Rosbaud conducts Sibelius and Debussy

If Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg: the richness of inter-connectedness, articulation, unity in diversity, the ‘multi-faceted’ in ‘the one’.

Theodore Adorno, 1938

Sibelius fans rejoice.

Earlier this spring I was asked to write liner notes for this fascinating CD of performances by Hans Rosbaud and the WDR Koln of Sibelius and Debussy. The disc is out now, and I encourage you to add it to your collection. Rosbaud was one of the greatest Sibelians of all time, and his Debussy is really first rate. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy the essay.



“I have a very clear memory of his rehearsals because I learned so much from his extraordinarily “professional” attitude to whatever he was working on. I learned the practical side of conducting from watching him, from talks with him and from him I came to understand the essential relationship between the score as written and the score as performed”

Pierre Boulez

In the early 1930s, as the music world came to recognise that Jean Sibelius’s compositional silence was might be permanent (his final masterpiece, Tapiola, was completed in 1926, and in 1931–2, word got out that he’d destroyed his Eighth Symphony in despair), tributes to his importance began to pour in. New York Times chief critic Olin Downes hailed Sibelius as the most important composer of the 20th century, a figure on a par with Beethoven. Bengt von Törne considered Sibelius a more important figure than Mahler or Schoenberg, and Sibelius enjoyed a huge reputation in the United Kingdom, earning the admiration and endorsement of Granville Bantock, Constant Lambert, John Barbirolli and Thomas Beecham.

This lionisation of the unapologetically tonal Sibelius clearly irked the influential philosopher and music theorist (and long-time advocate for the music of the Second Viennese School) Theodore Adorno, who, enraged by von Törne’s pamphlet on Sibelius, responded with an all-out critical broadside in the journal Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. Adorno derided Sibelius as a ‘scribbler’, someone ‘at the level of amateurs who are afraid to take lessons in composition’. Soon, other influential voices joined the chorus of derision. Composer and critic Virgil Thomson (charmingly wrong about so many facets of 20th-century musical life), writing for the New York Herald Tribune, endorsed Adorno’s assessment and as late as 1955, theorist, composer and conductor René Leibowitz went so far as to describe Sibelius as ‘the worst composer in the world’ (one is tempted to invoke the cliché about composers who live in glass houses not throwing stones). Adorno’s attack on Sibelius went beyond a mere trashing of his accomplishments as a composer: Adorno suggested that Sibelius’s palpable connection to Nature was somehow in sympathy with the ‘Blut und Boden’ ideals of National Socialism, a completely odious and unfounded accusation, but one which seemed to stick for many years in post-war Germany.

From his early years at the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in the 1920s, conductor Hans Rosbaud (1895–1962) recognized the unique potential of the radio orchestra to educate audiences, expand the repertoire and shape the way people think about music. With Sibelius’s reputation in ruins after the Second World War, Rosbaud became the single most important interpreter of and advocate for his music in the German-speaking world. Rosbaud’s modernist credentials were above reproach – his stature as an authority on the music of the Second Viennese School surpassed that of even Adorno. He was widely considered the greatest living conductor of the music of Arnold Schonberg, with whom he maintained a close lifelong friendship. In his later years, he would become an important advocate for the music of the post-war serialist school of composition at the Donaueschingen Festival. Additionally, Rosbaud was one of the few leading conductors of his generation based in Germany (along with Eugen Jochum and Fritz Busch) to avoid any ethical entanglement with the Nazis. Given this combination of reputation for moral integrity and stature as an authority on the 20th-century musical canon, Rosbaud was uniquely well qualified to advocate a reassessment of Sibelius. Rosbaud had helped to invent the model of the modern radio orchestra in the 1920s and for him, the combination of generous rehearsal time, relative freedom from box office worries and radio’s power to reach an audience beyond the walls of the studio or concert hall made a group like the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra the perfect partners for instigating such a reassessment.

The Sixth Symphony is Sibelius for Sibelians – it has never attained the popularity of works like the Second and Fifth, and in 1950s Germany, it would have been almost completely unknown to players and audiences. But meticulously prepared by Rosbaud, who understood Sibelius’s language as few conductors ever have, this performance comes across not as a one-off by an orchestra getting to grips with a work well outside their repertoire, but as music completely in their bones.

Although Rosbaud’s posthumous reputation has rested largely on his performances of German repertoire, he was a musician of deeply international tastes, who gave influential early performances of works by composers as diverse as Stravinsky, Bartók, Milhaud and Poulenc. Throughout his career, he manifested a special affinity for French culture and music. During the Second World War, Rosbaud took up the position of General Music Director in Strasbourg after the annexation of Alsace. Despite the blatant attempts of the Nazis to ‘Germanify’ the region, Rosbaud proved a sensitive musical diplomat, defending the interests and positions of local musicians, building support and trust in the community, and maintaining, even enhancing, the Strasbourg orchestra’s reputation in French repertoire. After the war, Rosbaud was the first conductor German-speaking conductor invited to perform in France.

Debussy’s music was still something of a rarity in German musical life in the 1950s, and German orchestras have not always been known for their sympathetic performances of French repertoire. There is nothing ‘auf Deutsch’ about Rosbaud’s Debussy – his tempi flow with languid ease, free of Germanic ponderousness, and the orchestra shimmers with a transparent string sound, plangent winds and a palpable sense of flexibility, agility and nuance. Who would have guessed one would encounter such stunningly idiomatic Debussy performances in 1950s Cologne?


Kenneth Woods (


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

2 comments on “Rosbaud conducts Sibelius and Debussy”

  1. Robert Berger

    I wonder if Rosbaud ever conducted the music of Nielsen ; I doubt it .
    Nielsen’s later works are considerably more harmonically adventurous
    than the music of Sibelius .It might have been interesting to hear
    Rosbaud tackle the music of the highly individual Dane .
    Interestingly, Sibelius, who was a friend and admirer of Nielsen,
    considered the Dane to be a greater composer than himself .

  2. Peter Frankland

    I have seen no evidence that Sibelius considered Nielsen to be a greater composer than himself. They were acquainted, but never on close terms. Sibelius considered Bartok the greatest of twentieth century composers. Sibelius’s reputation as suffered more than most from the capricious winds of fashion, but he is now seen as a key figure on the development of music in our time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *