After finishing a composition, Jörg Widmann’s mind is often already getting filled with new ideas. His rich scores contain musical and historical reminiscences mixed with his own inventions. He writes skilfully, constantly playing with idioms. “I always have lots of ideas about melodies, rhythms and form, but making decisions and overcoming my doubts can cost me months! You start something and it develops a life of its own.” When I ask how he would describe his own work in the context of existing musical styles and trends he replies: “Once, when Hans Werner Henze was asked ‘Where do you stand?’ he answered: ‘Everyone stands somewhere else.’ That’s exactly how I feel, too.”

Jörg Widmann
© Marco Borggreve

As a teenager, Widmann had two idols whose portraits adorned the walls of his room: Pierre Boulez and Miles Davis. At seven, he had started playing the clarinet but soon became totally absorbed by playing keyboard in his school band. His parents were both amateur musicians who played in a string quartet at their home; he drove them crazy by listening for hours to Sting’s An Englishman in New York – the same bar over and over again to learn the chords so that he could write out the music for the other band members. Widmann’s keyboard was a Yamaha DX7 (the first successful digital synthesizer and one of the best-selling synthesizers in history). “I was very attached to that instrument,” he says, “and back then, for two or three years, it was more precious to me than all my other musical activities. But in the end, fate decided otherwise: my precious instrument was stolen after a performance. Although I was heartbroken at that time, today, I think of this theft as a blessing because it made me concentrate again on my classical career.”

While still at school, Widmann wrote his first opera, Absences, which was performed at the Munich Biennale founded by Henze, who encouraged him to stay on track as a composer. Now, just over thirty years later, his full-length oratorio Arche, a massive work in five parts which demands at least 200 musicians and singers on stage, will be performed at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 12th November. It was written for the spectacular opening of the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg in January 2017. The premiere was a big success, but although there were plans to have Arche reprised in Hamburg for the fifth anniversary of the hall's opening, these were cancelled because of Covid-19, as was a planned performance by the Munich Philharmonic last year. As a result, the upcoming performance in Amsterdam is only the second performance ever of Widmann’s magnum opus. 

Jörg Widmann
© Marco Borggreve

Arche is Widmann’s second collaboration with German-Dutch philosopher and writer Peter Sloterdijk (their first was the opera Babylon in 2012). Besides texts by Sloterdijk, the oratorio contains writings by Claudius, Klabund, Heine, Andersen, Brentano, Schiller, Franz von Assisi, Nietzsche, Schimmelpfennig, Thomas von Celano, Michelangelo and the Bible. 

The work begins with Fiat Lux (“Let there be light”), in which two children describe the act of creation. “We tell the well known myth anew from the perspective of early Christianity. In the beginning there was the light. They were fascinated of the idea of humans as bringers of light. But then, there was the Gospel of John saying: In the beginning there was the Word. This was a completely different concept of the beginning and therefore confusing; in Arche, we deal with this contrast. It is told by children in order to underline the purity of the story.”

The second block Sintflut deals with the Flood. Widmann explains: “It’s fascinating that you can find the story of Noah’s Ark not only in the Christian and Jewish tradition, but that it is already mentioned in the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh. It was the world’s first genocide, when God decided to destroy mankind and only save one couple of each species. What cruelty! The Gilgamesh says that even the Babylonian Gods crouched on a rock and trembled when the Flood came.” Enormous masses of clusters of tones resound, making the violence of this movement about destruction almost physically palpable.

The third movement, Liebe, is the main part of the work. When the lyrical praise of love fades, there follows a horrific account of a double murder stemming from jealousy. Widmann, who is extremely fond of poetry, explains why he chose Klabund’s poem Eifersucht: “In this poem Klabund tells the story of a crime of passion with a weapon made of sunlight (Sonnendolch). Klabund describes jealousy as a holy flame naturally following the extreme bliss of passionate love. To emphasise this idealistic concept even more, I also use a quote from Michelangelo: ‘I am not dead, I am just swapping rooms.’”

As the love scene continues, the text “I love you” is introduced underneath the Latin Dies irae text. “I composed it as a verse song. On my search for a text fitting for the refrain, I was looking for words which would be in line with my personal difficulties with the Book of Debts in the Latin text. I searched for a long time until the first draft of Schiller's Ode to Joy fell into my hands. And there it was: the sentence ‛Unser Schuldbuch sei vernichtet, ausgesöhnt die ganze Welt’ (Let our book of debts be destroyed and the whole world be reconciled). I immediately knew I had found my text. My Dies irae ends with the sentence that starts Arche: ‛Es werde Licht’ (Let there be light).”

Arche ends with a fifth movement Dona nobis pacem where a children’s choir raps through an ABC of words of war. “In this scene, I imagined children playing war,” Widmann continues. “Let’s not allow God to be used as our one excuse: we ourselves must take responsibility for our survival.”

Jörg Widmann
© Marco Borggreve

When I ask about his Liebeslied, which will be performed by the Ensemble Modern in the NTR ZaterdagMatinee in an all-Widmann programme on 10th December, he agrees that on first hearing, the listener will feel to be on the wrong track – the music is not sweet, but rough and loud. He explains one of the ways in which he approaches a new composition: “I often work with Schwesternstücken [Sister or companion pieces]. In the case of my Liebeslied, I had the Schiller quote “Süßer Amor verweile im melodischen Flug” (Sweet Cupid, dwell in melodic flight) as a first poetical inspiration. After I had written Teufel Amor for the Vienna Philharmonic, I still had many ideas left and I wanted to use this material to highlight another side of love. But through all the roughness in Liebeslied, you will also discover islands of hope.”

He continues: “Furthermore, I like to compose in cycles of works. Take my Labyrinth cycle for example: in 2005, I composed the first Labyrinth for 48 string instruments. The work was commissioned by Kent Nagano and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. A melodic thread is introduced, but soon gets lost: the labyrinth walker seeking an exit is soon completely on his own. The piece is told from his perspective. I have written other Labyrinth pieces for the SWR Symphonieorchester and Hans Zender, the WDR Sinfonieorchester, the Boulez Ensemble and last year a trumpet concerto for Håkan Hardenberger and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.”

When I ask what he is currently working on, Widmann shows me the first bars of Tartaros (Labyrinth VII), which will be first performed at the same concert as Liebeslied in Amsterdam in December. It is commissioned by the ZaterdagMatinee and written for the Ensemble Modern, one of Widmann’s favourite ensembles (he uses the German word Klangkörper, which literally means “sound-emitting bodies”). “I have already made decisions about chord progression, rhythm and instrumentation for this new work. It was written for 13 instruments (three strings, seven winds, piano and two percussion). But because it is about the Primeval Hell, I dropped the two violins from it, just two days ago. That makes it even harder for the musicians because the lower strings will have to give their utmost best to stay audible against the wind instruments. Being the conductor myself, I know we will face immense difficulties.”

“Take Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie, Op.9, as an example. Most of the time the strings are too soft, even with two violins on board. How many really satisfying performances of this this piece have you ever heard? Still, I had no choice!” In the midst of our conversation, Widmann walks to his grand piano to play Schoenberg’s last chords. After that he plays the beginning and then the slow movement. He plays and talks enthusiastically, visibly in his element. I am overwhelmed by his witty and powerful music demonstration. “For the further elaboration of this piece I am following my instinct,” he says. “But still the formal decisions are what I find most difficult and time consuming in my work as a composer.” 

When I finally ask him whether he listens more to his intellect or his heart when composing, Widmann answers with a quote from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. When a female friend suggested that Rilke could profit greatly from seeing Freud, he replied: “I am afraid to lose my creativity when I fully understand it.” 

This article was sponsored by NTR ZaterdagMatinee.