by Thomas Höft

History has not passed, it is alive: we encounter it wherever we are, and if we do not attempt to listen to it even the present remains unintelligible to us. Hermann Max is an artist who shows us how to use the past in order to comprehend the present.

He is a war child, who – as he himself wrote – remained largely untouched by the complications of war. Music-making was a frequent activity in his family; he learned to play the piano and the violin, thus discovering both the attraction and the relevance of past art forms to the present. When studying art history, Hermann Max was inspired by the masters of illustration. As a student of archaeology he engaged himself in the study of the architecture of classical Greece and of Etruscan house building. Later, as a musician, he became excited by the search for long lost structural laws within older scores.

When, in the 1950s, musicians in Austria, England and Holland embarked on advocating a musical theory and practice relating to early music that was based on the maxims of historical sources, some rather committed young musicians became very excited, amongst them Hermann Max. This at a time when students in particular were not keen on conventions: after serious disputes, the generation of ’68 succeeded equally both in the democratisation of all societal institutions, and in the urgent debate about the guilt and responsibility of a cultured nation in relation to the largest genocide in history. The means of this social movement were, primarily, – that is, beyond organised protest – a fundamental scepticism and a persistent questioning. An entire generation did not settle for the ‘just keep going’ but kept asking consistently ‘Why?’ One of them was Hermann Max.

Perhaps more time will need to pass before we are able to judge to what extent our approaches to the development of historical performance practice were, in fact, linked to the societal desire for change prevalent in the ’60s – all the more so when the researching of early manuscripts seems to, at first glance, have little to do with those student debates about revolution and the Vietnam war, and yet the existence of a close relationship between the two seems apparent to me. Whenever Hermann Max speaks about the great content inherent in pieces by a Bach or Mozart, the social question also flares up: the social realities of the times are being tested as well as the composers’ ideals, and Hermann Max remains deeply convinced that it is precisely the artists who continue to pass on the message of an eternal humanism.

By now, historically informed performance practice has become common property, just as ecological thinking, once ostracised, seems to have merged with the political mainstream. It remains Hermann Max’s conviction, however, that, regardless of our satisfaction about such mainstreaming, we must forget neither the burning open questions nor that it is we who must strive relentlessly towards the realisation of artistic and humanitarian ideals, within both a social and a musical context.