The Bavarian cultural retreat where Pears and Britten used to go – still functioning, and still extraordinary

Schloss Elmau

From the 1950s through to the 1970s Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears used to visit a place called Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian alps, an hour’s fast drive from Munich; and they went there, as musicians still do, partly to play, partly to experience an extraordinary set-up that has not unfairly been described as a ‘moral sanatorium’.

Established at the time of the 1st World War, it was the creation of a maverick Lutheran theologian, Johannes Muller, who broke away from the church and became a celebrated thinker, guru, spiritual guide, teaching that the way to God was not through institutions but through the surrender of the self in art and nature. Elmau, situated in a vast, green, empty valley fringed by snow-capped mountains with jaw-dropping views in all directions, was a natural place for this self-less experience of God to happen. And to encourage it, he also made the schloss a home for cultural and literary activity.

Musicians like the pianist Wilhlem Kempff would be in residence alongside politicians, writers and philosophers. There would be regular concerts, of a somewhat stern sort with no applause (because they were supposedly devotional encounters rather than mere entertainments). And because Muller believed music should be a participatory rather than passive exercise, the audience was expected to dance to the music. Not just sit and listen. Sehr Deutsch.

By the 1950s, after wartime distractions, the music programme had grown into something of substance that pulled in big names. Menuhin went to Elmau, So did the Amadeus Quartet, Emil Gilels, George Malcolm, Julian Bream…And so, in 1959, did Britten and Pears for the founding of what was called a British-German Chamber Music Festival that ran for a week in January.

Despite what Pears described as a ‘loathsome-ish piano’ they liked the Schloss enough to go back several times; and in 1974 they premiered Britten’s 5th canticle, The Death of St Narcissus, in the Schloss’s concert hall.

In 2005 the Schloss burned down but was rebuilt by Muller’s grandson on much the same terms as before albeit with 5-star indulgences. It’s now a luxury hotel and spa that functions like a discreetly upmarket holiday camp for affluent Germans and their children (of whom there are many although being German, middle-class and well-brought-up, they’re so polite and civilised you barely notice them).

But at the same time, it maintains its old identity as a high-minded cultural retreat: a place for international intelligentsia to meet, talk, think. And it’s still very much a retreat for musicians who go there to chill out, take some mountain air, and (in return) play concerts for the other guests.

Schloss Elmau presents around 200 concerts a year. They happen in relatively intimate circumstances, without fuss or fanfares. But they feature some of the biggest names in the business – Ian Bostridge, Martha Argerich, Thomas Quasthoff, Herman Prey, Gidon Kremer, Vadim Repin, Lief Ove Andsnes, Mitsuko Uchida…name a name and they’ll probably have been to Elmau. Quietly. With reverence.

Having been there myself last week, I can understand the attraction. It’s one of the most magically beautiful locations I’ve ever witnessed. And the combination of the scenery, the spa, the comfort, the food (there’s a Michelin-starred chef), and a super-chic recital every night (a piano series running at the moment with the likes of Nelson Goerner and the hot young American Nicholas Angelich) is heaven on a plate.

Not everyone in Britain knows about Schloss Elmau, but it’s time they did. There’s nothing like it here – we don’t do moral sanatoria, or alpine pastures, or (I’m sad to say) polite, well-brought-up children. And if any of this sounds as good to you as it was for me, look up the website:

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