A Comparison of European and American Arts Journalism

July 23, 2005


It is interesting that the stated focus of this collective blog was to compare American and European journalism, and that almost no one said much about that.  The first problem is the Anglo-American orientation.  Not a single critic from the continent was included.  This is ironic because both Germany and Austria have 23 times more full-time, year-round orchestras per capita than the USA , and about 28 times more opera houses. 


These numbers create some astounding results.  In any given week, there are probably more orchestral and opera performances in Germany and Austria than the rest of the world put together.  So why leave them out of this discussion? The French government spends more per capita on culture than any other country in the world.  Little Finland , with a population of only 5 million, is a dominant force in the world of classical music.

The list of examples could go on and on.


The Anglo-American orientation of the blog creates a kind of WASP provincialism that seems to characterize the demographics of American classical music. 


I do not think European music journalism has higher standards than America ’s, but there are contextual differences that are significant.  The first is that the intellectual and political climate on the continent (and even in Britain ) is much more varied than in the States.  The parliamentary system of government allows for a wider spectrum of active political thought.  Parties ranging from Fascists to communists and everything in between usually have at least some small voice.   Through the traditions of philosophers such as Adorno, Heidegger, Sartre, Habermas, Derrida, Foucault and many others, the range of accepted political discussion is much wider than in America .  This also affects the range of political expression among musicians.  Political artists such as Henze and Nono are well-known examples.  (In the US , by contrast, the left’s political spectrum was severely reduced during the McCarthy era.  It had been quite vital during the 30s and 40s.)  Naturally, the wider spectrum of European political discourse affects music journalism in ways that are probably obvious, and varies significantly from the cultural world shaped by America ’s two party system – which at times is almost like a one party “Republicrat” government. 


In Germany , for example, some of the country’s major papers are actually party organs, such as Die Zeit, owned by the Socialist Party (which currently governs the country) or Die Tageszeitung which is owned by the Green Party.  Die Zeit is Germany ’s intellectual paper of choice, a weekly with a position somewhere between The New Yorker and The New York Times.  In Italy , several of the papers have an openly acknowledged party affiliation.  This is quite normal for Europeans.


Another significant determining factor is the geographic density of cultural activity.  In the Ruhrgebiet of Germany, there are probably ten full-time year-round orchestras and opera houses within about one hour’s journey.   In Baden-Wurttemburg, where I live, professional orchestras are everywhere.  Freiburg, with a population of 80,000 has a full-time opera including a ballet, a full-time radio orchestra, and a full-time spoken theater, as does Mannheim , Karlsruhe , and Ludwigsburg .  Stuttgart , with a populating of 500,000 has two full-time symphony orchestras, one of Germany ’s best opera houses, an entire complex of spoken theaters, and a world famous ballet (though it has fallen in recent years.) Constance, Ulm , Pforzheim and Reutlingen are even smaller than Freiburg , but also have full-time orchestras.   Any of these cities can be reached from my remote town in a couple hours.  There are five State Conservatories of Music (Musikhochschulen) in Baden-Wurtemburg.  They are lavishly funded, even in these hard times.  I know it is hard to believe, but since the training is largely one on one, the State spends more training a musician than a Doctor!  (In Germany , medical classes are often quite large.)


This plethora of cultural activity strongly affects music journalism, because even papers in small towns need to have large cultural sections to cover all of the activities.  Rottweil, the small town near where I live, only has a population of  20,000, but the local paper, The Schwarzwalder Bote, has at least a full page covering “high” culture every day.  (Entertainment and media news is in a separate section.)  It reports on the various concerts, operas and plays in the region and also addresses productions in the big houses.   Try to imagine this sort of thing happening in the States.  Even major cities like Tulsa , Toledo , Spokane , Portland , Miami , Atlanta , etc., etc. etc. hardly ever have genuinely professional opera productions.


This is one reason the genre of Regie Theater exists in Europe .  A mere opera production in Germany , France , Austria , Switzerland , Italy , Holland , or Scandanavia might be a commonplace banality if it were not given some sort of special spin. 


All of these institutions are entirely funded by the State, in stark contrast to the form of cultural plutocracy in America funded almost exclusively by the wealthy.  The US system is in many respects a manifestation of Anglo-American class traditions, and makes the demographics of this blog especially ironic – as if Europe were only the UK .  It is exactly the continental perspective that would be of most interest.  So where are they?