The meaning of music

As well as encouraging young people to think about the world behind the notes, Hugh Wolff tries to open the minds of hardened professionals.

I’ve probably gotten into a little trouble with professional orchestras over this. I find I cannot conduct Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra without talking for five minutes about Nietzsche. If you have no clue what Nietzsche wrote, and no idea what the three words ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ are about, how can you play the piece? I’ve spoken about Nietzsche’s book in front of some of the world’s most experienced orchestras, to musicians who’ve played the piece dozens of times. I’ve probably ruffled a few feathers, but I’ve also had musicians come up to me afterwards and say, “You know, no one’s ever said that to us. That was really fascinating and helpful.” Obviously the book had a huge impact on Strauss. It had a huge impact on most intellectuals at the end of the 19th century. How can we ignore that? We tend to manufacture classical music without much regard for these things. There is an old joke about a conductor talking abstract philosophy at rehearsal, then getting asked, “Tell me, do you want it louder or softer?” There is something behind this silly joke: too often, rehearsals focus only on this sort of housekeeping. Musicians need to have practical information, but let’s never lose sight of why the music is there in the first place.