On the occasion of the presentation of the Austrian Cross of Honour
for Science and Art
on 4 December 1997, the President of the Salzburg Festival,
Dr Helga Rabl-Stadler,
gave the laudatory speech in Vienna
which is reproduced here in abbreviated form.

Herbert Willi has “long been recognised as a leading light in the concert of the avant-garde” according to Klaus Umbach in a rare, unreservedly positive evaluation in the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, adding: “Willi has class!”.

Thomas Wördehoff comments with his customary flippancy in the Swiss magazine Weltwoche: “Herbert Willi is currently the hottest ticket on the international composers’ scene”.

The best propaganda for the compositions of the individual being honoured today was however generated by August Everding: when asked at the Theatertreffen in Berlin about what he would currently advise young people to go and see, his enthusiastic reply was “an opera by Herbert Willi!”
Yes, Klaus Umbach is on the right track: Herbert Willi really has class. This is why we have assembled today to experience him receiving this great honour.

It was Willi’s consistency that brought early success, enabling him to pursue a glittering career that many contemporary composers would envy, and catapulting him into the highest circles of the international music business within a mere few years. Whether his compositions are performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado or he is commissioned by Christoph von Dohnanyi to compose a work for the Cleveland Orchestra –naturally to be performed in the Carnegie Hall or the venerated Royal Albert Hall in London during the famous Promenade Concerts – whenever his name is on the concert programme, the upper echelons of classical music are always involved. While the exegetes at the forefront of contemporary music convene in Donaueschingen for their annual inventories, discussing the latest development trends, an Austrian composer has worked his way up almost unnoticed beyond German-speaking specialist circles into the top regions of public interest in a blink of the eye.
“An audible miracle whose half-life period will surely last far beyond other novelties in the current market” is the prophecy of Sigmund Kopitzky writing in the South-West German newspaper Südkurier.

Perhaps that is the secret of his appeal: “His music cannot be spontaneously classified within any specific universally recognised category, is barely oriented to post-modern trends or serially and structurally construction to an equal degree and displays a total absence of any form of tone row structuralisation. The majority of his chamber music and orchestral works are under 12 minutes in duration and resemble aphoristic studies.” (Axel Fuhrmann)

Herbert Willi is an emphatic advocate of Messiaen’s tripartite formation theory of musical works. Messiaen stated that “there are three stages to all creative activities: inspiration, work and the complete composition” in a lecture given in 1958 in Brussels. “In the productive 20th century, the century of research and velocity, it is the second stage which is emphasised and most musicians of today disavow inspiration, disparaging it as being romantic and overused.”

Herbert Willi never disavows inspiration. On the contrary, he specifically highlights it: inspiration through nature and not the imitation of nature; “my sense of hearing which is ignited in a state of silence and is therefore frequently unavoidably ignited by nature”. As a consequence, Herbert Willi is a different person in each type of landscape.

A piece for solo flute was initially created on Samos, but Willi was unable to complete it at home up in the mountains as its genesis was inspired by the sea. The work’s completion was only possible during a return visit to the Greek island.

In contrast, work on the opera “Schlafes Bruder” pursued the composer Herbert Willi almost physically into his mountain world. The protagonists accompanied him on his walking tours. It was the silence of the Montafon Mountains which specifically provided the underlying source of inspiration for his stage work.

A sojourn in Tuscany ultimately inspired Herbert Willi to pieces for which he even thought out titles by way of exception: “Aurora – Giove” and “Il Combattimento di Cecco e la sua Compagnia”. I am thrilled that he created those names for these pieces as Herbert Willi is not only a musical but also a literary artist. I would like to encourage him to engage on activities overstepping the borders of art. Ingeborg Bachmann once wrote that music and poetry possess the pace of the spirit, in reference to a saying by Hölderlin who claimed that the spirit was only able to express itself in rhythm. Bachmann believed that “music and poetry possess rhythm in the first sense, giving reason to shape: this is why they are capable of recognising one another and also why they pursue a common path.”

Herbert Willi is a follower of paths. He displays confidence laying paths in art and through society because he draws strength from silence, believes in miracles and possesses trust. He places trust in his artistic calling and the fact that he will always find individuals who will accompany him on a part of his path. He places trust in the fact that he is and will remain a vital voice in this multiphonic century. I would like to support him in this belief. I believe him when he says that miracles exist, that silence exists and that there is trust. I would like to hope that he will become a master in the sense of Ernst Gombrich who once said: “I like to see an expression of mastery in art and mastery in the achievement of effects, emotions, amazement, shock and enthusiasm.” Herbert Willi is clearly on his path to becoming a master.
Will simply has class.

Sincere congratulations!

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