Surprise and freedom

An interview with Jörg Widmann

After the Berliner Philharmoniker often performed his works, Jörg Widmann is now Composer in Residence for the 2023/24 season. He also makes his first guest appearance this evening with the orchestra as conductor and clarinetist. In our interview, he talks about the risks of a personal style and the good fortune of growing up with a violinist for a sister.

Mr Widmann, you were already composing as a child and teenager. Do you recognise yourself in your works from that time?

I remember an early piano waltz in F major. The first two bars were wonderful, what came after that, not so much. At that time, I had neither the desire nor the means to work systematically on a piece of music. But what is already present in these very early pieces is the desire for virtuosity and for the sound. That still has a strong influence on me.

What else defines your style?

When a composer or a painter does the same thing all their life, at some point it’s called their style. That has never interested me. I don’t want to repeat myself, I don’t want to get bored with myself. That’s why my pieces are often very different aesthetically. For example, if you listen to my octet and then to a noise-only piece, you might not even think that it's by the same composer. I’ll often deliberately write something completely opposite to the previous composition. Someone who looks at my music from the outside will probably discover certain specific harmonies. But it is important to me that I am always renewing myself.

Besides this desire for renewal, do you have any other artistic guidelines?

There is a book by Ferruccio Busoni that is very important for me, his Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music. When I was young, I found a sentence in it that became a kind of credo for me: “Music was born free; and to win freedom is its destiny”. That spoke to me from the soul, this opening up of the standard, the academic. I am interested in artists who go beyond that, who seek surprise. Surprise and freedom: these are the concepts that shape my artistic thinking.

How did you realise that being a composer was the right profession for you?

It happened gradually. I started playing the clarinet when I was seven and always improvised a lot. What was annoying was that the next day I often couldn’t remember what I had improvised the day before. So I had to find a way to write it down and took my first composition lessons.

You had lessons with the famous Hans Werner Henze when you were still at school. How did that happen?

Henze wanted to do a school project with our grammar school for the Biennale in Munich, and when they were looking for a composer, they came up with me. So I wrote my first one-and-a-half-hour music theatre piece when I was in year eleven and became Henze’s pupil. Henze came from opera, and things such as timing were important to him. Once he asked me how long a character on stage needed to get from A to B. I hadn’t asked myself that question at all and said uncertainly, “20 seconds?” And like a shot he answered: “Shorter!”

At the Hochschule für Musik in Karlsruhe you then had another important teacher in Wolfgang Rihm.

With Wolfgang Rihm, I had a musical dialogue. We responded to each other with pieces. When I was studying under him, he wrote a clarinet concerto for me, and I responded with my cello concerto and asked counter-questions. He then wrote over 20 pieces for clarinet for me, to which I answered him again as a performer. I learned a lot from this dialogue.

You are a composer, clarinetist, teacher and also a conductor. Isn’t such a multiple musical identity very exhausting?

Only when it comes to scheduling. These activities feed off each other. When I go on stage as a clarinetist, I don’t leave my composer identity in the dressing room. My music has something very gestural, and I think it also has that because I conduct and play an instrument that has to do with breath.

The Berliner Philharmoniker have been performing your works for over ten years. How do you see the collaboration?

I would go as far as to say that there is almost a friendship between us. As the Berliner Philharmoniker have played so many of my pieces, they know my language. I notice every time that working together becomes more natural. It is a joy to sit in on the first rehearsal and hear my own music sound more exciting and even more vibrant than I had expected. On the one hand, I have an incredible respect for the orchestra and on the other, I have the feeling that I can say anything and ask for anything. This means I can ask the first violins to play a more beautiful sound, even if we are in a stratospheric register, where other orchestras would have given up long ago.

Now the partnership has reached the next level: you are Composer in Residence for the 2023/24 season and are making your debut conducting the orchestra with your own works and Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” symphony. How did this programme come about?

I was asked to put together my own works for the first half and to propose a Classical-Romantic symphony for the second. With Mendelssohn’s symphony, I wanted a piece that means a lot to me and is not played so often. I am fascinated by how two hearts beat in Mendelssohn’s chest here: his Jewish and his Christian identity. He never formulated this as explicitly or as dramatically as he did here – with the slow movement, which for me is clearly Jewish, sinking into the G minor of the cellos and basses, and then, like a mirage, the finale appears with the Christian chorale “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”. We can see in the most beautiful way that Mendelssohn doesn’t play these identities off against each other, but shows both with all his love.

What can also be seen in this symphony is Mendelssohn’s modernity. He is not exactly considered an innovator in music historiography, but I think that’s wrong. He is one of the most refined and subtle composers there is. You just have to be willing to see his disruptions, for example in the first movement of this symphony. It sounds very much like the old style, which Mendelssohn was heavily criticised for, but I also find a lot of modernity.

Your Second Violin Concerto is also on the programme for this concert. It was written for your sister, the violinist Carolin Widmann. To what extent does this family connection inspire you?

Everything I know about string instruments I learned from my sister. She practised in the next room and I asked her questions about it. Such as: “What kind of modern piece are you playing? It sounds completely weird.” But it wasn’t modern at all, it was a caprice etude by Eugène Ysaÿe, from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. My sister showed me how to play it and said, “It sounds harder than it is”. Then I wrote an etude about it myself, which became a basis for the finale in the Second Violin Concerto.

That’s how we exchanged musical ideas when we were young. I composed at night and left notes with questions for her at breakfast: “What happens if you turn the violin around and play with the greatest pressure at a certain spot?” Then a note would come with an answer that usually started with, “You’re crazy!” And then she would explain to me that what I had asked for couldn’t be done. But she had found something else through trial and error. And so we developed sounds together that didn’t exist before. This is reflected in the first movement of the Second Violin Concerto, which is entitled Una ricerca, “A Search”. It is a survey of the possibilities of this wonderful instrument.

This opening to your residency is followed by further performances of your works with the orchestra, including the world premiere of a horn concerto, and there is chamber music and a Late Night concert. What for you has to happen to feel that this collaboration has ultimately been a success?

You can’t and shouldn’t plan that in detail. It would be nice if a portrait of my music emerges, with its many different components and aesthetic styles. But I’m not thinking about what result we will achieve in the end. I look forward to every single one of these projects and will throw myself into it with joy and enthusiasm. What comes out of it, we just don’t know – which is wonderful!

The interview was conducted by Tobias Möller

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