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Jakub Hrůša
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»Music is the language of passion« - Reflections on this year’s theme by Heidi Rogge


This year’s journey through into music history illuminates various aspects of »passion«, without skirting its darker side. As Jean Paul put it: »Passion makes the best observations and the sorriest conclusions.« After all, at times passion has something quite destructive about it – it can give off not just positive emotions but also express hatred. Perhaps that is why the ancient Stoic school of philosophy defined mastery of passion, of one’s emotions, as one of life’s important goals. Likewise, one of the four Platonic cardinal virtues was moderation – principally, it should be noted, of carnal pleasure. How passion can destroy you is something also experienced by many an operatic hero. For instance, »Don Giovanni« learns the hard way that passion can literally open the gates of hell. At the end of the drama, the hero may be destroyed – but he stood by what he did, and burned for it.

In his writings on Shakespeare, Ludwig Tieck declared: »Tragedy is the realm of all high emotions, of extremes of passion.« So the season must include some great love stories, like »Romeo and Juliet«, the text-book case of a love which simply cannot be. The romantic spirit took hold quickly in lieder and opera, self-evidently: the marriage of words and music offered an ideal medium for direct expression of the complex world of feelings. Reacting against the Enlightenment spirit, romantic artists were especially drawn to lost worlds. The boundaries between dreams and reality dissolved. Sagas and myths took centre stage – for instance, in Wagner’s operas, telling of joy and sorrow, love and death, as the union of opposites: in Tristan and Isolde, one intoxicated night spells doom; »Parsifal« hinges on a fatal wound to body and soul. Richard Strauss’s female protagonists too are catapulted from one passion to the next, whether the vengeful Salome or the Marschallin in »The Rosenkavalier«.

Which brings us to the next strand in the theme of passion: composers and their wives! When true love’s path runs smooth, quite different passions find an outlet, sometimes with highly amusing results, as in Strauss’s »Sinfonia domestica«, which depicts utterly artless everyday life with his highly-strung wife and their son »Bubi«. Other great composers also had strong women at their sides – for Mahler it was Alma, for Schumann Clara. Tchaikovsky quickly turned his back on married life. Others remained permanent bachelors, frequently in love, often unhappily so, like Beethoven whose »Immortal Beloved« remains an enduring mystery. Brahms, in particular, was catapulted by his encounter with Clara Schumann into a new emotional sphere. And Bruckner suffered all his life from women’s complete lack of interest in him. All these psychic states and relationship dramas left traces in their compositions. As Franz Grillparzer said: »Aren’t minor keys the women of music?«

The term »Leidenschaft« was introduced into German in the 17th century as a translation of the Latin »passio«. The theme of ‘mourning’ is a persistent one. Bach’s ‘St. John Passion“, for instance, is one of the most dramatic settings of the story of Christ’s death. This year’s programmes include other works centred around mourning and death – Haydn’s »Trauer« Symphony or Suk’s »Asrael« Symphony, the latter a moving homage to Dvořák and his daughter. In deep mourning, creativity often withers on the vine, but it can also awaken new powers. For all the attendant unhappiness, compositions born of grief are often the most passionate, be it Tchaikovsky’s »Pathétique«, Rachmaninoff’s »Symphonic Dances«, Berlioz‘s »Death of Cleopatra«, or tone­poems such as Strauss’s »Death and Transfiguration«. All composers introduced their emotions into their music, in different ways. Many were buffeted by passions and devoured by self-doubt, like Robert Schumann, who in despair threw himself into the Rhine – and thus is one of those prototypical hyper-sensitive, passionate romantic artists, shadowed by tragedy. But is it even possible to compose without great surges of passion? Doesn’t creativity need emotional stimuli? The often »aimlessly circling movements« of Mahler’s and Bruckner’s soul-baring music engender total catastrophes.

Many other themes have also found passionate expression in the music of the great composers – if we loosely apply Richard Strauss’s dictum: »Anyone who wants to be a good composer must also be able to compose a menu.« Enthusiasm for some subject – often far removed from music – commonly both drives and motivates. In his spare time, for instance, Dvořák indulged an almost fanatical passion: he regularly visited Prague’s main railway stations and was clued up on every locomotive and engine-driver. For Béla Bartók, obsessive folk-song collecting was both an impetus and an inexhaustible wellspring for his composing. Nature was also a source of inspiration, as we can hear in works such as Chausson’s »Poème de la mer et de l’amour«, or Mendelssohn’s symphonies inspired by travels to foreign lands. Travelling was a great passion for many composers – even in the days when it was still very arduous. And these travels left a trace, too. Still, as Theodor Fontane wrote: »Only being abroad teaches us what we have at home.« And, just as hankering for exotic influences surfaces constantly as a musical theme, so does love of one’s homeland, achieving its finest flowering in ethnically flavoured romantic works. In every nation under the sun, musicians devoted themselves to uncovering their cultural roots.

Not least, too, for many composers, performing as soloists themselves, the impact of virtuosity tailor-made for their own instruments, and the sheer pleasure of music-making were the inspiration for many unforgettable works. »He didn’t just supply the bass notes on the pedals«, runs a contemporary ear-witness account of Bach’s organ playing, »rather, he played a fully-fledged bass melody with his feet, which was often so contrived that many another could hardly have produced it using five fingers.« The Romantic era brought a special flourishing of high virtuosity, of a kind we can hardly imagine today. Paganini, for instance, drew this reaction: »What a man, what a violin, what an artist!« He criss-crossed Europe, a highly acclaimed superstar; it was not uncommon for women to scream and swoon. his technical mastery and spectacular, often bizarre appearances left audiences spellbound. Some dubbed him »a magician«, others »a demon – or yet an angel«. Virtuosos are celebrated and yet lonely warriors on life’s stage, and at this season’s concerts several will cast their spell on audiences, with their passion for music – including such great artists of our time as Sol Gabetta, Viktoria Mullova, Vesselina Kasarova, Renaud Capuçon, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Christian Gerhaher.

Passion which you can hear is also a hallmark of the Bamberg Symphony! What makes the Orchestra so unique is its Bohemian sound, was once described as »champagne-coloured«. It’s truer than ever, under the Czech Jakub Hrůša – they’ve struck up a magical symbiosis, with the new Principal Conductor bringing the Orchestra back ever closer to its historic roots. The Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper called it »Love at First Note«. Hrůša gives the musicians »all the time in the world«, enthused the radio station BR Klassik, »to show off their celebrated qualities: rounded brass, warm woodwinds, aristocratic string tone.« It also talked of »blazing drama«: »Enough to stir any heart!« Other critics, too, have praised the passion which players and conductor have nurtured together: there’s talk of »super-charged pathos«, of »joy in emotional extremes«, of »captivating presence and urgency«, even of a »aural opium trip«. This sensuous journey continues in the coming season – under the banner of Wagner’s famous saying: »Music is the language of passion!«