Former Laureates

Mauricio Kagel


The theme of the fortieth anniversary of the Erasmus Prize in 1998 was ‘Experience and Expectation’. This theme has played a role in the work of both of the laureates for 1998: Mauricio Kagel and Peter Sellars.

Mauricio Kagel was born in Buenos Aires in 1931. He came to Europe in 1957, where he lived ever since. He was awarded the Erasmus Prize because he has shown that it is essential for us to break out of our listening habits and automatic appreciation if our musical heritage is not to become atrophied. He helps us to achieve this with his multi-faceted, imaginative and original compositions. Kagel sometimes combined his musical message with film, dance, theatre and audiovisual effects. He is the leading representative of ‘instrumental theatre’, which features musicians who not only play instruments but also act. He thus transcends the traditional boundaries between the arts and at the same time links Europe with the world beyond through his broad cultural horizon, just as he links today with the past. This approach – irreverent, non-dogmatic and satirical – forces us to think about music and its social significance. His best known works are Sexteto de cuerdas (1953), Anagrama (1958), Transición 2 (1959), Sonant (1960), Die Himmelsmechanik (1965) and his first opera Staatstheater (1970). Mauricio Kagel has also made many films, of which Ludwig van (1970) is the most famous. From 1974 to 1997 he held the chair for Modern Musical Theatre at the conservatory in Cologne. Mauricio Kagel died in Cologne in 2008.


In accordance with Article 2 of the constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation concerning the annual award of one or more prizes to honour individuals or organizations whose contributions in the cultural, social or social science fields have been of outstanding importance to Europe, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands confirmed the decision of the Board of the Foundation to award the Praemium Erasmianum for the year 1998 to Mauricio Kagel

The Erasmus Prize is awarded to Mauricio Kagel

  • for demonstrating that we should no longer be bound by conventional, traditional forms of appreciation and habits of listening, so that we may keep alive our rich musical heritage and ensure that it does not become fossilized;
  • for bringing about a new way of listening on the part of the public, through his bizarre, always highly imaginative and original compositions;
  • for succeeding in transforming the traditional concert into a spectacular event, by combining his musical message with film, dance, theatre, language and audio-visual elements;
  • moreover, for not only crossing the traditional boundaries of the arts with his well thought-out compositions but also for linking present and past and manifesting a wide cultural horizon extending beyond Europe;
  • finally, for making people think about music and its human and social significance, through his sense of perspective, his undogmatic, parodying attitude and his role as a firebrand.


On this anniversary of the Praemium Erasmianum, my thoughts go back to the first Erasmus Prize which I presented forty years ago. I expressed the hope, on that occasion, that this might be the beginning of a long and fruitful tradition. I am happy that this hope has been fulfilled and that we can now celebrate an anniversary on the theme of 'experience and expectation'.

I have had the honour of presenting 57 Erasmus Prizes over the past forty years. When I look back, I see that they reflect the multiformity and creativity of European cultural life. It is this multiformity of domains, the diversity of persons, traditions and nationalities, which has always fascinated me as Patron of this Foundation. It has given me a sense of  involvement in relation to the many leading figures from the field of the humanities.

As you all know, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts and to promote appreciation of these fields within society. What always strikes me in this connection is that the humanities and the arts - unlike technology, medicine and physics - are not characterized with reference to the latest state of our cumulative knowledge: they are not characterized in terms of a concept of advancement in which previous attainments are of little consequence. Instead, in the humanities and the arts, the past is still very much alive; there is also no question of a progression, as in technology. Sophocles, Rembrandt and Mozart are not less relevant to the modern world than Pinter, Mondrian or Kagel; neither are they inferior. Our society would be much the poorer if they had not existed.

In the humanities, human beings interpret the world and ascribe significance to their environment. Culture provides us with a context and an ethical framework for our actions. This is what Goethe meant when he wrote "Bezüge sind das Leben" - Relationships are life. They are the meaningful, invisible links which we establish with our families and friends, with things such as our house, our country, our language; or with nature, and with less tangible concepts such as compassion, justice, loyalty. But above all, we need to believe in the meaningful connection between the present, past and future. It is our reflective consciousness which gives meaning and significance to these relationships. Without this consciousness which always has to do with values and significance the world would be totally meaningless. This is the essence and importance of the humanities and this is what our Foundation stands for - a perspective which is nowadays often neglected. So much is determined by outward appearances; so much is expressed solely in terms of money or - even in education - judged in terms of social usefulness.

The two laureates who are being honoured by us today are a shining example of what I have in mind. Artists are those who give form to the above mentioned relationships. Their work gives a new content and meaning to the world around us and to our relationship to our surroundings; it stimulates our thoughts about art and society, however bizarre and bold their creations may appear at first sight. This is the power of the artist: "Das dichterische als Lebensmacht" - the poetic as a power of life - as Hugo von Hoffmannsthal so aptly put it.

Your chameleon-like mastery, Mr Kagel, characterized by permanent variation, surprise and parody, constantly catches the listener out. You sow doubt and take nothing for granted. Your aim is to make the public listen in a new way. In order to save the true content of music and to rid it of clichés, you wage war against fossilized ideas, the glamour of the concert hall and the aura of the conductor. You use every possible means to achieve this. Your work ranges from the visual arts, film, radio plays, theatre, to anything that can produce sound. What may seem to many people to be radical and iconoclastic is, in reality, a continuous critical dialogue with the history of music and with tradition.

You, Peter Sellars, are possessed by the same constructive, positive spirit, but in your case it is in the field of the theatre and opera in particular. In your work too we witness the tension between tradition and the modern world. Under your direction - which opens up new horizons in a modern-day approach - our cultural heritage is brought to life again. The past and tradition, however, are not there to be passively admired by us; they are there to be actively experienced. "To crack the code and recast it", as you call it. It is the moral content in particular that you seek, since you see it as the purpose of the theatre to rouse the moral and spiritual consciousness of the spectator and to show the injustice and lack of understanding in the world.

Sometimes both of you go very far. It is not surprising that your interpretations have also provoked criticism. However, an interpretation by a poetic mind is always fruitful and an enrichment, since it is in itself a creative act; it has an inspiring effect and manifests the many-sided qualities of every great work of art. You are driven in every aspect of your work by your great love and passion for the past and for your fellow human beings, or, as Wordsworth wrote in the foreword to his Lyrical Ballads "In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and nuances, of laws and customs - in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed, the poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time."

Ladies and gentlemen, you are aware that within the framework of the Festival of Contrasts the two laureates complement one other. But at the same time it is true to say that both are rebels; both enter into a specific relationship with the public; both seek to promote interaction of the arts; both have a modern-day approach to our cultural heritage; both wrestle with the contrast between tradition and renewal: between experience and expectation.

Finally, we are giving the prize not only to a theatre-maker and to a musician; we are giving it to two people who have a clear message for us. Firstly: it is only by having a meaningful involvement with the past that we can have a vision of the future. And the other way around: if we have a relationship with our own time and with contemporary art and culture, this will enable us to perceive the merits and significance of art from the past.

Acceptance Speech

To start with, I should like to offer appropriately emphatic thanks for the honour that has been accorded me here today. It is clear that the 40th anniversary of the Praemium Erasmianum that is being celebrated this year gives cause for joy and contentment at what it has achieved. It surely cannot be easy to make decisions every year which end in the selection of an elect. In every discipline there are - and always have been - plenty of candidates worthy of such a distinction. This in itself is enough to turn the actual choice, too, into a manifold test of the jurors for the Cultural and Science Prizes.

By what just and objective criteria should one be guided? Can one really have a view of things that is so objective as to always, completely rule out any kind of arbitrary element? Both these questions are extraordinarily hard to answer, since they ultimately depend on Lady Justitia to lend a hand. This young-looking woman, with her perfectly calibrated scales in front of her, is pestered daily to ensure that at every moment, every step in a procedure is honorable and untainted - and this at every instant throughout the world. In many pictorial representations, the lady even has an additional black or white blindfold over her eyes, in order to prevent the weight of Justitia's gaze from imperceptibly influencing the slant of her nowadays rather old-fashioned scales.

And anyway, this picture reminds me of those adventure stories in which the kidnapped central character, being carried off by bandits to some secret hiding place, manages to recognise the colour of the ground despite being blindfolded, because he can open his eyes just a tiny bit..

Why should I make any secret of what it is that particularly delights me in being awarded the Erasmus Prize? The important 2nd paragraph of the statutes reads: "... the honour should be given to persons or institutions who have managed to make an exceptional contribution to European culture". Now, I've only been living in Europe for forty years, and like today's second happy prize-winner, I was not born on this continent but, in my case, in distant South America.

It is strange and remarkable that the three aspects which perhaps shape personal identity the most - place of birth, family, and religious community - are ones which the person involved is scarcely in a position to influence. He is born by chance in some part of the Earth, within a family, and provided with a religious adherence that he has no means of choosing. It could be that the endemically repeated and epidemically widespread unease that creates problems of identity is closely tied to this unacknowledged, unresearched side-issue in the structure of personality. At any rate, it seems as though this question of identity, which torments whole peoples, and makes an infinite number of people unhappy, more so today than ever, is a historical inheritance of geopolitical origin. Happy people and happy peoples are obviously ones with no problems of identity.

I have often demanded that composers should write forthright music, without regard for passing fashions, current trends, clichés or market pressures, however great or small these may be. It may seem almost extravagant for me to use the word 'forthright' in relation to music. But I mean this in the truest sense of the word and ... forthrightly.

When there is talk about 'the conscience of the nation', the reference is normally to authors, not to composers. Even when a literary man transforms reality into fiction, or fiction into reality, one expects him to show forthrightness, as a basic orientation towards a society that not only tolerates substitutes for truth, but constantly gives them political legitimacy. But what one expects of composers is not 'truth', but merely music which one can perhaps listen to twice, or, under especially favourable circumstances, for a third and final time.

So why am I speaking here, in the context of a "contribution to European culture", about forthright music? Probably because this has been one of the essential aspects of my work as a composer ever since the beginning, and especially since my voluntary exile in Europe. Though it is almost impossible to measure the 'truth content' of a composition, surmises about its forthrightness are quite conceivable. Every piece of great music from the past is an event - both an exemplar and a point of reference - because music that moves us is instilled with a quantum of emotion that can only be forthright and true. It only because of this that we as listeners can constantly harvest the same emotion.

Would Erasmus of Rotterdam, were he alive today, have given an award to my music? Assuredly not. Too many of my pieces would have been rejected by him as 'musica mundana'. Would he have had something to say about the curious genre designated by the malleable, vague concept of 'New Music'? Oh, yes indeed! In extenso.

The surviving opinions of Erasmus concerning music are firm, fundamental, rationalised, and all-embracing. Even though his understanding of music is placed exclusively at the service of theological study, the wealth of definitions and the scope of discussion are astonishing. And, as with every theory that arises from immediate experience, there is enough stuff of timeless significance to ensure further reflection.

For example, Erasmus's notion that "that the first mistake made on an instrument may be ascribed to chance, but its repetitions only to ignorance" is one that has been part of my professional practice all my life. Erasmus goes on to say that such mistakes might be based on "lack of talent, or lack of practice". Here he has left the Garden of Eden where forgiveness reigns, to take an astute look at the more down-to-earth musical praxis on this side of the divide. For my part, I have decided never to question the talent of a musician, but I have probably given him the stimulus to practise practice more frequently.

The composer's most wonderful, perfect performances, free from every flaw, pressure and time shortage, are the ones he hears first of all in his head. In this most inimate of spaces (albeit a hard one to define), that is recreated every time in response to desire and imagination, pieces of music effortlessly achieve their ideal realisation on instruments which are untouched by human hands. These are unnecessary here, since the bodywork of the instrument is dematerialised: it has changed into a carcass. The only shaping force here is the spirit of the music, its very essence. In this inner world, where the parts sound silently and yet can be heard, all the executants are so faithful to the text that the idea of interpretation ceases to have any significance whatsoever. Here too, perhaps, lies the core of all virtuality. And where no explanation is required, the need to have ideas on interpretation and details, or to wonder about them, simply disappears. What a utopia!

From the beginning of calculated time, whose origins are still obscure, it seems that most things have turned out to be contradictory, unclear, and ambiguous, and thus were in urgent need of explanation and the gaze of investigation. The state of the world we live in provides daily evidence of this. It is precisely the unaesthetic reality of this incomplete world, a work-in-progress par excellence - in 'progress'?! - that runs contrary to our longing for a more intensely experienced, more pleasant aesthetic. Every war, every catastrophic famine, every epidemic illness, every natural disaster that humans have to endure can count on the sympathy of cosmopolitan fellow citizens. Can music help as well? Allow me to quote a Chinese Erasmus, the poet Mo-dsi:

"The fact that the people practise music has four disadvantages:
 the hungry are not fed,
 the frozen are not warmed,
 the homeless have no lodging,
 and the desperate find consolation."

As a whole, composers are believers, because primarily they produce something whose main foundation is a belief in the absolute necessity of their contribution. One might rightly object here that 'belief' is normally taken to mean something quite different. But relationships are always more complicated than we believe. For example, it was not the human voice that Erasmus took to symbolise Christan faith, but instruments. I suspect that this may go back to his painful experiences as a choirboy in Utrecht Cathedral. My own experiernces as an occasional choirboy were not dissimilar, though they happened in a different place.

Every aesthetic can help to bring about perfection, but none of them can prevent the postulates of a contrary aesthetic from taking shape. This is historically just, and permits constant further development. One of the exquisite things about the composer's profession is that, in contrast to the scientist, nothing - absolutely nothing - has to be proved. One writes pieces which are only meant to guarantee the intensity of the experience of listening, and when they do this, they may offer fresh evidence of the mysterious capacity of music to communicate in a way which is both direct and ambiguous. Musical expression is fundamentally unfathomable. Music is not a language, but it possesses many attributes which also typify the written word and lucid spoken language. And when Simon Upton remarked recently that since the 12th century "the only powerful common currency that Europe has produced is music", it made me proud to belong to a fraternity that has achieved such a collective contribution, crossing all natural and unnatural. provincial and national boundaries, without having to manufacture the ballast of a common aesthetic platform. A generally valid theory of music, constantly enriched by new knowledge, and not subject to parties or factions, remains the only valid basis for composers and interpreters to reach an understanding. It's strange: the main difference between composers is their degree of conservatism. This is one of the remarkable characteristics of that battallion-sized group of composers of new music which was known until a few years ago as the 'avant-garde', and which I too was ranked among. They all bore the seeds of an organically operative conservatism, which didn't even need to assert itself in virulent form because it gradually became part of an age-old basic consensus in European culture. One might call it the Zeitgeist of the eternal return, or compare it with the steps in a labyrinthine, distorted-perspective drawing by Maurits Escher. Sometimes the steps lead forward, but they often end in a cul-de-sac. So one switches one's eyes into reverse, and sets off optimistically in another direction.

Musical composition today has a gratifying diversity. There is a considerable number of tributary streams, and the water that flows along them doesn't have to end up in an overly forceful main river. That is why the question of "where to go next" is irrelevant to me. Likewise the question of whether one is going forwards with one's back turned, or marking time for a while, albeit with aplomb, on the same spot.

Good music can be compared to good wine: if it is worth keeping, it will eventually become part of the "reserve". Composition rests primarily - as it always did - on voluntary compulsion. One writes music because one has to, from inner necessity, and if this actually happens under difficult circumstances, if one is composing 'despite everything',  I am certain that listeners and musicians can detect this express necessity.  Even though, today, there are many new ways of feeling and forming, and though the invention of music rests any number of recent procedures, thought processes and materials,  the connection between the composer and interpreter, and the listener too,  has changed relatively little: it is still always the composers who need the audience, and not the other way around.

A century of unparalleled experiences is coming to an end. Musically, a block of time that will preoccupy future generations just as much as the 19th century still does. Nevertheless, I am metaphysically predisposed to this side; I do not want to venture any surmises or predictions about the future of music, an uncertain future that reminds me of speculation about the existence or non-existence of the Beyond. For me, the music of tomorrow that I shall not hear is already music of the Beyond.

November 1998 (translated from the German by Richard Toop) 


Mauricio Kagel was born in Buenos Aires in 1931 and studied music, philosophy and history of literature at the university of his native city. In 1949, he was appointed artistic advisor of the Agrupación Nueva Música and in 1950 he published his first compositions. After having been supervisor at the Chamber Opera and co-repetiteur and conductor at the Teatro Colón he decided to live in Europe in 1957 and settled in Cologne. In 1958, he took part in the Darmstädter summer courses, as of 1960 as a teacher. From 1964 to 1965, he was Slee Professor of Composition at the State University of New York at Buffalo; in 1968, he was in charge of the Scandinavian Courses for Modern Music in Göteborg and from 1969 to 1975 he taught modern music in Cologne. Since 1974, he has been Professor of Neues Musiktheater at the Cologne Musikhochschule. Mauricio Kagel was 'composer-in-residence' of the Cologne Philharmonic Orchestra. He died in Cologne in 2008.


HRH Princess Beatrix and Mauricio Kagel

HRH Princess Beatrix and composer and Erasmusprize winner Mauricio Kagel during the award ceremony in 1998.

Doctor Atomic, by Peter Sellars and John Adams

The American director Peter Sellars shared the Erasmus Prize with composer Mauricio Kagel in 1998.

40th anniversary of the Erasmus Prize

The fortieth anniversary of the Erasmus Prize in 1998 was celebrated with the festival 'Experience and Expectations'.