Vienna Philharmonic to spend $1m Birgit Nilsson Prize on its archive

Martin CullingfordThu 9th October 2014

Great for historians - but what else could the world's richest classical prize achieve?

The subject of Birgit Nilsson's name and a certain sum of money is being discussed again. For the record, I'll put my hand up straight away and say: I entirely approve. In fact I'd go so far as to say it's a highly appropriate honour for this iconic figure of Swedish culture. Indeed, having the singer adorn the new 500 Krona note, due to be issued in 2016, should serve her countrymen as a perfect pocket-size aide-memoire of her art for decades to come.

Even given Swedish prices it's a suitably serious denomination note - the second highest - worth about £43, which will just about get you into the stalls of Swedish Opera, early in the week anyway. But it's not one million dollars - and that's what has just been given to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the third recipients of the Birgit Nilsson Prize. This was announced in April, but last night it was officially bestowed upon the institution at a gala event in Stockholm, attended by Swedish royalty and the President of Austria, and at which the orchestra performed under the baton of Riccardo Muti. There was a very moving speech from the orchestra's former President Clemens Hellsberg reflecting on the richly rewarding relationship the soprano and Vienna Philharmonic had shared, and the orchestra also announced what it's going to spend the money on: a new home for its archive, making its documented history more accessible, and digitising it.

There has inevitably been some comment about the prize, about the benefits of bestowing such a sum on people or institutions who are already top of their game - the previous recipients are Plácido Domingo and Riccardo Muti - and specifically on the Vienna Philharmonic. Is it indeed right to give so much money to those who are already so successful?

A fair question perhaps, but then this was Nilsson's stated aim with her bequest. As Rutbert Reisch, President of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, puts it, she wanted 'to establish a prize that rewards the highest achievable level of performances - something that sets standards which will go in the history books, because these are the performances which keep this art form alive by attracting the audience. They, so to speak, carry on the torch.'

A financier and academic, he'd first got to know Nilsson when as a young man he'd regularly bought standing tickets to watch her compelling performances, later becoming a friend - she sang at his wedding. When she decided to establish her prize, it was to him she turned. Part of his job is to make sure the invested capital produces sufficient income to fund the prize every two to three years. The other part, as he puts it, is to 'execute her will'. Which was to reward people or organisations not after their career has ended, and not in their early days, but when they're absolutely at the peak of their talents.

There are no conditions on how the money should be spent. Domingo, the first recipient, swiftly announced that the money would go into his Operalia Competition, to help support young singers. This year's recipients have chosen to use the money to make sure their significant place in international musical life can be more fully explored and examined, now and in years to come. With programmes of more than 7000 concerts, plus 25-30,000 photos, and an enormous amount of letters from the likes of Bruckner and Brahms, the Vienna Philharmonic archive must be a treasure trove for cultural historians. 

But whatever any recipient may choose to do with the money, Reisch argues that it is simply not his or the prize committee's business. 'We discussed it at great length, but she [Nilsson] said the prize is to recognise and celebrate the most outstanding achievement. Now, the people who have accomplished that, you can't give them a prize and attach strings. If you want this to go to a benevolent thing, then give it to it - not through someone. Every recipient has to decide for themselves.'

So the prize is, what the prize is. Or rather it's what Nilsson's instructions clearly intended it to be. And as Reisch says: 'I don't know if there is life after death, but if there is, I want to be able to look her in the eye and say: "I did the very best I could in what I thought was the best sense of your intentions." That's a sort of a guiding principle.' I think it would be very hard for her, or for anyone, to argue that the recipients thus far haven't fitted the brief.

But looking ahead, as the Nilsson Prize's reputation grows, its most important legacy might yet be slightly different from what its founder intended. Acknowledging excellence, as Nilsson wanted, is of course a good thing. But in an increasingly dumbed-down age, drawing wider attention to that excellence is even more vital. In a neat symmetry, in the same venue, on the very same stage, a mere half day after the Nilsson Prize was bestowed on the Vienna Philharmonic, the Nobel Prize for literature was announced. The Peace Prize recipients are generally well known, but those for literature, less still science, not so much. But each announcement has many thousands of people searching in the wake of the media spotlight to try to find out more, perhaps to read the author's book, or to learn more about a medical breakthrough. Its laureates bear that title like a beacon to the curious for the rest of their lives.

Well, as classical music becomes increasingly marginalised by the wider media, outside of concert-going or record-buying circle,s many future Nilsson Prize recipients may sadly not always be that well known either. Domingo is, granted, a megastar, and the Vienna Philharmonic fairly widely heard of. But the prize's second recipient, Riccardo Muti? Say it softly, but in the non-classical world he may not exactly be a household name. If the sheer attention-grabbing prize-pot carried by the Nilsson award helps it to one day gain the cache of the Nobel - itself founded by a rich donor to honour achievement - it might well give classical music another of those increasingly rare but precious opportunities to punch into the wider consciousness as an advocate to the uninitiated. 

And one other additional legacy too. Reisch assures me that Nilsson's bequest was not about self-aggrandisement - but that doesn't mean that it's wrong to celebrate her achievements. It won't be long before memories of her live performances become the preserve of a declining number. After all, the new President of the Vienna Philharmonic itself is too young to have worked with her. But happily, unlike that Swedish star of an earlier age Jenny Lind, Nilsson lived in the era of the microphone. And so perhaps, in decades to come, the regular recurrence of her name might send someone scurrying off to the CD archive, or typing her name into a streaming service (or however we'll be listening to music then) to discover that remarkable voice for themselves, keeping Nilsson's art alive for generations to come. That too wouldn't be such a bad outcome. And if it takes the wow factor of a million dollars to do it, then so be it. It was her money, after all. 

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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