Germany retires its musicians much too young

Germany retires its musicians much too young


norman lebrecht

June 02, 2021

Reader’s Comment of the Day, concerning the retirement if Daniel Stabrawa, comes from Tom Hase:

Mandatory retirement is a general rule in Germany which applies to everyone from construction worker to academic (and, with few exceptions, at the same age for everybody regardless of profession, which is somewhat questionable). For once, musicians are not excluded from this rule.

In this specific case it is of course a great loss, but overall it seems to be a good idea to give the next generation a chance- in systems without mandatory retirement there seem to be more people who overstay their welcome than those who retire too early. Needless to say that retirement does not have to mean the end of all activities – in this case, I very much hope that Stabrawa will continue to play chamber music and maybe intensify his conducting. I would pay to hear him conduct Beethoven after all the insights he has after playing the complete string quartets so many times. Talking about string quartet, does anyone here know whether the Philharmonia Quartet Berlin will continue to exist in some form? It would be a shame if the untimely death of Christian Stadelmann was the end of this great ensemble.


  • henry williams says:

    65 is not young. it is an age where health
    issues can start. also the next generation
    need employment.

    • Gustavo says:

      At the end of the day, only biological age matters.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      There are many pianists still performing – or who did perform – into their late 80s/early 90s. Not to mention conductors. If it’s good enough for them…

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Indeed, some performances by maturing musicians can be pure gold. I can’t wait for a Blomsted concert this summer: by then he’ll be 94.

        Retirement from employment positions, however, does help with renewal, and doesn’t rule out freelancing, I think. It definitely shouldn’t.

    • Tiredofitall says:

      Agreed, especially stepping aside for the next generation, currently a critical problem in higher education in the US. We have a generation (or two) of university academics who hold on to their tenured positions practically until death, denying young scholars from pursuing careers with livable wages or security.

      • Nick says:

        “Education” in the US is currently a HUGE problem altogether and has nothing to do with age of academics, but rather with their world views!!!

    • M2N2K says:

      These days, in the third decade of twenty-first century, 65 is not necessarily old either. Some start developing “health issues” at 35 and others remain at or near the top of their instrumentalist game well into their seventies: this is purely individual. The “next generation” does not “need employment” any more than the previous ones did. Besides, supporting more retirees would certainly mean lower real incomes for youngsters – during their entire working life, no less. Imho, any mandatory retirement age is fully arbitrary and in many cases not only unfair but musically unjustified as well.

    • Maria says:

      How stupid!

    • Maria says:

      Health issues can start at 20 if you don’t look after your body and mind, and eat rubbish food and drink too much, and Dr int g5bany exercise! If 65 is not young, then your comment simply means 65 is old! You can’t put a price on experience and an example for thd younger generation often to emulate. They should be allowed to work if they are well able to do the job, never more so than instrumentalists. Singers are a different story, and I’m speaking as one who has retired as soloist at 67, and look after myself. But to say 65 isn’t young and the start of health issues is just a general sweeping silly statement.

      • Henry williams says:

        It is not silly. Most people i know at 65 do
        Have some health problems. If you travel
        Abroad at age 65 you pay a lot of extra

    • Nick says:

      Health issues can start at the age of 5 too!!!
      “Next generation” needs to LEARN FIRST!! Then they can get an employment. Have you ever heard of the word “apprentice”? That is how “next generation” should gain experience in the arts!!

  • Alviano says:

    How come we’re still stuck with Barenboim?

    • Gustavo says:

      It may be obsession?

      Haitink and Brendel, for example, showed grandeur by stepping down in an orderly manner at old age.

      But some artists may not have the strength to take this step, or they may be downright narcissistic and self-obsessed.

  • NP says:

    Younger generations can’t even get a foot in the door nowadays. Give the younger generations a chance, free up the scene a bit. You don’t need to be hanging on for dear life to every gig, teaching job, and concert at age 65, when all the fresh conservatory grads and people in their 20s and 30s (many of whom are probably your students) can’t even have a chance to start their careers or get a little money to maybe buy their first house/car/start families. Pave the way, enjoy it, step aside with grace when the moment comes.

    • SVM says:

      Life expectancy has, on the whole, increased significantly, so it is to be expected that young people will probably have to wait longer to get established in a dream career than they might have done in the past. But, for such a highly competitive profession as music, I think it is fair to say that most musicians do not really “make it” until they are in middle age, meaning that, if forced to “step aside” at 65, they get relatively few years of being able to reap the rewards of decades of preparation and privation (on top of an extended period of costly formal education, many musicians will have foregone more lucrative career paths to enable them to be ready to seize opportunities when they come). Even among famous musicians, it is often the case that the activity for which they are notable was not their main source of income for much of their career, but an activity subsidised by other work (such as teaching… although it is also true that many musicians do jobs in unrelated professions — Philip Glass used to work as a plumber!).

      Mandatory retirement ages are an extremely crude form of prejudice that should be utilised only in professions where there are serious safety implications and compelling scientific evidence of a very strong positive correlation between increasing age and a serious decline in the ability to do the job effectively. As a younger musician, I object strenuously to mandatory retirement being justified in my name (or, should I say, in the name of “intergenerational fairness”). Such a policy might actually reduce the work on offer, since it is the older musicians who are often in the best position (by virtue of their reputation, contacts, experience, and means) to create work for themselves and their younger colleagues — I am fortunate to play in an ensemble where the majority of my colleagues (including our director) are 65 or over.

  • Rachelle Goldberg says:

    I would like to cite the American orchestras where players can remain until they are in their eighties. They bring depth and experience to the orchestra. It is good that there are a variety of ages. Also one’s playing does not decline either. Ageism seems to be an European ideal. An economy cannot sustain so many people over sixty in their pension schemes or care. by encouraging older people to continue in their profession they are creating a more vibrant society.

    • Henry williams says:

      Heifetz retired at 70. Menuhin’s playing was
      Dreadful as he got older.

      • M2N2K says:

        First, Heifetz’s last public solo recital was when he was well past his 71st birthday, so he definitely did not retire at 70. Second, Menuhin’s playing started to deteriorate at much younger age, but so what? Neither of these two examples has much to do with the issue of mandatory retirement age for orchestral musicians.

  • Phillip says:

    65 is young as US Presidents go, even though the starter age is officially just 35.

    • Emil says:

      At (1st) inauguration, Kennedy was 41, Carter was 52, Clinton was 46, GW Bush was 54, Obama was 47. Plenty of young presidents – in fact, the aberration is that the current political generation has clung to power all the way since Clinton, with an interlude for Obama. Clinton, Gore, GW Bush, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Donald Trump are all basically the same age. And both Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi are older than Newt Gingrich, who was speaker of the house in the late 1990s.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      The median age at inauguration of incoming U.S. presidents is 55 years.

      Only five US presidents started their terms at 65 or older, but three of them are relatively recent: Reagan, Trump, Biden.

      The great number of septagenarian presidential contenders and candidates in the last decade is more of an anomaly, I think.

  • MacroV says:

    Much as I will miss Daniel Stabrawa in the Digital Concert Hall, I do agree with the BPO’s retirement requirement (and I believe it may be their rule, not just German law). A player who stays in an orchestra for 50 years essentially deprives another great player of a career, and some of those years is probably not the best person that could hold that job.

    I definitely hope Mr. Stabrawa, who is still playing beautifully, will continue to be active. He at least seems to understand that it’s time to let someone else have the job.

  • On the other hand… I’ve read of orchestral musicians who are desperately soldiering on through various chronic pains and maladies and other dissatisfiers, hoping they can get out with their pension before they forced to quit.

  • Tamino says:

    It’s a traditional age. 65 was the retirement age in Germany since 1913. Back then men who reached the age of 60 had in average 13 to 14 more years to live.
    So in average 9 more years after retirement. Today it’s in average 19 to 20 more years, so an equivalent retirement age would be 69 or 70.

    (average life expectancy after reaching the age of 60 is a better indicator for retirement issues than total average life expectancy, since 100 years ago the latter is heavily distorted by a high infant mortality.)

  • Nelson says:

    Didn’t a certain Sir Adrian get the mandatory ax at age 65? What a shame we never heard from him after that! It must be true then…that you’re washed up at 65.

  • JC says:

    You might understand that wrong. It is not prohibited to work after you are allowed to retire. If he worked his 45 years he’ll get his full pension and he can work and earn on top as much as he wants.
    So if he decided to leave, it was his choice. And there’s nothing wrong with getting the choice to retire “early”.

    • Tamino says:

      In Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra retirement at 65 is mandatory. You can still work freelance, also occasionally in your old orchestra, but your employment ends at mandatory retirement age. No choice.

  • Emil says:

    Not sure how the comment and headline align – I agree entirely with the comment. 65 is a good age, especially after years in a highly-paid job in the top orchestra in the world, to reorient to other activities. As much as it is nice to hear about musicians spending 60 years in an orchestra, for each veteran violinist there’s a Dale Clevenger who has to be forced out in embarrassment because they don’t know when to quit. So a mandatory retirement age avoids that, and also prods veteran musicians to move to other activities, and there’s plenty of those.

    • Hayne says:

      Goes for conductors also:)

      • Emil says:

        Honestly, yes: you’re 70? Give up your MDship, take a principal guest/academy conductor position, get residencies, festival headlining, go on tour with orchestras, and drop all the administration. It’s odd why conductors insist on keeping administrative duties all their life (or presumably, they don’t actually do the admin work, and someone else picks up the slack).

  • Ben G. says:

    Here in France, I retired at 66 + 2 months. Now I’m 68 and continue to play in 10 different ensembles throughout the year, (both Classic + Jazz) even in Germany, my bordering country.

    They say that what you don’t use, you loose. Allow me to say that I’ve never had it better!

  • Malcolm James says:

    One of the problems with not having a mandatory retirement age (apart from denying younger people a chance to gain experience) is what do you do when players who have given long and distinguished service are no longer able to perform to the required standard? This need not be linked to any specific health problems, but is just part of the natural ageing process. Oboists and horn players are some of the most vulnerable to this and just a fractional loss of lip or diaphragm control can mean that their playing is no longer quite up to standard. For example, Dale Clevenger, the legendary Chicago SO principal for more than 45 years, was peerless for the first 40, but apparently started to lose it in the last 5 or 6 years and it took a long time to persuade him that he should retire.

    There was a lively debate on SD and many people circled the wagons round writing something like ‘he’s still a wonderful musician and he was immaculate when I heard him last month’. Yes, he is still a wonderful musician but, although the spirit is willing, the flesh is now too frequently weak. There are days when you can roll back the years and sound as good as ever, but the days when it’s frankly a bit of a car crash become distressingly frequent.

    Some have the self-awareness and ability to walk away before the decline becomes evident, but others do not. It depends on a number of factors. If you have something else that you really want to do, it’s easier. Dale Clevenger had recently lost his wife, who was also a horn player, and she would possibly have been the one person who could have persuaded him that it was time to bow out gracefully.

    If you don’t have a mandatory retirement age, do you have robust competence procedures to persuade players to retire in this sort of situation? If you do, music directors etc might be accused of bullying if they try to invoke them? Notwithstanding that American players have tenure to protect them from this, when Franklin Cohen retired as principal clarinet in Cleveland after 40 years or so, there was a suspicion that he was pushed by FWM. closer to home, there was the unedifying spectacle of the case between Sandy Johnston and WNO.

    • Nick says:

      Retirement age should be based on PROFESSIONAL QUALITY, not on age! Some people should be retired at 35 and some can work till 90 and very successfully.

  • Fiddleman says:

    Let’s give the younger generation a chance. There are so few positions in top orchestras that they shouldn’t be held for life by the elder generation. With all due respect for the many fine elder musicians, in general a 65 year old is not going to be playing at the technical level they were as a 35 year old. As a recent retiree, I feel I had a good run of nearly 40 years and am glad to have the chance now to pursue other interests and step aside.

  • Archie_V says:

    The special significance of this retirement for me is that I’m fairly sure Daniel Stabrawa was the last of the BPO’s principal players with hands-on (erm, bow-on, maybe?) experience of the Karajan era. And when he has performed as the concertmaster in recent years, very occasionally – and presumably only if the conductor specifically asked for it – he could still summon up the characteristic sound of the string section from that time.

    There’s a clip on YouTube of Sakari Oramo conducting the BPO in “Morning Mood” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite from a couple of years ago, with Daniel Stabrawa leading. The main entrance of the strings, apart from being catch-your-breath beautiful, is a sound that the orchestra simply doesn’t do any more, and I’m not sure that – superb violinists and splendid leaders though Daishin Kashimoto or Noah Bendix-Balgley obviously both are – they would be able to (or, indeed, perhaps even want to) achieve that ultrarich legato sound today, simply because they weren’t immersed in it as the orchestra’s default forty years ago.

    Disclaimer: We’ll all have our own opinions as to whether the move away from that sound has been a good or bad thing, but I do think the loss of the last link with it is a significant one, nevertheless.

  • Nick says:

    Absolutely true, NL!!! And it is not only stupid to “retire” an active and productive musician at 65, but a real SHAME!

    • henry williams says:

      when i left the civil service at 65
      their were many young applicants
      for my position. and i was only an
      administrative officer which is not
      a high grade..
      i was happy to make way for somebody else.


    Has anyone wondered how Daniel Stabrawa feels about his retirement? He might actually have other interests and be young enough to enjoy them.

  • BigSir says:

    Its certainly true of the trumpet section of the Berlin Philharmonic.

  • Munich Phil Tuttischwein says:

    I’m a younger member of one of the better German orchestras. I love playing in my orchestra, but I will have to work until I’m 67. I’d like to live a little before I die.

  • Axl says:

    So?? In here (Finland) all people – depend not what profession or public or private sector – has a mandatory retirement age. It depend which year you have born but I think that 65 or 66 is the most common retirement age in this moment. In future that might be 67.
    And in Berlin Phil case – I believe that retirement age also depend. Klaus Wallendorf retired in 2016 age of 67 or 68 (born 1948) and Martin Kretzer retired 2017 in age 66 or 67 (b. 1950) Both are tutti brass players. Daniel Stabrawa is 1st concertmaster and I think that because it’s a huge responsible job -> a bit earlier retirement. And he was born in august 1955 so actually he’s a bit under 66

  • Been there, done that says:

    I would imagine that some of the wind and brass players would like to retire before 65, and can’t. As well as some of the string and percussion players who are just tired of working. Musicians who would like to retire have to keep working, and player who want to keep working can’t because of age. What would happen if the government let them do what they want? Maybe it would all balance out. BTW, why are conductors except from the retire at 65 rule?