Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation Music and Its Prize

Mariss Jansons
Mariss Jansons | Photo (detail): Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation / Manu Theobald

Music needs support: on this all participants in the scene are generally in agreement. Yet only a few private institutions take this responsibility as seriously as does the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation – and that for the last forty years.

In 1972 Ernst von Siemens, the grandson of the company founder Werner von Siemens, launched the international Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation. The act of foundation itself was then performed in 1973. Thus the coincidence has come about that, in 2013, the music world is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of a music prize unique of its kind and, at the same time, the centennial anniversary of the birth of its first winner, the English composer Benjamin Britten. In point of fact, however, the first Ernst von Siemens Music Prize could be awarded only in 1974, because in 1973 the winner was seriously ill.

The start: Benjamin Britten

“In recognition of the greatness of his success as a creative composer, interpreter and educator, whose work has fostered worldwide the engagement in and love of music”, Britten received the sum of 100,000 Swiss francs in prize money. The same amount went to intuitions, ensembles and individual persons for the promotion of young musical talent. Since then, thirty-eight more artists have been awarded the prize, which has been called the “Nobel Prize of Music” and is one of the best endowed awards in the music world. The prize money of the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, and the sum that is put at the disposal each year of Composers Prizes and an extensive project sponsoring contemporary music, has grown steadily. In 2013 the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation could distribute three million euros – the highest amount ever, and this despite the prevailing low interest rates, which have made it difficult for foundations all over the world to generate their usual revenues. This year’s prize winner, Mariss Jansons, chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, received 250,000 euros.

The Munich-Bavarian aura that surrounded the 2013 award ceremony would certainly not have bothered the prize founder Ernst von Siemens. On the contrary, this Prussian entrepreneur had been a Bavarian from affection since his student days in Munich. That Jansons has donated all the prize money to the share capital for the construction of a world-class concert hall, which he is convinced is needed in Munich, is also probably quite in the spirit of the founder. From the start, the idea behind the big, internationally renowned music prize was to promote the new and have an innovative effect in the music world. A large part of the prize money in 2013 (over 2.6 million euros) was therefore again apportioned to the funding of almost 120 selected projects and Composers Prizes. The latter went this year to the Swiss composer David Philip Hefti, the Canadian composer Samy Moussa and the Serbian composer Marko Nikodijevic. The extra value of the Ernst von Siemens Composers Prize lies not only in the prize money, but also and especially in the publicity associated with award. The prize is considered all over the world as a seal of quality and generally leads to greater interest in the work of the winner, sometimes even being bound up with composition and project commissions.

Comprehensive funding project

The project funding in turn enables numerous activities each year in the field of contemporary music. The Siemens Music Foundation awards, for example, composition commissions, which usually also mean support for concerts and series of events. Also important are children’s and youth projects, which make the access of the young target group to contemporary music possible and easier. This in the broad sense educational aspect is also behind many grants that support competitions, workshops and academies. And last but not least, assistance for scholarly publications and complete editions is also on the Music Foundation’s agenda.

In this way, over the years the Boston Musica Viva and the Eight Bridges Festival in Cologne, event series such as Cage in Bremen, the performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht (Wednesday from Light) by the Birmingham Opera Company, children’s and youth projects such as Notations at the Ruhr Piano Festival and the contemporary opera for children The Flying Carpet as part of opus21plus in Munich, competitions, workshops by the Chamber Music Academy at the Heidelberg Spring, composers laboratories in Manila and editions of (for example) the writings of Luciano Berio have all enjoyed funding from the Music Foundation. This is a comprehensive range of activities that goes far beyond the music prize, and yet the foundation’s board has discovered another lack: there are too few high-quality recordings of Composers Prize winners. A new CD series of the Siemens Music Foundation and the label col legno has been established to remedy this.

The 2013 Ernst von Siemens Music Prize

An Ernst von Siemens Music Prize ceremony still takes its three hours. Since 2012, instead of the often sluggish interviews with the young composers, three short portraits films by Johannes List have been inserted into the course of the function. And lo and behold: the change of media does the ceremony good, making it not only more entertaining but also complementing the speeches and musical performances with the suggestive moving image. Informative, concise and sometimes presented in captivating shots, List’s portraits of the prize winners brought their music across sensuously to an audience in the Prinzregententheater that is otherwise not necessarily to be found at concerts of New Music. Only the prize winners themselves could have presented their work better, and this they then proceeded to do.
A feature of the Bavarian TV-Magazine 'KlickKlack' (BR) about Mariss Jansons on the occasion of the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize 2013. Source: BR / Youtube

Here again it should be positively noted that the ritual of performing short and often somewhat demure premieres, specially commissioned for this evening, has been superseded by miniature concerts of chamber music – quite undogmatically sometimes as premieres, sometimes as re-performances. The embedded concerts were performed by the BR Symphony Orchestra under Peter Tilling with competence and commitment. And for those who did not find themselves among the invited guests in 2013, there remains the consolation of studying the list of prize winners since 1974, including Friedrich Cerha, Henri Dutilleux, Mauricio Kagel, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and, in a certain sense, the father of contemporary music, Olivier Messiaen. This list is music to the eyes, and makes another thing clear: apart from a few exceptions, the Siemens Music Prize winners have almost always belonged to the species of the innovator, the precursor and the maverick, the creative activist. Of the thirty-nine winners, twenty-four are intimately linked with the music of the present. And this too is a clear message of the currently most influential music award.