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
Working 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
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
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
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
Moldeveanu and Renato
Capecchi (caricatures shown on those pages) as well as Joan
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.
My 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 . . . . . . .
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?
Of course, there must be
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
HR: I hope so!
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!
the second performance be better than the
Sure! And the third, again, better than the
BD: So it’s
always going up and up and up?
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?
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
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?
course. It would be nice if there is one.
BD: I assume
there is one a lot of times.
HR: Yes, I
talked a bit about getting
the style. Is it your job to bring the right
style to each group?
HR: 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,
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
BD: Are you
sure that you are communicating the right
HR: I hope
so. I try my very best, and most of
the rehearsal is to work in a direction so that everybody understands
style in the same way. The brass must not be too heavy in Haydn,
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?
both, and more the mind.
[Surprised] Really??? You can get new instruments
to play the olden styles?
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
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
BD: Then is
there such a thing as a perfect performance, where you have the
technical perfection and also the expressive perfection?
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?
Yeah. There are many recordings which came
into existence this way.
better than going into the studio and
doing a few takes?
BD: You’ve made a lot of recordings. Do
like the recording process?
HR: 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
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,
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
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
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
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
BD: 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
BD: Do you
like being a Bach specialist?
Sure. This is an honor.
chorales will meet up with
all the old recordings of the cantatas and everything else?
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
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
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.
do the The Creation on
Sunday, it will be different from the The
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,
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
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
course, yes. I always try my best.
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?
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
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,
3. Sequenz – Dies Irae (by Paul-Heinz
4. Judex ergo (by Marek Kopelent, Czech
5. Juste judex (by John Harbison, US)
6. Confutatis (by Arne Nordheim,
7. Interludium (by Bernard Rands, UK/US)
8. Offertorium (by Marc-André Dalbavie,
9. Sanctus (by Judith Weir, UK)
10. Agnus Dei (by Krzysztof Penderecki,
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,
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
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
not a basic difference, but I must confess that I am admirer of
the works of good composers when both things come together — good
and a good composer, as in the Requiem
of Brahms, or the pieces with Latin texts such as the masses or the
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?
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 John — and 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
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
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
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
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
HR: 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
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!
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?
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
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
BD: Are you
optimistic about the whole future of
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
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.
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
culture in other parts of the world.
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
© 2000 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on
March 2, 2000. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following
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.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
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