Shape of Arts to Come No 1: We all need the kiss of the muse

He taught us to hear Bach as Bach heard himself. He thinks we don't take death seriously enough. Where will he lead our minds and ears next? In the first of our series on the future of all the arts, Rob Cowan talks to Nikolaus Harnoncourt
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The Independent Culture
The Austrian-born conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt has been voyaging through the musical centuries since the early Fifties. He started his career as an orchestral cellist, but while Herbert von Karajan and others were fattening Baroque masters with excess calories (Bach dressed as Wagner), Harnoncourt set out to teach us how Bach heard himself. He introduced us to dazzling early music that we had never encountered before, righted numerous musicological wrongs and has latterly brought a huge catalogue of insights to the symphonies of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Dvorak.

Verdi is his next port of call, with Aida ("one of Verdi's most widely misunderstood works") as the priority. But what about the theatre music of our own century? Could Gershwin beckon from the horizon? When I last spoke with Harnoncourt, he expressed a love for Porgy & Bess. I broached the subject again, but his response was at once mischievous and discouraging: "Simon Rattle once said to me: "Hands off Porgy... that's my field. You stick to Johann Strauss."

Youngsters love working with Harnoncourt, and most older players find his ideas refreshing. And yet, pondering the place that music has in the current Western cultural climate, Harnoncourt despairs for our failing education systems. He recalls how, years ago, music and art in general were load-bearing pillars of Western education.

"On the one hand you had language, logic and mathematics," he says, "while on the other, there was art and fantasy." Modern Western culture places more and more emphasis on the logical element, whereas the great philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries knew how "creative flying" could access various goals that are inaccessible through logic.

"Educational leaders in Western democracy don't really understand most of the crucial problems," he protests. "When I think how `the state' views the creative potential of children in their care - and how lightly they take that responsibility - well, sometimes I cannot believe it. Becoming a human being now takes second or third place to computer literacy and the ability to shift efficiently from one job to another." We have become mere components in a modular society.

Harnoncourt blames professional pressures for splintering the family unit, but he also cites our faulty attitudes to life - and, in particular, to death. "Orthodox religions are on the decline, and pseudo-religions are on the increase," he observes. "And by pseudo-religions, I mean astrology, drug-induced mental states, that sort of thing. But there is still widespread longing for genuine religious experience. Nobody believes in his own death anymore." He reminds us that although we witness people dying on television virtually every day, "you would not have your own grandfather die in your apartment". And yet, for centuries that was the way things happened. "My own grandfather died in the midst of his family, and we were there to hold his hand." Have we, then, become a generation of spectators?

For Harnoncourt, life, death and what he terms "the incredible organic beauty of art" are inextricably linked. "The human monkey has his own language," he says; "he can even ask his wife to buy a bread roll at the grocers. That's monkey language. But to say, with Goethe, `Uber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh' (`Above all the summits it is restful'), a monkey could not do that. The reason why we write music and poetry, and why the cavemen painted, is the kiss of the muse. It is a source that we cannot properly describe, but it is essential for the good health of humanity. One thing is for sure, though: I do not know of any art that is not in some small way connected with religion."

Harnoncourt then turns the coin by quoting various of Bach's non-religious works - the hilarious cantata about the evils of drinking coffee, for example - but reiterates his point that to perform, say, the St Matthew Passion "purely for its aesthetic value, like taking honey from the bees, that would be a profanation". So, what about the bewildering vicissitudes in current public musical taste? Take, by way of an example, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. Would Harnoncourt ever choose to perform them? He answers with a quiet but emphatic "no".

"And I can tell you exactly why," he adds. "When music is so obviously autobiographical, when the message `me, me, me!' jumps so forcefully from the score - I really cannot stand that. Schubert's music is also autobiographical, but with him you glean the results of his experiences rather than observe the process of personal suffering. All this business of showing your skin and your innards in public, these endless confessionals - I can't take any of it, I would personally hate to expose everything about myself."

He adds Berlioz to his hit list of musical autobiographers. "I cannot touch his music," he confesses. I ask him why. Is Berlioz, like Mahler, too "neurotic"?

"But don't you also hear some neurosis in Schubert's music?" he asks. Not really. Fright, terror, perhaps - but not neurosis. "Maybe," he shrugs, "but I can tell you that those important composers who I do not perform, I cannot perform at all. For example, I have never done Wagner, although I have made several attempts, going through the scores of Tristan, Parsifal, Die Meistersinger - and being thrown back after the first act of Meistersinger." And yet next June he will incorporate music from Tristan and Tannhauser into a programme that deals with the subject of love and that also includes music by Mendelssohn and Schumann.

"This is the only Wagner I will do," he announces with typical resolve and his reasons make historical sense. "There is a connection with Schumann: the two composers knew each other. Wagner commented on Schumann's opera Genoveva; Schumann commented on Wagner's work; Wagner hated Mendelssohn and wrote all those terrible things about Jews - the connections are meaningful, they make sense."

As to the future, and the works that we might expect to hear under Harnoncourt's baton, there are some definite surprises in store. An ongoing love affair with Bruckner ("for me, he is a miracle") will lead to performances of the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies - towering masterpieces all of them. Harnoncourt traces an unexpected creative lineage from Bruckner, through Johann Strauss to Alban Berg, whereas "my most interesting connection to Mozart - and here you may laugh, like I do - is Offenbach. I would also connect the clear pencil drawings of Offenbach with those of Stravinsky. I have already done Offenbach's operettas La Perichole and La Belle Helene, as well as a few pieces by Alban Berg."

All this is a far cry from his typecasting as an "early music" specialist. In a sense, the ever-radical Harnoncourt serves as the ideal creative symbol for our changing attitudes to the future of standard musical repertoire. But how does he view the coming divide between the centuries?

"I feel we are now floating in the middle of some new development," he says guardedly, "and we don't know where our ship will finally find a port. There is also widespread fear that it might all go terribly wrong, and that if the wrong kind of materialism really does take hold - it'll all be finished... I am a pessimist by nature, but somehow I am also optimistic. I don't know the reason, but it is true: I have hope."