Themes, Themes, Themes

How long have “themes” actually existed in schedules and programs? I sometimes ask myself this question when I read through the usual prose in season magazines and festival programs. It seems that no one can do without mottos anymore. It is a must for every press conference, because the question might come up: “What is the common thread that runs through your program?” Apparently a question of global importance.


Topics work well, such as the one that the Salzburg Festival had this year, whose 2023 motto “Time is out of joint” simply popped: Shakespeare quote (Hamlet), a big topic into which pretty much everything somehow fits ( “Time”) and of course the statement inherent in the quote that everything is somehow terrible right now, which one is usually right about. A compulsory program includes a symposium in which we discuss together (free admission) how terrible everything is right now, and of course the motto also serves the critics, who can then relate everything they have seen to it and then write about it. For example, about whether it fit the theme or not (“time was definitely not out of joint in this concert” or “XXX did everything right with its production, time was out of joint, so to speak”). That’s still better than having to write about Pollini raging about turning pages incorrectly. Although, under the motto “Like leaves in the wind” that would be completely ok.

Puns with mottos are also particularly popular: for example, the concert series for small children at the Alte Oper Frankfurt is called “Roughnecks and Trumpets”. But this is more of a title for parents, because it is extremely questionable whether small children even know the ancient word “Roughnecks” anymore. But it’s the parents that pay for the tickets.

Nothing against mottos and themes. I’ve invented a few, too, and sure, just like a pink post-it that you put on the board during a brainstorming session that might say „mindfulness“ or „communication,“ it can help you move forward with something. But do they always have to be? Why does it feel like 99% of the schedules and concert series have a “motto”? Is this occupational therapy for dramaturgy? Speaking of dramaturgs – I know that many of them are almost breaking under the weight of these annual topics and would rather act more freely.

When something has become the unspoken standard, perhaps it’s time to question it, because as far as I know music history, the dutiful motto composition was the exception rather than the rule. The “Eroica” was not created because Count Popanz von Mützenburg issued the obligatory motto “Napoleon”. The “well-tempered piano” was not created as a simple fulfillment of a festival’s theme of “temperaments”.

Admittedly, when I give an original composition a title (for example “Breathless”), I also give the piece a theme, a motto. But at least that’s what I decide, I find this freedom something very beautiful. I can do it like Enno Poppe (“Work”), Richard Ayres (“25”), Morton Feldman (“The Viola in My Life”) or like Peter Ruzicka (“…(insert Celan quote here)…”).

The problem with overarching mottos is that they often make something fit that doesn’t fit at all (then no motto would have been better). Or that things are excluded that are wonderful but don’t fit the topic.

Occasionally I get emails from my publishers like, „Do you have anything that fits the theme of shoelaces/fear of God/hangover mood, etc.?“ Then I go through my catalog of works and list pieces that might fit, many of which might just be, if you personally drag them by the hair. But that’s just how our market works: we can hardly stand it when a piece is a piece in itself, perhaps even having many „themes“. The better we can classify it, the easier it will be to sell on the market. This is what we all know from the supermarket shelves (thanks to our capitalist upbringing): toothbrushes are next to toothpaste and toilet brushes are next to toilet cleaners. And this is also how many classical works are sorted.

In an average “night concert” on the radio you will definitely hear Mozart’s “Little Night Music”, “Verklarte Nacht” by Schönberg and “Mondnacht” by Schumann on the topic of “night”.

Or pieces that fit absolutely any theme, anytime and anywhere. For example, a piece like “Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives can be played almost always, since every topic also contains an “unanswered question”.

“Unanswered Question” on “Time is out of joint?”. Fits!

“Unanswered Question” in “Roughnecks and Trumpets”? Also fits (the famous trumpet melody!)

Ives also fits the motto “climate change”, “fear of God” anyway, “hangover mood” (“Why did I drink so much last night?”), yes, the piece even fits “shoelaces”, because who knows how to tie shoelaces correctly ? Not me.

This authentic (slightly shortened and anonymized) excerpt from an Internet forum for brass bands shows that this discussion is not only taking place in the cultural strongholds, but also in the “province”:

X: We would like to do a “theme concert” in the fall. Such as “Film Music” or “Traditional Evening”. Does anyone else have any ideas?

Y: If it’s a theme concert, then please have a really narrow topic, not anything like „musical world tour“, timbres“ or something like that. Follow through correctly: “Only titles that have a number in the name,” for example.

Z: The motto serves more to give the concert a framework on which, for example, the moderation and decoration are based and which a listener might remember next year and say “oh yes, last year’s “journey “around the world,” that was a nice concert.”

Y: Definitely, so you have a “common thread” (sic!) that you can also take up in moderation. I find the idea great.

Q: We have only been running our programs as theme concerts for four years and have had very well-attended events since then. We had “Cinema”, “Musical”, Adventure”, “Classic”, “Television” as themes and now“Jazz” and “Christmas”.

I’m not making fun of this exchange in the slightest. I find it refreshingly honest and purposeful. Where many festivals or concert halls need long explanations, this is discussed here quickly and in a targeted manner. The motto is for the moderation, the decoration and for saying, “The one with “time out of joint”, that was a nice festival”. That’s actually what it’s about.

I am therefore already looking forward to the next mottos of the Salzburg Festival. 2024: “Classic”. 2025 “Adventure”, 2026 “Titles that have a number in their name” and of course 2026 “Currentzis Forever”.

For the latter, I recommend the piece “Unanswered Question”.

Moritz Eggert

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