The song is always present - Jörg Widmann in conversation

On the weekend of the 17 and June 18, 2023, just before his 50th birthday on June 19, the Liedfestival devoted a special focus point to the internationally busy composer, clarinetist and conductor Jörg Widmann.

Anselm Cybinski, dramaturge of the Heidelberger Frühling, met Jörg Widmann at home in Munich and talked to him about the song.

AC: Widmann, the vocal composer: It is noticeable that your titles often allude to vocals - especially in works in which there is no singing at all. "Lied" is a 25-minute orchestral piece that explores Schubert and very different ways of instrumental singing. The situation is similar with "Messe". On the other hand, your actual song work is basically limited to only two cycles.

JW: In fact, here in this house in Munich where we're talking right now, I've been composing songs on and off from 1998 on. Just for my own enjoyment, it was like it was a diary of sorts. About ten songs must have been created in this way by 2016. None of them have been published yet, I'd have to sift through them. The text originates from poets such as Novalis, Eichendorff or Rilke. Poetry has always been very close to me. Early on, I was inspired by poetic texts. From Baudelaire's "Fleurs du Mal", for example, which gave the title to my first major work for solo piano in 1996/97, also from the poem "The Lamentations of an Icarus", which found expression in my "Icarian Lament" for ten strings from 1999. The language of late Rilke's poetry was my great childhood love, and I would always have liked to set the "Sonnets to Orpheus" to music. What ultimately held me back was the realization that Rilke's words themselves sound so intense - because they are basically already music.

AC: The genres mix, the levels of meaning interpenetrate. Nevertheless, the question: What significance does the genre of song have at all for your work as a composer?

JW: Aribert Reimann or my teachers Hans Werner Henze and Wolfgang Rihm set literary texts to music, they put verses to music - largely linearly, following the course of the words. I still have such things as well. In addition, however, vocal figures frequently appear that come close to the song, without any concrete vocabulary being recognizable. "Sphinxensprüche und Rätselkanons" from 2005, for example, is a piece with the instrumentation of Schubert's "Hirt auf dem Felsen" - soprano, clarinet and piano - using almost exclusively vocalises and phonetic material. The only recognizable words are 'Alpha' and 'Omega'. And still in "Labyrinth V" for solo soprano, which I wrote for Sarah Aristidou in 2021, it is the female voice itself, siren-like in vocalises, whose erotic charge fascinates me. In my opera "Babylon", on the other hand, there are many song-like situations, and this is also the case in the oratorio "Arche". The song, as a foil so to speak, is always present there.

AC: The portrait of Robert Schumann leans against the wall, clearly visible from your place at the grand piano. Schumann's lyrical world resonates particularly often in your works.

JW: Yes, it is not an exaggeration when I say that there is actually no piece of mine without a Schumann reference. The "Eleven Humoresques" for piano from 2007 are particularly imbued with Schumann. Not only according to the overall title, but also in detail, they often refer to its world. Sonic, poetic, and biographical associations continually interplay. "Lied im Traume," the very short tenth piece, for example, repeats again and again with cutting sharpness the note "a" that so tormented Schumann in his auditory hallucinations - and underneath it echoes the E-flat major theme of the "Ghost Variations," Schumann's very last composition.

AC: Your first large and so far most extensive song cycle "Das heiße Herz" was written between 2013 and 2015, and three years later you also presented an orchestral version. How did this unusual compilation of eight songs to poems by different authors come about?

JW: The trigger was the actually accidental discovery of a volume of poems by Klabund, whose real name was Alfred Georg Hermann Henschke. Klabund is an author of the early 20th century who has always been received only selectively, even in Germany. Das heiße Herz" is a collection of "Ballads, Myths and Poems" that Klabund published in 1922, and since I set a total of three of his texts to music, the choice of this title was obvious. Klabund himself was no child of sadness, and in his verse he combines ironic distance with profound truth in a particularly fascinating way, short-circuiting the snappy Berlin snark with the deepest romantic intimacy. My cycle "The Hot Heart" is based on a montage of texts that are in themselves independent. Although the perspectives are broken many times, basically one story is told, a story of love between happiness and fulfillment, disillusionment and death. Even a double murder occurs. In selecting the other poems - they come from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn," by Peter Härtling, Heinrich Heine, Achim von Arnim, and Clemens Brentano - I also looked for the closeness between folk-poetic simplicity and the highest art. Brentano, whose "Einsam will ich untergehen" forms the extended conclusion of the cycle, exemplifies this two-facedness in a way that is unique for me. For me, Brentano's language is one of the most beautiful things ever written in German.

AC: The demands on the singer's physical condition are immense...

JW: Yes, the Brentano setting of the final chant is a fantasy of about 13 minutes. Basically an impossibility, because the singer literally can't sing anymore at the end, he really has to sing into exhaustion. I find this very touching in its borderline experience....

AC: Your "Seven Songs for a Dead Linden Tree" for soprano, clarinet, violin and piano were written in 1997, when you were only 24 years old.

JW: Christoph Poppen told me at the time how, during a church concert in Münsing near Lake Starnberg, an exceptionally strong thunderstorm raged, with lightning striking the venerable village lime tree. The poet Diane Kempff, daughter of Wilhelm Kempff, who lived there, was very shocked by the destruction of the lime tree and wrote some poems as a result. Christoph Poppen had the idea, one year after the Incident in the same church to sound a kind of requiem for the dead tree colossus in the church and made contact with me. I then had a very intense, quite wonderful encounter with Diana Kempff. And surprisingly, she left me completely free to deal with the texts as I pleased. Apparently she was aware from the outset that something third, something completely different would emerge in the medium of music. This poetry is an expression of an obviously deeply tormented soul; it often comes across to us as whimsical and spun. A fragile tenderness is irreconcilably contrasted with an almost brutal harshness at times. Schubert's "Fremd bin ich eingezogen" applies to Diana Kempff in a special way, it expresses itself in her verses in a closeness to everything strange, offside and also supernatural. I have tried to clarify this ghostly-spooky element through my choice of texts and with musical means.