Back in 2017, Peter Eötvös impressed London audiences with a double bill of his "one act masterpiece" Senza sangue and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle at Hackney Empire. For his concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra this February, the Hungarian composer and conductor pairs, again, Bartók as well as Schoenberg and Stravinsky with one of his own works: Multiversum, a room-filling sound experience that explores the universe and what lies beyond.

Bachtrack: In February, you conduct the UK premiere of Multiversum, for orchestra, organ and Hammond organ, which “explores the nature of the universe and what lies beyond”. What is this work about and how did you come to compose it? Describe the orchestral textures you conjure.

Peter Eötvös: New terms, like parallel worlds, string theory, black holes, Multiversum… are very important information for me, and they’ve formed my way of seeing the cosmos in the last few years. In string theory, I see the basis of musical vibrations. The idea of the Multiversum adds to my pluralistic conception of shape in my compositions. In 1961, after Gagarin’s first flight into space, I was so fascinated by how the world had opened up around me that I named my Opus 1 for piano “Kosmos”. Back then I was 17 years old and I’ve been thinking about how to translate the idea of the cosmos into a gigantic ambient sound ever since.

The Hammond organ isn’t a familiar feature in the standard orchestra. Why the Hammond? What qualities about the instrument inspired you to employ it in Multiversum?

Multiversum is written for two solo instruments and orchestra, for two instruments of the same family: the traditional organ with its rich but static colours and the modern Hammond, which can continuously change colours. It was very important for me that the sound of the two organs could completely wrap around the audience, like we imagine the cosmos envelops us. The traditional organ sounds from the front, the Hammond from the back. If we visualise the two organs as our galaxy, then the different groups of the orchestra can represent different galaxies. That’s how the “Universe” becomes the “Multiversum”.

How do you alter the traditional orchestral seating arrangements in this piece?

I rearranged the stage the following way: all the strings are on the left side, woodwinds on the right, and behind both groups are the brass players, and behind them are four percussionists. The conductor and the soloists are in front, together with a celesta.

How do you set about the task of composition? Do you have a standard process? Working at a keyboard… or a computer? How does a composition develop over time?

I have a Hammond organ in my studio, so I could experiment with the sounds. I always write the score with pencils, and the rubber has to be used quite often. My orchestral works are as distinctive as my operas. They are full of colours and have a narrative, often dramatic, character.

Describe your orchestral sound world. How far is your music influenced by the great Hungarian composers of the past?

When I began my musical studies at 4-5 years old, Bach, Mozart and Bartók were the first composers I got to know and, at the time, I could play their easy piano pieces. In the last seven decades as a conductor, I gained a wide knowledge of both the traditional and contemporary music literature. I consider Bartók’s music my “musical mother tongue”. I still have a very close relationship with Mozart: As preparation for my first opera, Three Sisters, I studied the dramaturgy of Mozart’s operas. Schoenberg and Stravinsky are also part of my big family.

In the first half of the programme with the Philharmonia, you conduct works by Schoenberg, Bartók and Stravinsky. Why these composers and how far do their works prepare the audience for Multiversum?

When the honoured audience hears Bach’s Toccata in D minor at the start of Multiversum, it hears correctly: this work starts with the Big Bang of the organ literature.

What qualities do you admire in the Philharmonia?

I’m very much looking forward to performing my Multiversum with the Philharmonia. The wonderful organ and the wide stage are extremely beneficial to present the idea of the Multiversum both visually and acoustically.

I’ve been waiting for a long time to play with the Philharmonia Orchestra again. I will never forget the beautiful sound, the technical perfection, the friendly encounters when I conducted the Symphony of Psalms and my own work, Chinese Opera. The performance of my violin concerto “DoReMi”, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, at the Proms 2013 is also unforgettable.


Interview sponsored by the Philharmonia Orchestra


Translated into English by Elisabeth Schwarz.