“Who am I? Who do I want to be?” Our ways of looking at ourselves are now more fluid, our ideals as a society discussed with unprecedented urgency. One of this season’s focal points reveals music’s contribution to this debate.
The question of our place in the world is one that previous generations scarcely needed to address. Social stratum, gender, religious affiliation and geographical origins were the coordinates that for the most part determined a person’s identity, and in most cases they did so throughout that person’s life. But these coordinates are no longer as fixed as they once were. We have grown more mobile – not just geographically but also in terms of our view of the world. Apparently inalterable values are now being questioned, and even our sexual identity is no longer as unambiguous as it once was, opening up new possibilities of self-determination. We are able to listen to our innermost voices as never before and, by examining our inner essence, lead our lives accordingly.
This flexibility brings with it not only tremendous opportunities but also considerable challenges. Starting out from nothing, online businesses can go on to make a fortune, but the opposite is also true: what was once a guaranteed income in a traditional enterprise can no longer be relied on. The buzz of opinions on social media makes it possible to encounter new perspectives, but these perspectives can also be disruptive and sometimes so conflictual that hatred is the result. One thing at least is clear: no one “owns” their identity today. Instead, that identity is acquired and sometimes it has to be fought for.
Composers were among the first to reflect on the role of the individual in the world
Over the course of our 2022/23 season we intend to use one of main themes of our programme “Identities” to show the contribution that music can make to these debates, and not just in our own time. Composers were among the first to reflect on the role of the individual in the world. This development can be traced back to the sacred music of the Baroque, when religion was not just a way of serving God but also a personal and deeply emotional experience. By the end of the eighteenth century music was also a means of questioning social reality. Here the first composer who springs to mind is Beethoven, who told the Viennese aristocracy to their faces that he felt that he was worth more than they were. Above all, however, he transformed his own life and sufferings into unprecedentedly energetic music in which the individual, independent of social rank and origins, became its central theme. At the same time it became clear that people are defined not only by their present-day concerns but also by their hopes for the future. In this way the Romantic composers created impassioned visions in which we “travel deep into worlds more beautiful than our own”, to quote from the words of one of Schubert’s songs. A vision of Utopia had found its way into music.
In confronting this question of our sense of identity we have focused in the main on the music of the twentieth century, a period when the images of people’s lives were especially multifaceted and intense. A classic example is Gustav Mahler, whose Seventh Symphony Kirill Petrenko is conducting to mark the start of the new season. For Mahler, composing a symphony meant “constructing a world with all the technical means at one’s disposal”, by which he meant first and foremost his own complex world: in his symphonies we can hear echoes of his worship of nature, of his Jewish roots and even of the military bands from his Moravian homeland. Completed in 1952, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F♯ major likewise adopts a particular stance, albeit one very different from Mahler’s. As an Austrian exile who became famous in the United States as a composer of film music, he combined the musical idioms of the Old World and the New, while at the same time asking the question what could be regarded as contemporary music in the wake of the Second World War.
Particularly multifaceted and intense: the musical images of people’s lives in the twentieth century
The question of identity is examined under four different aspects at these concerts. One aspect is “Origins”, another is “Utopia”, as outlined by Richard Strauss in his tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, with its projection of a higher, life-affirming stage of human evolution. The category of “Faith and Values” features a series of sacred works from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Handel, Mozart and Mendelssohn as well as Luigi Dallapiccola’s one-act opera Il prigioniero from 1949 that deals with the interrelationship between faith, hope and freedom against the background of the Spanish Inquisition. And finally, there is the aspect of “Love and Sexuality”. Reflecting the unattainable love between the composer and his poet, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder fall under this heading, as does Strauss’s opera Die Frau ohne Schatten, the plot of which is permeated by a closely interwoven web of symbols that raise questions about what it means to be human, including ideas about love and motherhood.
Our series of concerts on the subject of identity is intended, on the one hand, to open up new perspectives on well-established works and, on the other, to present us with a chance to perform pieces that are barely known. An additional dimension may be found in our Philharmonic Chamber Music series, in the course of which various ensembles made up of members of the Berliner Philharmoniker address the season’s theme. “Who am I? Who do I want to be?” – this most existential of all questions can be asked both on the biggest stage in the form of confessional works and within a more intimate context, on what is musically a much smaller scale. The answers will be as varied as life itself.