The Breath of the World - Ernst von Siemens Music Prize-Winner Aribert Reimann

By Volker Hagedorn 

The wide, open skies above Berlin become transparent at the edge of the city in the southwest. Aribert Reimann gazes from here towards the Aegean, and further, to Lanzarote; but close by he can still see the sky glowing above Potsdam. Looking from up here through the large window across and beyond the Grunewald, eras come together. A spiral staircase leads to a spacious tower room. Silence has fallen on the yellow-white sheets that are spread out – neither chaotically nor meticulously – on the desk and on the divan. It is as if they had only just flattered in bearing their delicate pencil sketches. They will not remain silent, however. A baby will scream, a new-born whose mother has just died. “The screaming is endless, it is a chord that builds up layer for layer, becoming stronger and stronger”, it is made up of piercing woodwind multiphonics. This is the sound Aribert Reimann heard the moment he saw the text.

Which text? That remains his secret for the moment. Glimpses into such an early creative phase are in any case rare. The composer has embarked once again on a new journey, in a new direction, not even one year since Medea left him. Those who saw Reimann in autumn 2009, exhausted, fulfilled, relieved after three years with this woman who had dragged him into her 2500 year-old story with the words “Back! Away!”, sensed that this opera would have a great impact, and that, a little more than thirty years after his international breakthrough with Lear, the composer had succeeded in creating the distant, other, female counterpart to Shakespeare’s king. An unfathomable figure, different to Lear in becoming growing stronger the more impossible escape becomes. The first performance of Medea at the Vienna State Opera was more than just a success; it was a revolutionary breakthrough for the conservative palace of the muses in the Ringstraße. It wasn’t only the European critics who appeared in full numbers. The new music drew in new audiences.

“You composed it. But she’s ours now”, the Viennese had said to him proudly about Medea for the composer not only the highest compliment, but also cause for relief. Medea is no longer his responsibility, just as the figures from his other seven operas have become independent: die Trojan queen Hecuba, the fairy-tale child Melusine, Kafka’s land surveyor, the hitherto 78 individuals and their worlds Reimann has set to music since 1965 when he wrote his first opera Traumspiel. Lear has been produced and interpreted 22 times since the first performance. Reimann, who never sought the attention of the music business, who ignored trends, and is neither a flashy show-off nor a mysterious extremist whose quirks are popular with the media, is one of the most successful opera composers there is. And at the same time he doesn’t make it easy for anybody.

Marlis Petersen, for whom he wrote Medea, was frustrated by a passage with “incredibly wild coloratura garlands and thousands of accidentals” and asked the composer if the madness could be articulated more freely. “Then he showed me a chord in the trumpets, 20 pages earlier and said: you split this up into a melody, each tone has its place, it all has to be sung with great precision.” Scores offering little more than such complexities are no rarity. Reimann goes deeper. The compositional detail is the consequence of empathy. He lives and feels with his figures, just as Gustave Flaubert did, who could taste the poison Emma Bovary was taking even as he wrote. Reimann, however, is not “like God in his creation” (Flaubert), he follows the composition as it comes into being. “It happens during the piece, there’s nothing I can do about it”, he says.

Reimann writes almost all his libretti himself. While reading the texts he uses for them, he hears and notes sounds; however things do change during composition. “The result is a structure with which I have to work. With its help I pursue my ideas.” The tension between vision and structure results in – indeed it necessitates – lonely, exposed lines. Often, one has the impression it couldn’t be any different, even though one senses that the coherence follows a path somebody had to find first. A network of such paths seems to organically connect Reimann’s various worlds, and one characteristic of the vocal lines is conspicuous very early. In the Kinderlieder, settings of poems by Werner Reinert composed in 1961, the vocal lines sometimes leap bizarrely and jaggedly; and sometimes they are bent into narrow intervals, cadence-like and expansive, fathoming the very borders of language.

Reimann’s very first composition is a solo for voice. At the age of 10 he composes an unaccompanied song, inspired by the boy soprano in Kurt Weill’s children’s opera Der Jasager, which he memorised in two days. He also receives stimulation from the singing lessons his mother Irmgard gives to budding professionals, and from his father Wolfgang, who is the director of the Berliner Staats- und Domchor. Bach, Schubert and vocal exercises are Reimann’s “daily bread” during his childhood. His compositional experiments are welcomed, there is no need to struggle against intolerant and uncomprehending parents. The overwhelming war-time experiences, however, will never leave him. Born in Berlin in 1936, he lost his brother in an air raid, experienced the destruction of Potsdam, to where the family had fled from Berlin, and endured the subsequent flight from village to village. To this day, his music deals with these traumatic experiences: “there are lots of situations when it catches up with you.”

When Reimann is twelve years old his parents take him to a performance of Paul Hindemith’s Mathis. The realistic representation of the Peasant Wars and the burning villages horrify him, and he is reminded of the flight from the Russians just a few years before. “We were half a day ahead of the Russians, and when we reached a village in the evening we could see the village from the morning in flames. I remember crying the whole way from the opera to Zehlendorf in the S-Bahn after the performance. I couldn’t tell the difference.” Later he had to admit the horrific experiences of his childhood into his music, especially in the reduced, burnt sounds in the opera Troades and in the fire that, as it were, ignites a palace from out of Medea’s head, a hot-cold change from pain into vertical motives which displace each other in wild pursuit.

Anyone who thinks this is a confirmation of the clichéd “suffering composer” – like those journalists who asked Reimann whether he was able to laugh or not – reduces his (operatic) art to an unambiguity which is similarly foreign to it as it is to the music of Mozart, the composer whom he “admires most”. Reimann was also perceived as a conservative in comparison to the avant-garde, which was largely defined by Boulez and Nono. That his libretti are based on dramas or (as in the case of Kafka) dramatized texts of great writers from Shakespeare to Lorca, was sufficient to accuse him of producing “Literaturoper”. Today, this concept refers to the musical adaptation of literary texts, but until the 1990s it was used to attack “linear narrative structure” and adherence to the bookshelf of the educated classes. “I’m glad I persevered”, says Reimann. “I need at least the plot structure, the human conflict in music. And I can only write in the language that I AM.”

Nobody helped him on his way to this language more than his teacher Boris Blacher, who on the one hand encouraged him, even if it was only four bars of a violin sonata, while also “telling me off because of my preference for ostinato, saying, let’s cut this movement up into pieces, try and mix them up.” He inspired his student “to develop a formal restlessness, from which one can create overarching forms.” He didn’t encourage vocal music, on the contrary, “He said, you have written too many songs. Leave text and head for absolute music. You mustn’t let yourself be inspired by the imagery of a text! That was very important to me.” When working on an opera he distances himself from the text, too. “I read the text and engage with it. It becomes part of me and I forget it. And then I compose and put the text back in again.”

In the most intimate scene of Reimann’s early, second opera, Melusine which he wrote when he was 35 years old, one has the impression that it is actually the small orchestra which “makes” the love between Graf von Lusignan and Melusine, it breathes in chordal layers, calmly changing constellations of colours and intervals, creating an erotic intensity which is all the more pure for the immense distance these movements keep from any stereotyped love scene or atmospheric evocations. With their elaborate and concrete materiality they exhibit the constancy of a landscape. The composer has the pair sing poetry by Yvan Goll, first in turn and then together (as in Monteverdi’s Poppea), their lines as hesitant as they are certain in finding their way in this respiration. Neither before nor since has Reimann written a comparable “love duet”, which is unique in other ways, too. There is something in this duet which guides us into, and through, the sadness of love.

Reimann combines a structural, strongly orchestral approach with a sensitivity for the voice incomparable to any other composer – later this becomes more pronounced with each opera. Not only did he grow up with voices and with the large vocal repertoire they practised; when he was 22 he became Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s répétiteur and accompanist, and later to other renowned soloists such as Catherine Gayer, for whom Melusine was written. This meant not only that he was not dependent on the financial success of his compositions. It also refined his sensibility for the possibilities and limits of singing, and protected him from the autism of the purely creative artist. “I needed the reproductive approach to music: to turn myself off and take a step back, to try to understand someone else. And that’s why I enjoy teaching so much, too.”

The partnership with Fischer-Dieskau culminated in one of the greatest operatic successes of the late 20th century, Lear, which had been too much for Giuseppe Verdi. Reimann, 41 years old, wrote the title role for “his” baritone. The better the orchestra comes to terms with the score, the more pronounced is the autonomy from the libretto, which Claus H. Henneberg adapted from Shakespeare. That a critic could experience Lear as “background music to the plot”, as was the case a decade ago, is unimaginable today. It is astonishing how we are led down into the depths right at the very beginning; how stringently the vocal lines result from this; and how the orchestra becomes a whole world. It is as if the brutal blocks of sound, the filigree dreams, the bronze pangs of pain, and the intense lamentations are connected with the fundamental layer, which makes any differences between the epochs fade away.

“I couldn’t have stood it any longer”, the composer wrote when he was finished. He had to recover from Lear, “a song cycle and a string trio helped me find my way.” With tidal regularity operatic works are followed by smaller formats. Reimann has composed many non-scenic vocal works – from song cycles for solo voice such as Eingedunkelt (settings of Paul Celan), to the Requiem for soloists, choir and orchestra. The largest group of works are the approximately 70 pieces for voice and piano which made Reimann the saviour of the song, amongst other things because they re-invent the genre. The extensive library in Reimann’s apartment is the library of a reader who looks for the background to the words. Like in Shine and dark (1989) for baritone and piano left hand, a cycle which lets the early poems of James Joyce appear exposed to the enormous importance of the later Joyce and are compressed into intense urgency. The artificial reverts to the archaic, which one understands almost intuitively.

Something similar can be experienced in his instrumental music, which is, however, completely different. Aribert Reimann has written about 40 works of “absolute” music, their abstraction seems sometimes to follow an opposing concept to his communicative vocal music: driven up into thin air elusive, finely interwoven. For Reimann vocal and purely instrumental composition are “completely separate. They are on two different levels. A literary work as background to an instrumental work would be an extended tone-poem, that’s not something I can work with.” However, instrumental works demonstrate traces of operatic work or anticipate it. The string trio with which he “recovered” from Lear and whose block structures are dissipated in filigree complexity demonstrates a scenic approach. And the violin concerto for Gidon Kremer, in which the soloist has to struggle as if confronted with insurmountable walls, seems to be the distilment of an aspect of Das Schloss based on Franz Kafka, which Reimann had completed a short time before.

The hopelessness, which in the opera is comic in a grotesque way, is almost relentless in the violin concerto. “It was a long process distancing myself from Das Schloss,”, Reimann confesses, “it pursued me relentlessly.” After Bernarda Albas Haus Reimann had to “liberate” himself with an orchestral work, too. Die oppressive opera after Federico García Lorca limits the solo parts to female voices and the orchestra to winds without horns, Cellos and four pianos, partly prepared with rubber between the strings. “It was very difficult finding my way out of this acoustic claustrophobia, I could hardly compose at all.” The path back to an orchestral timbre led him to the “Zeit-Inseln” (2004), whose glittering string layers and wind flourishes point to a distant horizon. “Without that I could never had written Medea.”

And now? Aribert Reimann is abandoning the tidal rhythm of ebb and flow. Ignoring other genres, he is composing opera again. The chordal cry of a newly-born in his tower room in Berlin is part of a work “which is taking me completely away from the approach to opera I have had up until now.” Three pieces by Maurice Maeterlinck, he reveals so much, three one-act pieces, in which the people are like chess figures meeting up “with no emotion whatsoever”, whose “inner vibrational state” is left to the orchestra. An experiment, an abstraction? It is as if Reimann doesn’t want to identify with his figures this time. He is interested in the situation, in which “something is dictated by invisible unapproachable people. That brings us into the present.” He wants to compose the end so that “you have the feeling that, somewhere, not here, there is hope. Another, distant world.”