“MOZART WASN’T A MASS PHENOMENON”
JENS SCHUBBE on the allure of contemporary classical music.
Mr. Schubbe, the work of Ludwig van Beethoven didn’t assume the importance it enjoys today until after the composer’s death. Will it take time for contemporary music, too, to be widely recognized?
You might say that contemporary composers are the Beethovens of our time, in the sense that they use their own unique tools to respond to their reality. One of Beethoven's greatest achievements was to compose a symphony that addressed the state of the world and human existence.
Classical music became a mass phenomenon in the 20th century, while new music today speaks to a narrower audience.
You're right, our audience is not very large. Yet even during the time of Mozart and Beethoven, concerts were exclusive events that were by no means accessible to everyone. I once read a letter written by Mozart's father, in which he described the world premiere of a piano concerto composed by his son. There were approximately 150 people at that concert, he wrote, calling it a highly satisfactory number.
Is wide distribution a goal worth striving for, in your opinion?
Technology has made music available to everyone nowadays. The downside of this development is that music is now judged by its success in reaching a mass audience. In my view, people are applying economic standards to art without really thinking it through.
As long as we’re on the topic of Beethoven: What is today’s equivalent of the Ninth Symphony?
For me, it would be “Requiem For a Young Poet” by Bernd Alois Zimmermann. This work is a meditation on a century, a fascinating artistic overview. I should also point out that it contains references to Beethoven's Ninth – in the form of a cry for peace at the beginning of the last movement.
Contemporary classical music can be challenging for the untrained ear. What work would you recommend to someone who is new to it?
Stanley Kubrick's cult film “2001: A Space Odyssey” includes music by György Ligeti, for example the 1961 piece “Athmosphères.” That's accessible to everyone. And that's why Kubrick used it – without asking the composer's permission, by the way.
What distinguishes modern classical music from the works of Beethoven or Mozart?
For me, they have more commonalities than differences. The music of the 20th and 21st centuries grew out of 18thand 19th-century music. Of course, the language of music has evolved. Some members of the audience found themselves unable to understand that evolution – at just the time when technology was making it possible to reproduce music.
Can you explain that?
Because music was becoming omnipresent and accessible at any time, the old language of music was preserved. The culture industry has led people to believe that it was the only possible musical language. That was part of the industry's business model.
What should – and shouldn’t – people expect from a Collegium Novum concert?
Among the things they should expect: We offer programs of the highest artistic quality. Our concerts are never organized in a haphazard way; they tell stories. In our upcoming concert, for example, we are performing works that composers knew would be their last – musical testaments, as it were. What they shouldn't expect: mere entertainment. But if you come to our concerts with an open mind and an open heart, you will feel at home.
When is music visionary, and when is it just original for the sake of originality?
It doesn't become clear until considerable time has passed whether a piece of music merely caused a sensation, or whether its vision was powerful enough to stand the test of time.
Jens Schubbe, 55, has served as the artistic and managing director for Collegium Novum Zurich (CNZ), an ensemble devoted to contemporary classical music, since 2010. A musician and Germanist, he was previously a choir singer and dramatic adviser in Stralsund and Berlin, among other positions.
A rehearsal of the contemporary music ensemble Collegium Novum.