"I can only set material to music when it has something to do with our day and age."

The interview was conducted in Berlin on April 11th 2011 by Swiss musicologist Thomas Meyer.

Thomas Meyer: I would like to start by talking about the creative process in opera. How do you approach a project like this? Is it the material that interests you first or a wish voiced by the commissioning party? 

Aribert Reimann: Each time it is a little different. It starts with the commission. I often have something in the back of my mind and then I say: if you are interested in this point and that we can talk about it. With Das Schloss, for instance, when Götz Friedrich asked me I had a few projects in mind I had always wanted to do that he did not necessarily accept. Then when I came up with Kafka’s Schloss – that I had once seen on stage in a fantastic production by Rudolf Noelte while still at school – he was very enthusiastic. It was similar with Medea when I was approached by Ioan Holender: at first I did not know what I wanted to do but there was a character that had been haunting me for a long while – Medea. I also wanted to go back to ancient theater but approach it from a different angle, not like Euripides …

TM…whose Trojan Women or Troades you set to music.

AR: I felt the need to write a female counter to Lear. Then when I received this commission I thought long and hard. And when I spoke about it to a friend, Klaus Schultz – a dramatist back then for Lear in Munich and later curator of the Gärtnerplatztheater – and spoke again about Medea he asked: “Have you ever read Grillparzer’s Medea?” I had not. In Germany people always avoided Grillparzer. Before going to Vienna I read the play and then I knew: Either that or nothing at all. Ioan Holender jumped on the idea. What was strange is that while working on MedeaGrillparzer was suddenly being staged all over Germany. I watched one production but after that I was so involved in composing I did not want to see any others. However, I did feel I was on the right track with this material. 

I can only set material to music when it has something to do with our day and age and I think nowadays we can really relate, especially to Medea. We are familiar with the problems of migration. In no other version of Medea is this character developed as a foreigner as much as it is in Grillparzer’s: she is not accepted and people obstruct her. I found this so exciting that I decided to set it to music. Years before I had read many other versions but could not relate to them at all. There is a second aspect that particularly sets Grillparzer apart here: he is the only one who wrote about the return of the Golden Fleece. His play ends with Medea going to Delphi returning the fleece and waiting there for her judgment. It was this combination that really touched me: Our world is full of goods stolen in war still unreturned to their rightful owners. In fact, when I get a commission request I always use material that has interested me for a long time already. For instance, with Troades when I received a second commission eight years after Lear in Munich I thought to myself: for once I have to write an opera against war and in favor of survival. Troades arose from this idea. So the material did not come as a coincidence. I can only process it if it concerns us or myself in our day and age, otherwise I cannot transpose it.

TMAre you also interested in the political aspect? 

AR: People have tried to emphasize me as a political composer. I have always fought against this perception as it is too one-sided. On the other hand, obviously when I translate something into music it is always about material that impacts us all – which therefore does make it very political, especially with Medea and Lear.

TMYou edited the libretto for Medea yourself. I assume that here initially a condensation and concentration process takes place and that you get a feel for the characters without music.

AR: With Lear I was not able to write the libretto yet. Claus Henneberg did a wonderful job. I was not experienced enough yet, although we obviously talked everything through together as you do: as a composer I had a number of must-haves I wanted to keep. After Melusine this was our second opera. For Troades I had Gerd Albrecht at my side because we both studied Ancient Greek at school. Gerd made his version and I made mine and then we compared notes. From then on I did my own librettos, also for Das Schloss. With Medea, especially, it was very important for me to see if I could actually access this material in musical terms. I read Grillparzer’s entire Golden Fleece trilogy from start to finish and in Medea I included a few details from the other plays. I worked my way through the text asking myself what I need and what don’t? By the end of the second scene I had so much music in my head that I thought to myself: I will never come out the other end – I have to do it now. Because of this I then also tried to think myself into this text. 

With thirty pages of text I then went into composition and came out again with 22. I did cut out a great deal while still in the composition phase and changed quite a lot around, as the music dictates the path you have to take. At some point a process kicks in where the music takes you by the hand. This takes time, with Medea it took about 9 months. But then you know what you still need and what text you don’t anymore. This is very important. Which was why it was best in the last operas to take this path myself, even with Bernarda Albas Haus. As this process develops the musical work already more or less starts in the sub-conscious. When I work on a text I already know what the music should look like, what kind of combinations might arise, where the main focus is and from this I can already lay down the desired dramatic objectives without losing sight of the bigger picture.

TMA composer once told me he needs a text that leaves enough leeway for him to slip his music in. Is that an apt description to your mind?

AR: First of all, the text must be suitable for composition. This is very pronounced with Grillparzer because his language already has a great deal to do with ours. The play projects far out beyond his age into ours. There is a wonderful essay by Marie Luise Kaschnitz that discusses just this point. Secondly, the text must be permeable. I reduce it to a minimum so I can set some focal points to let the music unfold. I then always forget the text and the music develops independently in my mind and I finally insert it back into the composition. So I do not wrestle from one movement to the next, with the music accompanying me at my side. It has to be the other way round: the music takes its path until I know the moment has now come again for me to add another movement. What’s more, the language has to be brief. For instance, with Bernarda Albas Haus Enrique Beck’s translation is good but not that good. Yet this has one great advantage: it is also brief like the language of Federico García Lorca. Other translations – Strindberg’s Ghost Sonatas or Troades – are so rambling and full of subordinate clauses it is quite impossible to set them to music. Back then with Lorca I made my own version which I then cut down. The movements should only be headings for the music. As soon as long streams of text are written it’s over! Then it is impossible to find your way back into the music.

TMSo you would not like to set circuitous Wagnerian texts to music?

AR: No, I would definitely find that impossible. Basically, Wagner had a totally different sense of time.

TMYou differentiate sense of time. In your works one important aspect seems to be how you extend and also condense different moments.

AR: This often happens because the text has to provide the keywords so the music can develop. Then I can expand the music and shape a larger construct where the text only chips in from time to time. In moments where I have to condense the music there is more text in continuous succession. So because of the music and thinking in musical terms your sense of time here is entirely different to when you just have the text in front of you.

TMThis proved to work very successfully in Medea, for instance in the character of Medea’s nurse Gora. With her monologues (for example at the beginning) time opens up for reflection; afterwards the drama then condenses again.

AR: Grillparzer, who actually wanted to write an anti-Euripides play, did still pick up on the ancient form where the monologue comes at the beginning to explain the background to the story. In Troades this is Hecabe’s long monologue and in Medea it is Gora’s. I shortened it a great deal – in the play it is much longer – but here I extended the entire musical material that I used afterwards. Gora touches on things that are referred to later – which meant I was able to create the right exposition here. I ask myself what part of this musical material can I use later on? What will I use for further variation and what will I leave out? I actually put more composition into Gora’s monologue to then pick up on it again and further it by means of a kind of variation technique.

TMYou also focus heavily on warmth and coldness of sound. At the beginning Medea is especially characterized by a very warm sound. However, later on when Jason talks of Pelias’ murder, the sound suddenly sharpens. These are very key elements of characterization. 

AR: Here they were particularly important because I had to highlight Medea and her inner thoughts in contrast to everything that came from without. At the beginning the violas play a major role because they come from Medea’s core. At times they branch off individually while at others they are in unison. This shows where Medea is internally, in terms of her feelings and her thoughts in particular. What penetrates from the outside, for instance when Jason appears, injects a very strong chill and a very merciless expression into the music. This is then reinforced when Creon enters and then culminates with the Herald who is a countertenor, i.e. the upward extension of Creon. He sits even above Creon as the messenger of the highest council of the Amphictyons. This is why I tried to characterize all the figures in such a way that they appear with their own surroundings. Even Creon’s daughter Creusa who wants to marry Jason: at the beginning she is terribly superficial but she does change a little afterwards when driven into a corner. What was important to me here was that certain glitz she had around her, her indulged nature as the king’s child. 

TMCreusa’s light coloraturas contrast starkly with Medea’s much heavier voiced ones.

AR: Grillparzer was a playwright who always made comments on his plays and somewhere he wrote: Creusa always sings. To me she was simply a person who always trilled and continually sang something. This shows her superficial nature and her level of cultivation: What does she know? She really only knows superficialities as a spoilt individual. Which is why before she appears we only hear her vocalizations – which Jason then recognizes and he knows who is meant here. 

The entrance of the Herald is also announced as a vocalization. This was a conscious decision because it constitutes a very real incision within the play. You hear him from without whereupon Creon sings: “Before my palace gates a herald stands.” Were you to do this the other way round and were the herald to have already arrived you would not know whom and what was meant here. So you hear a voice you cannot pinpoint: is it a man, is it a woman? And this in fact triggers this incision. His coloraturas are quite different to Creusa’s as they have a certain, if not aggression, then assertiveness to them. He himself does also feel like a bringer of justice. He is merely performing his duty. Which is why his coloraturas, his vocalizations have a fanfare-like flavor to them though internally rather than externally. However, at the same time, they also extend the music an octave higher over Creon’s previous performance. 

TMSo you give these coloraturas a very semantic charge. I am thinking back here to Melusine. At the beginning her singing is full of coloraturas and these are then picked up on by the love-smitten architect – albeit in an exaggerated indeed delusional manner. With Melusine herself these disappear in the second half when she falls in love. 

AR: You have to have a reason to write a coloratura. With the Queen of the Night there is indeed a reason why she whirls these wild coloraturas with such virtuosity. With Melusine too, this is a sort of weapon. By means of the coloratura she tries to halt all those harrying her. This is slightly different with Medea though not all that dissimilar. In the second half of the opera when the nymph Melusine becomes mortal through her love for the count she obviously loses this coloratura as she has nothing more to assert herself against. With Medea it is the other way round: at the beginning she has fewer coloraturas but they become more frequent as she fights and tries to assert herself against everyone else. She is increasingly pushed into a corner. So all that is left for her to do is this constant whirling that she only loses just before the end when she is back with the children. Her very strong outbursts are now totally different to Melusine’s or those within the play seen with Creusa; the range of her coloraturas is much greater and she sings much more aggressively. This is also why I wanted to cast a dramatic coloratura soprano and not a dramatic soprano for this part. I needed this whirling and I was really very lucky with the two performers Marlis Petersen and Claudia Barainsky: they have both sung the Queen of the Night and know how to deal with a coloratura and understand that it is not merely a virtuoso adornment. 

TMColoratura as a weapon. We have talked about the many obvious means of characterization. As far as I know you also use the twelve-tone technique for characterization. I am thinking specifically here about Cordelia in Lear.

AR: With Cordelia this was a very conscious move. The music in Lear is very exuberant, which is why for these two figures Cordelia and Edgar – who have a great deal to do with each other – I inserted a twelve-tone complex of purity, of truth, within the 24-tone sound; these two characters are the only ones maintaining their inner purity in this entire web of lies imbued with intrigue and brutality. For this reason Edgar is Cordelia’s brother. Thus, in Lear the focus is more or less on a kind of structure of references. I had to delineate these two figures throughout the entire play. This complex intended as a center of purity in Lear is also played by the string quartets which accompany the fool who knows, sees and predicts everything. The fool is a kind of connecting link between the two. This is why I worked very strictly with these string quartets. In the later plays I did not proceed in this manner so much anymore. The series of motifs arising there that I continue to use as things progress later have nothing to do with the twelve-tone technique in the Schönberg sense. 

TMIn an interview with Burkhard Schäfer for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik you said when composing you try to live through all your characters. 

AR: There is no other way to do it. You enter these characters’ minds and project out of them, you constantly live in and with these people and this also continues to impact you when you transform the play into music. I always catch myself seeing the characters before me when I am composing. They speak from within me. I almost always see myself on stage. I am only in the pit with the orchestra. Conversely, I also experience the music somewhere else entirely. In my head it plays out somewhere quite different. When writing a libretto I hone in on what is happening on stage but with composition you have to forget all that again. Because what is happening in the orchestra is the most important factor. And I again try to tie this in with the characters. With Medea the orchestra is often already heading for something or gives this or that character a sign but the opposite also happens: i.e. it also absorbs what has just been sung by a character. These two things are inseparable. 

TMSo the orchestra assumes a very central role. 

AR: To my mind in an opera the orchestra is always central to what is happening, also in conceptual terms. When you are composing, particularly with opera, you move far away from the earth. You move into the cosmos or anywhere else whence the music comes. Through writing the music is transformed into the orchestra. The orchestra attempts within itself, in a branched structure, to express and transpose into sound what is being, or has been, said. At the beginning of Medea when the violas start up I noticed that a similar branching of movements also occurs in this character at this moment and that I had to make this branching audible. Or another example – and this process was new for me: quite near the beginning Creusa sees Medea’s children and says to them: “Come here to me, poor, homeless, little orphans. I’ll be your mother.” This is obviously the worst thing you can say to a real mother standing there. At this point an idea shoots through Medea’s mind; we do not know exactly what, she does not verbalize it either but we hear it and recognize it from the fire at the end in which Creusa burns: those flageolet chords in the strings. However, at first you wonder why this is now so. Then she sings: “And while Medea lives, they have no need to seek a mother.” And after this she realizes the thought that has just crossed her mind. She pursues it: What was that thought I just had? At that moment she already realizes what she intends to do. And we discover this when we see the fire. These are things you have to make audible. It is of the utmost importance that you make audible what is going on in a character’s mind when they are just listening and not saying anything. She reacts in her mind, and we have to understand and hear this.

TMIn that sense you are interpreting these characters to a certain extent in psychological terms. 

AR: I have always been very interested in how to go about translating a person’s psychological thought processes into sound. When you write for the stage you have to understand and listen to what happens between characters. If you fail to make this audible you may as well not write opera at all. Because characters are on the stage. And that is also what makes opera different to theater in that music comes before speech. Before anything has been said at all the music is already there. 

TMJust to add an aside this is also the difference with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera cycle Licht. There it is not about “psychologization” but cosmic events. 

AR: Although when I compose I am always in the cosmos.

TMWhat do you mean exactly?

AR: I mean the sound that comes not from here but from somewhere else: the fact that I always feel outside this world and try to work out in my mind what kind of sound is approaching me. By that I mean only the pure sound not the sound I then organize also into pieces that have nothing to do with opera. The conclusion to Lear, for instance, has nothing to do with what went on before because this is a sound that we have not heard before. It may be composed of that 24-tone series with quarter tones but it starts to move like a sound screen that vibrates; it is not from here and it goes elsewhere. In so doing I also wanted to suggest from my concept of sound that Lear’s path now leads elsewhere – something that no longer has anything to do with our world. It is the attempt to look into another world that obviously also has a great deal to do with the Beyond. Wherever that is. Though not in the Stockhausen sense obviously. Everyone has a sense of the cosmos within them and everyone experiences it differently. So I would not say that the music I write into opera only depends on these characters; it goes beyond the characters. Because the characters are obviously only mediators for what I hear or what will happen to me or the characters themselves. For instance, the storm in Lear comes from somewhere quite different. It emanates from Lear and then extends. Sound comes from elsewhere and always goes somewhere different. In actual fact I am never held captive here in my concept of sound. 

TMIs that a spiritual component?

AR: Actually it always it. Without it I could not even compose: without the spiritual background that distances me from the material entirely. This is an immaterial state. And it takes me to things I know nothing about beforehand. When you hear a sound you wonder where it is coming from. To my mind it always comes from somewhere. But not from here. When you compose you also take a step outside yourself. I then always lose my relationship to my surroundings. Sometimes you do not even know where you are and you drift off somewhere. 

TMThis is always something intimate. You once mentioned a very personal impression with Medea: the fire at the end that also concludes Melusine which has a very personal autobiographical background for you. 

AR: I always try to find out why this is the case as this is now already my fourth opera where fire has played a major role. In Traumspiel the castle goes up in flames, then in Melusine, in Troades and now also with Medea, too. There must be a deeper-seated reason. Very early on as a child I saw burning houses. When we emerged from the cellar after an air raid – I was six – I saw a burning house for the first time in Halensee. The image haunted me for days. Every time I saw a red sky I would start to cry. And later on, in 1945, when I was nine, I experienced a terrible apocalyptic air raid on Potsdam. That was the worst night of my life. The whole city had been razed to the ground and our house was one of the few on our street still standing. Everything was in flames – the houses, the trees. Sparks rained down on us and we had to be careful not to catch fire ourselves. This was such a strong image that it stays with you forever. I tried to suppress it but couldn’t. It kept coming back. So it is perhaps not a coincidence that the first opera ended with a fire. However, I did not choose these operas because of that. These things are just so intertwined. In each instance the opera has a different angle on fire but I think Medea was now the last time I will focalize this theme.

TMAgainst this backdrop it is hardly surprising that you wrote an ancient work like Troades

AR: It just rises up inside you. Had I not experienced war as a child so consciously I would not have been able to write Troades. Though every time a war takes place in this world I feel this need to write an opera against war. As a motto sub-line for the opera I used a sentence spoken by Cassandra that I did not set to music: “War is folly.” It is folly, madness because nothing whatsoever is achieved by it. It was only after Lear that I had reached a point where I could brave this topic. I needed some kind of distance and a certain maturity to musically verbalize the traumas I had experienced as a child without this taking on a mournful aspect. I was able to shape all this in a much more objective way. Otherwise none of this would have been at all possible. It is precisely this image of the women boarding the ships despite the fire and of their wanting to survive – this will to survive that we all experienced, also after Potsdam, where we could no longer stay and therefore took flight a few days later, the fact that we experienced this was very important to me. Because forces are then suddenly released you never even knew existed. A week before this raid I could never have imagined fleeing with my parents for three weeks with a wheelbarrow. Whenever we went through a village at midday we already saw it burning red in the distance behind us in the evening after it had been set alight by the Russians. You never know about things like this beforehand and then suddenly they are there. And it all hinges on you being able to assert yourself or not. Do you actually have the strength? Living through experiences like this enabled me to write this opera forty years later. 

TMThis will to survive is demonstrated very strongly by the women in Troades.

AR: Back then I saw what my mother achieved in those months and even years after the war with Berlin’s ‘Trümmerfrauen’ – i.e. those women left at home amongst the rubble to rebuild the city. Which is why the parallels to Troades are particularly strong. It meant I could process what I had experienced as a child. 

TMYou have never composed a comedy, a humorous opera or at least an absurd/humorous one.

AR: One project has been in the pipeline for many, many years now. I kept having to interrupt it. Something kept getting in the way. However, this piece that I cannot talk about yet is something I do want to finish writing as it is a culmination of many ideas I still wish to transpose. I have always been attracted by comedy on the edge i.e. before it falls over that edge. I find this the most exciting form of comedy. In Melusine there are already a few very comical moments and also in Das Schloss in the form of the two absurd assistants Artur and Jeremias who are always doing dreadful things. However, writing a comic opera is firstly incredibly difficult and secondly: what world does comic opera now inhabit after the musicals we now have coming from a very different world – i.e. America? Comedy for its own sake never interested me; but comedy on the edge has. Because just before it goes over the edge it triggers an incredibly grotesque rotation, so to speak. 

TMThis example suggests you wish to explore other areas of musical theater.

AR: I cannot do things I have already done. I always need to discover something new or I don’t do it at all. 

TMJust now you mentioned concepts of sound that you carry around in your mind, whether these be with or without text.

AR: Here the text plays no role whatsoever. You always have something going through your mind. Endlessly, sometimes more, sometimes less – something you can only grasp as sound. This is my version of a cosmic explosion. For instance, when I started Lear I knew very clearly how it ends because I had the sound before my eyes or rather before my ears. I knew what I was aiming for throughout the play. This sound stood there like a wall. And I had to go through this wall, I had to translate the wall into sound. It would have been no use if I had already done this before. Beforehand you do have a notion but what that exactly is you do not know yet. I can only develop this when I have the material for it. After that the piece emerges. So I had to first write the piece in full to then arrive at this point, this end. But the sound was always there in my head. 

Just now I mentioned the storm in Lear. I made notes for that and already composed some passages beforehand; I will never do that again. Because when I came to that crucial point nothing fitted anymore. I had to find a totally different sound. In my ears I had a diffuse sound that builds up and which at some point in this Lear interlude goes into the cosmos. But how do I grasp and organize this? That was the hardest thing for me. I could not use the sketches anymore which prompted me to wonder: why does this sound arise? It has to have a reason in Lear himself. Lear talks to his people who are dwindling in number and who in this instance do not even answer. Whereupon he says: What are you doing just staring like that? This is precisely the moment where the lowest tone of the storm begins. At this moment Lear finally grasps that even his entourage are no longer there for him. Afterwards that double 24-tone sound builds up in the strings until it leads to the explosion. I needed the key for this but I did not have it yet in the sketches. So it is better for me to only make verbal sketches as this is the big problem: afterwards is it right or not?

TMAs a layman you think: if a sound is there you just note it down! 

AR: I had this ending in my ears for two and a half years. And it did not go away. And I even know how pieces I still want to write will end. These endings are in my head and continue to evolve without me writing them down. This is a kind of training or rather it goes without saying for me. 

TMWhen did you discover this ability?

AR: I think already before Traumspiel. Even with orchestral pieces I know from the beginning how they will end. I aim for the ending but I do have to have it in my head before I can start. When I start a piece it is always hard for me because I do not have any outermost fixed point in mind. 

TMSo you do not even need a text.

AR: Actually to my mind there is no difference whether I now write a purely abstract orchestral piece or one for an opera. Orchestra is orchestra, the musical thought involved is the same. Only with opera there is also a reference to the content, especially to the character’s psychology. However, the music is still there – as music. And so the path into an orchestral piece is no different at all. Quite the opposite: I need this from time to time. Before Medea I wrote four orchestral pieces to break free from this claustrophobic arrangement after Bernarda Albas Haus. Though I could never write an orchestral piece based on a text, i.e. as symphonic poetry as I would immediately also set the text to music. When I write for orchestra it is music pure and simple, with absolutely nothing to do with text.