What makes new classical music really new?

Classical, New and Old Music 2020
The year the music went online

As in many other areas of society, the corona pandemic in 2020 had a profound impact on musical life in Germany. In his review of the year, Patrick Hahn recalls what has nevertheless taken place in classical, new and early music, looks at new initiatives and asks about perspectives for musical life in the face of current uncertainties.

By Patrick Hahn

One of the most important differentiations in order to survive this year full of profound changes and incisions emotionally was provided by the baritone Georg Nigl in April. The first “lockdown” was already six weeks old and “social distancing” was no longer a rudeness, but a commandment to love one's neighbor. “I don't want to distance myself socially, even if the distance is currently prescribed,” Nigl revealed VAN magazine. “What defines us humans and our art is that we treat each other. Therefore, I feel that social distancing is completely wrong. Physical distancing would be more likely. ”As of March 10, 2020, the physical distance requirement initially brought public musical life to a complete standstill. The Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra broadcast the first “ghost concert” of the year on its website on the same evening and who would have thought at the time that the ghostly yawns of empty halls would become the backdrop for this year.

The festival hall as a marble run

Not arias, but aerosols became the number one discussion topic in the music scene in 2020, which continued to develop both virologically and aerodynamically in order to slowly get closer to making music under pandemic conditions: How much distance is specifically necessary to "safely" play music together do? The Berliner Philharmoniker were the first to break the spell, their European concert on May 1st showed the path that many organizers have followed since then: with smaller-sized works, with musicians at a distance, without an audience. It was liberating and oppressive at the same time. Should that be the future?

The summer gave a sigh of relief at first: The Salzburg Festival was not just a surprise So fan tutte in a bewitching performance under the conductor Joanna Mallwitz, they also shook with a strong new production of Elektra. While Salzburg, thanks to a sophisticated - and extremely costly - test strategy, celebrated its 100th anniversary in front of an audience distributed in a checkerboard pattern on the side of the performers, almost like in pre-pandemic times, and the Vienna Philharmonic played close together in the orchestra pit, the Bayreuth Festival was for the first time outside of Wartime canceled. The tenor Stefan Vinke then celebrated his own Wagner Festival in the garden, between the paddling pool and the rabbit hutch, the parade on the red carpet was canceled. For this purpose, composer Simon Steen-Andersen was allowed to stage a rapid parkour run in the empty Festspielhaus, which led him in an acoustic "chain reaction" from the lower stage to the roof of the house: The Loop of the Nibelung.

A fancy birthday

2020 should have been the big festival year in honor of Ludwig van Beethoven. For the 250th time, his birthday will be in December and institutions of every kind had dedicated themselves to the celebration of this composer, a specially founded festival society supported the celebrations with federal funds as a “national task”. At the beginning of the year there were still some interesting things to experience, such as the reconstruction of the Academy Concert of 1808, in which Thomas Hengelbrock with the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble and the Balthasar Neumann Choir resurrected the historical moment, in Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphony, along with many other novelties, saw the light of day. At the other end of the spectrum of celebrations, houses like the Cologne Philharmonic tried to honor the innovative strength of the jubilee by commissioning 25 composers to create new works nonbthvn project to contribute. Most of these novelties are still awaiting their premiere due to the pandemic - the Beethoven year is being extended. There were no concerts on Beethoven's christening day on December 17th, Google Arts and YouTube are playing a “Global Ode to Joy”.

In order to overcome the physical distance and at least maintain social closeness in the media, the classical music world has experienced a boost in digitization. Pianist Igor Levit turned out to be a virtuoso on the keyboard of social media, who “exuded” himself from his living room with a steadily growing fan base: “There was an immediacy and a form of lightness and closeness to the listeners that was completely is new to me, ”Levit reported to climate protection activist Luise Neubauer. “It's absolutely incomparable because something happened that I dreamed of for years: to see the story expand. The story told was supplemented by the audience side. Suddenly it was important: who is sitting there, why, how many, why, what does it do to you? There really was a feeling of participation, I've never experienced it like this before. ”Large opera houses, yes, even record companies like Deutsche Grammophon and radio stations unlocked their archives in“ lockdown ”and enabled aficionados to enter the opera from their living room armchairs to go.

Virtual proximity and real distance

Musicians of all ages and scenes explored their video editing programs - with varying degrees of success, not all results were as brilliant as that Quarantificat of the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg and Riccardo Minasi - even the music workshops switched to the Internet, as the example of the early music ensemble Capella della Torre proves: choir rehearsals held by video conference defied the delays in technology and the first composers made the peculiarities of this Already used the medium, like the composer Francesco Filidei in his piece this is tutto. Still others, like Alexander Schubert, developed a social simulation: In the "virtual real life computer game" genesis the audience was able to help design a small world in an empty industrial hall for seven days by controlling the musicians living in it as avatars - or by watching them. But not only the new music scene came up with innovative solutions.

The Leipzig Bach Festival organized one of the most moving concert events of the year: a trio led by the Icelandic tenor Benedikt Kristjánsson created Bach's Passion story in an idiosyncratic version for tenor, percussion, harpsichord and organ. The chorals were played from all over the world, where the Bach community gathered virtually around the composer's grave in Leipzig's St. Thomas Church. In addition to this exemplary experience of sharing musical experiences in new media channels, last but not least, the images and situations that musicians have created throughout Germany based on Volkenroda and Stuttgart will be remembered this year: 1: 1 meet Musicians and listeners for a ten-minute concert at a safe distance of ten meters. The proceeds go to the emergency aid fund of the German Orchestra Foundation. The donations collected are a drop in the ocean: Nobody has to suffer from the current restrictions as much as freelance musicians. The aid programs for the self-employed mostly ignore the needs of artists and in view of the existential significance of the ongoing restrictions, concert designer Folkert Uhde calls for a “new deal for culture”: “Self-confidentand self-critical, open to new ideas. To do this, we have to remove the facades and dare to look behind them. "

The tendency of the Corona crisis to intensify existing problems such as a burning mirror is also noticeable in the music scene, where the debate about relevance is now being conducted with a different urgency. It goes hand in hand with the growing awareness of the pluralization of the concept of culture: the question of whether it was time to “decolonize” classical music was put up for discussion by the Goethe-Institut at a conference in the Berlin Radialsystem, the symposia Curating Diversity in Europe the Academy of Arts Berlin and Afro-Modernism in Contemporary Music of the Ensemble Modern broadened the perspective in their own way.

With the decision of the federal government and the prime minister to extend and tighten the lockdown at least until January 10, 2021, the hopes of a conciliatory end-of-year among artists and organizers have finally faded. In addition to the deeper emotional and economic disruptions associated with this second lockdown, new trends can also be identified. The online formats with which the scenes come up are increasingly tailored to the possibilities of the medium, more and simpler paid offers are looking for ways to monetize the valuable but so far mostly free digital offers.

It is quite likely that the online stage will reinforce a tendency that has also been observed in concert life in recent months: genre boundaries are becoming more fluid, contrasting dramaturgies of old and new take the place of puristic special interest events, new hybrid forms are emerging. “Single-origin” events, such as Ensemble Modern's fortieth birthday, which was recently celebrated online of course, are becoming rarer. For example, when the Stuttgart State Orchestra develops its concert stream together with urban pop and electronics giants into a cross-scene event, not only new solidarity, but also aesthetic “links” appear. The show must go online.


Patrick Hahn, born in 1980, is a dramaturge, author and music manager. He has been working as an artistic program planner for the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne since 2015. He also writes words for music in collaboration with composers such as Mark André and Vito Zuraj. In lectures and articles also words about music.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Music division
January 2021

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