March 2020

A conversation with Eckhard Roelcke, journalist and musicologist, in March 2020

At the beginning of March, shortly before the country-wise Coronavirus lockdown, the musicologist Eckhard Roelcke met with the recipient of the 2020 Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation Prize, Tabea Zimmermann, in Essen. She spoke, amongst other things, about her choice of pieces for the prizegiving concert originally planned for the 11th May 2020. At the time of the interview, the effects of the pandemic on public and cultural life could hardly be imagined, including the necessary postponement of the prizegiving concert itself into 2021.

Eckhard Roelcke: Why have you chosen works by Benjamin Britten, Luciano Berio and György Kurtág for the prizegiving concert?

Tabea Zimmermann: I find this selection particularly suitable for the occassion, as Britten, Berio and Kurtág are all former recipients of the prize. In Kurtág’s collection ‘Signs, Games and Messages’, there are wonderful solo pieces for viola, including …eine Blume für Tabea…. This is a piece that he wrote for me after the death of my husband David Shallon. I intend on using the prize money to set up a foundation in his memory.

I have been working very happily for many years with Ensemble Resonanz. They will be at the prizegiving and therefore we are playing Britten’s Lachrymae. It is a delicate, fragile piece, in which the viola doesn’t have a soloistic vocal role. I embed myself in the sound of the whole ensemble.

And Berio’s Naturale is a favourite piece of mine. Due to the unusual combination of viola, percussion and tape, I can only occasionally play it as part of a concert. You need to save the piece for a special occasion. To me, the planned prizegiving concert in Munich’s Prinzregententheater seems to be one of those special occasions.

Let’s start with the oldest piece you’re playing in the concert: Britten’s Lachrymae, composed in 1950. He used the Renaissance song Lachrymae by John Dowland as his compositional basis. How does he use this as a template?

Firstly, he composed the variations, and it is only at the end that the song appears, thus completing the musical picture. Britten lays down clues throughout and I have to help the listener find them: you need to notice certain things because they’re going to come back again later! Slowly, the pieces come together and combine into this beautiful, old song.

The piece therefore runs backwards in a way – first the variations, then the theme. What consequences does that have for the performer?

Britten discovered the songs of Dowland through his partner, the singer Peter Pears. He sung the songs very romantically. That produces a problem for me, because I don’t really find the music of Dowland to be romantic, but rather Renaissance in style, with its pure tone. So, I need to find a way to incorporate these different expectations into my performance. I do this sequentially rather than at the same time, by colouring every variation slightly differently.

How does Luciano Berio’s Naturale fit into your programme? He connects art music with folk music.

Like Britten and Kurtág, Berio searches for the most original elements of music. He deconstructs them and rebuilds them using his own rules. In Berio’s Naturale, there are wonderful episodic, narrative moments, as he constructs complex structures out of the comparatively simple material. It is out of these ongoing changes that the tension in the music arises. The voice on the tape doesn’t come from a trained singer, but rather from a street seller, who sells his wares at the fish market or similar.

A market crier

It is fascinating how – through this voice – a third person appears on the stage. Berio recorded this simple material on the street with a tape recorder and didn’t clean it at all. The onomatopoeic side of the music is very beautiful and as a soloist, I have lots of room for fantasy. The percussion is clearly composed with an accompanying role.

Is that a criticism of Berio’s composition?

No, I’m not criticising the piece. It functions brilliantly! I am very thankful to Berio for this large-scale viola part, but sometimes I do wish that there were more interaction with the percussion.

The vocal lines of the Sicilian singer is coloured with microtones. That is not tempered.​

As a string player, I find the topic of intonation fascinating. I see tempered tuning as a necessary compromise when playing with the piano, but also as a negative. Implementing fine microtonal inflections enriches our audio experience. I let myself be inspired by the vocal part in Naturale and, in certain sections of the piece, respond in kind to the colouration of the voice.

Intonation, as a deliberately applied tool during a performance, is also a significant topic for me when teaching. My first teacher taught me even then to set the tone where it belongs harmonically, melodically or expressively. So, no searching for dots on the neck of the instrument. That is the difficulty, but also the advantage when playing a stringed instrument – everyone needs to set the tone themselves.

That means you have to hear ahead.

That is the most important part, otherwise I can’t get the tone. The finger has to lead to the idea! I find playing-by-numbers on a stringed instrument completely wrong.

You also started playing the piano at an early age. Was that an ideal addition?

If I play music in my limited spare time, I tend to play piano. It may sound surprising, but I don’t find the viola to be the ideal instrument, it is just the instrument with which I can express myself most clearly. I do also enjoy placing the viola in the centre of the action and highlighting its merits.

“If I play music in my limited spare time, I tend to play piano. It may sound surprising, but I don’t find the viola to be the ideal instrument, it is just the instrument with which I can express myself most clearly.”

Tabea Zimmermann


How did you discover the music of György Kurtág

I first encountered Kurtág almost fourty years ago at a festival in Lockenhaus. Gidon Kremer invited him to be the chamber music teacher and to place his music in focus. I remember intense Mozart quartet rehearsals under Kurtág’s direction but also strong auditory influences, for example, his Kafka fragments. [For example, we played a string quartet by Mozart and Kremer was insistent that Kurtág be present at all rehearsals. He organised five rehearsals, which is a lot for a festival. It was a great meeting!] I met him again at various festivals, and every time it was challenging and enriching in equal measure!

Why challenging?

Kurtág demands a certain attention to the smallest of details and a very high inner tension. Whenever you meet him, an hour is enough to make you feel like you have just completed eight hours of physically demanding work. Only in retrospect do you understand that it was a challenge that led to great realisations and that this was a gift. Sometimes, I had the impression that Kurtág wished his notation be more accessible. Some things you can only understand once you have met him and appreciate how he hears and comprehends music. 
Some pieces are linked to performers and only they are allowed to perform it, because they have worked with him. That is where I see a bit of a problem. I sometimes wish that a composer could let his pieces go. As an interpreter, my goal must however remain to come as close as possible to the intentions of the composer.

Kurtág seems to be a good example for this thought

The performer should be able to play freely, but when this freedom is taken away by practising together, it is difficult. I always found it very advantageous to be able to play in front of Kurtág when it wasn’t in close proximity to the performance. It was great to be able to take the ideas back home and have time to work on them. But when the concert is the day after tomorrow and the composer tells you today everything that is wrong with it, that can be problematic! It weakens you and you no longer want to step onto the stage.

Do musicians receive only limited praise?

That is something to be expected when working under such conditions. I have met different kinds of musician. Some people do well in that scenario, others not. One colleague left a rehearsal with Kurtág in a rage and said, “I can’t stand it!”
On the other hand, a meeting with him is an unbelievable enrichment. His voice, his fantasy! He writes music with so much freedom for the performer. Especially in his solo works, that is wonderful!

Is working together with composers therefore important?

Meeting composers can be unbelievably inspirational and often helps me to better understand the person behind the composition. I would have loved to have met Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and even Hindemith!
You also have to put yourself in a composer’s shoes to understand how difficult their situation is. They may have worked for a whole year on huge a piece of music and then, at the first rehearsal, the result sounds terrible. Then, they are required to give a positive impression to the musicians, to help them to find the right tone and style, and even to encourage them to find other aspects – that isn’t a walk in the park! A bit of psychology is helpful in those sorts of situations.

You said that the viola is simply the instrument that you happened to learn. Do you therefore associate more as a musician rather than as a violist?

I really hope that I am more of a musician than a violist. The instrument that you choose really is just ‘an instrument’. It is not the music. What would I be today without the viola? That is a question I cannot answer. The viola is my accompanist through life, but it is not the entire content of my life. To make music, to communicate, to pass on the content to the listener, I just so happen to do that using the viola. I can’t do it any other way.

At the age of 21 you were already a professor. How did that happen?

Well, that is a long story. As a child, I had the best possible education. My teacher Dietmar Mantel gave me many impulses which I still feed upon today as a teacher. And the music college in Lahr: a complete chance! Then I went to Ulrich Koch in Freiburg at the conservatory. It was there, with him, that I studied the repertoire. He pestered me to enter for numerous competitions, which – it turns out – really gave me a push at the beginning of my career. But it isn’t my natural inclination to try for another prize, to try for another competition. When Mr Koch wanted to send me to competitions in Geneva, Paris and also to the ARD-Competition in Munich within the space of a year, I refused. A certain teenage rebellion was likely mixed up in there also. At home, I couldn’t rebel against my parents, so my teachers became my target. I didn’t travel to Munich in the end, and that resulted in a huge argument. I wanted to be more independent and decide for myself. He wanted me to dance to his pipe and bring him the prizes as a form of trophy. He said to me, “If you have a prize horse in the stall, you have to show it off!” It was at this point that I asked to no longer study with him and transfer to Sándor Vegh instead. He didn’t like that idea at all. He considered Vegh to be a charlatan and spoke badly about me to all the other teachers I wanted to go to. “What can I do”, I asked him. His answer, “Well, stay here”. That was really very amusing. At the end of the conversation, he said, “I have been thinking about your life and believe that you should definitely teach”. Koch wanted me to inherit his position in Freiburg once he retired and, for that, I’d need some teaching experience. Therefore, he recommended a teaching post for me in Saarbrucken – it was there, at the age of 19, that I started gaining experience as a teacher. When I was 21, they were searching for a viola professor and I applied. After a few years in Saarbrucken, I stopped giving lessons. Later, once I felt mature enough to better approach the demands of a teaching position, I taught for a few years in Frankfurt. Since 2002, I have taught at the Hanns Eisler music conservatory in Berlin. Life has never led me back to Baden.

Teaching obviously means a lot to you

Yes, a lot! I could give up travelling and sometimes a concert or two also, but I would miss teaching too much. It grounds me as an artist and keeps me in contact with young musicians and their questions. It is only through teaching that I have learnt to explain a performance. I don’t just want to play ‘from the gut’ but rather create a connection between what I am feeling and what I know. Out of this, a performance is created that is hopefully conclusive, but not set in stone.

The former Home Secretary Otto Schily said that “those who close music schools endanger domestic security”…

…very good! I wholeheartedly agree.

He wanted to underline the social importance of musical education. Would you place it on such a high pedestal?

Yes, it can’t be placed high enough! I watch with worry as we slowly demote the idea of a basic, musical education. The effects can be most clearly seen at the entrance exams to the music conservatory. Of maybe 50 applicants, only one or two come from Germany. If someone wants to learn a musical instrument nowadays, they are going to have to have rich parents to pay for private lessons. There is no longer a well-equipped network of music schools like in the 70s. Cost saving measures have led to their demise, and that is something I am especially saddened by.

And what are the consequences?​

A musical education gives children something for life, something with which they become more resilient and confident. Music should be a standard part of any education.

You recently said that, “We musicians must be more political and mustn’t remain in our niche.” The concert for the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize is no doubt a good platform!

I often ask myself when musicians can, should and must be political. It is difficult to find the right moment. Sometimes it is good to simply fall back on music and not need to make continuous political statements. But sometimes we are just too comfortable, with the sense of ‘I don’t care where the money comes from’. At the moment, there are some unpleasant connections in the classical scene, especially with not-so-great donors in the background.

That sounds like an appeal to your colleagues to think more about the music industry and to be more critical.

It is more of an appeal to think about individual decisions and not to make them purely from the perspective of personal advantage. One can also say: I’m not accepting this invitation. One should also ask what interests are lurking behind a particular engagement. Music has slowly become a tool for establishing political gain. Unfortunately, music isn’t always the main player even when music plays the main role on the placard.

Can you give an example?

I mean festivals such as Verbier, but also Lucerne and Salzburg. Wherever you look, Russian oligarchs are involved. I find that awful. The socio-political responsibility of artists is deactivated relatively quickly nowadays. They bait young musicians and promise them amazing events. For example, they might be invited onto the ship MS Europa with the promise that they are being ingratiated into a luxury world. But don’t speak to anyone of course, just plinky-plonk away in the corner!

Is music for them a culinary rather than an existential experience?

Yes, of course! I wouldn’t like to play on a cruise liner even if I could have a nice trip in the process. That goes against my grain. There, there are only people who can afford that, it is an extremely elite event. When tickets for festivals are sold for hundreds of euros and there are a few if any affordable tickets, this also gives me cause for concern. I would much rather have a lower entry point but ensure that more people could come. Of course, I don’t know whether they will come – that depends on the programme. I have no issue with playing in a chamber hall with only 200 seats. The concert is then not elitist as a result of the ticket price, but rather from the supply.

I often lead ensembles from the viola, but I've never [...] done such a big work as Harold in Italy. I want to build the piece in detail by ear and from the inner rhythm of the music. I want to dig deep!

Tabea Zimmermann


Back to your work with young musicians. You are working on Harold in Italy by Hector Berlioz in the coming year with the Bundesjugendorchester of Germany. What led to that?

I have such good memories of this orchestra! I often lead ensembles from the viola, but I’ve never been further than symphonies by Beethoven and Schubert. I’ve never done such a big work as Harold in Italy. I am excited by Berlioz’s rhythmic, angular style. But this project will require sufficient rehearsals. We somehow need to be able to play the hardest passages in the last section by heart so that we can react to the sound. Even with the biggest orchestras, that can sometimes go pear-shaped. I want to build the piece in detail by ear and from the inner rhythm of the music. I want to dig deep!

And you are taking time for that.​

Yes, I do that when I want to experience how much is possible when sufficient time is invested.

So you are also building upon the experiences you have gained with Ensemble Resonanz.

Ensemble Resonanz was the first ensemble that trusted me to lead the group for many concerts over a period of two years from the viola without a conductor. For that, I am really very thankful. At the time, I thought, ‘What do you want from me? I can’t do that!’ But the insistence of the players gave me courage. It was a very different kind of work. I will never forget the two years as Artist in Residence with Ensemble Resonanz.
That is my ultimate dream: to gently peel off the hierarchical structures in music as a collective. 

Translation: Robert Jacobs


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