Music that comes from the heart

A portrait interview with Jörg Widmann
Photo: Marco Borggreve

By Anders Beyer

As a creative artist, Jörg Widmann is unique in more ways than one. Both as a composer and a musician he is an internationally acclaimed star who often conducts his own pieces as well as the works of others. Widmann can be likened to old masters such as Mozart, Bach and Mahler in the sense that they are all, first and foremost, musical craftsmen. From this craft, the composer, and later the conductor, emerges as a natural part of the creation.

“For me, it all began with the clarinet. When I was seven, I went to my parents because I’d heard the sound of a clarinet and fallen in love with it. I told my parents: ‘I want to play this instrument.’ They were initially sceptical, because kids sometimes ask for a cat, then they want a dog and so on. But I was very serious, and I’m so happy that I made this choice and that my parents supported me. In my composing I think one also hears that to me, music is something physical, that we produce our sound with the air. That’s something essential for me and for all my music,” say Jörg Widmann.

At first, Widmann specialised in playing the clarinet. He would always improvise while he was playing, but would often be upset with himself when he found himself unable to remember the beautiful passages he had played only yesterday. Thus he had to find a way to write them down, and for several years he believed notating while improvising was what constituted composing. Though the process is more complex, Widmann still finds this to be a good definition.

Widmann’s music gradually become more and more complex. He began with tonal pieces, and his first work was for piano, a waltz in F major.

“I still remember the beginning, which was nice, but after three or four verses I’m not so sure anymore. Soon afterwards I became interested in other sounds than tonal and I developed this interest further, and today we are sitting here in Berlin on the day of the premiere of my Babylon opera (9 March 2019, ed). I would say what remained when it comes to sound is my childish curiosity. When I’m backstage with musicians, and the horn player makes a strange sound, I will be the first to ask ‘How did you do that?’ I’m like a child, I’m curious, and after 45 years, I don’t think that is likely to change.

Jörg Widmann and Anders Beyer
Jörg Widmann and Anders Beyer – meeting in Berlin April 9 2018

When listening to Widmann’s works, it seems like he invents a new world each time. Still, one hears sounds which are reminiscent of composers such as Schubert and Schumann. It is clear that Widmann stands on the shoulders of tradition.

“There is a quote by Gustav Mahler, which I love: ‘Tradition is not the adoration of the ashes, it’s giving the fire to the next generation.’”

“To me, the great masterworks of the past are a constant inspiration. I don’t experience Schubert and Schumann as composers of the past, I’m inspired by them, and I think of their music as modern. In Schumann in particular, we find these melodic lines which I often call ‘fever curves’, which to me are incredibly modern. It speaks to me in the same acute way as music of our time does, and therefore I love to combine music from different epochs in my programmes. I’m convinced the listener will listen to a piece they think they know, like Mozart’s clarinet concerto for example, in a completely different way when it’s confronted with sounds from our time. There is a quote by Gustav Mahler, which I love: ‘Tradition is not the adoration of the ashes, it’s giving the fire to the next generation.’ And that’s my definition of tradition too – it’s not sentimentally looking back, it’s going onward.”

When Widmann composes, he has to find his own language, his own uniquely personal expression. It is an expression formed in dialogue with the vast treasure trove of musical gold of the past which lies there glimmering, presenting itself in new shapes and forms. It is as though one can hear the old music reverberate through the centuries and take place within Widmann’s fine musical creations. One hears melodies and harmonies but put in a highly modern context. The keyword is structure. How does Widmann structure his music? How does he get from point A to point B? What does form mean to him?

“This is a good and important question and may not be easy to answer. We talk about finding your own language as a young man or woman. This is absolutely true, but as a young person, you may not know where to start your search, or your teacher may say ‘Listen to what’s inside yourself’. But what if there is no echo, or only very strange echoes forthcoming? I had the privilege of having only instrument and composition teachers who encouraged me to really explore my own way. They were never interested in me creating a copy of what they did, and that’s something I will never forget.”

Widmann’s compositions sound very different from each other. The second scene of the opera Babylon includes half an hour of harsh Avant-Garde tones, while the third scene is almost exclusively tonal music. It is the differences and variations that interest the composer. When an artist stays within a similar expression throughout his or her career, outside observers may call it ‘style’,” the composer says.

“The idea of doing the same thing all my life bores me. When creating a new piece, I am interested in trying to find another way of composing. Maybe I’ll fail, but this is what keeps me alive, and in the arts in general, I think that keeps us going. Sometimes it’s important to look back, but I try to do something different with every piece. Of course, one can judge this better from the outside. My pieces have many aspects in common, especially the harmony and what sounds vertically together, but as an artist, I am more interested in the new, the other, what the pieces don’t have in common.”

ANDERS BEYER: Musicians tell me they love your music in part because you are so ‘physical’ and write so idiomatically for the instrument. You’re also respected for being a virtuoso musician yourself. You are, in fact, continuing an old tradition that has not been dominant for hundreds of years, and in a sense creating a bridge that stretches back to Mozart and other great masters. Could you tell us a little about this connection and the tradition behind being both a skilled musician and a composer?

JÖRG WIDMANN: “For centuries there was a unity of musicianship, which means that until the middle of the 19th century it was natural for a composer such as Beethoven, and you could also mention Mozart, to perform their piano concerti, their violin concerti themselves. They tended to play about three instruments. Also, musicians would have basic training in and understanding of composition. I think it’s sad that this tradition was torn apart in the middle of the 19th century. Suddenly there was this new type of the maestro, who was never that important before, then there was the virtuoso, represented by artists such as Paganini and Liszt. Fascinating figures, by the way, I have nothing against them, but suddenly there was this concept of the virtuoso, and in contrast, the strange composer who sits in some strange apartment and puts his strange, crazy notes together. Since then, there has been this crazy concept that either you do this or you do that. I don’t want to judge, but for me personally, the unity of musicianship has never ceased to exist.”

Jörg Widmann
Photo: Marco Borggreve

The conducting composer is also a part of the old concept. For Widmann, that part of his musicianship began with a commissioned opera. In 2009 two events were to become important to the composer’s career as a conductor. The artistic director at the Opera Bastille in Paris, Gerard Mortier, asked the Widmann and the artist Anselm Kiefer to create an opera together for his last production for Paris. The result was the opera Am Anfang.

“During the composition of the piece Mortier approached me, and said ‘Jörg, I think you should conduct’. I said, ‘I’m not even finished with the piece, and I don’t know if I can do it, I’m not a regular conductor. I do it sometimes, but it’s a big thing. Are you sure what you’re asking of me?’ He said ‘Yes, I’m sure!’ I had many doubts for weeks, but finally, I trusted him,” says Widmann.

And so Widmann conducted the the Paris Opera Orchestra for half a dozen performances. That same year saw the premiere of his piece Con Brio with conductor Mariss Jansons and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. The composer had finished the score late, and will never forget the phone call he got the day before the first rehearsal. It was Mariss Jansons.

“He said: ‘You know we are looking forward to your piece, but it’s incredibly complex and I got this score very late. You will have to conduct the first rehearsal.’ And I said ‘I’m so sorry, I’m doing a clarinet masterclass, there are young people waiting for me, I cannot disappoint them and I have to learn the score. I only have some hours left!’ He said ‘I am very sorry, but I really need it’”, recounts Widmann.

The composer boarded the night train and tried to put his markings in the 80 pages of the score. He got to page 52.

“So, there I was standing in front of this wonderful orchestra which I admire. Today I have had the privilege of conducting them on several occasions, but at the time I was shaking and said ‘Please friends, colleagues, please support me, it’s completely new to me. Writing a piece and conducting it are two different things, and I first learned I was doing this last night.’ But after five minutes it felt easier, and that became a starting point. Today conduction feels natural to me; it’s one of my expressions of music.”

ANDERS BEYER: So how do you plan your day as a conductor, as a musician, as a composer? Is it a nightmare to plan or does it come naturally to you?

JÖRG WIDMANN: “Sometimes the planning is a nightmare to my surroundings. For example, these weeks, I’m conducting the German youth orchestra, the most talented people on their instruments in the country. We’re doing Schumann, we’re doing my “Mass”, a Mendelsohn piece, and meanwhile the rehearsals of my opera are taking place. And I had to finish a new string quartet for Anne-Sophie Mutter. These are very different tasks. I try, but fail sometimes, to divide it up and separate the tasks from each other. When I’m in a composing period like with the string quartet, it’s quite disturbing for me to play even just two concerts. I enjoy it at the time, but when I return to my table, my music does not speak to me anymore, even after just three, four days, because I was in a different form of concentration,” Widmann explains.

“Twenty years ago, I could easily do it. Then, I was teaching during the daytime, at night I was composing my first opera, and the next evening I would play a concert. I cannot do it anymore; my body refuses to. I sometimes force my body to do things which are not so healthy, but good for me in the end. Why? Because even if I travel to Asia, miss my plane and am late, the moment I hear a Mozart clarinet concerto of the beginning of a Mendelssohn symphony, I’m the happiest person on Earth. So, in the end, I think it is healthy.”

ANDERS BEYER: Let’s talk a little bit about Bergen, where the Festival wishes to present a full portrait of you as an artist, as a conductor, composer and musician. Can you tell us a little about your thought process behind curating and creating programmes?

JÖRG WIDMANN: “To be honest, at our first meeting I did not have plans or ideas I wanted to present, I wanted to hear what your ideas were. When we started discussing how programming resembles composing and what combining different pieces can mean, the journey we are still on started. I strongly feel that it’s a very similar thing to composing, putting together things you would not expect at first. When you have several programmes, you can relate a certain piece in one programme to something which happens in a later programme. I love this process. It is composing.”

Widmann has performed at the Bergen Interational Festival earlier, but has only spendt a few days in the city in connection with his concert. He is looking forward to being Festival composer and artist-in-residence.

“I love the festival’s musical vision, the large variety in its programmes, and that its quality is at the highest level. In this respect, the festival is a source of inspiration to the entire Nordic region. As artist in residence, I hope to contribute to this extraordinary festival in a unique way, by in an interesting way combining music from our time with music from the past.’

Jörg Widmann
Photo: Marco Borggreve

ANDERS BEYER: And now for the big question: What do music and art mean to you in life?

JÖRG WIDMANN: “I have to answer this in a very personal way. If I could not make music anymore due to an injury, disease or something, it would be a tragedy to me. I get so much joy from the fact that I’m allowed to do these different aspects of music, of the variety of it. Sometimes on tour, I meet many people. That’s fine, but sometimes it’s nice to close the door behind you and be calm and quiet and start your new piece. I get refreshment, a new energy from it. After these lonely periods of composing, it’s like opening a window when I’m allowed to work with wonderful musicians, orchestras, choirs. So, for me, personally, it’s a necessity in life. That is the very personal answer.”

“I believe more and more, without delving too deep into it because everybody sees how our world is in a strange situation, that everybody feels, especially in a time like this, that an artist speaking to the audience through art is not less important than before, but more important I believe, even in times when you can reproduce music.”

“In a famous essay (‘Das Kunstverk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’, ed.) Walter Benjamin writes that we can reproduce using everything, at any time, I can have access the history of music any time. But this doesn’t change the importance of the life character, of the physical meeting between people, and what we will do at the Bergen International Festival. I’m not an artist who wants to build a wall between myself and the audience; I’m happy to speak to the audience after a lecture or after concerts. I’m not somebody who disappears immediately to the hotel; I’m happy about this communication and the feedback and questions, and not only positive ones, that the audience may have.”

ANDERS BEYER: When the audience has listened to you as a conductor and to your music, what would you like the them to have gained in the form of emotions and experiences?

JÖRG WIDMANN: “I can answer this very precisely, unfortunately not in my words, but in better words by Beethoven. On top of one of his most complex and I think until today least understood yet fantastic pieces of music, ‘Missa Solemnis’, he wrote – and I have to say this in German: “Von Herzen möge es wieder zu Herzen gehen”, meaning ‘It comes from the heart, may it reach out for the hearts’. That’s all I could wish for

© Anders Beyer 2019

This interview was conducted in March 2019 and talks about the original 2020 Bergen International Festival programme, before the changes caused by the corona pandemic.

For a Norwegian version please click here