Entering his 30th year at SFCM, award-winning professor Nikolaus Hohmann has taught students a variety of topics from world history, to philosophy, to ethics. The SFCM newsroom sits down with the long-time instructor and discusses his musical upbringing, higher education, and the one thing he hopes his students remember.
By Mark Taylor
You emigrated to the Bay area from Germany as a child?
I arrived in California’s Bay area as a 9-year-old, I was expecting more palm trees, and a warmer surf!
What brought you to America?
My mother was a teen in Interwar Germany, and had wanted to become a concert pianist, but her family considered it unbecoming for a young woman of her station. That dream was conclusively shattered in 1945 when two of her fingers were shot off by an American fighter jet strafing the thousands of refugees fleeing the advancing Russians tanks as the Eastern Front collapsed.
But she was not one to hold a grudge, and like my father, believed in the American Dream. He died, but she went ahead anyway with their plans and moved halfway around the world to follow her dream, and I’m glad she did. Immigrants have never had it easy, but she was determined, and she built from scratch a modest but independent life that made her very happy. Because of her decision, I have had far more opportunities here than I would have had in my homeland. I am very grateful for that.
Tell us about your introduction to music?
Despite her stunted left hand, my mother still played piano magnificently. So it was like growing up in a recital, night after night, year after year, and she loved classical music. When she wasn’t playing, Beethoven was playing — on the phonograph, alternating with Bach and Brahms. This was the background music of my youth, and so the great classics were grafted into my soul. I count myself very fortunate — for this, and for her relentless insistence that I pursue the best education (and the best grades) possible, since she believed that only through education can an immigrant achieve success in America. She died on my second day of classes at Stanford, so she had the satisfaction that one of her dreams for me had been achieved.
What memories do you have of the Berlin wall and its fall in 1989?
Enough to fuel an entire year-long course, or more. My most prominent memory of that night? Incredulity. I had been visiting Communist East Berlin and East Germany four times or more a month for over two years (no, I was not a spy, no really), and to watch this heavily-armed and powerful Communist country, with such a vast and vicious secret-police network, disintegrate from within during the summer and fall of 1989 was unbelievable. From June on, the most exciting program on television was the nightly news. Every evening, Germans were thunderstruck to witness the newest developments as East Germany and Eastern Europe continued to unravel more and more.
And yet, when the checkpoints at the Berlin Wall were opened in the evening of November 9, probably by accident, it was impossible to believe what one saw, even physically standing there, watching as thousands and thousands of jubilant East and West Berliners streamed back and forth through the open gates, where 12 hours earlier, they would have been shot. You saw it, you heard it, you walked back and forth across the border yourself — and yet, your mind simply couldn’t accept it. Unbelievable. It was also unbelievable that two countries, East and West Germany, so very different in structure and ideology and mentality, could be merged into one country, so calmly, without civil war, mass arrests, concentration camps or firing squads — this has to be one of the most remarkable achievements in the last half of the 20th century.
What inspired you to go into education?
I love to learn, I love to explore, I love to share, and I love striving to help students grow in knowledge and in wisdom and compassion.
You came to SFCM in 1992, what brought you to the Conservatory?
A fellow Ph.D. student, who had graduated a couple of years earlier, had held this position, but then decided to move back to Ohio. He suggested I apply as his replacement. The moment I walked around the Conservatory and gave a guest lecture, I realized this would be the perfect place for me. As a fledgling academic, I was really afraid of getting bored and being asked to teach 14 different courses over three years (which still fills my colleagues at other universities with horror) was absolutely perfect. I love the creative possibilities, and the opportunities to weave together art and history in all of their many manifestations. I have never been bored here, in what is now 30 years.
As a professor who educates musicians on a number of different topics, what do you try to instill in them?
That the world is a magnificent place so very worth exploring, and people are amazing. Yes, the world and human life have their dark sides, and they have much to teach us. But it is beauty and goodness which truly inspire, and which are so worth cultivating for the sake of this generation, and for the generations to come.
The more you know, the more you see — and the deeper and more meaningful your experiences and your life become. A simple yet representative example: once you know what a Corinthian column is, you see it everywhere and you see more detail, and often more elegance as well. This is true of so much in architecture, in paintings and sculpture, in drama, literature, and mythology. Blind prophets. Arthurian legends. The Wounded Man. The past as an innovative model. The more you know, the more our world and its many cultures unfold in all of their wonder, in all of their mystery and majesty.
What is currently on your music playlist?
Currently? Eivor (from the Faroe Islands, although I first heard her in Iceland), Wilhelmine von Bayreuth (sister of Frederick the Great), LouLou Ghelichkhani (love her French songs), Benyamin Bahadori (great Persian pop), Missa Ego flos campi by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (South American Baroque), Armand Amar’s haunting music for Bab’Aziz, and the King Arthur soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. But you caught me on a bad day. Usually, the playlists are a little more eclectic.
What do you hope SFCM students remember most from taking your classes?
The desire and curiosity to explore — to use the topics we cover in these classes as portals, so to speak, to journey into the immense variety of different cultures and astonishing human creativity, of endless stories and beauty. I want for them to develop a love and fascination for the worlds of sculpture and painting, architecture, literature and drama, and the endless wonders which they offer. Every once in a while it’s useful to turn off the news, shut down the phone, take a hike through the beautiful countryside that is so close, no matter where you live in the Bay Area, or open a good book and read, in order to recover a sense of how wonderful and amazing and beautiful and precious the world around us is, how much there is to explore and discover, and to use our limited time wisely to savor all the good that life has to offer.
What is your favorite part of working at SFCM?
Teaching, of course, sharing stories and knowledge and experiences and hearing the experiences and ideas and insights of students. Truly, every single student I have had in my classes has had wise and memorable things to say and to share. I have learned much from them, for the students at the Conservatory are remarkable. Every single one.
I also enjoy teaching here because of my incredible colleagues — no words can adequately describe the high caliber of our faculty and because of our outstanding administration and Board of Trustees that we are so fortunate to have. David Stull deserves special praise for all he has done to make the Conservatory an infinitely better school.