70 Years musica viva The New in View

Peter Eötvös at the Stockhausen Festival of musica viva 2015;
Peter Eötvös at the Stockhausen Festival of musica viva 2015; | Photo: musica viva / Astrid Ackermann

The Munich musica viva is seventy years old. This makes it one of the most long-standing concert series in the world, whose engagement with the new has set much in motion and supported numerous important artists. A short look at the history of this unusual success story.

Unlike the Donaueschingen Festival, which has existed since 1921, musica viva, the world’s oldest festival for contemporary music, founded after the Second World War by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, is not really a festival but rather still today one of the most important concert series for New Music. Its concerts of course have repeatedly been bundled together into festivals, as already in 2008 and three years later in the sensational multi-day semi-staged performance of Samstag aus Licht (Saturday from Light) by Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose work in the autumn of 2015 again took center stage at a long weekend dedicated to a cycle of all his piano pieces, the Munich premiere of his Hymnen für Orchester (Hymns for Orchestra) and a presentation of the electro-acoustic original version of Hymnen.

Fast start for New Music

Before the theatre or even the opera could perform again in the almost completely destroyed Munich National Theatre, the first concert of the series that was to become musica viva took place on 7 October 1945 in the unheated Prinzregententheater. In winter followed ten more evenings at various venues, during which Hartmann initially satisfied the need to catch up that existed after decades of Nazi rule and the ban on concerts of the musical avant-garde: the first program included, along with Ferruccio Busoni’s Comedy Overture, Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Claude Debussy’s Ibéria. On 21 October the audience could already hear works by Hartmann and Igor Stravinsky; later there were concerts of exclusively contemporary chamber music.

The events soon took on a sharp profile. Composers from other countries such as France, the Soviet Union and the United States were presented systematically. Beginning in 1947 the series was finally called musica viva and could be subscribed. Three years later followed regular recordings and (live) broadcasts by the then still young Bavarian Broadcasting Service. It was a signal to post-war Germany and the cultural world that once ostracized music had again arrived in the mainstream of society. In 1951, for example, three epochal works by Stravinsky was performed, first Le Sacre du Printemps, followed by Oedipus Rex and the Orpheus ballet music, conducted by the composer himself, whose works henceforth formed a pillar of the musica viva program.

Musica viva’s plan of bringing people to contemporary music took. Thus, in February of 1953, the critic Karl Heinz Ruppel wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung of an evening devoted exclusively to the works of the Second Viennese School (Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern): “The scarcely two hundred listeners who five years ago came to the first musica viva concerts with equal parts skepticism and willingness have now become a community of one and half thousand music lovers, who are not only willing but also able to recognize the significant even in the most radical form and to follow genius on a path that is certainly not easy to tread”.

Stars and criticism

Over the years the stars came to musica viva, but it also encountered headwinds. On 29 January 1957, for instance, the twenty-six-year-old Lorin Maazel, who was later to become head of Bavarian Broadcasting’s orchestra, conducted his first concert in the series. The audience liked him, but others were in for a struggle. Again and again there were protests – for example, about one of the many concerts under Pierre Boulez, about which the same Karl Heinz Ruppel wrote sardonically in the Süddeutsche Zeitung in March 1959: “Stravinsky, Varèse and Boulez received whistles; the applause for Debussy could unfold unhindered by the chatter of the opposition”. And on 14 May 1965 the guest performance of the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Gielen and featuring Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen für drei Orchester (Groups for Three Orchestras), today recognized as one of the milestones of twentieth century music, reaped “a boo and whistle concert that in this volume has hitherto seldom been heard”.

The numerous appearances of Eugen Jochum and Rafael Kubelik, on the other hand, make plain how seriously the respective heads of the Bavarian Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra took musica viva – with a high-point on 17 November 1961, when Kubelik conducted a concertante performance of Leoš Janáček’s last opera, From the House of the Dead. Other conductors who were later to become famous, though not as specialists for contemporary music, such as Günter Wand, also often led the musica viva program, a sign that here scope for development had been created which fostered experiments rather than the conventional concert.

New wind under new leadership

The freer the music world as a whole became, the more clearly the focus of the program planning changed. Provocation or the desire to satisfy the pure thirst for knowledge receded into the background in favor of growing curiosity about cultural developments beyond the mainstream of the avant-garde. In 1978, therefore, with the appointment of the Jürgen Meyer-Josten as Director of Bavarian Broadcasting’s Department for Serious Music, musica viva was re-oriented; now New Music from Hungary, Greece, South America and Australia was also represented. Conducting composers often led the program: in addition to Luciano Berio, Hans Werner Henze, Krzysztof Penderecki and Witold Lutosławski, there was also Cristóbal Halffter, Péter Eötvös, Heinz Holliger and Hans Zender. The great, still rarely-performed last symphonist of the twentieth century, the Swedish composer Allan Petterson, was prominently presented in 1982, the year of his death.
Karlheinz Stockhausens' “Kontakte” at musica viva 2015 with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Dirk Rothbrus, source: musica viva / youtube

From 1997 to 2011 then musica viva was led by the composer Udo Zimmermann and presented many premieres, but also portrait concerts of great established composers such as Boulez, Luigi Nono and Stockhausen. Under Zimmermann repeats, formerly common practice, were frowned upon. Instead there were evenings of a multi-media character with Heiner Goebbel’s Eislermaterial, Steve Reich’s video-opera Hindenburg and Adriana Hölzky’s concert piece Countdown for counter-tenor, eight alphorns, four trumpets, four trombones and eight percussionists, staged in a boxing ring. Since the 2011/12 season, Winrich Hopp has been the director of musica viva. He has dared a balancing act between premieres and revivals of important works of the late twentieth century and the twenty-first century, and revived an old tradition of musica viva, the encounter between contemporary music and Early Music. In this encounter both appear in an unexpected, new and dazzling light.