Nikolaus Harnoncourt dirigiert Mozart bei der styriarte im Grazer Stefaniensaal © Werner Kmetitsch

Nikolaus Harnoncourt – A circle is closing.

“The styriarte Festival was originally founded to forge closer ties between the pioneering conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his home town of Graz…,” says the small styriarte glossary, reminding us of the beginnings of the summer festival in Styria in 1985. But what has actually become of this clear, impressive plan? Certainly much more than the initiators and artists would have dared to imagine in the beginning. The styriarte has come to be the festival with the primary goal of taking Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s visions and dreams seriously and making them a reality. The result of this endeavour was great moments in music – events that went down in performance history, from the first cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe to the music theatre performances, which drew the world’s attention to Graz. Bizet’s distressing “Carmen”, directed by Andrea Breth, Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” in the spirit of the Viennese School and Mozart’s “Idomeneo”, which wasn’t only conducted but also directed by Harnoncourt because he didn’t trust anybody else with it. Now, the maestro has had to give up his stage career at the age of 86. So for the styriarte as well, a circle on which we look back with much gratitude, a warm heart and a clear understanding is closing.

“Shouldn’t this be it for the styriarte festival too after 31 years?” one might wonder now that the original purpose of founding this festival has seemingly come to be obsolete. Answering this question with a passionate “Absolutely not!” requires little effort and no mental acrobatics. For a long time now, Nikolaus Harnoncourt – congenially supported, challenged and inspired by his wife Alice – has ceased to be an erratic lone wolf, an outsider of the classical music scene, about whom the opinions of the audience and the critics differ. No, with his intentions he made the world of classical music take him to heart. His way of taking the original scores seriously, working with historical instruments and placing complete trust in the written music left by the genius composers for whom he would give everything, has set general and globally accepted standards below which you simply can’t go anymore. And so – also at the styriarte – his many colleagues, students and students’ students have set out to carry on the flame that Harnoncourt has ignited. He once said himself that he hoped that thirty years from now people would mock his interpretations in the same way his generation swept away the boring traditions of the Karajan era. Will this be the case? What’s certain is that Nikolaus Harnoncourt did much more than just conduct. He introduced an attitude, an ambition into the world of music that simply won’t vanish because he can’t pursue it himself at the conductor’s podium anymore. And even more: This ambition has to be re-thought and updated over and over again, particularly now that he can’t do it himself anymore. And what would be more suitable than to do so at the festival that was once founded for him and has incorporated his philosophy: the styriarte festival. Harnoncourt, his wife Alice and his colleagues have given us very fundamental tasks. They inquire into the essence of music, which has to be explored anew in every era. They demand broad access to the heritage of music history, which has to be made available and kept open for every generation and all people, for the sake of the fundamental values preserved within it.  And they remind us of the fact that the future of our society is based upon the knowledge about its art and upon understanding its past. The styriarte will gladly take on this responsibility for as long and as far as possible.

Thank you for the first 31 years, Nikolaus Harnoncourt!

An addendum: on March 5th, 2016, he died, surrounded by his family, at the house at Attersee.