“The composer is not very personal when they compose. They are a medium. So the world goes through you. And it is our life. It is not only my life. It should belong to all of us.” Detlev Glanert is a warm and relaxed presence, but intensely serious about what he does. “There’s a certain point where the composer has to disappear behind their work. The listeners should forget me and communicate with the piece. When it’s over, they can remember me. But the personal life or the personal experience of composers don’t belong to the work itself.”

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Detlev Glanert
© Bettina Stoess

Though his work is not heard much in the UK, Detlev Glanert is one of Europe’s leading composers. Born in Hamburg in 1960, Glanert studied composition with Hans Werner Henze in Cologne, and with Oliver Knussen in Tanglewood. In his forty-year career, he’s written concerti, symphonies, operas, and large orchestral pieces, many during his time as composer-in-residence for the Concertgebouw Orchestra 2011–17. Glanert’s Prague Symphony: Lyric Fragments after Franz Kafka is one of fourteen new commissions resulting from Semyon Bychkov’s tenure as chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. Originally scheduled for a premiere at the Rudolfinum in March 2021, and postponed due to the pandemic, the piece will finally receive its premiere this December.

During a video conversation this October, we begin by discussing his relationship with Bychkov, which dates back sixteen years, when Bychkov discovered Glanert’s piece Theatrum Bestiarum and programmed it for the WDR Symphony Orchestra. Since then they’ve enjoyed an uninterrupted relationship. “When he became chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic,” Glanert explains, “Bychkov decided very quickly to introduce me to the Czechs”. The process was planned in three stages: a performance of Weites Land, a performance of Glanert’s Requiem für Hieronymous Bosch, and a new commission, what became the Prague Symphony. Though the Requiem was and the world premiere was “killed by Covid”, Glanert has high hopes for the new work. “My experience with the Czech Philharmonic so far has been really wonderful, because the Czechs are not only able to play a new piece with the right notes – which is always a good thing! – but they can play the soul of it, the essence of it. They are really born musicians in a very deep way.”

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Semyon Bychkov and Detlev Glanert at the London premiere of Requiem für Hieronymus Bosch, Dec 2019
© BBC / Mark Allen

Profiles of Glanert often cite Mahler and Ravel as key influences. “This is a quotation from an interview I did forty years ago,” Glanert laughs, “and it’s stayed glued to me ever since!” Today, Glanert has found his own voice: what he calls “a different sort of power”, where pounding climaxes alternate with passages of eerie stillness. Scored for orchestra and two voices – bass-baritone and mezzo-soprano – the Prague Symphony sets twelve song fragments of texts taken from Kafka’s journals, letters and novels. “The piece”, Glanert comments, “is one big symphonic movement, in three parts, separated by two orchestral interludes. It is a psychological landscape, where two people tell us something about ourselves: a story of life from the very beginning to the end, plus all human circumstances you can imagine: being witty, the pain of violence, happiness, and so on.”

As influences, Glanert names Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, as well as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. These works are, significantly, works by Jewish composers, in which both Zemlinsky and Mahler reflect on the condition of the outsider, through settings of Rabindranath Tagore and Ming Dynasty poets respectively. In his writing, Kafka likewise masters the German language from the position of the outsider. “Like nobody else in the 20th century”, Glanert remarks, “he was able to play around with the between-meanings: between the words and between the lines. He was one of the very few writers who could already sense the catastrophes of the 20th century.” Glanert’s Kafka – like that of Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s earlier Kafka Fragments – is not quite the Kafka we’re familiar with. “The funny thing is,” Glanert comments, “nearly nobody knows that he wrote poems, texts between forms, distributed across his diaries and in his sketchbooks and letters. Some of them were very important for him: he gave copies to people before he died. You have to recognize”, Glanert continues, “that he is also the master of the very small form: only two lines or four lines. He’s able to build up a world”.

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Drawing by Franz Kafka
© Public Domain | National Library of Israel

How does Glanert work these fragments into a larger structure? “What I try to do is to embed these fragments – the song feeling, the song form – within the larger symphonic form.” In this, Glanert is influenced by Mahler – “he is working with allusions, citations and other things and combining them together” – and by the “melodic cells” of late Beethoven. “If you look over Beethoven’s late string quartets”, he observes, “there are some cells of four notes, five notes and Beethoven created huge forms from them.”

“Many works of the ancients have become fragments”, wrote Friedrich Schlegel in 1798. “Many modern works are fragments as soon as they are written.” Listening to the opening of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Glanert has remarked, “you can already hear the terrible future of the western world”. “Today, I sometimes doubt if a composer can express political meanings like, say, Hanns Eisler, because the secureness of political positions does not exist so much anymore. But I think a good composer, like Mahler, can sense the developments of the society in the future and compose their meanings to that. The composer should do that! I used Kafka in this symphony, not because I was so fascinated by the early 20th century, but because it counts today.”

To write political music means writing music that speaks to the future. At the same time, Glanert emphasizes the importance of the European music tradition from which he’s emerged. “I have no problems with my ancestors, because I rely on them: I am standing on their shoulders. But I’m living now and here in our time, in the 21st century, and so it goes both ways, backwards and forwards.” Placing oneself in a tradition in this way is also to recognise that no composer is ever alone. In music’s history lies its communal power.

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Hans Werner Henze, Glanert’s teacher, rehearsing in Montepulciano in the 1970s
© Paolo Barcucci

Glanert remarks on the importance of a tradition of twentieth-century German dissident music – Hans Werner Henze, Karl-Amadeus Hartmann, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann – which rejected both neoclassicism and serialism, while demonstrating anti-fascist political commitment. “I don’t believe that a secure way to the future exists”, Glanert remarks. “Everybody has to invent it by themselves again and again. Given this, I have always had a very big sympathy for these dissidents. All my teachers, everyone I love are dissidents. All the music I love is by dissidents.” As a teenager, he went to see Zimmerman’s shattering opera Die Soldaten sixteen times, so struck was he by this work. Later, in his composition lessons with Henze, whom he recalls as “scrupulous, very careful, technically fantastic”, he learned the mechanics of opera – how to write for the voice, and for the “reality of the stage”. “But he was also the first teacher I had who started aesthetic and political discussions about the role of the composer. What should we do in our society today?”

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Detlev Glanert teaching at Montepulciano
© Irene Trancossi

In 1976, Henze set up an annual festival, the Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte, in the medieval hill town of Montepulciano in Southern Tuscany. The festival mixed amateurs and professionals; having taught there for a number of years, Glanert was artistic director from 2009–11. “The festival is wonderful”, Glanert exclaims. “It survived all problems. And it is completely communistic! Nobody is paid, only your travel and your accommodation is covered.” This “communistic” arrangement also informs Glanert’s thinking on concert programming.

“Forget the composers!”, he jokes. “I always had the idea that never to mention the name of composers when we are in a concert. Because there’s still much egoism going around in the in the music world. I would prefer concerts with no soloist names, no composer names, no conductor names, just music. Of course, it’s utopian. I know we are all human beings!” In the best of circumstances, “the composer”, Glanert observes, “is very isolated, by themselves. Normally, I sit down at home alone”. During multiple Covid lockdowns, however, he realized just how vital the social dimension of music continues to be. “I learned a lot about myself, for example that composing is not so important for me, but that performances are. All all these cancelled performances gave me the feeling that I was completely silent. I want to be heard. I have to listen to the real physical sound. I missed this enormously.”

As well as the Prague Symphony, Glanert has written a new opera for Semperoper Dresden, based on Franz Grillparzer’s The Jewess of Toledo, scheduled for 2024. As we speak, he is finishing a new cello concerto for Johannes Moser, to be premiered in Luxembourg and Cologne. “Forget this streaming, forget all these CDs”, he concludes. “Live performance is the only true thing in this world!” This liveness remains central to what Glanert does: to the weight of history and the social necessity of music as collective, living force. The Prague Symphony promises to affirm this mission once again.

This article was sponsored by the Czech Philharmonic.