14 Brilliant Insights on Art & Music From the Great Maestro Nikolaus Harnoncourt

By David Salazar

Nikolaus Harnoncourt would have turned 87 today if not her his passing earlier in 2016.

The venerated maestro, well-known as one of the pioneers of early music and historically informed performances. His was an intellect that was constantly in search of experimentation and just listening to a few minutes any of the dozens of recordings he left behind will be inevitably won over.

His career spanned over 60 years from the time he kicked things off as a cellist, until December 5, 2015 when he officially announced his retirement. He led a number of major orchestras including the Vienna Philharmonic, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Concertgebouw Orchestra and his operatic output included major works from Mozart, Monteverdi, Handel and Beethoven. He also has a recording of Verdi’s Aida and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

The German-born conductor was also rather outspoken, leaving behind tremendous insight on his work and inspiration. Here are some of his most fascinating perspectives as we celebrate the great conductor’s birthday.

1. “For me, security and beauty and not compatible. When you seek beauty, you have to forget security, and you have to go to the rim of catastrophe. There you find the beauty. If a musician makes a mistake, a crack, because he risks everything to get the most beautiful thing and he fails, then I thank him for this failure because it is only with this risk you can get the beauty, the real beauty. The real beauty is not available at all. If you seek security, you should make another profession.”

2. “I’m a little bit afraid of words like ‘proper form’ because I don’t think that there is a ‘proper form.’ Were are always on search; we are never there. And there is no ‘proper’ interpretation of anything. The kiss of the muse is the real property. A mistake can be more inspiring than the ‘proper” thing.'”

3. “Even when I was small, I always took the opposite point of view. I’m not someone who agrees,” he once said. And: “It’s true. At age 10, I told my father out of the blue, ‘Politeness is a lie’.”

4. “Art has many correct interpretations, but also many wrong ones.”

5. “I know of course that with nearly every opinion and piece of knowledge, the opposite opinion and piece of knowledge is equally true. Life isn’t that simple. I can only learn through criticism.”

6. “With jazz singers like Frank Sinatra I started wondering: Why do they sing that way, and why does a classical singer stand there and just sing the notes?!”

7. “To me, Shakespeare is very contemporary, and I don’t see Michelangelo as an old sculptor. Bach and Monteverdi are not of their own times, but rather universal. But that, of course, applies to only few artists.”

8. “Music should rip the soul apart.”

9. “Art isn’t a pretty accessory – it’s the umbilical cord that connects us with the divine. It insures our humanity. To be beautiful, music must operate on the outer fringes of catastrophe.”

10. “Impossibilities are the most beautiful possibilities.”

11. “I think there are only few intellectually interested people who are optimists – because optimism always requires a certain degree of stupidity.”

12. “Art leads us, indeed often pushes us to arrive at a certain realization: it is the mirror in which we have to look. In order to avoid that, people have assumed a way of approaching art merely as something aesthetic or popular. ‘Nice’ music is heard, ‘nice’ pictures are seen but preferably one does not allow oneself to be shattered by the experience or given a thorough shake-up.”

13. “We will never find out the truth about Mozart; it is the image we create ourselves that we consider to be this truth. Only his music contains the truth. It appears to be impossible to understand the person and so we arrive, as in the case of many artists, at a kind of Doppelgänger view. It is as if there were two Mozarts: the child at play, the cheerful extrovert young man, whose friends said of him that he was never in a bad mood and who from his youth wrote letters in a polished style; he was educated, witty and self-assured.”

14. “The role we allow art is often that of making it useful to us, taming it or also so that we can boast about it. In our wonderful, subsidized musical life people should be able to find joy and relaxation after the tedium of work and should regain strength for hectic everyday life (the Nazis called that ‘strength through joy,’ with a similar justification as found in the articles of the Declaration of Human Rights). This is a dangerous step in the long and illegal process of making art ‘useful.’”