Christoph Eschenbach
Music as Rescue

Christoph Eschenbach conducts Béla Bartók
Christoph Eschenbach dirigiert Béla Bartók | photo: EvS Music Foundation / Steffi Loos

In a ceremony in Munich’s Herkulessaal the pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach was awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize. It is an award for his art, but also for his ability to open prospects for people that go beyond music.

Music rescued Christoph Eschenbach. In an essay written for the occasion of the award presentation, former Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (the third musician along with Justus Frantz who recorded the Concertos for Three Keyboard Instruments by Bach and Mozart) formulated it in this way: “Eschenbach was born in 1940 in Breslau, lost his parents and grandmother when he was very young, was traumatized and would no longer speak, was adopted by a cousin of his mother, who, like his parents, was a musician. In her home he again heard music, which had been familiar to him since his birth, and she taught him to play the piano. In this way he again found his voice.”

Bartók as thanks

On the evening of the ceremony in which Eschenbach was awarded the Siemens Music Prize (endowed with € 250,000) his professional colleague, the composer, conductor and artistic director Peter Ruzicka, delivered a personal, empathetic and yet refreshingly simple and sober encomium on him; and in thanks Eschenbach again took the conductor’s stand. His choice of music was no accident: Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a piece wrested from illness and poverty and correspondingly Janus-headed, with an Elegia at its centre surrounded by two scherzi that could not be more different from each other, and dominated by two weighty first and last movements. In the ambivalence of mockery and lament, earnestness and the contorted “Today I’m going to Maxim” quotation alongside a folk-dance apotheosis as the finale, the work portrays the contradictoriness of life in the retrospection of a composer’s whole life, even if one of only sixty-two years.

As a fifteen-year-old in 1955, Eschenbach was already accepted to study piano at the Cologne University of Music. After taking his school-leaving certificate he began studying conducting in Hamburg. In 1962 he won the first prize for piano at the ARD Music Competition in Munich, became a celebrated interpreter of Mozart and Schumann and a renowned lied accompanist for and with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schreier, Edith Mathis, Renée Fleming and Matthias Goerne, with whom he recently recorded the three Schubert lied cycles. But for Eschenbach the musician a career as soloist or pianist in a chamber ensemble was not enough. Conducting became increasingly important to him, and he came to lead major orchestras in Europe and the United States – for example, the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (1982-1986), NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, Orchestre de Paris, Houston Symphony Orchestra (1988-1999), Philadelphia Orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra in Washington (since 2010).

Conductor of modernism, visionary with identity

“Christoph Eschenbach has preserved the identity and character of American orchestras and yet still guided them towards a characteristic European sound, particularly the strings, which under his conducting are, for all their technical perfection, always unusually warm in timbre and breathing in phrasing.” Thus Peter Ruzicka on his conductor colleague, and his praise continued: “But Eschenbach is also friend and supporter of composers: of us composers – for instance, in premieres of Wolfgang Rihm, Aribert Reimann, Matthias Pintscher, Marc-André Dalbavie, Pascal Dusapin and many others”. In 1968 he performed the premier of Hans Werner Henze’s second piano concerto, a formative experience for then 20-year-old Ruzicka, which established the friendship between him and Eschenbach. Even today the 1970 recording of the tremendously complex and highly exciting three-quarter-hour-long concerto, played by Eschenbach and conducted by the composer, suggests the impression it must have made at the time on a young composer.

Ruzicka’s résumé at the awards ceremony described finally the life of an artist whose mother died at his birth, whose father was killed only a few years later in a penal unit at the front, and who was the sole survivor of a typhus epidemic at his orphanage. A young man who, in defiance of all the tribulations in his life, found his task in life through music – to open prospects in the world of culture. “The life of the pianist, conductor, educator, inspirer and mentor Christoph Eschenbach sets an example, lights a beacon, and at the same time speaks a quiet but vigorous reminder that, behind every anonymous fate that disappears in refugee statistics, lies a promise of the future, and that it is our task, even our duty, to defend this future in every human being whom distress and the will to live has driven to take a long and dangerous journey into the unknown. And so the 75-year-old recipient of this prize is a witness to and a guarantor of the future that lies in all our hands. And in our responsibility.”