Peter Eötvös conducts Zimmermann’s “Requiem for a Young Poet”

25 Apr 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Peter Eötvös

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    Chorale Preludes “Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist” and “Schmücke Dich, o liebe Seele” (8 min.)

  • Richard Wagner
    Siegfried Idyll (20 min.)

  • Bernd Alois Zimmermann
    Requiem for a Young Poet (69 min.)

    Caroline Stein Soprano, Claudio Otelli Baritone, Michael Rotschopf Speaker, Thomas Wittmann Speaker, Rundfunkchor Berlin, James Wood Chorus Master, MDR Rundfunkchor , Howard Arman Chorus Master, Philipp Ahmann Chorus Master, Celso Antunes Chorus Master, João Rafael Sound Direction

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    Peter Eötvös on Zimmermann’s “Requiem für einen jungen Dichter” (12 min.)

When Peter Eötvös heard the news of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s death in 1970, he did not doubt for a moment that the composer had taken his life. The Hungarian composer and conductor met and came to respect Zimmermann while he was a student in Cologne during the 1960s, and at that time the thoughts of death of the deeply religious artist, who wrestled constantly with himself and the world, were already obvious.

Suicide also plays a central role in the Requiem for a Young Poet for two speakers, vocalists, chorus, orchestra and tape, which was premiered in 1970. The poets quoted in this unusual requiem – Sergei Yesenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Konrad Bayer – also took their own lives. In his text collage and music, which combines different styles and quotations from works by other composers in a uniquely personal idiom, the extremely well-read Zimmermann provided a desperate commentary on the student-initiated era of new beginnings as he composed the work – and at the same time an anticipation of the end of his own life.

The Berliner Philharmoniker performed the heart-wrenching work under Peter Eötvös in April 2009, as part of the season focus on several of Zimmermann’s compositions. During the first half of the concert Richard Wagner’s radiant Siegfried Idyll for chamber orchestra and two chorale preludes by Johann Sebastian Bach were also heard, forming a counterpoint to the Requiem.

As everyone knows. As anyone can see.

I. A disparate chronicle of facts and events related to this concert

In May 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach takes up his post as Kantor of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, the Church of St. Thomas, appointed only after three favoured candidates have withdrawn. In the final decade of his life – Bach dies on 28 July 1750 – the composer undertakes the thorough revision of a series of earlier organ chorale preludes, including “Schmücke Dich, o liebe Seele”BWV 654 and “Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist”BWV 667.

On 25 August 1870, Richard Wagner marries Cosima von Bülow, 24 years his junior. The two have been living together since 1864 and already produced three children: daughters Isolde and Eva and a son, Siegfried. On the morning of 25 December 1870 at Tribschen, their country home near Lucerne, the work later known as the Siegfried Idyll is first performed, “as a symphonic birthday greeting, presented to his Cosima by her Richard”. Forming its principal theme is Brünnhilde’s phrase “Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich” from the third act of Siegfried.

On 13 February 1883, Wagner dies in Venice.

Between the end of April and 24 June 1922, in the Vienna suburb of Mödling and at Traunkirchen in the lake district east of Salzburg, Arnold Schoenberg orchestrates the two Bach chorale preludes BWV 654 and 667. “We need transparency, that we may see clearly”, is how he justifies his orchestrations. “Our modern conception of music demanded clarification of the motivic procedures in both horizontal and vertical dimensions.”

On 28 December 1925 – two months before his 30th birthday – the poet Sergei Yesenin hangs himself in a Leningrad hotel room.

On 1 April 1930, Cosima Wagner dies in Bayreuth.

On 14 April 1930 – three months before his 37th birthday – the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky shoots himself in Moscow.

On 4 August 1930, Siegfried Wagner dies in Bayreuth.

On 16 September 1949, in a letter, Schoenberg expresses thanks for the good wishes extended to him on his 75th birthday: “But, on the other hand, I accepted years ago that I can’t reckon in my lifetime with a full and loving comprehension of my work, of what I have to say musically ... Does it therefore follow that, in spite of the whole world’s opposition, one does not give up but rather continues to write down what one generates?”

Schoenberg dies on 13 July 1951 in Los Angeles.

On 20 June 1954, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s piano cycle Metamorphosen is premiered in Frankfurt. Herbert Eimert – one of the pioneers of electronic music – concludes that with this serially conceived work Zimmermann “swings completely into line with the Punctualists adherents to the pointillist style inspired by Webern”, while at the same time casting doubt on the “genuineness” of this stylistic shift. It is the start of Zimmermann’s continuing marginalization, which comes to a head in 1960 when the arts grand prize of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia is awarded jointly to Zimmermann and Karlheinz Stockhausen but Stockhausen refuses it so as not to be relegated to the same level as this “utilitarian musician”.

In February 1964, WDR (West German Radio, Cologne) commissions Zimmermann to compose a “cantata for baritone solo, two speakers, chorus and large orchestra, Obituary for Sergei Yesenin”. It prompts him to return to an oratorio project that has preoccupied him since the mid-1950s.

In September 1964, at the annual conference of the “Gruppe 47” in the Swedish town of Sigtuna, the Viennese writer Konrad Bayer presents his fragmentary novel the sixth sense and is met with unanimous rejection. Hans Mayer is as vehement in condemning Bayer’s prose as “atrocious” and “abominable” as Erich Fried in alleging the author’s “anti-humanity”.

On 10 October 1964 – two months before his 32nd birthday – Bayer commits suicide in Vienna.

On 11 December 1969, Zimmermann’s Requiem for a Young Poet has its premiere. As the composer explains, the work “is not intended to refer to a specific young poet (although three poets, namely Mayakovsky, Yesenin and Bayer, are especially prominent in it), but, in a sense, to the young poet per se, as we have envisaged him during the past 50 years in his multifarious relations to the determining factors of his cultural, historical and linguistic situation – and thereby to our own, meaning that of Europe from 1920 to 1970”.

On 10 August 1970 – five months after his 52nd birthday – Zimmermann takes his own life in Frechen-Königsdorf, near Cologne.

II. “Does everyone know?”

This disparate chronicle of facts and events breaks off – like a distorted reflection of German-Austrian history – in Bayer’s text on knowing and not-knowing, seeing and looking away, with which Zimmermann’s Requiem for a Young Poet ends. Everything takes place simultaneously in that pluralistic “spherical form of time” which was Zimmermann’s philosophical and compositional aesthetic model: “The observation of the past, present and future is a question of aspect. The observer sits in the centre of a sphere surrounded by time, a continuum; what he observes depends on his perspective, because whatever happens now is already the past in the moment of its occurrence, whatever we do – we determine the future, and the future has already determined the past – the tempora are interchangeable.”

If the Bach chorale preludes already contain Schoenberg’s instrumentations within themselves, then Brünnhilde’s claim of eternity in the Siegfried Idyll already augurs a “redemption” in the spirit of “Aryan racial purity”. In 1923, Winifred Wagner – Siegfried’s wife – is already talking about “the moral strength and purity of the man Adolf Hitler who works tirelessly and selflessly for an idea that he knows is right, and that he attempts to put into action with all the fervour and humility of a divine mission”. With the same “fervour and humility” with which Schoenberg, “in spite of the opposition of the whole world”, refuses to give up writing down his musical ideas. And just as (the Jewish composer) Schoenberg cannot help but admire Wagner’s music, the (Jewish literary critic) Mayer, who in 1964 is so incensed by Bayer’s “atrocious” and “abominable” prose, resorts to countless rhetorical tricks in order to put Wagner’s anti-Semitism into perspective as a typical attitude of his time.

“as everyone knows”, Johann Sebastian Bach was a Protestant. “as everyone knew”, Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite. “as all knew”, Arnold Schoenberg was a Jew. “as all know”, Bernd Alois Zimmermann was a Catholic. “do all know? all cannot possibly know...”

And most importantly: of what use to us is this knowledge? “A question of perspective.” Yesenin, Mayakovsky and Bayer. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Pope John XXIII’s address at the Second Vatican Council, Alexander Dubček’s speech following the invasion of Prague by Soviet troops, and Andreas Papandreou’s address after the Greek military coup of 1967. Article 1 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany and the “words of Chairman Mao”. Aeschylus and Kurt Schwitters, Albert Camus, Ezra Pound and Hans Henny Jahnn. Tape collage: mass demonstrations, white noise, sounds of war, revolutions. Wagner’s Tristan, Darius Milhaud’s Création du monde, Beethoven’s Ninth, Olivier Messiaen’s L’Ascension, the Beatles’ Hey Jude. Hitler, Stalin, Chamberlain, Goebbels, Churchill. “The tempora are interchangeable” – but are the protagonists as well? And the languages: Latin, German, Czech, Russian, Ancient and Modern Greek, English, Hungarian? And the words...?

The Wittgenstein quote at the beginning of the Requiem for a Young Poet admirably serves Schoenberg’s postulated “clarification of the motivic procedures”: “The words of a language designate objects – sentences are combinations of such designations. – In this view of language, we find the roots of the following idea: every word has a meaning. This meaning is assigned to the word; it is the object for which the word stands.” It is this conception of “linguistic play”, to use Wittgenstein’s term, which forms the Requiem: not an oratorio, not a cantata, not a Mass, but a “lingual”.

Zimmermann’s “world projection” (his biographer Klaus Ebbeke) signifies – apart from all musical experiences (or extending far beyond them) – the reversal of the famous final sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. That which one cannot remain silent about, one must speak about.

What is left is a final, desperate cry for peace: “Dona nobis pacem”. And that is not a question of aspect or perspective or time continuum.

The composer, teacher and conductor Peter Eötvös was born in Transylvania in 1944 and is now universally regarded as one of the foremost musicians of our day. He studied composition at the Budapest Academy of Music and conducting at the Cologne Academy of Music. Between 1968 and 1976 he worked regularly with the Stockhausen Ensemble and from 1971 to 1979 was also closely associated with the Studio for Electronic Music attached to West German Radio in Cologne. Until 1991 he was musical director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain. He has conducted leading orchestras in the United States, Japan and Europe, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Munich Philharmonic. In 1991 he established the International Eötvös Institute and the Foundation for Young Conductors and Composers in Budapest, and between 1992 and 2008 he held professorships at the Academies of Music in Karlsruhe and Cologne. Peter Eötvös’s works are performed all over the world and include Atlantis, zeroPoints, Three Sisters and Angels in America. His latest opera, Love and Other Demons, was premiered at Glyndebourne in August 2008. Among the composer’s many awards are the Kossuth Prize conferred on him by the President of Hungary, the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award and the 2007 Frankfurt Music Prize. Peter Eötvös made his conducting debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 1994, when he appeared with the Scharoun Ensemble. His most recent appearance was in mid-January 2007, when he conducted works by Liszt, Bartók and Ligeti. In the autumn of 2009 Peter Eötvös will take up his new post as principal guest conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Caroline Stein studied singing at the Cologne Academy of Music from 1983 to 1988. After initial engagements in Würzburg and Wiesbaden, she joined the Lower Saxon State Opera in Hanover, remaining with the company from 1991 to 1999. Here she came to the attention of a wider audience through her participation in the German premiere of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre (in the roles of Venus and Gepopo), an assumption for which she was voted Singer of the Year by the German opera magazine Opernwelt in 1998. Her first guest contract came in 1990, when she sang the Queen of Night at the Berlin State Opera and on the company’s subsequent tour of Japan. Since then Caroline Stein has been heard in many leading opera houses both at home and abroad, including Dresden, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Munich, Lausanne and San Francisco. In 1995 she appeared at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in a production of Mathis der Maler under Esa-Pekka Salonen, while her Proms debut under Sir Simon Rattle took place in the year 2000. She first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in November 2001 when she sang one of the Flowermaidens in performances of Parsifal under the direction of Claudio Abbado. And in late August 2007 she sang the soprano role in the chamber version of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre at the Salzburg and Lucerne Festivals, also under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

Claudio Otelli studied at the Vienna Academy of Music and for a time was a member of the Vienna State Opera ensemble. Since 1994 he has worked as a freelance artist, appearing all over the world in a wide-ranging repertory that extends from the Classical period to the present day. Among the opera houses in which he has appeared are the Aalto Theatre in Essen, the Berlin, Munich and Dresden State Operas, Frankfurt Opera, Leipzig Opera, La Scala, Milan, and the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. In the United States, Claudio Otelli has sung the roles of Jochanaan and Count Almaviva in new productions of Salome and Le nozze di Figaro at the Santa Fe Festival and in Los Angeles. He made his Japanese debut as Ramiro in Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole at the New National Theatre in Tokyo, where he has also been heard as Dr Schön in Lulu and as Sharpless in Madama Butterfly. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Riccardo Muti, Claudio Abbado, Michael Gielen and Lothar Zagrosek. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in mid-October 1992 when he took part in concert performances of Rossini’s comic opera Il viaggio a Reims under the direction of Claudio Abbado.

Michael Rotschopf was born in the Austrian town of Lienz and trained as an actor at the Max Reinhardt School in Vienna. Even while he was still a student there he was already appearing at the Burgtheater, of which he remained a member for five years, working with directors of the eminence of Hans Hollmann, Adolf Dresen and Achim Benning. In 1996 he received the O. E. Hasse Prize from the Berlin Academy of the Arts. Among the theatres where he has worked are not only the Burgtheater but also the Volkstheater and Akademietheater in Vienna, the Frankfurter Schauspiel and the Berliner Ensemble. In 2002 he was engaged by Peter Stein for his production of Faust; and in 2007 and 2008 he took part in Stein’s production of Wallenstein. In addition to his stage work, Michael Rotschopf has also appeared in numerous films and television productions since 1998. He is currently appearing in a production of Kleist’s Der zerbrochene Krug with the Berliner Ensemble. Michael Rotschopf is making his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Thomas Wittmann hails from Munich. He trained as an actor at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and received his first professional engagement at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Further stages in his career have been the Salzburg Festival and the theatres in Bochum, Düsseldorf and, most recently, Cologne. Among the directors with whom he has worked are Franz Xaver Kroetz, Claus Peymann, Andrea Breth and, above all, Jürgen Gosch, most notably on the latter’s outstanding production of Macbeth in 2005. During the last two years he has made a number of guest appearances with the Berliner Ensemble, but with the start of the 2009/10 season he joins the company as a permanent member. Thomas Wittmann appears regularly on television and radio, but he has also worked as a narrator with various orchestras. He made his Philharmonie debut in December 2006, when he appeared with the Scharoun Ensemble and Katia and Marielle Labèque as the narrator in Saint-Saëns’s Carnaval des animaux.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin, founded in 1925, is the oldest radio choir in Germany. Famous German conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber conducted concerts and radio broadcasts with the choir during the 1920s and 1930s. After the Second World War, principal conductor Helmut Koch established its reputation as a Handel specialist on tours which took it through most countries of Europe. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) developed the tradition of performing premieres of contemporary music; Robin Gritton took over the leadership in 1994. Since 2001 Simon Halsey has infected the Rundfunkchor with his enthusiasm and vitality. Made up of 64 full-time professional singers, the choir appears in approx. 50 concerts worldwide each season. An impeccable and meaningful declamation of the text in any language required is the basis and starting-point for the choir’s work. It has built particularly close relationships with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester under Ingo Metzmacher, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Marek Janowski and the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle. Its high standard, wide-ranging repertoire and versatility are borne out by long list of award-winning CD releases. The recording of Stravinsky’s Psalm Symphony under Sir Simon Rattle received the 2009 Grammy Award for the best choral recording.

The MDR Rundfunkchor (Central German Radio Chorus) is ARD’s largest professional concert choir looking back on a long and rich tradition. It became affiliated to Central German Radio in Leipzig in 1946. Its musical profile was shaped in no small way by its first post-war music director, Herbert Kegel, under whose guidance the choir was soon being ranked among the finest in Europe, a position that it has maintained to the present day thanks to the work of its later chorus masters, Dietrich Knothe and Horst Neumann, its chorus director Gert Frischmuth and its principal conductors, Wolf-Dieter Hauschild and Jörg-Peter Weigle. In 1998 a new music director was appointed in the person of Howard Arman. The choir’s repertory includes a cappella pieces and symphonic works from almost one thousand years of musical history. The choir has also given the world premieres and local premieres of countless works, adding to its reputation as a specialist in contemporary music. Among the conductors who have worked with the ensemble are Herbert von Karajan, Kurt Masur, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Claudio Abbado, Sir Simon Rattle, Seiji Ozawa and Bernard Haitink. Its wide-ranging activities are documented by almost two hundred recordings on LP and CD. Tours have taken the Central German Radio Chorus to leading music centres and festivals throughout Europe and also as far afield as Israel and Japan. The choir appears on a regular basis with the MDR Sinfonieorchester (Central German Radio Symphony Orchestra) and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Since 2004/05 the choir has invited audiences to St Peter’s Church in Leipzig for a voyage of discovery of the vocal repertory. These concerts are held three times a year under the title Nachtgesang.

The WDR Rundfunkchor Köln(West German Radio Chorus of Cologne) was formed in 1948 and is a professional choir currently made up of forty-eight singers. Since the start of the 2004/05 season its principal conductor has been Rupert Huber, who has been associated with the ensemble since 1986 and whose predecessors include Bernhard Zimmermann, Herbert Schernus, Helmuth Froschauer and Anton Marik. The West German Radio Chorus’s repertory extends from the Middle Ages to contemporary works, from sacred music to operetta and from large-scale oratorios with orchestra to vocal works scored for solo resources, but its commitment to the contemporary repertory deserves particular emphasis, the list of its world premieres and local premieres running to more than 140 works, including Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Henze’s Novae de infinito laudes, Stockhausen’s Momente, Nono’s Il canto sospeso, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Requiem für einen jungen Dichter, Penderecki’s St Luke Passion and Peter Eötvös’s IMA. Held in high regard throughout the entire world, the West German Radio Chorus has to date appeared at the Berlin, Vienna and Salzburg Festivals, at the Venice Biennale and in Milan, Paris, London, Athens, Rome, Brussels, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Boston, Cleveland, New York, Tokyo and Osaka. The chorus regularly performs with the WDR Symphony Orchestra and WDR Radio Orchestra in the concert hall, on radio and television, and on CD.

The SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart(South West Radio Vocal Ensemble of Stuttgart) was formed in 1946 as a specialist ensemble designed to meet the particular needs of radio broadcasting. For more than sixty years it has devoted itself to the task of promulgating new, little-known and virtuoso choral works through concerts and radio broadcasts. It is one of five ARD choruses and part of a choral landscape of unprecedented quality and density in Baden-Württemberg. Made up of thirty-six singers, it has developed a very particular artistic profile, while setting standards that other choirs can only strive to emulate: concert promoters both at home and abroad, as well as composers, conductors and orchestras, all regard its contribution as indispensable when performing the most technically challenging works. In this way the SWR Vokalensemble has acquired a reputation as one of the finest international choirs of its kind, its qualities being held in the highest esteem by conductors of the eminence of Sir Roger Norrington, Ingo Metzmacher, Peter Eötvös, Michael Gielen, Pierre Boulez and Sir John Eliot Gardiner. The long list of works premiered by the vocal ensemble includes pieces by Wolfgang Rihm, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Helmut Lachenmann, Isang Yun and Mauricio Kagel as well as others by composers of a younger generation such as Toshio Hosokawa and Hanspeter Kyburz. In the course of its countless appearances at home and abroad, the SWR Vokalensemble has often been accompanied by leading ensembles in the field of modern music as well as by symphony orchestras such as the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and the SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg.

The Portuguese composer João Rafael was born in Caldas da Rainha and studied the piano, composition and electronic engineering in Lisbon, before pursuing his studies in Paris and Freiburg with the help of scholarships from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the German Academic Exchange Service and the Heinrich Strobel Foundation. Among his teachers are Emmanuel Nunes for composition and Mesias Maiguashca for electronic music. João Rafael has contributed to a wide range of musical genres, from solo, ensemble and orchestral works to pieces for tape and instrumental compositions with live electronics. His piece Transition for solo clarinet won first prize in the International Camillo Togni Competition in Brescia in 1990, an award followed by coveted distinctions for many of his later compositions, too. He receives regular commissions from leading institutions in the world of music, and his works are performed by distinguished soloists, ensembles, orchestras and radio stations all over the world. In addition to his manifold activities as a composer, performer and sound engineer, he also gives courses on composition and seminars on analysis, as well as holding workshops. He has additionally published widely in both Europe and America. Since 1993 João Rafael has acted as sound engineer on a number of performances of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Requiem für einen jungen Dichter. In 2000 and 2005 he synchronized digital copies of the two original analogue four-track tapes to produce a new digital eight-track tape, restoring the originals in a spirit of fidelity to the work in question.

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