Conductor  Helmuth  Rilling
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Helmuth Rilling, born in 1933 in Stuttgart, is acclaimed worldwide as a conductor, pedagogue and Bach scholar. In 1954, he founded the internationally recognized Gächinger Kantorei choir, which joined forces with the Bach Collegium Stuttgart as its regular orchestral partner eleven years later. It was at this time that Professor Rilling began his intensive work with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He has both fervently advocated neglected choral music of the Romantic period and promoted contemporary music by regularly commissioning and performing pieces by key composers of our time. He has toured across Europe, the United States, Canada, Asia and South America, either as guest conductor or with his own ensembles. Maestro Rilling has collaborated with the world’s first-class orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic or Japanese NHK-Symphony Orchestra.

Over the last 30 years a special friendship has developed with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom Professor Rilling has performed in more than 100 concerts.  [See the Requiem of Reconciliation in the box later on this webpage.]

He is co-founder and Artistic Director of the Oregon Bach Festival, which since its inception in 1970 has become one of America’s most prestigious music festivals. In 1981, he established the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, which initially focused on the promotion of J.S. Bach’s music and in the course of time grew into an exceptional institution that excels not only in its ensembles (Gaechinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium Stuttgart) but devotes considerable resources to education and outreach through master classes, symposia and children’s programmes.

rillingWorking with young musicians from around the globe has always been a central focus of Rilling’s work. As part of a project of the Bach Academy Stuttgart, from 2001 -2009 he worked with the Festivalensemble Stuttgart, which led to the foundation of the Young Stuttgart Bach-Ensemble in 2011. Through his worldwide network of Bach Academies, Rilling offers workshops for students across the globe. He recently conducted concerts in education projects in Japan, USA, Taiwan, Spain and Italy, with his own "Bach Ensemble Helmuth Rilling" he looks forward to perform Bach's major works in Germany and Russia.

The conductor’s inexhaustible, creative activity is documented in hundreds of CD, radio and television productions. He was the first to record all of the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, and was the initiator of the International Bachakademie’s critically acclaimed project to record Bach’s complete works, released on 172 CDs during the Bach anniversary year in 2000. In the same year, Rilling won the coveted Grammy Award for his recording of Krzysztof Penderecki´s Credo, and was again nominated in 2001 for his recording of Wolfgang Rihm´s Deus Passus. Recent recordings include works by Haydn, Händel, and Gubaidulina (The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ according to St. John, Echo Klassik Award in 2008), as well as a live recording of Britten’s War Requiem (Editor's Choice Award of the British Gramophone Magazine), Messiah by Sven-David Sandström, which Rilling commissioned, and Verdi’s Requiem. His recording of Honegger’s Joan of Arc has been published in 2013.

Helmuth Rilling received the UNESCO International Music Prize in 1994, and the Theodor Heuss Taten der Versöhnung (Deeds of Reconciliation) prize the following year. In 2003, he became an Honorary Member of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, and in 2008 – on the occasion of his 75th birthday – he was awarded the Staufer Gold Medal, the highest award of the state of Baden-Württemberg.

In November 2011 Maestro Rilling was awarded the prestigious Herbert von Karajan Music prize in Baden-Baden (the previous year’s recipient had been Daniel Barenboim). Helmuth Rilling was honoured for his unique lifetime engagement with Johann Sebastian Bach as well as his teaching activities around the world. In October 2013 Prof. Rilling received the ECHO Klassik live achievement award by the German Phono Academy.

--  Text from the Helmuth-Rilling website 


The world of classical music is filled with musicians of all kinds, and when they delve into the arena of publicity, interesting things happen.  Naturally, I hope that the 1600+ interviews I have done over my own career represent the best and most enlightened area, but it also fascinates me to take note of other kinds of ideas and products which help to push the performers along in the minds of the public.

For instance, as noted in one of the biographies, Caruso allowed himself to turn up as himself in the funny papers.  Later, the wonderful artist Al Hirschfeld included some opera singers in his caricatures.  Indeed, a few of my own guests got this very special treatment, including Cornell MacNeil, Vasile Moldeveanu and Renato Capecchi (caricatures shown on those pages) as well as Joan Sutherland, Renata Scotto, Jon Vickers, Grace Bumbry, and many others.  [Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.]
  The Music Directors of the Chicago Symphony (from founder Theodore Thomas through Sir Georg Solti) appeared as a set of nesting dolls, and one of my guests, Ferdinand Leitner, had a bridge named for him in Stuttgart, which can be seen in photos on the page with his interview. 

rillingMy guest on this page is the conductor Helmuth Rilling, who is especially known for Bach, but, as he mentions during our conversation, has a repertoire which is actually quite wide and stays up to date.  In keeping with what I have noted just above, his image appears as a bobblehead doll [shown at left]!  Usually reserved for sports figures and pop stars, aside from the generic Conductor Bobblehead, only a few in the classical field can claim this distinction. 

In March of 2000, Rilling was in Milwaukee to conduct The Creation by Haydn, and I felt the ninety-minute drive from my home in Chicago was well worth the effort to speak with this esteemed gentleman.  We arranged to meet after a rehearsal, and though he was tired to begin with, at the end of our half-hour he paid me the ultimate compliment.

Here is what was said backstage on that occasion . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You have just come from rehearsal.  Is all your work done in rehearsal, or do you leave something specific for the night of the performance?

Helmuth Rilling:    Of course, there must be something still open for the moment of the performance.  In the rehearsals you try to be precise, to settle the technical things, rehearse the difficult passages, and work for the style of a given work, but in performance we need more than that.  We need excitement.  I always think a performance should be a unique thing, as though the music will be performed for the first time.

BD:    So it must be thought of, in your minds, for the first time.  Should it also be in the audience’s mind for the first time?

HR:    I hope so!

BD:    Even though they may have come, having heard their recordings or other performances?

HR:    I hope that the music which we can make is that much alive, that this is new for the audience.

BD:    Is it difficult to keep older music alive?  I know you’ve done some new scores, and those, of course, are going to be new to everyone.  But what about old scores?

HR:    It is not difficult to make older music sound fresh, but one must be absolutely open to what the given forces can do, what the acoustics of the hall are and how the audience responds.  For me this is very important.  I feel this in my back, and no performance should be the same as the one before.  And it should not be enough to say the performance will be as good as the best rehearsal.  It must be better!

BD:    Should the second performance be better than the first performance?

HR:    Sure!  And the third, again, better than the previous ones.

BD:    So it’s always going up and up and up?

HR:    Yes.  It should be different.  You could take a tempo differently or the dynamics differently.  You could change colors, and you can do this spontaneously if you have the forces which respond to you.

BD:    Is it your responsibility to get them to respond?

HR:    Of course, partly because I need people who are ready to work together with me, and to accept what I have to say in rehearsal, and to take directive from me while I give a performance.  It’s always easier when you conduct your own forces, who know you and know your gestures, know your ideas and which direction you will go.  But it’s always a fascinating challenge to work together with other ensembles which you don’t know, and which don’t know you.

BD:    How long is it before they are your group?

HR:    Oh, this takes a long, long time.  In a certain way, after the rehearsals they know what you want, but you don’t know until after the first performance how will they react if you take a tempo differently, or if you make a ritardando how they will take that up?  So usually in the first performance I am sort of cautious, and then I see what they do, and we’ll see the second performance will be different.


BD:    You look for the sparkle in their eyes and the anticipation?

HR:    Of course.  It would be nice if there is one.

BD:    I assume there is one a lot of times.

HR:    Yes, I hope so.

BD:    You talked a bit about getting the style.  Is it your job to bring the right style to each group?

rillingHR:    I think this is one of the most important things that you have to do as a conductor, that you tell the musicians and the singers what the style is, as you understand the style.  This goes especially for articulation.  This goes in the orchestra, also for vibrato in the chorus, and this goes for the sound.  Should it be light?  Should it be romantic?  Should it be dramatic?  Style is something very important, and you need a basic knowledge of that before you can make music in that style.

BD:    Are you sure that you are communicating the right style?

HR:    I hope so.  I try my very best, and most of the rehearsal is to work in a direction so that everybody understands the style in the same way.  The brass must not be too heavy in Haydn, for example.  An adagio in Haydn is not the same as in the second part of the nineteenth century.  Bowing is always articulation.  Slurs have to be light and staccatos have to be clear.  All these things are stylistic things, and you have to work very hard on them.  A symphony orchestra that usually is playing music of the second half of the nineteenth century or the twentieth century is not as aware as groups of specialists who do that music all the time now.

BD:    So it’s the mind of the player as well as the instruments in their hand?

HR:    Sure, both, and more the mind.

BD:    [Surprised]  Really???  You can get new instruments to play the olden styles?

HR:    Of course, if you have enough time.  The Creation is a long piece, and to do that in four rehearsals is not very much.  If you have more time, then you would take, say, the strings apart, or the violins only, and would go into details.  I don’t have the time for that.

BD:    Is there ever a case where you could get too much rehearsal?

HR:    Oh yes, could be.  If I have a lot of rehearsal time I like it very much.

BD:    Can you then get it perfect?

HR:    To a certain point, yes.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  So a perfect performance is really possible???

HR:    Oh, what is perfect?  Is
perfect that all notes are right, the articulation is right, the tempos are right, we are always together, the intonation is good?  Is this a perfect performance?  No, it’s not.  All this is only the base for doing something special, something good.  Perhaps you would sacrifice certain things which are technically absolutely correct for getting some expression to the music and have the music speak to the audience.  This is more important at the very end.  Very good ensembles will always be technically very good; I would not say perfect, but very good, and build up on that in interpretation.

BD:    Then is there such a thing as a perfect performance, where you have the technical perfection and also the expressive perfection?

HR:    Yes.  You see, we are recording a lot and I know that situation.  You are in front of the mics and you are looking for perfection.  It has to be together.  The intonation has to be good and the balance has to be good, and later on you say, “Where is the spirit?”  So what we often do, especially with larger works, is we take two or three concerts and then make repairs.  I think it’s the same procedure here in this country.  You have the spirit of a performance and can patch the rest.

BD:    So you get basically a good performance, and then just repair the errors?

HR:    Yeah.  There are many recordings which came into existence this way.

BD:    That’s better than going into the studio and doing a few takes?

HR:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

:    You’ve made a lot of recordings.  Do you like the recording process?

rillingHR:    Oh, you have to undergo it, yes.  This is a situation which you do not like, but if you want to record certain things it’s the only way you can.  At the moment we are doing a complete recording of all of Bach works!  It is 172 CDs, and we’ll be ready for Bach’s 250th death day, which is the 28th of July.  We have still nine days of recording sessions to go in March, then the whole thing will be finished.  Among these pieces are many pieces which are unknown.  For example, there are 220 unknown chorales.  Nobody knows these pieces.

BD:    Why not?

HR:    It’s a collection which Philipp Emanuel, the son of Bach, did in the second half of the eighteenth century.  It’s just a collection of chorales which come from lost cantatas which come from Bach’s teaching.  They are in alphabetical order in this collection, and of course you cannot perform 200 chorales in an evening.  It would be stupid, so as we are doing this complete recording.  We have to do them. 

BD:    It sounds like it’s almost a burden to do them.

HR:    This is exactly what I thought at the beginning, too, when they told me, “You have to do that.”  Oh, God!  That’s not easy to record a chorale.  It took us about fifteen minutes for recording one verse and every one has four or five verses, so it’s gigantic!  But the experience was that these chorales are so beautiful, they are on the same level, say, as the chorales of the Saint Matthew Passion.  We were so surprised to see the beauty and the expressiveness of these chorales.  Getting to know them, the whole ensemble — we needed a very small chorus and a few instruments
— and at the beginning we thought, Oh God, 200 chorales! and at the end people went out of the studio and said this was the best recording session they had.  This was so much fun to do it!

BD:    Then why have they been either lost or suppressed for 200 years?

HR:    You could ask the question the other way around.  You could say, “Why do we need these anniversaries?  Does it make sense?” and the answer is yes, it makes sense, because you feel forced to go into the corners which you have left out so far.  For example, we not only did the concertos which have come to us in a version for harpsichord, but we did reconstructions of the earlier versions.  Take the famous D minor Concerto.  This was originally a violin concerto, but the original score is lost so we made a reconstruction of this, and of many other concertos.

BD:    From the parts?

HR:    From the parts, yes.  Violin concertos, oboe concertos, concertos for several instruments, and we did all this also.  So this again is a field where much is to be found.

BD:    Do you feel that Bach is happy with all of your efforts?

HR:    Well, he is not here, but I would hope so.  I think it will open the eyes of people who love Bach and know his famous pieces, for other things which so far they do not know.

rillingBD:    You’ve been involved with Bach for so long.  Are we really beginning to understand Bach, or is there still much more we have to learn?

HR:    You learn a lot when you see things which you did not know, and it just starts to fill the hours.  After all this, I think perhaps then I am a Bach specialist.

BD:    Do you like being a Bach specialist?

HR:    Sure.  This is an honor.

BD:    These chorales will meet up with all the old recordings of the cantatas and everything else?

HR:    Yes.  We took the 69 CDs of the Complete Church Cantatas as a base, because we could not record everything anew.  But all the rest are new recordings.  It is more than 100 new CDs, and this we did over the last three years.  It was exciting.  It was a lot of work, but exciting.  I never have been that much time in front of mics as last year.

BD:    I hope it’s a big success.  On that subject, what for you will constitute making it a success?

HR:    [Thinks a moment]  I tried my best to do it as correctly as possible, and to do it with spirit and imagination.  I hope we succeeded, and I must say I have learned a lot.  This is a most wonderful thing.

BD:    Would you now want to go back and start with the early recordings, and redo them?

HR:    One could do that, but I have a philosophy in this regard.  When we started these Church Cantata recordings, this was in the seventies.  The style in the meantime, also my style, has changed completely.  We are doing this in a completely different way, but at that time, we did our best to do it well.  The time was different, and maybe the people who listened were different.  We, as young musicians, were different, and time changes.  I think this is wonderful because if you would say, “Oh, thirty years ago I did it once, and this was good.  I will never come back to this,” this would be absolute nonsense!  This was your question at the very beginning.  Music needs to be fresh again in every moment.  I hope that when I will do the B Minor Mass next year again, it will be completely different.  When I do the The Creation on Sunday, it will be different from the The Creation of tomorrow.

BD:    So music is an ever-renewable resource?

HR:    Oh, it’s a wonderful profession because you do not have to follow a routine.  We all, professional musicians, always remember how beautiful that profession is!  Sometimes I see the tired faces of professional musicians sitting somewhere in the orchestra thinking, “Oh, I have to do this!  Oh, how boring!  I don’t like this conductor, and I don’t like this music!”  They sit there, poor people!  They were also young people who studied and loved music, and this is why they became professional musicians!  If they lose that, it’s very sad for them because if you don’t have the joy of doing it, how can you make this be a joy for other people?

BD:    So it’s your job to find the joy and communicate it?

HR:    Of course, yes.  I always try my best.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask the easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

HR:    If you say
music, it’s perhaps a little too general.  Would you better ask the purpose of classical music?

BD:    Well, what is the purpose of the music that you are involved in, that you have given your life to?

HR:    I think music speaks a language which is beyond words.  It can express things which you cannot say in words, and it takes you on the level of being a human being which is beyond rational, beyond explanations.  This is not to say that it negates the intelligence, but it connects intelligence with feeling.  This is the ideal thing.  If you work in a profession where you need your intelligence they will tell you, “Away with your feelings.  Keep out your feelings; be intelligent; be precise; be correct.  Feelings we don’t need.”  Music has this wonderful possibility of connecting both things.  You don’t have to sit in a concert and only feel.  You can also use your intelligence and say, “I understand the contraction.  I understand the colors.  I like that tempo.  When they go faster, it’s tension.”  This is your intelligence, but at the same moment it is your feeling.  You feel that something is happening.  The music I do, in its very deepest sense, can change your outlook on life.


The Requiem of Reconciliation was a collaborative work written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. It sets the Roman Catholic mass for the dead in fourteen sections, each written by a different composer from a country involved in the war. It was commissioned by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart in Stuttgart, Germany, and first performed by the Gächinger Kantorei, the Krakauer Kammerchor and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Helmuth Rilling. A two-CD set documenting this performance was released in 1996.

The sections of the work are:

    1.  Prolog (by Luciano Berio, Italy)
    2.  Introitus und Kyrie (by Friedrich Cerha, Austria)
    3.  Sequenz – Dies Irae (by Paul-Heinz Dittrich, Germany)
    4.  Judex ergo (by Marek Kopelent, Czech Republic)
    5.  Juste judex (by John Harbison, US)
    6.  Confutatis (by Arne Nordheim, Norway)
    7.  Interludium (by Bernard Rands, UK/US)
    8.  Offertorium (by Marc-André Dalbavie, France)
    9.  Sanctus (by Judith Weir, UK)
    10.  Agnus Dei (by Krzysztof Penderecki, Poland)
    11.  Communio I (by Wolfgang Rihm, Germany)
    12.  Communio II (by Alfred Schnittke, Russia, left incomplete due to illness and completed by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky)
    13.  Responsorium (by Joji Yuasa, Japan)
    14.  Epilog (by György Kurtág, Hungary)

BD:    Is it special for you to deal with not just musical sounds, but also texts?

HR:    You say I am a Bach specialist, and a big part of Bach’s music is religious music.  I am also a specialist for oratorios, and I have done practically all of them from Monteverdi to the Credo of Penderecki, which we commissioned and premiered last year.  But I do also a lot of symphonic music, and I’m very grateful that I have so many different possibilities.  I also did opera for some time, and it’s wonderful.

BD:    Is it different for you when you are conducting purely sounds without text?

HR:    No, it’s no different.  Purely instrumental music also has ideas, also has moods, also has intelligence and feeling.  There is not a basic difference, but I must confess that I am admirer of the works of good composers when both things come together — good texts, and a good composer, as in the Requiem of Brahms, or the pieces with Latin texts such as the masses or the requiems.  There you have this combination.  Sometimes it’s a pity if the text is very weak but the composer is very good.  For example, with Bach we have that.  They are sometimes stupid texts, but Bach sees certain words and they give him the ideas for wonderful works.

BD:    You do a lot of Bach, and you’re also into contemporary music.  Are you enthusiastic about some or all of the music being written today?

HR:    Yes, very.  Contemporary music is very important, and every musician not doing it should be ashamed.  This is absolutely necessary.  I was talking about the complete recording of our Bach works for this year.  We have a second present for Bach.  Bach is the composer of the Passions.  Nobody else has written music to the story of the passions as he did in the Saint Matthew and the Saint John Passion, so my idea was that honoring Bach, we would commission for this year four new Passions.  Four 2-hour long pieces according to the four gospels
Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke, and Saint Johnand give these commissions to four composers coming from four different cultural backgrounds.  So the German, Wolfgang Rihm, is at the moment composing a Saint Luke Passion in the German language; the Russian, Sofia Gubaidulina, is composing Saint John Passion in the Russian language; the South American composer Osvaldo Golijov, who is living in Boston at the moment, is writing a Saint Mark Passion in the Spanish language; and Tan Dun, the Chinese composer, is writing a Saint Matthew Passion in English language.  We will have a festival at the end of August or the beginning of September in Stuttgart.  This is my hometown, where I have the Internationale Bachakademie.  It is my home institution.  This institution is ready for this and is responsible for this project.  We will perform these four new pieces, and frame them with Bach’s Saint John and his Saint Matthew.  In two weeks we will have these four new works, and I’m looking forward to that very much.

BD:    Does that in any way put undue pressure on these four living composers, to live up to the bookends of the Bach masterpieces on either side?

HR:    They all admire Bach and want to do something in honor of Bach.  Of course, they all know these two pieces, and these are four completely different composers in their musical language.  It will be very interesting to see what comes out.  Gubaidulina is already done; her piece is ready.  From Rihm I have not seen one note.  Golijov has the first third ready, and Tan Dun writes long faxes of what he’s going to do.  We still have a year to go.

BD:    I hope you get it in enough time to rehearse them.

rillingHR:    When I did the Credo of Penderecki, which also was a commissioned work, I got the last pages five days before the premiere performance.

BD:    Did you have time to learn it?

HR:    Well, I didn’t know everything.  I’m always conducting by memory, you see, and I’m so used to long scores and so on.

BD:    When you see a new score, how long does it take before you get it into your mind and your psyche?

HR:    It takes a long time, but these were only five pages, so I could wait, and do it in a snap!  [Laughs]

BD:    You do so much material which is of a spiritual nature.  Do you find there’s a spiritual basis for all music, even when there is no text or no direct spiritual connection?

HR:    Answering to that in a general way, you would have to say good music, or music in general, is a gift from the Creator, and we have to be grateful for it.  This is something very important, something to ask what would our lives be without art or without music?  It would be very, very poor, terrible, and we should be very grateful that we have it.  Purely instrumental music will not have this direct connection to expressing these ideas as much as text-related music has.

BD:    Do you have any advice for other conductors who want to do either Bach or the standard repertoire?

HR:    I can only tell them how wonderful that is, and one must always have the courage to try it.  If you are someone who did not grow up in such a field, you should not say, “Oh, let me stay away from that.  This is something for the specialists.”  It would be, and in some ways is, a great loss that our symphony orchestras in Europe as well as here in this country are not doing that much of the big religious works in their series.  Fifty years ago this was completely different.  The requiems, the passions, all of this was part of the series of every orchestra.  It’s coming back a little.  In many places in this country I have seen that they are doing them again.  I myself did a few things with the Cleveland Orchestra.  I remember it was Saint John Passion.  With the Philadelphia Orchestra it was also Saint John, and with the New York Philharmonic I did B Minor Mass.  Next year I will do with the Los Angeles Philharmonic the Saint Matthew Passion.  I did that with the Vienna Philharmonic also.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

HR:    Yes, of course!  We see in our concerts so many enthusiastic young people all over the world!  Go to Japan and play Bach and you will see mostly young people who are very enthusiastic.  This doesn’t have to do anything with the religion.  It’s just fascinating to see that especially young people want to see something new which touches them.

BD:    Is the music that you do for everyone?

HR:    Of course!

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Six billion???

HR:    This is a question which I cannot answer because mankind lives on different levels.  Certainly the music which we do and which has been developed over centuries in Europe, is not the music for everyone.  You need some education for gaining people to accept and understand and then enjoy this music.  In this respect many things remain open, and it’s sad to say that for many of these people it is more important to have a living before we can convert them to our culture.  We should be very cautious because they also have their own culture in other parts of the world.

BD:    Should you try to assimilate some of their music into your repertoire?

HR:    Well, it is difficult.  We also tried that, and I’m sure, for example, with the Tan Dun Passion, things from that direction will come.  But then you have to say, “I know best what I have learned, and what I really know,” and to accept other things and try to do them might be difficult.

BD:    Thank you very much for staying after rehearsal and speaking with me this evening.

HR:    Well, you are very good, yes.  You are fantastic.  I was tired, and  now I’m not tired anymore. 


© 2000 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on March 2, 2000.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year.  This transcription was made early in 2015, and posted on this website at that time. 

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.