We catch up with composer and clarinettist Jörg Widmann ahead of performances of this works at Grafenegg Festival in Austria, where he is this year’s composer in residence, and the BBC Proms.
How did you move from clarinet playing to composing?
For me, everything stems from the clarinet, which I started when I was seven after hearing some Mozart. Whenever I played I would improvise, and then be annoyed when I couldn’t remember the good bits, so I began writing them down. I soon learnt composing was a bit harder than that…
When was your first major piece performed?
When I was 16, Hans Werner Henze was running the Munich Biennale and he asked my [specialist music] school if we would do an opera, so I wrote one. I made all the mistakes it is possible to make, but it lasted 90 minutes, and we all survived. It was called Absences and was about dreaming away school … at the time I thought the ‘avant garde’ was a band and an orchestra fighting against each other, it was that clash that interested me.
Grafenegg invites young composers to have their works performed in the Ink Still Wet series of workshops. How did you decide which works should be included this year?
I selected the pieces with the conductor Lothar Zagrosek. What we look for is originality over technique, and it’s hard to find. But these composers will have the most fantastic opportunity to learn simply by hearing the works performed. I’m so grateful I had those experiences when I was young. Nothing else can give you that depth of insight.
What was the most significant learning experience you had like that yourself when you were young?
When I was about 12 I missed school to go to Strasbourg to see Boulez conducting Répons and Dialogue de l’ombre double with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. It changed my life. It was a momentous, ecstatic experience. I thought, ‘I want to write music in that way.’ Afterwards, Boulez became a very important figure in my life. In 2006 he conducted my Armonica with the Vienna Philharmonic. He lives in Baden-Baden, I’m in Freiburg, so we’re in touch.
Your sister, violinist Carolin Widmann, is an exceptional musician too – is there music in your family?
No, my parents were not professional musicians, though they did form an amateur quartet with friends and always encouraged us. I love discovering new aspects of instruments, and it was wonderful to have Carolin there to carry out my wildest experiments: I wrote my Etudes for Violin for her.
What was your fellowship with the Cleveland Orchestra like?
The sound of that orchestra was my greatest gift – they are so brilliantly disciplined and so balanced and have a unique brass section. Also Franz Welser-Möst has brave programming ideas – like combining my works with a Brahms symphony cycle – and, unlike so many, he always goes through with them and carries the audience with him.
Tell us about your two works that the Cleveland Orchestra will bring to the Proms?
Flûte en suite was inspired by the principal flautist Joshua Smith who is such a special, subtle player – he makes everyone listen in. I wanted to use the lower register of the flute and combine it with different groups of instruments in different dances. It would have been a crime to leave out the brass, so I had to find a way of including them while the flute could still be heard. Teufel Amor (Devil Love) is one big, heartfelt statement for orchestra, a cry of love in all its agony and ecstasy. It begins with seven or eight minutes of darkness, without violins, before they arrive in high unison. It was inspired by this line from Friedrich Schiller: ‘Sweet love, remain in melodic flight.’
Do you still perform on the clarinet despite all your composing commitments?
Ah yes, I could not imagine life without playing my clarinet. It brings me more joy the older I get and it feeds everything I do.