Pick of the Proms 2010

What not to miss at this year’s concerts.

This year's BBC Proms, which run until 11 September, will pack the Royal Albert Hall in London with big names and even bigger orchestras. We've picked out some highlights, from blockbusters to quirkier chamber music and late night offerings.

Big stars, big sounds

Proms 6, 16, 27, 69: Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos
The young British pianist Paul Lewis is this year taking on the challenge of a Beethoven cycle -- performing all five of Beethoven's piano concertos in Prom concerts with different orchestras and conductors.

Prom 19: Sondheim at 80
With contributions from Bryn Terfel and Simon Russell Beale, this celebration of the Broadway innovator Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday promises to be quite a party. Expect Sondheim hits from Sweeney Todd, Company and A Little Night Music.

Prom 52: Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy
A chance to hear Ashkenazy's influence at work on his latest orchestra, the Sydney Symphony. With the ever-intelligent Hélène Grimaud as soloist, the programme includes Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major and music by Scriabin and Strauss.

Prom 56: Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä
The opportunity to see Vänskä at the podium is lure enough. With his own Minnesota Orchestra and a charged programme of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No 1 and Bruckner's "Romantic" Symphony, this is a beg, borrow or steal kind of concert.

Proms 65 and 66: Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle
In these two Proms, Rattle and the Berlin Phil show off their many colours. Music by Mahler and Beethoven leads on to the Second Viennese School of Berg and Webern. Most intoxicating of all, however, is the prospect of Karita Mattila as swooning soloist in Strauss's Four Last Songs.

Prom 75: Monteverdi Vespers 1610
Celebrating its 400th anniversary this year, Monteverdi's masterwork has already had performances across the country. Directed by John Eliot Gardiner, this rendition by the Monteverdi Choir promises to be up there with the very best.

Prom 76: Last Night of the Proms
You know the drill: flag-waving, audience singing and strange outfits frame a musical celebration of national pride. See Renée Flemming make her debut as the Last Night soloist and hear the world premiere of a new work by Jonathan Dove.

Something a little different

Chamber Music Prom 6: Stile Antico
The young British vocal ensemble Stile Antico presents a gorgeous programme of Renaissance music inspired by the sensuous imagery of the Song of Songs.

Prom 7: Chopin Nocturnes
Celebrate the 200th anniversary of Chopin's birth with this intimate late-night Prom. The Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires performs a selection of the composer's Nocturnes.

Prom 42: Premiere, Huw Watkins, Violin Concerto
Huw Watkins's concerto is premiered by his regular collaborator Alina Ibragimova in a programme that also features music by Britten, Pärt and Shostakovich.

Prom 43: Arvo Pärt, St John Passion
Pärt's meditative take on the St John Passion makes a fascinating contrast to Bach's treatment. Performed by the BBC Singers under David Hill.

Prom 67: Last Night of the Proms 1910
For the first time in Proms history, we have not one, but two Last Nights. The first, a homage to the Proms founder, Henry Wood, is a re-creation of the 1910 event, complete with, well, none of the "traditional" music. It turns out that "Land of Hope and Glory" and "Jerusalem" were added in the 1950s. Hear music by Wagner, Beethoven and Edward German instead.

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Friedrich Nietzsche, the conqueror with the iron hand

Gavin Jacobson considers the great philosopher’s plan for society as revealed in Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon.

In 1893 Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche returned to her mother’s adopted home town of Naumburg in Germany. She had been living in Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Förster, a nationalist and anti-Semite who had founded an Aryan colony to begin “the purification and rebirth of the human race”. Elisabeth’s brother, Friedrich Nietzsche, had condemned her husband’s anti-Semitism and her decision to join him in South America. The experiment failed in any case. Blighted by disease, poor harvests and intercommunal strife, the outpost collapsed in two years. Förster committed suicide in 1889. Around this time, Nietzsche began his final descent into madness and Elisabeth came back to take care of him and his legacy.

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872 while he was a professor at the University of Basel, received marginal attention. It wasn’t until the 1890s that his writings gained a wide readership across Europe. Elisabeth soon took control of Nietzsche’s literary estate and, little by little, transformed him into an instrument of her fascist designs. She began to rework his notebooks and to clip, cross out and fabricate quotations, so that, in the public imagination, her brother went from an opponent of German nationalism to a lover of the fatherland, from the author of The Antichrist to a follower of the gospel, and from an anti-anti-Semite to a venomous ­Jew-hater. Before his death in 1900, Nietzsche had asked his sister to ensure that “no priest or anyone else utters falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer defend myself”. He could not have foreseen this betrayal by Elisabeth, as she cast him as the lodestar of National Socialism.

Since the 1950s, scholars have endeavoured to rescue Nietzsche from his asso­ciation with Nazism. Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) was a formative work in which the German philosopher became a humanist and progenitor of 20th-century existentialism. His thinking was directed not at the triumph of Teutonic supremacy but at reviving, as he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1889), an “anti-political” high culture.

The problem was that, in stripping away the layers of external disfigurement that had built up and set over the years, Kaufmann and others denied Nietzsche an interest in politics. The task that Hugo Drochon sets himself is to reinsert some political content into Nietzsche and show that he had a systematic political theory. The result is a superb case of deep intellectual renewal and the most important book to have been written about him in the past few years.

Drochon’s study takes place against the backdrop of 19th-century Europe, as that is where Nietzsche’s account of politics – the fate of democracy, the role of the state and international relations – is best understood. Nietzsche’s sane life coincided with the main political events of his time. He served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, witnessed German unification and experienced at first hand the traits of a modern democratic order: party competition, secret ballots, voting and the influence of mass media. He also lived through Britain’s and Russia’s “great game” for control over central Asia. He went mad in the year Bismarck tended his resignation to Wilhelm II.

Drochon traces Nietzsche’s “intelligible account of modern society” in response to these events. Inspired by the Greeks – especially Plato and his mission to legislate a new state and train the men to do it – Nietzsche wanted to establish a healthy culture in which philosophy and great art could be produced. He was certain that slavery was necessary for this (a view that led to his eventual split with Wagner). The “cruel-sounding truth”, he admitted, was that “slavery belongs to the essence of culture”, as the artistic class, “a small number of Olympian men”, is released from the drudgery of daily existence to focus on producing art.

His disagreement with Wagner over the role of slavery led Nietzsche to describe the genesis and decay of the state. He saw clearly, like Hobbes, that the state of nature was “the war of all against all”. But whereas Hobbes imagined the state arising through a contract, Nietzsche saw it originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand”, who “suddenly, violently and bloodily” takes control of a people and forces it into a hierarchical society. Nietzsche then plotted its evolution, from a space within which culture flourished to the modern Kulturstaat, in which culture was appropriated for its own sake. If the state’s birth was violent, its decay was slow and was linked to Nietz­sche’s notorious phrase about the death of God: given that the Christian God was no longer a self-evident foundation of morality upon which societies could support themselves, the state faced dissolution.

Tracing with great forensic skill the minutiae of Nietzsche’s arguments across multiple sources, Drochon never loses the overall narrative thread (an occupational hazard of studying the history of political thought). Nor does he shy away from his subject’s unsavoury views. If Nietzsche’s remarks on slavery were harsh enough, his thinking on eugenics, or his physiologically inflected theories about democracy (which he regarded as the victory of a slave morality – associated with the “dark-skinned and especially dark-haired man” – over a master morality of the “Aryan conquering race”) sound even more repellent. Without wishing to justify these ideas, Drochon reminds us that theories of racial classification were prevalent and acceptable modes of inquiry in the 19th century. It would have been strange if Nietzsche had not drawn on them.

His darker side notwithstanding, many of Nietzsche’s insights speak to our politics now. He foresaw the privatisation of the state, in which “private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) would assume the business of the state, including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government” – that is, “protecting the private person from the private person”. He showed how democracies gave birth to aristocracies and could become hostage to a “herd morality”, majoritarianism and misarchism: “the democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate”. He explored the question of wage labour and the increasing hostility between workers and employers and predicted the erosion of trust in
public institutions.

Nietzsche also described how statesmen revive the kind of pathologies that are corrupting European and American societies at the moment: nationalism, racism, intellectual parochialism and political insularity. He knew what he was talking about: Bismarck’s power politics, a tribute to blood (war) and iron (technology), was a “petty politics” that divided nations and peoples. Nietzsche’s “great politics”, by contrast, imagined the unification of Europe led by a cultural elite, the class he termed “good Europeans”, bred by intermixing Prussian military officers and Jewish financiers. Continental union would not only constitute a geopolitical counterweight to Britain and Russia. Good Europeans would, as Drochon writes, create “a new trans-European culture, which itself is specially called on to lead a world culture”.

So, this book has come at the right time. In the light of Britain’s vote for Brexit, which threatens to take us back to a petty politics of nationalism and continental division, Nietzsche’s writings are more significant than ever. Those of us who desire a more integrated and peaceful union with our neighbours cling despairingly – and with receding hope – to his dream that, in spite of “the morbid estrangement which the nationality craze has induced and still induces among the peoples of Europe, owing also to the short-sighted and hasty-handed politicians . . . Europe wishes to be one”.

Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon is published by Princeton University Press, 224pp, £34.95

Gavin Jacobson is a writer and book critic

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt