Less than five minutes into Christoph Eschenbach’s Dec. 6 talk at the Annenberg Center there was barely a dry eye in the house. That’s because Eschenbach, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s maestro, was telling a wrenching story about how the power of music saved a young life—his own.
As he explained to an audience brought together by Penn’s French Institute, Eschenbach was orphaned (by childbirth and war) as a young boy in 1940s Germany. Taken into a cousin’s household, the traumatized five-year-old stopped talking altogether. It was the sound of piano music in his new home that finally broke through his grief.
When asked if he would like to play the piano, he uttered his first words in almost a year. “I said ‘Yes,’” said Eschenbach. “’Yes’ to music and ‘Yes’ to life.”
Using the story as a way to explain his own devotion to music, Eschenbach also made it the jumping-off point for an impassioned plea for bringing music into the life of every child. “Schools must have arts education,” he said, “so children can become complete human beings.”
Mahler, said Eschenbach, is a good entry point to classical music for young people because the composer “deals with the expression of emotion in a deep way” that appeals to young souls not yet “shadowed by the layers of routine life.”
The conductor also urged his audience not to be put off by “scary modern music.”
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, he noted, was labeled “crude” and “hopelessly vulgar” by contemporary critics. “Everything new is difficult,” said Eschenbach, but “we can help each other to open eyes and ears to the new, and the possibilities it brings.” After all, he said, there are more talented young composers and performers now than at any other time. “And they can help us to save the world from misery.”
Originally published on January 13, 2005