Composer / Pianist  Aribert  Reimann

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Aribert Reimann was born on 4 March 1936 in Berlin. He grew up in a musical family; his father was an organist and director of the Berlin State and Cathedral Choir, his mother was a renowned oratorio singer and singing teacher. Reimann composed his first lieder with piano at the age of ten. After having passed his Abitur [higher education entrance examination] in 1955, he worked as repetiteur in the Studio of the State Opera House in Berlin and simultaneously studied composition with Boris Blacher and Ernst Pepping and piano with Otto Rausch at the Academy of Music in Berlin. He gave his first concerts as pianist and lied accompanist in 1957. A year later, he attended the University of Vienna to study musicology.

reimann His ballet Stoffreste based on a libretto by Günter Grass received its premiere at the Städtische Bühnen in Essen in 1959. Music theatre and lieder provided the nucleus for Reimann’s further artistic development. As early as 1971, the composer was awarded the German Critics’ Prize for his complete oeuvre up to that date. From 1974 to 1983, he was professor at the Hamburg Musikhochschule with the specialist area contemporary lied and from 1983 in the same function at the Berlin University of the Arts. Aribert Reimann lives and works in Berlin.

The affinity for the human voice provides a strong impulse for Aribert Reimann’s compositional activity. Alongside lied settings of texts by authors such as Paul Celan, James Joyce, Joseph von Eichendorff and Louïze Labé, the composer has also produced numerous chamber music works, solo concertos and orchestral works such as Miniatures for string quartet (2004/05), the two Piano Concertos (1961 und 1972), Seven Fragments for Orchestra (in memoriam Robert Schumann, 1988) and the orchestral work Zeit-Inseln (2004).

Reimann’s operatic output began in 1965 with the first performance of Ein Traumspiel based on a text by August Strindberg in Kiel. This was followed by Melusine, based on the play by Yvan Goll, premiered at the Schwetzingen Festival in 1971. With his opera Lear (1978, Bayerische Staatsoper), Aribert Reimann was able to win over not only specialists and critics but also a wider public for his characteristic personal style. The work has been performed internationally in more than thirty productions. With its basis on the play by William Shakespeare, the composer created music with an almost physical directness which is at all times aware of its existence on the borderline to being struck dumb. In 1984, Die Gespenstersonate, also on a text by August Strindberg, was premiered in Berlin and, in 1986, Troades based on the play by Euripides in the version by Franz Werfel.


reimann Reimann undertook a further ambitious literary project from 1990 to1992 with his opera Das Schloß based on the novel by Franz Kafka (first performance 1992): the nightmarish and labyrinthine atmosphere of the text is reflected in a chamber musical and fragile texture of the music. The premiere of Bernarda Alba’s House, based on the text by Federico García Lorca, took place at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich in 2000. Considered as one of the leading German-speaking opera composers, Aribert Reimann has received a commission from the Vienna State Opera to compose an opera on Medea based on the play of the same name by Franz Grillparzer which has been awarded "World Première of the Year" by German magazine "Opernwelt". His latest music theatre work, L'Invisible, is based on three dramas by Maurice Maeterlink and was premiered in autumn 2017 at Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Aribert Reimann has received numerous honours and awards, including the Grand Cross for Distinguished Service of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1985, the 'Prix de composition musicale de la Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco' in 1986, the Bach Prize of the Free Hanseatic city of Hamburg in 1987, the Order of Merit of the State of Berlin in 1988, in 1991 the Frankfurt Music Prize, the Grand Cross with Star for Distinguished Service of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1995, the Goldene Nadel from the Dramatiker Union in 2002, the Berlin Art Prize for Music and the medal of the Free Academy of Arts in Hamburg in 2002, the Arnold Schönberg Prize in 2006 and the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize in 2011. In 1999, Reimann was appointed as Commandeur de 'L'Ordre du Mérite Culturel de la Principauté de Monaco’. He is also a member of the Order Pour le Mérite for science and the arts and honorary member of the German Music Council.

--  From the Schott Website [Text only - photos added for this presentation]  


We met in May, 1997, on the day after the World Premiere of his Violin Concerto, played by Gidon Kremer, with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Daniel Barenboim.  (Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.)

His English was quite good, but, as with so many who learn it as a second (or even later) language, grammar and syntax are often styled as in the first tongue.  Many of these details have been smoothed out on this webpage, but his thoughts remain as he wished, and his ideas come through with solid frankness.

reimann Here is our conversation . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   What do you expect the public to bring to a performance of your music
if anything at all?

Aribert Reimann:   Their experiences are very different from country to country, and from town to town.  You can never expect full understanding from the audience.  Besides, what is the audience?  There is such a variety of different people that are in the audience, but when there are two, or three, or four or more people who like the music, this is very fine.  Yesterday I was at the performance of the Violin Concerto, and I was very happy about the reaction of the audience.  I had the feeling while the concerto was being played, that the atmosphere was very quiet, with much attention to the music.

BD:   I trust this pleases you?

AR:   Yes, yes.

BD:   You want the public to get a lot out of the performance.  Do you expect the performers to know everything about a performance of your music?

AR:   It’s good if some people know my music, but it is not necessary.  If the people are open to music of every kind of style in contemporary music, fine, but otherwise it’s not possible.  If the audience or the public is against a piece from the first bar, then it doesn’t help.  Yesterday, the audience was very, very open and free, and could listen.  Who understands the music?  That’s another question!

BD:   But also the performers need to get into your music?

AR:   Yes, the performance yesterday was incredible how Gidon Kremer played the music.

BD:   Do you search out sympathetic performers?

AR:   I’m happy if the performers are sympathetic.  [Laughs]  Sometimes you have performers who are not, but they understand the music.  These are two different things.  The performers must understand the music, otherwise they cannot play the music.  To make music without understanding is totally not possible.  The
players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were so co-operative.  They played so marvelously, and they understand what they play.  That made me very happy.  The experience of this wonderful orchestra was a joy.

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard over the years by many orchestras and many singers?

AR:   Yes, but with differences, of course.  In the United States I have had several very good experiences.  In the Lear in San Francisco, the orchestra was marvelous, and then the Houston Symphony Orchestra played my Nine Orchestra Pieces, and Christoph Eschenbach was the conductor.  This was also a very, very good experience.

BD:   You work with singers a lot, and I’ll come back to singers specifically in a moment.  But when you were writing the Violin Concerto, did you think at all of the violin as a voice?

AR:   Sometimes, but otherwise there are many musical passages which are far from the voice.  My experience of composing for years is that I’m singing inside
not outside, but insidewhether I’m writing a line for a singer or for a violin.  I must feel what I’ve written.  

BD:   Do you feel it in your head or in your heart?

AR:   I feel it in my heart, and think in my head.  This singing inside comes automatically.

reimann BD:   Where is the balance between head and the heart?

AR:   [Thinks a moment]  The head is necessary to bring out what you feel in your heart.  Otherwise, the head without heart is not music for me.  But you need the head all the time to organize what you feel, and what you have for your eyes, your imagination, your fantasy.  All these different things are coming to you if you are writing a piece.  They appear to me as pictures, and then you have to organize all these things you will bring out.  This is not possible without technical things in composition.

BD:   When you’re working with a piece and you’re getting your ideas down on the paper, are you ever surprised by what you feel?

AR:   No, because before I start to compose, I’m writing my things.  They’re going through my head with words.

BD:   You are writing the original ideas?

AR:   Yes, but I describe them with words.  Then I start if I have the form of a piece.  This was very important for the Violin Concerto because I wouldn’t write a concerto in three or four movements.  So, I tried to write a concerto in one movement, but in different sections that come together.  

BD:   But it all had to be one piece?

AR:   Yes, yes.

BD:   A three- or four-movement piece is not one piece???

AR:   Maybe, but it’s so traditional in my mind, so I was searching for a new form.  Before this Violin Concerto, years ago I wrote a Double Concerto for Violin and Cello.  So I had experience of writing for violin.  I’ve also written a Violin Sonata in my early years, but never published it.  I have also written a String Quartet and a String Trio and many, many other things.  

BD:   Is writing for a solo violin very different from writing for the violin section in the orchestra?  

AR:   Yes, absolutely, yes, yes.

BD:   Even though it’s the same instrument under the chin?

AR:   [Laughs]  Yes, that’s right.  You must give the violin player the place, the ground.  It was easier to write the Double Concerto because I had these two people and the orchestra.  If you have two, you have the tension between the two instruments.  If you only have one, it couldn’t be a monologue.  You have to involve the violin into the orchestra.  In this new piece, I wrote these cadenzas, three short and one long cadenza.  The material from the cadenzas comes from the fast part in the second movement in the orchestra.

BD:   Occasionally they don
t, but aren’t cadenzas supposed to come from the previous material?

AR:   Yes, of course.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Talking about the big forms, is it easier to work with if you have a text, whereas in a concerto it’s completely abstract and you must create the form?

AR:   Of course!  If you are writing an opera, you have a play or a novel
like The Castle [Das Schloss] by Franz Kafka, or Lear, which is an enormous, huge playand I had the libretto to dispose of.  Now, this whole opera is not easier when you write a piece like the Concerto, but I have to invent my own form.  That’s the only thing that makes the difference from an opera.  But if you are writing an opera, you have also to invent a form because every scene must have its own form.  That’s always very important for me.


BD:   It’s not dictated by the text?

AR:   It’s dictated by the text, but the music also dictates to you a form, besides being only the text.  I must bring a form to this scene, and then I can put the language passages, the voice parts, into the orchestra part and into the form.

BD:   Is there ever a time when you purposely put conflict between the music and the text?

AR:   It comes, yes.  There are parts where I have the feeling now it’s a fight, and this holds me up.  To write only music on the line of the text, I must invent my own absolute music in the opera.  So, sometimes the text and the form of the scene are in contrast.

BD:   Are there ever times when you could take the text out and leave the rest of the music as an abstract piece?

AR:   I never have done that because the music is too much connected with the text.  In The Castle I have eight interludes, and I was thinking about bringing them into a concert version, but I haven’t done it.  The interludes are necessary to reflect on what’s happened before, and to lead the way into the next scene.  I’ve brought together the five interludes with the three monologues of Lear into a concert version and it’s sometimes done.

*     *     *     *     *

reimann BD:   When you’re writing, and you’re looking down at the page and getting ideas, are you creating these ideas or are you discovering these ideas?

AR:   Both!  Sometimes I create, and later I discover things which were new for me.  That’s very often the second thing.  The way is I create, and then I discover.  

BD:   You create, and then you discover what you’ve created?

AR:   When I have created something, maybe two or three pages that I have composed, sometimes I discover things which bring me further.  Sometimes it’s a kind of sound, or vertical chords, or lines, or structures, and then I think, 
Aha!  From this structure I can develop the next part, and the next things happen after this.  It happens especially in the operas, but also in pieces like the Concerto.

BD:   In an abstract work, how do you know when you’re finished?

AR:   I must have the end before my eyes before I can start.  If it’s an opera, it is the text, but this also happened in the concerto.  I knew that the Concerto will end, then how the Concerto will end, and then I could start to compose and go like a traveler through the piece.

BD:   Let me ask the same question a little differently.  When you’re working and you have all of it sketched out, you tinker and put all of the ideas in place and make it right.  How do you know when everything is right and you must let it go?

AR:   Sometimes I do many sketches, sometimes I write in the particulars.  This is very difficult to describe.  I have a rather good feeling for time and for timing, and if I have the feeling I have come to the end, I cannot go further.  It comes while composing, and the piece dictates to me that I am coming to the end.  It’s very difficult to describe because it’s very unconscious at times.  Sometimes I think it’s too early, that it’s not possible, and then I try to go further and further.  Then I have the feeling that it’s too much.  So it’s an inner ear thing.  You have to know the piece, and it will want to come to the end.

BD:   The piece itself wants to end?

AR:   Yes, yes.  It comes to every piece.  If the piece takes you and you don’t take the piece, sometimes the point comes earlier, and sometimes very late.  But when the time is coming that a piece takes you, you have to follow for what the piece wishes from you.  Then it’s the right moment, and this is the moment I expect anytime.  Then it’s much easier, also.

BD:   Do you ever go back and revise a score after a performance?

AR:   I have problems with that.  When I listen to pieces I’ve written years ago, I sometimes think I have to revise and change something.  But the time when I wrote the piece, is over.  For me to think again in that time, to re-find myself as I was years ago is very, very difficult.  I never have done it.

BD:   It would be better that you just write a new piece?

AR:   Yes, yes. The piece I’ve written is okay.  It’s finished.  

BD:   Is it like a photograph of a time gone by?

AR:   Yes, it’s finished, and I have to find a new way and a new piece.  

*     *     *     *     *

reimann BD:   Let me ask a very easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

AR:   Music can bring out something in the audience which you have in your mind.  I never think of audience when I’m composing, but there is somebody, or you speak to an unknown somebody.  You can move somebody, or... I will not say make them lucky or happy, but get them to the point where they can find themselves, or allow the music to evoke something in the people who are listening to your music.  Things then come out in these people.  They might never have believed music could do so many, many things, such as evoke pictures and elicit other feelings, or emotions.  There’s part of the purpose of writing music.

BD:   Do you then strive to make these things happen in your music?

AR:   No, never!  I cannot do that.  That’s the reason I have no audience in my mind.  As I spoke at the beginning, what is the audience?  Everybody is an individual, a separate human being.

BD:   Then for whom do you write?

AR:   I must write music!  That’s my life; that’s my reason for staying here on Earth.  I played piano very much besides composing, but the playing never gave me so much as composing.  I must compose, and then if you reach somebody with your music, or you reach the heart or the head or whatever it is, then it makes me very happy. 

BD:   Are you a better composer because you are also a pianist of other people’s music?

AR:   This does not influence my music.  In earlier times I played very much, and I played sometimes too much.  It took too much of my time and energy from composing, so I stopped playing   I play very rarely now, and it is mostly my own pieces.  Brigitte Fassbaender is not singing any more, but we did The Book of the Hanging Gardens by Arnold Schoenberg very often.  Fischer-Dieskau and I had many, many concerts together, but he’s also not singing any more.  I teach a class of contemporary music songs for singers and pianists at the Hamburg Hochschule, and at the Conservatory in Berlin.  It’s wonderful to be able to bring my own experiences to other people, and to work with them on pieces I played, or new pieces I’ve never played.  To bring them to contemporary music, and to the point where they discover their own personality is much easier with contemporary music than with the music from the last century.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???  Why?

AR:   They’re living today, and contemporary music is the music of their time.  It’s the music of our time.  In my experience, it is always the same.  If students have many difficulties with singing or playing music, when they are doing new pieces they change their personality so they get open and free.  Then they have another reflection and connection to the music from other times.  

BD:   So, they should work from today backwards, rather than from before forwards?

AR:   Yes, because then the music is not like a museum for them.  It is all the time very, very exciting, and we work together. I do it in the form of courses, so I have four weeks in the semester, and in that time, I cannot compose because I’m teaching the whole day.  I have them every day, and this is very good for this complicated music.

BD:   Do you ever learn anything from your students?

reimann AR:   Yes, and this is very good.  I also learned, of course, from playing.  I played the whole set of Webern songs, and Berg and Schoenberg.  You can learn a lot of things, but the influences are in the conservatory way.  I played much of their music, but I have nothing to do with it for my composing.  

BD:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

AR:   It’s a part of my nature.  I sang very much as a boy, and when I was ten [1946] I sang in Der Jasager by Kurt Weill at the Berlin Theater.  At that time, I started to compose.  I came during the rehearsals, and this was, retrospectively, a very interesting point.  I was staying on the stage every day rehearsing, and I was influenced for writing opera.  It was a very important time for me, and I started writing Lieder, and then other pieces.  Before I start, it’s necessary for me to know for whom I’m writing, for which voice.

BD:   For which voice, or for which category or specific person?

AR:   A specific person, and also which category.  Before I start an opera, I don’t always know it, but when I know it, it’s wonderful because every voice can give you other inspirations.  There are many pieces I never would have written if I had not had this connection to a singer’s life.  I’ve written many pieces for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Catherine Gayer, the American soprano who was living in Berlin.  She’s a very special kind of coloratura soprano, so I wrote for her the Six Poems by Sylvia Plath [LP Jacket shown at right].  She also gave me other inspiration.  My next is a chamber opera in one or two years, after the play by Federico Garcia Lorca, The House of Bernarda Alba.  I know now who are the famous singers, and if you have so many famous singers on stage, it’s necessary to know who is singing, because then I have in my ear the voices, and I have many, many variations.  But after that, it is easy for the second person who is singing the same role.

BD:   If you write it for one person, it doesn’t preclude being sung by someone else?

AR:   No, no.  The moment came and Lear was on another stage without Fischer-Dieskau.  All the Lears told me it’s not difficult for them to bring the part into their voice, because they feel that the role is written for a special singer.

BD:   So you write it for a singer, rather than just writing it for a voice?

AR:   Yes.  I’m not sitting at the desk and abstractly thinking of a voice, but the experience.  I accompanied so many, many singers in my time, and I heard so many voices.  There are many voices I’d never the wish to write for.  Each piece of mine is very special.  A voice can give you something, and it can evoke some music, while another voice, a singer who sings perfectly, doesn’t interest me enough to want to write a piece for this voice.

BD:   It doesn’t grab you?

AR:   No!  It’s like the poem.  When I read poems, there can be one poem when I hear music, and there can be nine other poems, wonderful poems, where I never have the feeling to bring them into music. 

BD:   If you read a poem, it’s complete in itself.  But then you’re adding something more, another dimension to it?

AR:   Yes, sometimes it’s one line, or one word, or a way of connecting words that inspired me to bring the music.  Then I’m working.  I read the words, I feel the words, and I must also look behind the words, behind the poem.  The music is growing up behind the poem, not inside the poem.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You get commissions all the time.  How do you decide to accept a commission or turn it aside?

AR:   Sometimes I must turn them aside when it’s too much.

BD:   How do you decide?

reimann AR:   It’s difficult to say.  If I get commissions, they come very, very early, and I plan for the next five years.  So when commissions come now, I have to say no, it’s not possible.  Sometimes a commission comes to write a piece for a strange cast, or a chamber music cast, or something when I have the feeling it’s not for me.  Then it’s better if it goes to another composer.  

BD:   You have no fear that the ideas will be there two, five, eight years hence?

AR:   No, but mostly when I have the feeling I must write a chamber music piece, or an orchestral work, usually the commission comes.  Very often the commission comes saying,
“Write a piece for us, and you can decide.

BD:   That doesn’t give you too much freedom?

AR:   No.  After Lear, I thought my next opera must be a chamber opera, and I came back to Strindberg and The Ghost Sonata.  My first opera after Strindberg was A Dream Play in 1964.  Then in 1984 it was The Ghost Sonata.  After completing A Dream Play, I had the feeling I was not ready to do more with Strindberg.  There’s something else I needed to prove.  But when I got a commission to write a chamber opera, I said if it’s The Ghost Sonata by Strindberg, then I would do it.  So that is how it came to be written.

BD:   So you not only have to organize each piece, you have to organize your life of pieces?

AR:   Yes, yes.  I try to remember what’s happening that year, or that year, or another year.  I remember the years by my pieces.  My life is composing, and so this goes together.

BD:   Do you only work on piece at a time, or do you have a couple going at once?

AR:   At the moment I am writing two pieces side by side, but I stopped the chamber opera.  I’m now writing for the Opera Factory in London, and I will write a short piece of chamber music for Gidon Kremer and his Lockenhaus group.

BD:   Is it difficult to keep two pieces separate?

AR:   Yes, but I cannot truly write two pieces together.  I always admire how Maurice Ravel could do it with the two piano concertos.  He started with both and he ended with both.  I tried it once with Melusine and the The Scarecrows, but after four weeks I had to give up.  I decided that I am writing The Scarecrows, and when I have finished, then I will come back to Melusine.  Otherwise, too much is going on in the head.  The danger is that both pieces can be much too similar, but this is not the case with Maurice Ravel.  They are both different.  You have the feeling there are years and years between the two concertos.

BD:   When you’re writing one piece, do you ever get an idea that you think won’t work in this piece, but will work in another piece, and maybe store it away?

AR:   Yes, this happened, of course.  

BD:   Do you keep all of your sketches?

AR:   Yes, and I have in my mind many, many musical things.  I hear things for my next opera in my imagination, but I keep it in my mind, and it’s like I just put it down there.  I think very often about that, and I know that this piece will be completely different from the pieces I’m writing at the moment, completely different.  So I let it grow in my mind, and one day I will come to do this opera.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What advice do you have for performers of your music, or of new music in general?

AR:   You mean with my own music?

BD:   Yours, or just music of today.

AR:   Especially my students?

reimann BD:   Well, start with singers who want to improve their technique and be better at performing music of today.

AR:   To step into the music
not only the voice line, but to comprehend the whole piece.  Sometimes you meet singers who ask what’s going on in the orchestra.  Or they might say that it’s not interesting for them.

BD:   They just doing their part and that’s all?

AR:   Their part and that’s all!  This is not enough, but most singers are that way.  They do not understand what’s happening in the music.  The most important thing is that there is a connecting play between the orchestra and the vocal line.  They need to listen to the orchestra, and the orchestra has to listen to the singers.

BD:   [With mock horror]  You mean, there must be co-operation???

AR:   [Laughs]  Yes, of course, there must be, yes.

BD:   I’m laughing because to me it’s incomprehensible that it would not exist!

AR:   Yes, but it’s a dream.  There are some singers who know.  Fischer-Dieskau always knew which instrument was playing.  He could orientate if he listens to this line, and bring out his part a little bit differently, knowing they are together.  This, then, is a kind of chamber music.

BD:   But, of course that goes for being a sensitive artist.

AR:   Yes, of course, yes.  But there are artists that have it.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

AR:   [Enthusiastically]  Oh, yes!  There are so many, many young composers in Germany and also in the States, and it’s wonderful.  Each composer has his own language and his own way.  We are living in a pluralistic age now, and there are so many possibilities.  You have the serial composers on the one side, and you have the minimalist composers on the other side.  It’s like a mosaic.  There are so many things that are now being written.  Music is living together with human beings.

BD:   One last question.  Is composing fun?

AR:   [Pauses a moment]  Very rare!  [Both laugh]  Fun?  No, it’s another kind of feeling, but it’s not fun.  Somebody asked Stravinsky why he was composing, and he said,
Because of the wonderful feeling I have after composing!  This is the feeling I get when I have composed well in the day.  It’s not every day, but if I have a day and have the feeling I have done a lot of things, then I’m very happy for the rest of the day.  Sometimes composing is very pressing, and hurts you, and can kill you if you have very, very high tension.  These are difficult situations you come to as composer, or as painter, or as writer.  If you have had a good day working, then it is also happy while working.  But this feeling after the working is very good.

BD:   Is there an exhilaration?
AR:   Yes.

BD:   Good.  I wish you lots of continued success.

AR:   Thank you very much.  

BD:   Thank you for coming to Chicago.  I hope you will come back.

AR:   Yes, I hope so.


See my intereviews with Ernst Krenek, Hans Werner Henze, and Leon Kirchner


© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 16, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 2001.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at itive.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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.

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.