A BUSINESSMAN OF MUSIC CULTURE

We are delighted to present the following article written by a Chinese music journalist:

A businessman of music culture
by Louis Lee
original in Chinese (2016)

I mentioned a legendary shop in Berlin in my previous article – the shop was even put to me as a „Berlin institution“ by a music critic for the Berliner Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. So I had to pay this used score and CD shop – open only for nine hours a week no less – a visit. And a visit turned out to be the first of many; the owner, Mr. Robert Hartwig, and I ended up spending many of fine afternoon discussing musical matters and beyond.

„Institutions“ are inevitably down to the force of their founders. The young Mr. Hartwig received a broad humanistic education as well as vocal training; later on he embarked upon a doctorate studying the great Norwegian and Danish writer Ludvig Holberg – the same Holberg commemorated by Edvard Grieg’s Suite from Holberg’s Time. Studying, however, was nowhere as much fun as running a bookstore, and running and a bookstore, in turn, was nowhere as much fun as running a music bookstore. Hence the shop. Since its founding in 1979, the shop has been popular with visiting as well as residing musicians of the highest calibre.

Mr. Hartwig is both stunned by, and full of admiration of, Asian enthusiasm of Western classical music. „You just mentioned the Hungarian conductor Eugen Szenkar. I tell you, this shop has been open for 36 years, and nobody had ever mentioned his name. You are the first one.“ He regrets such musical enthusiasm is hardly found in young German generation these days; 90% of his current clients are Asians instead. „Perhaps the musical and cultural development of contemporary China has had a late start – hence its explosive hunger for culture.“ Naturally, I have my share of reservations about this perspective, but then that’s another article.

What Mr. Hartwig and I agree on is the decline of Western classical music performances, as well as the crisis of „technical perfection as the new beauty“. Mr. Hartwig wisely points out that, while vocalists in the past enjoyed decades of peak performing level, their current counterparts hardly do anymore – the reason being the adoption of „quick profit“ performing styles. „In the old days, when vocalists went to perform in America, they let their voices adjust gradually. Nowadays one sings as soon as one gets off the plane – how long can one keep his voice by doing so?“ „Karajan banned air conditioning in the opera house to allow vocalists to adjust their voices.“ „The pianist Richter once remarked, if I did non practise for a week, the audience would notice; if I did non practise for two days, critics would notice; if I did non practise for a day, I would notice. Where is such self-demand these days?“

Mr. Hartwig feels that days of conducting giants such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, and Hans Knappertbusch were long gone; yet, they were the true keepers of the flame for the great German musical tradition. I am naturally puzzled. These were undoubtedly very great conductors, but their styles could not have been more different. What constitutes the great German musical tradition then? After a good pause, Mr. Hartwig stated solemnly, „You are right [that they had very different styles]. However, none failed to place the score – what the composer actually wrote – above them. The great German musical tradition is thus: being loyal servants to music, to composers‘ intentions.“ In the same vein, Mr. Hartwig did not think much of a well-known Schubert Lieder performer: „Nobody can be cleverer than Schubert himself.“

I was both very touched and surprised by how Mr. Hartwig prepared for one of my visits: he had dug out from his treasure trove an old record of the now-forgotten Chinese bass-baritone Yi-Kwai Sze as present for me: „The greatest classical musician from China.“ The vocalists who shot to great fame with his legendary rendition of the equally legendary Chinese song How can I not think of her? is now hardly remembered on these shores, and yet his light is yet to get out in Berlin.

While Mr. Hartwig spent much of his youthful energy on compiling catalogues of musical resources, his current devotion is to a foundation aiming at helping young vocalists of great promise. He avidly acquires libraries of great musicians and musical scholars of the past: he gladly shows me samples of his latest acquisitions – various working scores by the noted Verdi specialist Lamberto Gardelli.

One cannot but help wish all musical and cultural institutions in the world were run in the same expert, selfless and devoted manner as the Berliner Musikantiquariat Robert Hartwig.