Programme guide

It houses one of the finest art collections in the world: the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which was originally opened as a railway station in 1900. The Berliner Philharmoniker will present their traditional Europakonzert here on 1 May 2019. The music by Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner and Claude Debussy performed at this concert was composed during the period between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century, when the masterworks by artists such as Manet, van Gogh, Degas and Rodin that are exhibited in the museum were also painted. Making his debut at a Europakonzert is conductor Daniel Harding, who as the current music director of the Orchestre de Paris welcomes the Philharmoniker as host during their concert.

The writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin once described Paris as the “capital of the 19th century”, thus characterizing it as the centre and crossroads of the most important scientific, political, intellectual and artistic currents of an entire epoch. Richard Wagner also ended up in Paris several times; as a young, unknown musician he lived there from 1839 to 1842 but was not able to make a lasting impression on the city’s urbane cultural scene. In 1861 a new version of his opera Tannhäuser, revised especially for the occasion, had its premiere there, resulting in a scandal. In his later years, Wagner avenged his failure in France with an almost pathological aversion to the neighbouring country.

Claude Debussy travelled in the opposite direction in 1888 – to Bayreuth, where he heard several of Wagner’s operas. Debussy’s own aesthetic later developed in distinct contrast to Wagner’s, thus countering the hegemonic claim of the German musical tradition. Beneath this publicly waged conflict, which was strongly marked by the political situation at that time, a story of covert and denied German-French influence was playing out, however. For example, Wagner heard Hector Berlioz’s dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette in Paris and was greatly impressed by the work. As a musical depiction of an obsessive, tragic love story, Berlioz’s Shakespeare setting is an element in the backstory of Wagner’s Tristan, just as Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Melisande, on the other hand, is part of its aftermath. Despite their politico-cultural animosity, Debussy marvelled at his rival’s orchestrational virtuosity and magical atmospheric artistry. He particularly admired the musical world of Parsifal.

Thus, with the visit of a Berlin orchestra in Paris, this Europakonzert not only symbolizes the German-French friendship, but its programme also illustrates how deeply the two countries are indebted to each other musically: with scenes from Wagner’s Parsifal and Walküre, excerpts from Les Troyens and Roméo et Juliette by Berlioz, the 150th anniversary of whose death is commemorated in 2019, as well as Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and a suite from Pelléas et Melisande.

In addition, listeners can look forward with particular anticipation to the appearance of the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who is heard with the Berliner Philharmoniker again for the first time in 18 years. In Paris the artist, who is celebrated for his powerful but finely nuanced voice and his matchless diction, will sing the poignant scene at the end of Wagner’s Walküre in which Wotan, the father of the gods, bids farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde. Bryn Terfel has appeared in the role of Wotan with sensational success at the opera houses in London and New York.

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