Budapest Festival Orchestra
Interviews September 04, 2014

"In Budapest music means something"

Interview with Jörg Widmann

It is evident that you are a musically multi-talented person. How can you decide in a certain kind of situation whether you are a clarinet player, a composer, a conductor, or a lecturer? Once you mentioned that you cannot imagine your life without your instrument and composing either.

J. W.: I am very lucky and grateful that I am allowed to deal with these many aspects of music, and it is true that I could not imagine my life without any of these. These are the different forms of one and the same thing, which is music. When I play the clarinet and I am on stage, there is a certain kind of adrenaline and it is different from sitting two years at your table writing an opera.

Isn’t there any adrenaline while writing an opera?

There is a lot of adrenaline, but the two things are very different. I am writing a piano concerto right now, but at the same time, I am on stage every night, and accordingly, I do not have enough time. I have always liked composing at night, because it is very calm. Sometimes I don’t even realise when the sun is rising the next morning because I am so focused on what I write.

It seems that you don’t really seperate these parts of you.

It is impossible. I tried many times and I failed. In the case of my opera, Babylon, there was half a year or almost a year when I did not play so many concerts. But in reality it is more like it is now: I go on stage tonight in one and a half hour, and in the night I will write the next part of my piano concerto.

It must be tiring.

It is a wonderful thing and I am grateful, but sometimes I do not get enough sleep and I also get a flu. Sometimes when I am at the airport and I have to change planes, I think that is horrible. And I am just asking myself: why are you doing this? But when I arrive and the first measures of Mozart’s clarinet concerto starts, I am the happiest person.

And you are at home.

Yes, exactly. Then I am at home.

Some people even say that you resemble Mozart.


When it comes to the name of Mozart, all of us should put away our pencils. He was such a genius. I adore his music so much. But there is one aspect of this statement that might be true. At the time of Mozart it was normal that a composer played many instruments. Violin for sure, piano for sure, organ probably, and maybe a fourth instrument even. For instrumentalists it was natural to have at least fundamental education in compositional skills. For me it is very natural to do these things together.

What I regret a little bit (without blamig anybody) is that nowadays we talk about this phenomenon as if it would be something special. This separation might have begun in the middle of the 19th century when the virtuoso culture came alone. Today musicians are much more specialised in one field.

It might sound strange, but medicine comes to my mind. There are many doctors who are specialised in one certain part of the body and they do not think about the whole human body, in its entirety.

Exactly. If some part of the body hurts, they only put something on that spot. However, I like diversity and I am too curious not to combine these things.

As for the Dubairische Tanze, they were born after the encounter of two cultures as well.  Can this piece fulfill the aim of our festival, Briding Europe? Can it bring different cultures closer to each other?

It would be very easy from me to say yes. But I do not say yes. First of all, it is very important to bring them together, but not necessarily mix everything.

I am very curious about other things and it would be great if this festival could result in making people curious as well. To have the feeling that something is not yours, but it has a special aura, taste, smell, something miraculous by which you are fascinated, but you also feel it is very different.

Here in this special case of Dubairische Tanze, I think some people hoped that if they sent me to Dubai I will come back and suddenly write Arabian music. But it’s not as easy as that. When I arrived there I had Bavarian walzes in my head.

In the first two weeks of my stay there I had no ideas that had anything to do with what I was supposed to write. First of all, I had to face the artificiality of the city. For architects it is a paradise, because there is so much money to build their fantasy. It is really amazing.

Once you said that in Dubai people are so obsessed with the future that their heritage and culture is totally in the background.

In Dubai it is very hard to get money for saving something from the heritage. For the future you get any money, but not for preserving what has already been reached. While we European people rather have an obsession with the past, they have an obsession with the new. I felt very strange, because actually there is western culture there.

Do you think that it is possible to change the mentality you experienced in Dubai or change the identity of a country with music?

I am old-fashioned enough to think that the musical heritage is the identity of a country itself. For example in Germany now they are destroying orchestras.

SWR Symphonic Orchestra for modern music is world-famous, every famous modern composer write for them, but they desroy it because of financial reasons. A society who is not aware how precious an orchestra like this is, loses its identity. I would go as far. I love to live in Germany, it is still a fantastic place for culture, but as an artist I am getting worried.

How would you describe your piece? To whom would you recommed it?

First of all, I have to tell you that I have always loved Budapest not only as a city, but as a musical city as well. I have always had the feeling here that people listen differently. Music means something.

Do we have a special ear?

A special ear, and a special, wonderful seriousness about music. This piece is full of irony and a lot of humour and I hope that people who come to the concert understand this and will laugh about it. But I hope that they also understand that this is not a superficial piece. I hope that the Hungarian audience will understand it, and they will smile with one eye, while in the other eye, there will be tears. That would be what I would dream about.

It is more about how cultures do not work together, about the clash of cultures. But none of them is better than the other. I am fascinated by Arabian music, but you do not hear any in Dubai. There is no music on the streets.

Dubairische Tänze has very much to do with folk music. And at this point I also have to mention that what the whole world admires so much about Hungarian music is that Kodály, Bartók, Kurtág and many others deal with folk music in a very very serious and loving way. They transform it into their music, but they don’t say: it belongs to me. They treat it with care and with love. This is not a conqueror mentality.

Once you also mentioned that if you travel to a foreign country then there are two very important things for you. One of them is the smell of the city and the other is the atmosphere. You have been to Hungary several times. How would you describe these two things in the case of Budapest?

My first remembering of Hungary can be connected to my childhood beause we were on vacation in Szombathely and the Plattensee with my parents twice. I still have pictures of that.

Secondly, the thing that also comes to my mind is really the musical culture. I think around the world Hungarian musicians are famous for being very serious and strict about music in the very best sense. The famous teacher, Kurtág, for example, with whom I worked a lot. He could spend 3 hours on one bar. I love it, and I think our world would be a better place if there would be more mentality like that and less superficial TV, computer and internet. Of course I do not say this is all bad.

After concerts  when I talk to people in Hungary I feel this seriousness. I see a long tradition and a loving for culture and music in their eyes. For them it is still sacred. I have always loved to be in Hungary and I am always happy when I go there, and it is a great honour for me that BFO plays my DT.

How do you see the role of the Festival Orchestra on the international scene?

The excellence of the orchestra is world-famous, but so far I did not have the pleasure to work with them. This is the first contact of the orchestra with my music.

I am interested whether you find it difficult to make people understand contemporary music? Is it risky for an orchestra to play contemporary music?

In my life I have always played modern music at Modern Music Festivals as well as at very conservative places and when I play Mozart usually I also bring one of my own pieces as well. It gives the audience the possibility to percieve the Mozart Concerto in a different way and, of course, the modern piece as well. I am excited about programmes like this. There might bepeople who do not like it, but in general I had very positive responses throughout my life. When the audience see that the orchestra on stage believes in it, then the audience can also believe. I have never been worried about the audience. The worst is when concert-organiseres have fear and are worried about their own audience. People are not stupid.

Do you get hurt because of negative critics?

Yes. I am very honest. I am much more happy when somebody comes to me and says: you touched my heart. But sometimes it happens that they say: Your Mozart playing was very nice but why do you write such ugly music? At first I am hurt and then I laugh about it.

You began composing as a child. I am curious whether you have any special dream that you want to fulfill in your life as a composer.

For me every new piece is a fulfillment of a dream. For a composer the first rehearsal is the premier and sometimes I just don’t have words for the feeling how beautifully the musicians play my music and how much they understand it. That is what I feel for the first time.

For the second time I begin to hear the mistakes. I know that the orchestra is very good so it must be my fault. After two weeks I become so dissatisfied that I begin composing again.