“Werner Heider: Piano – Chamber – Large Orchestra”
Architektur for large orchestra,
Berge zugespitzt for piano solo,
Klarinettenquintett for clarinet (b-flat) and string quartet,
Sechs Eigenschaften for string trio.
Adrian Krämer (Clarinet), Werner Heider (Piano).
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks – Peter Eötvös.
FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY
In 2006, at the world premiere of his orchestral work Architektur at musica viva in Munich, Werner Heider was asked what metaphysical or symbolic notions were behind its formal design. He baffled the questioner with a very clear answer: “My piece is quite simply a composition of musical architecture. There are no secrets to be read into it, nor are there any extra-musical comparisons.” This was a statement that, beyond the specific occasion, identified a key aspect of Heider’s music. For even if many of his works have been inspired by other art forms, autobiographical or private elements, and in some cases even reflect on contemporary historical events, what emerges at the end of the creative process each time is not a statement of worldview, not a philosophical speculation in sound, but rather a piece of autonomous, absolute music.
Heider espouses “demanding music for demanding people”, concessions to any notion of audience taste are alien to him. And yet, with his extensive output, he has made his mark in Franconian cultural life for decades as a pianist, conductor and long-standing director of the “ars nova ensemble nürnberg”. For many people in the Nuremberg metropolitan area, the name Heider has become synonymous with New Music, while his mischievous smile and sharply alert gaze, now framed by a head of white hair, are the face of the avant-garde. Music has always been his lifeblood. Born in Fürth in 1930, one of his earliest childhood memories is that of a coffee house band with saxophone and drum kit. While other children dreamt of train sets, the four-year-old Werner wanted drums for Christmas. This affinity for rhythm remained: to this day, he often makes a rhythmic score as the first step in a new composition.
After the war, Heider founded a band, played for the American troops and discovered Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman; he would later say that he had “a kind of primal feel for jazz”. At the same time, the fifteen-year-old Heider also took classical composition lessons with Willy Spilling, the later director of the music department at the Bavarian Radio’s Nuremberg Studio, and from 1951 he studied piano, conducting and composition in Munich. What he found musically exciting, however, were not so much the lessons given by his rather staid teacher Karl Höller as his visits to the Darmstadt Summer Course. Heider immersed himself in the world of the post-war avant-garde there, without ever allowing himself to be co-opted by a particular school. He remained an independent thinker; his rich store of anecdotes has as much space for Mauricio Kagel and Bruno Maderna (who conducted his music) as for Chet Baker and the Modern Jazz Quartet (for whom he composed). He also suffered for this versatility, Heider says; a contemporary composer who visited a jazz club was viewed “like a monk who went to a brothel”.
Freedom was always a central concern for Werner Heider, and accordingly – thanks to a healthy amount of insistence, persuasiveness and a network that went beyond the narrow boundaries of New Music – he achieved the difficult feat of leading the life of a freelance composer, free from institutional constraints. This soon won him recognition in various forms, including two residencies at the Villa Massimo in Rome, the Culture Prizes of the cities of Nuremberg, Fürth and Erlangen (where he has lived since 1958) or the Wolfram von Eschenbach Prize; since 2019, he has also been an honorary member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts. His performances with the “ars nova ensemble nürnberg”, which he founded in 1968 – long before Ensemble Modern or Ensemble intercontemporain existed – became the stuff of legend. For almost half a century, Heider stood at the conductor’s stand and performed countless works of his own and by others, then recorded them for Bavarian Radio – with a highly accurate, but also electrically energetic conducting style that reveals a great deal about his musical thinking. For Heider’s compositions are always marked by clear structures, even though they rarely hew to traditional formal models. At the same time, however abstract they might be, the communicative element is always in the foreground; his music, from solo to orchestral works, is always vivid and characterised by gestural immediacy. Thus it is always an experience when Heider speaks about a nascent work and begins to imitate the music’s gestures by humming, whispering, chanting or tracing forms with his hands.
The “Gesamtkunstwerk” that is Werner Heider himself becomes most directly palpable when he sits down at the piano and plays his own music. He has continued to give recitals at a venerable age, including his compositions as well as improvisations, interspersed with witty comments. The recording of the piano piece Berge zugespitzt comes from one such concert, recorded in 2012 at the Fürth Kulturforum. The premiere, admittedly, took place in a considerably more spectacular location: the Zugspitze (Germany’s highest mountain) on the occasion of an exhibition of the Nuremberg painter Werner Knaupp’s rugged, dramatic mountain pictures at the “Gipfelhaus” in 1997. Heider’s music captures the elemental quality of the paintings by layering massive chordal blocks, translating the mountain peaks into jagged lines and, using the entire keyboard, developing a broad panorama between shadowy depths and icy heights. Captivated, the listener forgets that this seemingly rhapsodic piece is actually rigorously organised – from the intervallic and rhythmic starting material to the overarching form, comprising twelve “mountain blocks” and eleven intervening “plains”.
He never begins composing without such a formal plan, Heider says: “Actually, I could call many of my pieces ‘Architecture’!” And that is what he did in his 2004 orchestral work Architektur – eschewing a traditional term like “symphony”, even though the piece’s four movements give it a typical symphonic structure. The first movement (“Projekt”), with great rhythmic immediacy, builds up from a monophonic drawing to an elaborate seven-part picture, much like an architect’s plan. The slow second movement (“Statik”), by contrast, creates an atmosphere of tense calm; Heider describes it as being in a state of “static equilibrium”. The third movement (“Konstruktion”) is analogous to the shell of a building: it is based entirely on the parameter of rhythm. Here, small rhythmic shapes in the strings and wind are gradually concentrated to form complex polyrhythms; at the end, three crashing drums push their way into the foreground. The final movement (“Interna”), however, has a remarkably chamber music-like character. Heider acts as a form of interior architect, animating the orchestral edifice with twelve equally large, but differently-arranged rooms: five solos, three duos, two trios and two quartets. The large orchestra remains in the background as an accompaniment, and the delicate closing gesture clearly distances itself from the exuberant character of a symphonic finale.
In the realm of chamber music too, Heider has shown particular sympathy towards the individual for decades: alongside his piano music, he has written over thirty solo works for practically all common instruments, often for musician friends. He has largely avoided the great “classical” chamber music genres, which makes his turn towards these traditions in his late works all the more notable – usually without any specific occasion, simply following an inner impulse. He composed a very personal Lamento passionato for string quartet (based on his first string quartet from 1978) in 2012, a clarinet quintet in 2015, a string trio in 2017, a piano trio in 2018 and the third string quartet in 2019. Sechs Eigenschaften for string trio is a set of transparent, contemplative miniatures in the tradition of the character piece. Each piece focuses on a different characteristic, from the quiet breathing of the “calmo” to the gruff chords of the “collegio” and the slightly more experimental instrumental approach of the “capricioso”, until the work’s resolute conclusion. The central “Adagio ed arioso”, with the melancholy song of the violin, has a special role: it is a musical obituary for Heider’s wife Lydia, who died in 2012.
The Clarinet Quintet too is characterised by a pensive, melancholy tone, although the introductory “Capriccio” is repeatedly spiced with “giocoso” sections. From the start, the composition unfolds as an artfully intertwined dialogue between the soloistic clarinet (which is also given two short cadenzas) and the string quartet. After the elegiac “Notturno” (including an “Andante sostenuto à la Chopin”), the driving third movement invokes the power of rhythm. In closing with the quiet, shadowy “Ausklang”, however, the work virtually demands a comparison with the autumnal quintets by Mozart and Brahms – a standard that Heider has always embraced: “Every piece should be created with the greatest responsibility”, he already stated in 1986. “In fact, I’m composing for eternity!”