the racist supremacist.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Ho ho ho…. with “…the myth of German musical supremacy…” is meant the music itself, the musical tradition in terms of works, as developed between ca. 1800 – 1914, not the current performance culture. In contrary, the current classical performance culture in the German-speaking lands is, indeed by fact, superior to any other nation, in terms of weight, number, status and excellence of performers. BUT….. the contemporary music of those lands is locked-up in postwar self-defeating malaise and misery, still cultivating a modernism that has already been left behind everywhere else in the world.

        In general, German/Austrian contemporary music is far inferior to the new music scene in the anglo-saxon world which is much more pluralistic and diversified, while in the heartland of classical music composers are still chewing on ideas of half a century old, as institutionalized in their cult places like Darmstadt, Donaueschingen, and festivals. There is an immense difference between the German-speaking performance world and its new production which is obviously far below the artistic qusality of its performance practice.

        • Holger H. says:

          Could you name a few protagonists of said anglo-saxon music scene?

          • William Safford says:

            Thomas Ades.

          • John Borstlap says:

            John Adams, John Luther Adams, David Matthews, John Corigliano, Steven Stucky, Judith Bingham, Robin Holloway, Daniel Asia, Richard Danielpour, Michael Daugherty, Harrison Birtwistle, Sally Beamish, Paul Moravec, Elliott Carter, James MacMillan, James Francis Brown, Aaron Jay Kernis, Marc Anthony Turnage, Jake Heggie, Michael Torke, Jennifer Higdon, Roxanna Panufnik, Thomas Ades, Mark Adamo, Herni Brant, ec. etc…. Just an indication of the wide range of what is considered possible there, you don’t see that in the German-speaking world – as yet. Within the extremes of atonal modernism and oldfashioned traditionalism, it is quite an impressive variety where no trend is dominating. All the mentioned composers are regularly performed and treated professionally. Also the ones I particularly do not like at all.

          • Holger H. says:

            But we could just make a list of German/Germany based composers as long or longer. I don’t see the point exactly, except that the pressure to conform to populistic market mechanisms as a composer is less heavy in Germany, because more commission work is possible from publicly funded musical entities.

        • sl says:

          ‘In general, German/Austrian contemporary music is far inferior to the new music scene in the anglo-saxon world which is much more pluralistic and diversified’

          Of all your comments this is really the most outrageous stupid one. What’s with Stockhausen, Henze, Ligeti (yes, they are dead now, but still contemporary), Wolfgang Rihm, Aribert Reimann, Helmut Lachenman, Friedrich Cerha, Klaus Huber…. You could name hundreds of very influential German or Austrian composers which still write great music and they have all styles which are completely diverse from each other (and don’t have the slightest admiration for your beloved Boulez) The same applies to many countries that are not in your ‘anglo-saxon world’: Italy, France, Poland (what a great tradtion there!), Netherlands…Apart from that, In no other country than Germany have young composers from all over the world so many (free) possibilities to develop themselves and come in contact with a multitude of international styles and techniques. In addition, the media is still very active in disseminating their music through broadcasting and internet.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Henze was more or less excommunicated when he turned towards a more tonal language – although still full of dissonance, Ligeti was a Hungarian, and left avantgarde ideology later in life because he felt oppressed by them, Rihm moved towards Schoenbergian expressionism in his later years, and Cherha and Huber took the ironic nihilism side of modernism, a kind of postmodern nihilism, still sound for the sake of sound, Lachenmann is a hardline modernist with the characteristic type of postwar headbanging nihilistic philosophies, and Reimann is – as far as I know – from an earlier generation – maybe merely at the margins of modernism. The majority of German postwar composers use sound for the sake of sound, they still do, and that reflects an anti-traditionalist, anti-tonal, anti-musical stance: if compared with their inheritance. Compare their work with their cultural history and the underlying ideologies become visible / audible. The variety is really so much less than elsewhere.

            But I may be wrong, and like to be proven so. Up till now, I don’t see any reason to retract. There is some craziness in the contrast between all those gründlich and very serious performers polishing the classical repertoire of which so much is from German origin, and so many composers ( of which someone like Spahlinger comes to mind) creating a territory altogether different from their heritage, a denial of it, a sarcastic rejection, cultivating sonic art and even leaving their profession altogether:


            This is not some joke by students, but an establishement showcase of new German music. And listen to the audible result… how bad, ugly, primitive and entirely inhuman it sounds. It does not contribute anything of artistic value to the musical world and is rightfully ignored by the central performance culture, also – in general – in Germany.

          • Holger H. says:

            John, you are delusional. Henze was ex-communicated by whom? You make the mistake to take your subjective ideas for fact. You should go out more and talk with other people.

  • Gianmaria says:

    I respectfully disagree with Mr. Ades: his take on this subject seems to be quite superficial. It’s like saying Italians are pizza and mandolino or not.
    The comparison between Pelleas and Beethoven’s contredanse is not even an argument given the different context (and time) in which the works were created.
    In the end there is a different weight in sound in German music which has nothing to do with the war. Good conductors know it.
    Unless, of course, we want to have Schumann’s 3rd symphony, for example, sound like Rossini, just because some of it is cheerful. Or perhaps Parsifal should sound like La Traviata. I don’t think so. We have different traditions that come from different cultures and backgrounds. Why kill them?
    As I said, a bit superficial of an approach.

    • John Borstlap says:


      And we know that Wagner himself, often made-out to be the pinnacle of Teutonic heaviness, preferred rather quick, flexible tempi and clear textures. You can have a certain thorough, heavy sound that still gets off the ground and moves forward.

      • John Borstlap says:

        PS: Wagner and Brahms by Jaap van Zweden, for instance. He did a marvellous Parsifal which combined fluency, clarity, expressiveness with a sure grasp of architectonic logic:

      • Herbert Pauls says:

        Wagner did seem to think of his music in that manner, and even conceived his vocal sound as a kind of super bel canto style. Some of the old recordings from the 1920s and 1930s clearly feature singers with this sort of virtuosic flair.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Voilà. Wagner had a profound contempt for Italian opera, but an equally profound admiration of its belcanto. Quite contradictory, but that was one of his dominant character traits.

  • Gonout Backson says:

    Si tacuisses philosophus mansisses.

  • Holger H. says:

    So now this nobody had his say and could elaborate his straw man argument, well no argument, just a inconsistent bla-bla. Who cares? Can somebody please return that wasted minute back to me?

    • John Borstlap says:

      It is not wasted if understood as one of those many signals that express irritation about the European musical tradition. There, Ades has an ax to grind, and understandably so: new music is no longer a normal and welcome part of the central performance culture as it was before WW II. When ‘progressive’ composers broke-down the framework of tradition, they discovered they were no longer welcome within that framework, and were surprised that their dismantling of the context of that performance culture was not wholeheartedly accepted by all those people whose raison d’etre was the cultivation of a rich heritage (which, by the way, is contemporary forever). In spite of Ades’ success – he is widely performed – he is probably speaking for new music in general. (The reason why he is often performed, is because he borrows quite a lot of gestures from musical traditions which act as signifyers for understanding.)

      • Thorvaldsson says:

        (The reason why he is often performed, is because he borrows quite a lot of gestures from musical traditions which act as signifyers for understanding.)
        I disagree. Many do the same. He has some other engine behind that many don’t have.
        And that engine is not musicality nor talent.

  • Kontrabass says:

    Res severa verum gaudium (true joy is a serious thing) – Seneca’s words over the concert platform in the old Leipzig Gewandhaus concert hall in the early 19th century, where Mendelssohn and other greats conducted. Clearly Mr Ades remains joyless, as if we didn’t know already.

  • thorvaldsson says:

    I don’t know why you all make such a big place for Ades. He is just a mediocre composer, full of cliches. Any graduated composer, having enough people who push him, can make that fame as Ades. Nothing in his music is neither great or astonishing. Now, being compared with the 2nd class composer Britten, he can just be a third class. British music needs some genius, however, they are full of pose and form. Music without content, as it is with Ades, will vanish.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I never felt much interest for Ades’ music, I hear a clever handiwork, some interesting scoring, some good effects, slight references to traditional music, but not much compelling or – to borrow a Teutonic concept – ‘great’. But should we expect that? Considering the abyssmal level of so much postwar ‘new music’, Ades is doing quite well, and I think that is also due to his being also a performer – composers can easily loose track of performance practice if exclusively following their private ideas.

      But England has already a marvellous composer, worthy of Benjamin Britten’s heritage: David Matthews. His ‘Concerto in Azzuro’ is a kind of Britten without that composer frustating inhibitions and sourness, with an imagination comparable to Szymanowski’s wilder moments, and brilliantly scored:

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    My encounter with this Adés quote prompts me to think more deeply about the Austro-German repertoire. I know that these views may be groundless, but I felt that they chimed in with me. I had felt that the old-school renditions of the Austro-German symphonies (Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Haydn, etc.) had too much stodge and gloop, and so I was roused by the paradigm shift Beethoven done by the likes of Gardiner and Hogwood. Yet this post gives us things to think about. Historically-informed anything, ranging from Bach to Stravinsky, might face the charges of being hurry-sick in their performance and trivialising this repertoire of the past. After reading these posts, does this mean that the renditions of Furtwängler, Walter and Klemperer, among others, might have more ballast against frivolity and materialism? Does this mean that paradigm-shift Beethoven symphony recordings, for instance, are perfunctory, substance-less, insight-less and direction-less? Should listeners regard the performing traditions of the past as a ballast against this degeneration of society? I think it would be good if my fellow posters could help me make sense of these questions.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It seems to me that the difference between de ‘older’ performance tradition of the likes of Walter, Fartwüngler, Karajan etc. and HIP (Historically Informed Performance, as by Harnoncourt, Gardiner et al) is greatly exaggerated. The best of both come very close and both are serious, profound and very engaging. HIP accentiates sharpness of profile and faster tempi, and lighter textures. But this can also be achieved by a ‘normal’ performance, as recordings by George Szell of the late Mozart symphonies with the Cleveland Orchestra amply demonstrate: HIP concluded from the pages of the score by a very musical and sensitive conductor, and not by some historicallydemonstrated theory.

      By the way: HIP is a thoroughy MODERN and in some senses modernist movement. There is the danger of restricting the sound to hardness and purely sonic presence.

      It is the extremes which falfify the music, the silly ponderous and vertically-accentuated heaviness, and the quicky hurrying over musical phrases without giving them the opportunity to breathe.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    That statement by Thomas Adès just reflects British inferiority complex when confronted with German symphonies and Italian opera. The discussion that followed is simply bizarre.

    • Halldor says:

      One of the world’s pre-eminent living composers, jealous of two traditions that have been dead for nearly a century? Dream on…

  • Halldor says:

    Don’t agree with everything Ades says, but he has a point here: the default assumption in a lot of cultural discourse that German (using term to include the whole Austro-German symphonic tradition) music is the gold standard against which all classical music is measured. An assumption revealed in phrases like “the core German repertoire”. In the assertion that (for example) the success or otherwise of Rattle’s Berlin tenure can ultimately be measured only by his Beethoven and Brahms. In the holding up of Germany’s extensive subsidised orchestral sector as the benchmark against which to measure other nations’ cultural credentials. In the suggestion that if (say) the music of Egon Wellesz isn’t played in the USA, it’s because the USA is parochial – but if Samuel Barber isn’t played in Germany, it’s because Barber is parochial. In the idea that tonal music and symphonism ended around 1911: that the 20th century musical traditions of France, Scandinavia, the UK Russia, the USA, South America and elsewhere are a quirk or a footnote.

    I’ve seen every one of these assumptions or assertions made on this forum at one time or another, some of them repeatedly. I’ve been guilty of them myself. But it takes nothing away from the historic greatness of German music or the signifcance of what’s coming from German today to point out that this cultural cringe still colours the way we often think about the wider world of music, and that it does no-one any favours. Maybe only Ades has confidence – and the effrontery – to say it.

    • Holger H. says:

      Your argument is typical, in that it is self referential only to a made up straw man, apparently there is indeed a strong inferiority complex toward the German tradition elsewhere.

      “An assumption revealed in phrases like “the core German repertoire”. In the assertion that (for example) the success or otherwise of Rattle’s Berlin tenure can ultimately be measured only by his Beethoven and Brahms….”

      Straw man. Rattle’s success is in no relevant public forum measured that way “only”.

      “In the holding up of Germany’s extensive subsidised orchestral sector as the benchmark against which to measure other nations’ cultural credentials…”

      Straw man. Nobody did that. The extrapolation from a undisputed unique strength in quantity and quality of the classical music institutions toward general “cultural credentials” is only made up by you.

      “In the idea that tonal music and symphonism ended around 1911: that the 20th century musical traditions of France, Scandinavia, the UK Russia, the USA, South America and elsewhere are a quirk or a footnote…”

      Straw man. Nobody of meaning does that in Germany. So you basically have no argument at all.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It may be of some interest to mention that the ‘core repertoire’ for orchestras is fundamental to their technical functioning; the balance between group playing and soli, the whole interaction of all players, is best trained with these compact, rhethoric pieces by Moz, Beet, Brahms. And they happen to be Austrian/German, so what? If an orchestra is good at these three, they can handle ANY other score, also if made-up of fragmented bits. Orchestras, giving the three a considerable rest of some years and focussing on more modern repertoire, loose cohesion, and end-up technically flawed. The orchestra is a medium built upon the triad, that’s why.

        • Holger H. says:

          And why did you feel the urge to mention this redundant tautology, which nobody questioned?

          • John Borstlap says:

            To underline the centrality of the Austrio-German repertoire also for technical reasons. The orchestra developed on the music of what later times called ‘the classics’ (a term which would never enter the head of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven etc.). This music is the basis of the medium, and complaining about its Austro-Germanic traditions (in terms of performance and the music itself) is something like expressing irritation about the colour of the trees.

      • Furzwängler says:

        By God, you do like the phrase ‘Straw Man’ don’t you, judging by how often you use it. Do you in fact know what it means?

        • Holger H. says:

          straw man noun [C] (ARGUMENT)
          › an ​argument, ​claim, or ​opponent that is ​invented in ​order to ​win or ​create an ​argument

  • John Borstlap says:

    Holger H’s comment of 1st Nov. 2:39 PM deserves some serious opposition. Where it is true that new music in Germany is generously supported by foundations and the state, and is an entirely respectable occupation in spite of an incredible amount of conceptual nonsense going-on there, it is easy to see that it is a certain modernist aesthetic that is considered ‘de rigeur’, laterly slightly extended by excursions into concept theatricals and cross-over with pop – but nothing as interesting as, for instance, Corigliano, Moravec or John Adams. The most that composers dare to deviate from the party line and coming closer to their own traditions, is a harking-back to Viennese expressionism: Schoenberg and Berg, which stills the German hunger for romantic expression while in the same time being ideologically just on the right side of history, expressionism being the beginning of modernism. German central performance culture says one thing, and German new music something completely OPPOSITE – a demonstration of a hughe denial of their own cultural heritage, and that is due to the brown period.

    If a contemporary German composer would DARE to take some elements of R. Strauss as a point of departure, as – for instance – the English composer David Matthews does with Benjamin Britten, he would immediately be exposed to accusations of nazi sympathies. Wolfgang Rihm’s later works (Leichtes Spiel, latest piano concerto) border on expressionistic music of the beginning of the 20th century, but that is as far as he dares to go, it’s JUST at the edge. A little drop of Wagner or Strauss and he would be sent into an Einbürgerungslager in Darmstadt.

    A thoroughly conventional and pretentious example is Peter Ruzicka, rewriting German mdoernism of the fifties, and being an influential figure in the German new music scene, running festivals, speaking at conferences, etc. It’s crazy, really….

    • sl says:

      ‘A little drop of Wagner or Strauss’ – I am afraid this won’t be taken seriously in your perfect anglo-saxon world either. I can’t imagine someone as Birtwistle, Maxwell-Davies, Ferneyhough or Wuorinen applauding to that. Perhaps John Adams. But he is pretty much the only one who did this with some success.
      With all due respect, but you seem to have a really strangely distorted view of post-war music history and aesthetics. As if anything would be so easy to dismiss because it doesn’t fit in your little world.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The reason that so few composers tap into prewar traditions – although their number gradually increases, which you seem not to have noticed in your very big, wide world – is that this is very difficult to do. And the Germanic prewar traditions are even more difficult, because of all the identity problems…. everybody can imitate some bad Mahler, but to absorb elements of that tradition in a musically convincing way requires authentic roots – I mean thereby: authentic psychological roots, not Blut und Boden. Where someone like David Matthews picks-up prewar traditions, and very successfully so, nobody complains – it is taken seriously nowadays. Some 15 years ago, his music was not taken so seriously because at that time, ‘being modern’ meant adhering to the postwar ideals of half a century earlier. These ideals have eroded considerably, but not so in Germany, it seems. So, in theory it is perfectly possible that somewhere in the future some German or Austrian composers would take-up things as left by R. Strauss and do it in a convincing way…. probably some decendent from Syrian immigrants who is surprised that Germans don’t want to touch their own richness.

        By the way, I fully understand the confusion and outrage a view may provoke if it does not fit received wisdom., But received wisdom is not always the best, as German new music show cases joyfully demonstrate – stuck in sonic art:

    • Holger H. says:

      It is actually funny, to read the nationalistic limitations in your thinking and all the others here, including Ades.
      What is representative of the German musical landscape today is actually a thorough absence of nationalistic thinking. No national school exists, the whole world is at home in Germany’s concert halls.
      That backward national in-the-box thinking is – ridiculously enough – reserved apparently for the inferior complex ridden classical music cultures of anglo-saxon and north american provenance. Q.E.D.

      • John Borstlap says:

        “…………. the whole world is at home in Germany’s concert halls.” Yes, in terms of performance, and that is great. But in terms of new music, Germany is quite narrow-minded in comparison to the world outside and that is the result of WW II and the following inhibitions. Quite understandable but hopefully merely a temporary phenomenon.

        It is very parochial to assume that German new music must be ‘the best’ because of the great German performance culture, which is really a TOTALLY DIFFERENT territory. The moment German orchestras begin to perform Stockhausen, Spahlinger, Lachenmann, Widmann, Haas etc. on a regular basis, audiences will increase the speed of their dwindling and performance standards will sink quickly and drastically. This music (to use a tolerant term) is merely endured now and then on orchestral programmes out of a sense of obligation. Put an unknown name on the programme and the hall has to prepare for much lower ticket sales than usual. By the way, I know something of the problems of orchestral planners and conductors…. it is quite a challenge to program new works that will not destroy the bond of trust between audience, and orchestral management and conductor. It is a very positive development that some of the new music of our days begins to be more accessible and tries to recapture something of a great tradition. But you find it more in the Anglo-Saxon world than in the heartlands of classical music. As yet.

        • Holger H. says:

          “It is very parochial to assume that German new music must be ‘the best’ because of the great German performance culture…”

          What is going on here? Nobody said such a thing, you are really hitting that straw man in your head hard.

    • Furzwängler says:

      The thought of being sent to a German ‘Einbürgerungslager’ – or indeed to any of their other famous ‘Lagers’ – can only fill one with horror. It’s not for nothing that the concentration camps were euphemistically known in the Volksmund as ‘Konzertlager’.

      • Holger H. says:

        And you think that is funny? How low can it get here?

      • John Borstlap says:

        I know of attempts by academics to organize a conference about implicit aesthetic taboos in postwar new music and the attempts to transcend them, at German universities, which appeared impossible to do because of these very taboos. One respectable professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin reacted to an item on the proposal which took the idea of new tonal music seriously, with a furious “I don’t want that fascist crap in my faculty!” The often absurdist products celebrated at Darmstadt and Donaueschingen are wrapped in extensive theoretical defences, out of step with their actual contents, demonstrating sensitivities and taboos quite guaint for non-Germans – but entirely understandable in the light of history. German new music is built upon the postwar fundament of prescribed freedom from tradition, absorbing authoritarian party lines which were supposed to have been overcome, and so strongly contrasting with German performance culture which was quickly restored at a very high level. Read Toby Thacker: ‘Music after Hitler, 1945-1955’ (2007) for enlightenment.

  • thorvaldsson says:

    Simon Rattle was the main reason why such a “prodigy” Adès, a son of his good friends, has become so popular.
    Adès, a terribly overpriced composer, whose music is just as boring as some of the most failed composers of Viennese operetta, and Faber is doing a good business.
    But Adès is not satisfied just being a fame composer. His piano playing is well …just OK, I would love to see him playing Prokofiev Second or Rachmaninov Third. Not only playing, but fantastically performed.
    Now, as a mediocre conductor he attacks big conductors’ names of German music. Adès just want to swap what is good with what is mediocre and call that mediocre for Something.

    JOHN BORSTLAP, you have a terrible misunderstanding of what the music should be, only because you are terribly lost in the trap of formalistic rezoning. For you music should have “this and this parameters” (old expressive forms, well, let us listen Madonna, a lot of traditional forms there too!). And you do this only because you are seing just the form, but not the content. And so many of the today’s composers have just FORM, with a huge empty space in their content – music without inner meaning. For you, Kunst Der Fuge is a good form or a good content? But I will tell you: it is not form at all.
    And so, David Matthews is for you “good” because he has a good expressive form = to say using old clichés that audience understands. I would definitely listen to some Bohuslav Martinů or André Jolivet than to listen the third-time-chewing of Matthews or Adès.

    • Holger H. says:

      True, but you waste your time (like me). Any dog that pisses at the German oak is welcome here.

    • John Borstlap says:

      What an honor to have a great genius in our midst! With assessments about myself which I could never aspire to. One can only feel sorry for J.S. Bach for not having lived up to mr/mrs Thorvaldsson’s expectations.

  • Baron Z says:

    I think it is part and parcel of the historic German desire to dominate. German musicians established the music education structures in the USA, and as a result, their valued were instilled to such a degree that in 1981, a teacher at the Manhattan School of Music said that it was official policy to venerate above all others the three B’s, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
    Until the 1980s, performances of French music were rare and limited to a few works. Russians fared better, but most composers of other cultures are still neglected for the sake of yet another Germanic composer. And, no, they are not superior! I hold that for each “master” there is at least one other who is equal. For Bach, Handel; for Beethoven and Brahms, any number of other composers.
    Perhaps this was so because of the cultural superiority of Prague, Paris, London, Milan and other cities!