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Aribert Reimann 1936–2024

“I knew I would be an outsider”

Obituary for the composer Aribert Reimann

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Aribert Reimann, one of the most distinguished composers of the post-war generation, has died at the age of 88.

Reimann was born into a musical family in Berlin. His mother was a singer and his father a professor of church music and director of the Berlin Domchor [cathedral choir]. He grew up in a Protestant home with excellent connections and the foundations for a career as a lieder accompanist were laid at an early stage. At a house concert in which Reimann accompanied his mother’s students, he made acquaintance with the pianist Michael Raucheisen who gave him vital impulses. At a later stage, the young Reimann studied counterpoint with Ernst Pepping and composition with Boris Blacher. Blacher was associated with the functional modern style, but soon urged his student to find his "own language".

Aribert Reimann achieved this aim early on in his career. His musical language was not only quite unlike that of Blacher’s generation, but also diverged from the rigorous stipulations purported in Darmstadt. Being ten years younger than composers such as Hans Werner Henze, Reimann was able to circumnavigate all forms of direct confrontation, but his decision to avoid an orientation to a specific school was also not taken lightly. Aribert Reimann became a loner whose path over the next few decades would be characterised by his highly personal sense of individualism.

Aribert Reimann was one of the first composers to use settings of texts by Paul Celan whom he had met in Paris in 1957. Reimann succeeded brilliantly in doing justice to the highly artificial and yet moralistic aspirations of these poems “after Auschwitz”. He never shied away from the exalted tone of these texts and other material from world-class literature: on the contrary, he deliberately homed in on them, engaging in a self-critical struggle through their musical settings to create an appropriate and authentic musical language as a reflection of the intrinsic historicity of these texts.

Fundamentally speaking, Reimann was not a political composer, but his oeuvre also includes compositions addressing the burning issues of his time as impressively exemplified by his Requiem Wolkenloses Christfest which was written in 1974 during the war in Vietnam. Nevertheless, Reimann aspired to achieve a timeless topicality rather than a perceived participation in current affairs which could explain why he primarily selected his subjects from the canon of world literature, particularly within an operatic context.

Notwithstanding the alleged impossibilities of the genre, Reimann also composed operas: he was a storyteller and placed his trust in the indestructible magic of words and, above all, the human voice. He brought a whole series of major tragic female protagonists to the stage with Melusine (1970), Troades (1985), Bernarda Albas Haus (1998/2000) and Medea (2007/09). Time and time again, audiences were captivated by his honest empathy and the humanity of his approach to music theatre.

Reimann’s great breakthrough came in 1978 with his opera Lear. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau not only provided inspiration for the work, but also sang the title role at the world premiere in Munich. The opera subsequently began its triumphal march through opera stages across the world and today still seems fresher than ever before. Reimann found an intensely convincing musical language for the profoundly disturbing theme of the work – “the isolation of an individual in utter loneliness, exposed to the entire brutality and dubious nature of life” - employing a tonal palette ranging from violent agglomerations of sound right down to the most delicately calm moments.

Reimann’s compositions have been published exclusively by Schott Music since 1960 and have provided inspiration for many younger composer colleagues over the decades as frankly expressed by Wolfgang Rihm in his laudation on the occasion of Reimann’s 80th birthday in the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. Only Reimann was capable of writing in this manner for the voice and his feeling for “cantabile and economy” were without doubt exemplary.

Reimann’s musical language is indeed characterised by this dialectic and is utterly shaped by the composer’s absolute control over the material and his simultaneous striving for the greatest possible freedom and openness. It was only natural that Reimann mastered serial and twelve-tone technique, utilised micropolyphony and the formation of clusters as compositional mediums, but an individual work in the emphatic sense always evolved out of the consistently immaculate technical foundations, substantially transcending the confines of its construction. Reimann remained loyal to his strict definitions of the work and its form, but while linearly developed progressions and logical structures offered a secure footing, the composer was at the same time constantly on the search for the greatest possible freedom, for example in metre and notation.

The broad spectrum of Reimann’s instrumental compositions ranges from unaccompanied solos (e.g. for cello, clarinet and oboe) via chamber music and solo concertos such as the two Piano Concertos (1961, 1972) and the Violin Concerto for Gideon Kremer (1995/96) to large-scale orchestral forms such as the Variationen für Orchester (1975) and the Zeit-Inseln (2004), but the composer completely avoided traditional genres such as symphonies or string quartets.

Reimann’s mastery in the treatment of the human voice enabled him to work with renowned singers including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Grümmer and Brigitte Fassbaender. He made innumerable recordings as a lied pianist, demonstrating the uncommon expanse of his repertoire, composed virtuoso and yet never unsingable roles for frequently young singers as a highly productive lied and opera composer and, in his capacity as a teacher at music colleges in Hamburg and Berlin, ultimately shaped an entire generation of singers for whom contemporary music became firmly established in the repertoire right from the start.

Aribert Reimann died in Berlin on 14 March 2024. It is with great respect that we bid farewell to a great artist whose empathetic sense of humanity will continue to live on in his works.

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Head of Promotion | Concert Opera Media Division

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