Performance Thursday, May 3, 2012 | 6 PM

Making Music: Jörg Widmann

Zankel Hall
In addition to being one of the world’s top clarinetists, Jörg Widmann is among today’s most exciting composers. His music draws inspiration from 19th-century Romanticism, but is no mere pastiche. It instead invigorates the musical gestures and conventions we take for granted by using them in entirely new ways. On this concert, part of the Making Music series that explores composers’ works and processes, you can hear Widmann’s “volatile, energized, and expressive” (Guardian) music—and his virtuosic clarinet playing.
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The Program


About the Composer

Jörg Widmann was born in 1973 in Munich. Trained as a clarinetist and composer from a young age, he studied with a wide variety of notable German composers, including Hans Werner Henze, Heiner Goebbels, and Wolfgang Rihm. He studied clarinet at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München and received a master's degree from The Juilliard School. In recent years, Widmann has performed as a soloist with orchestras around the world and received great acclaim as a composer, garnering a contract with prestigious publisher Schott Music and a professorship in Freiburg.

Dramatic Music

Dramatic gesture is at the heart of Widmann's music. Like many other composers of his generation, he is also deeply fascinated with instrumental color. All of the works heard on tonight's program explore the sonic possibilities of an ensemble: The string players bow and pluck every part of their instrument; the pianist sings, claps, uses a lighter to strike the strings of the piano, and places a CD jewel case inside the instrument; the soprano sings enormous leaps without the aid of vibrato. Unsurprisingly, the clarinet in particular plays a special role in Widmann's music. He thoroughly exploits the instrument's immense dynamic range (from an almost inaudible whisper to screeching high notes), its ability to produce noises from fast key clicks, multiphonics (buzzy, loud squawks produced from "wrong" fingerings), and almost impossibly fast runs.

Widmann's use of timbre differs from that of many other contemporary European composers in that his sonic explorations are not an end in themselves. Rather, Widmann takes these unique sounds and sets them in wild, jarring juxtapositions—oftentimes against references to the German Romantic canon with which he grew up. These contrasts both highlight and contextualize each sound, helping guide the listener through the often dense terrains his work traverses.

—Christopher Cerrone

Fieberphantasie (Fever Fantasy)

In Fieberphantasie (Fever Fantasy), a work for clarinet, piano, and string quartet, Widmann's exotic timbres reveal a deep love for the music of Robert Schumann. Widmann describes Schumann's music as resembling "the contours of a fever curve: nervous, unsteady, and feverish, with an endless multitude of smaller and large wave peaks."

The work opens with the violins violently plucking their entire range in a matter of seconds. This sound cuts to the viola and cello bowing directly on their bridges, producing a quiet, breathy, toneless sound next to a long, sustained unison. The work proceeds in this manner: A brief idea is built up quickly before dying away. When listening, the sense of contrast and structure is gleaned not from moment-to-moment interplay, but rather from the focus on different instrumental groups.

The first part of the work showcases the strings; after this, the solo piano comes to the fore, featuring untraditional playing with a lighter, fingernails, and a paperclip. After almost seven minutes, the clarinet finally enters with a sustained note that gradually emerges from the fragmented texture. The clarinet itself is a kind of fever—as it rises in intensity, the whole instrumental ensemble becomes increasingly chaotic and noisy. Eventually, the clarinet asserts itself as the primary instrument in the work, with wild and jazz-like improvisations.

From here on, there are moments of coalescence. Not unlike Schumann, elements return—the pulse in the piano, the long sustained clarinet sounds—but they do so like much of the rest of the work: chaotically and emphatically, emphasizing the obsessive quality rather than the orderliness of Schumann's music.

—Christopher Cerrone

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


Listening to Intermezzi  brings to mind a quote from William Faulkner's novel Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." In a sense, this sums up Widmann's piano piece and its relation to its eponymous predecessors by Brahms. Many European composers—in particular German ones—strongly feel the pull of history; it may be old music, but it's alive as ever. Widmann describes the Brahms's intermezzi as

… an object of my devotion during childhood, which was subsequently long overshadowed by Schumann and is currently being rekindled. There is a mystery ensuing from sound and the anticipation of sound: For me, it is the intermediate space which characterizes the substance of music. In a nutshell: Intermezzi.

Widmann's Intermezzi adapt much from the Brahmsian sound world: carefully worked-out counterpoint, flowing melodic lines, and quick-shifting harmonies. But Widmann characteristically takes these elements to the extreme. Brahms's intermezzi  are all quite compact, but Widmann's first two intermezzi border on Webernian in length—just five or 10 measures. The next two pieces are more substantial. In the third, Widmann exploits Romantic tendencies like rubato to an extreme, with the pianist literally changing tempo at all times. The fourth intermezzo, subtitled "Wiegenlied" ("Lullaby"), begins gently, but eventually cascades into a sea of low and harsh clusters. The fifth and final intermezzo recalls the first two—aphoristic and short. Like Brahms's music, it is somehow both ambiguous and to the point.

—Christopher Cerrone

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Fünf Bruchstücke (Five Fragments)

Fünf Bruchstücke (Five Fragments), scored for clarinet and piano, features Widmann at his most idiomatic: composing for his own instrument. In the first piece, Widmann combines the clarinet and piano—seemingly opposite instruments—and blends them into a single sound. In the second piece, he gradually "deconstructs" clarinet playing. What initially appears to be a single figure—a repeated and jittery melodic line—actually becomes two separate ideas: one being clicking keys, the other being his breathing. They are movable parts that can be separated and put back together. The piano punctuates the movement with sharp attacks that are enhanced by rattling CD cases inside the piano. The piano comes to the fore in the third piece, a kind of recitative of gestures; the clarinet comments at a very soft  dynamic  throughout. The fourth fragment is a kind of cornucopia of modernistic gestures: banging clusters, dissonant leaps, wild figuration. But unlike Widmann's modernistic predecessors, this piece is not an expression of discord or anguish; it's more like a circus—over the top, bedlam. The final piece is intense and mournful; quiet bell-like gestures contrast against the pianist violently scraping the strings. The clarinetist plays a multiphonic that sounds like nothing short of a scream. But the piece ends with a whimper: quiet air sounds accompanying a ringing piano.

—Christopher Cerrone

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Versuch über die Fuge (Attempt at the Fugue)

Widmann's dramatic, avant-garde sound world serves to invigorate Baroque style in Versuch über die Fuge (Attempt at the Fugue). The fugue has always been considered the most academic of musical forms; even Bach, in his day, was considered old-fashioned for his frequent employment of it. Composers from Mozart and Beethoven to Hindemith and Shostakovich used the form to allude to an absolute, timeless, and essentially old musical world. Widmann does the opposite: He theatricalizes the act of composing a fugue. One can think of the work as recalling an extremely familiar scene to any music student: an amateur composer trying to write a fugue in the style of Bach, getting frustrated, and realizing that he or she will never live up to the master. But perhaps in the process, the composer discovers something about him or herself.

In Widmann's words:

[Versuch über die Fuge]  is the genesis of a fugue, not a fugue itself. It is taken literally, however, as "escape," as a multitude of attempts at the fugue subject: Motivically closely interwoven fragments of the theme and abbreviations of phrases appear and break off abruptly. They are divergent, yet always in relation to each other.

The work opens with a soprano singing "Vanitas vanitatum" ("Vanity of vanities," from the Book of Ecclesiastes) in church chorister style, recalling the "timeless" associations of the form. By starting the piece with this text, Widmann almost sets up the expectation that he will fail—but he tries anyway. The violin begins with three notes: A, B-flat, C-sharp—not much of a fugue subject, but it must suffice. The other strings imitate, but fall flat. We start over, this time in close imitation. The strings overlap with each other, but stall again.

Now the music becomes more emphatic, picking up steam until the voice returns singing the words "omnia vanitas" ("futile vanity"). As the work proceeds, it becomes closer to an actual fugue; interruptions from the soprano are less frequent. According to Widmann, "the typical 'flowing' of the fugue occurs only gradually." Little by little, the halting fragments become long lines. But Widmann also opens the proverbial window to let the 20th century in. Different kinds of noises are heard: bowing near and on the bridge, musicians swiftly whipping their bows in the air, loud breaths. The fugue needs the sounds of the modern world to keep going.

But just as it appears ready for a grand statement, the fugue is swallowed in a wash of instrumental noises. The soprano's text switches from the holy Latin verse to the "vulgar" German: "Fern ist der Grund der Dinge und tief; gar tief, wer will ihn finden?" ("That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?"). The music becomes simple and direct, focused on supporting the soprano, whose interruptive element has become the foreground. The fugue has failed so that the piece may succeed.

—Christopher Cerrone

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Perspectives: András Schiff
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Sponsored by Ernst & Young LLP
This performance is part of Making Music, and Perspectives: András Schiff.

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