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World's oldest conductor energized by music

Anastassia Boutsko
September 8, 2021

At 94, Herbert Blomstedt is as active as ever. He spoke to DW about Beethoven, and about how music "sends light into the depths of the human soul."

Herbert Blomstedt
Conductor Herbert BlomstedtImage: Sebastian Willnow/picture alliance/dpa

DW caught up with Herbert Blomstedt after his concert with the Vienna Philharmonic, which the Swedish conductor leads regularly, at the Beethovenfest in Bonn, Germany.

DW: Mr. Blomstedt, you have just given a two-hour concert with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Beethovenfest in Bonn, with works by Franz Schubert and Anton Bruckner. Why did you feel like conducting this concert here?

Herbert Blomstedt: I play with the Vienna Philharmonic wherever I can. But the second reason is of course a local one: Bonn is a very important city in the history of music. You can feel the proximity to Beethoven's birthplace.

A picture of Herbert Blomstedt conducting in 2006.
Herbert Blomstedt has been conducting for decades and doesn't plan to retireImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Where do you get your strength? What is your secret?

It's the love of music. Of course, you also have to have a certain level of fitness. But music — and by that I mean the great classical tradition — provides a lot of strength because it stimulates the intellect and the emotions equally. Of course, there is other music that only stimulates the emotions immediately, but has no intelligence at all. And conversely, there is also very intelligent music that has little to do with emotions, which is dry and says nothing.

But this music, I mean the music of Beethoven, Bruckner, Schubert, Brahms and other great composers, has an incredible amount to give us, that is its typical characteristic. When you discover this music, you also discover yourself.

Herbert Blomstedt stands with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Herbert Blomstedt regularly conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Image: Barbara Frommann/Beethovenfest 2021

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, you expressed the hope that this global crisis would bring forth the need for content that feeds the soul. Were your suspicions confirmed?

Yes, I think so. Music has a very special meaning in our time. People long for experiences like this concert. Schumann said: "The task of the musician is to send light into the depths of the human soul. Light in the darkness — all of us, each of us, have a dark room in our soul. It could be illness or disappointment in life; we all have something. You need light in this darkness, and music can do that better than any other art.


Because it is so emotional and does not limit itself to one language. Works by Schubert and Bruckner, which we played here, are precisely the kind of works that send light into the depths of the soul. You just have to have a bit of peace for this encounter and not only seek entertainment when listening to the music.

If you allow yourself this peace, then you will find it — and each person in their own way. We were about a thousand people in the hall...

Yes, fortunately it was finally possible...

I could swear that there were not two people who experienced exactly the same thing. You don't need to be a university professor to understand this music. But you do have to listen carefully and be open.

You grew up as the son of an Adventist pastor and continue to follow these teachings. We read that you start your day with a prayer, you eat only vegetarian food and do not drink alcohol. Does your incredible creativity at such an advanced age have anything to do with your beliefs and lifestyle?

After all, every person has their unique DNA. We are the sum of our origins, our experiences in life from childhood on. And yes, I was lucky enough to grow up in a very devout family. It was quite natural for us to say grace before every meal. In the morning, before we went to school, my father, the pastor, always read me text from the Bible and prayed. Then we had breakfast, and only then did we go to school. I grew up in this atmosphere and it still stays with me today.

Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 2021.
Herbert Blomstedt conducted the Vienna Philharmonic at Beethovenfest BonnImage: Barbara Frommann/Beethovenfest 2021

Are you a believer?

My view of God today is certainly different from the one I had as a child. But God has not become less important as a result. He has only become bigger — and different. Like most children, I used to think of God as a kind of Father Christmas who rewards good children. As an adult, one has a completely different image of God. For me, God is first and foremost the creator and the only explanation for our existence. My God is something absolute, an absolute idea.

By the way, Beethovenwas deeply religious — you can read that in his letters, but above all you can hear it in his music.


The interview was conducted by Anastassia Boutsko. This version is a translation of the German.