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Musikfest Berlin

The festival 2014

“Also blus das Alphorn heut”

(“And so the alphorn blew today“)

The Musikfest Berlin took place from 2 to 22 September 2014, an event organised by the Berliner Festspiele in cooperation with the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation. It was the 10th edition of the orchestra festival, which was launched in 2005. Over the course of 21 days 31 events with over 75 works by 24 composers, performed by 25 orchestras, instrumental and vocal ensembles and numerous soloists representing the international music scene and the music city of Berlin took place at the Philharmonie and its Kammermusiksaal.

The aim was to “finally prepare for a new poetic age, help it gather momentum”, noted the fledgling editor-in-chief Robert Schumann in the freshly founded “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik”. Approximately 25 years later, Schumann had high hopes for Johannes Brahms: “he turned the piano into an orchestra of lamenting and loudly rejoicing voices,” yet once “he points his magic wand at the spot where the powers of the masses, the choir and the orchestra, lend him their energy, then even more wonderful glimpses of the secret spirit world await us”.

The modern orchestra took on its institutional form within bourgeois society, when composers had ensured that their compositions secured the institution’s artistic future. The work is the challenge of the institution. Cosima Wagner noted on 12 December 1880 in her diary that: “Richard goes to work, but complains that he needs instruments that he doesn’t have, has to invent some, not to make more noise but to express what he wants to express.”

In the same vein Hector Berlioz, in a treatise he published in 1843, “Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes” – which he, on Alexander von Humboldt’s recommendation, dedicated to Wilhelm IV. of Prussia, whereupon he was promptly rewarded with a golden tabatiere and a “Große Goldmedaille für wissenschaftliche Verdienste” (Great Gold Medal for Academic Achievements) − contrived the modern orchestra as a machine-like site of artistic production, in which the production and development of new instruments was taken into account.

A revolutionary technical innovation in the field of music had just taken place 30 years earlier, which, although it was supposed to be technically momentous, was still deemed as artistically inadequate by Johannes Brahms: outfitting the “natural horn” with valves made it possible for an entire three and a half octaves to finally be continually played chromatically. This turned it into a “valve horn”, destroying the natural tone quality so much that Johannes Brahms disparagingly spoke of the new instrument, which was so modern at the time, as a “brass viola”. A piece of musically authentic nature seemed to be lost, and nostalgia became apparent when Johannes Brahms, congratulating Clara Schumann on her birthday on 12 September 1868 from the Swiss Alps in a letter bearing the heading “Also blus das Alphorn heut”, made note of the alphorn motif that he later used in the finale of his First Symphony: “Hoch aufm Berg, tief im Thal grüß ich dich viel tausendmal.“ (“High on the mountain, deep in the valley I greet you many thousands of times”). Robert Schumann incidentally thought quite differently of the valve horn. For him, the valve horn and the many new possibilities it offered provided a welcome opportunity to compose the “Concert Piece for 4 Horns and Orchestra”.

Both the valve horn and the natural horn could be experienced at the Musikfest Berlin 2014: Robert Schumann’s “Concert Piece for four Horns and Orchestra” and the most recently composed “concerto grosso Nr. 1 für vier Alphörner und großes Orchester” by Georg Friedrich Haas. For him, however, the alphorn is not a nostalgic flashback but – the Romantic that he is – a medium to explore the spectral “secrets of the spirit world” of songs.

For Robert Schumann the horn was the “soul of the orchestra”, and the instrument pervaded the festival programme: with horn trios by Johannes Brahms and György Ligeti, the Horn Concerto in E Flat by Richard Strauss, the Postal Horn Episode of the Third Symphony by Gustav Mahler, the new Horn Concerto by Wolfgang Rihm and the “Hamburg Concerto” by György Ligeti.

Another strand of the festival programme pursued one of Robert Schumann’s other demands, which he wanted to see supporting the “the new poetic age”: “to remind us of the old age and its ways with every emphasis, to call attention to the question how only at such pure sources can new artistic beauties be invigorated.” The old age: for Schumann and Brahms this primarily referred to Johann Sebastian Bach’s music. His works shaped the Musikfest Berlin programme, but also subcutaneously, as conveyed through the works of Mendelssohn, Bruckner and others. Finally, the “new poetic age” was present – as a third strand – in the works of the composers of the 20th and 21st Century.

Raising the curtain at the 10th edition of the Musikfest Berlin was the Staatskapelle Berlin with Daniel Barenboim and Gustavo Dudamel; the festival closed with symphonies by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle. The guestbook was brimming with entries: the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, the Münchner Philharmoniker, the Bamberger Symphoniker, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and many others.

Winrich Hopp
Artistic Director Musikfest Berlin