“We would go mad without art"

An interview with composer Philipp Maintz

German composer Philipp Maintz has presented his work at some of the greatest European festivals. He has been commissioned by BOZAR to compose a new organ concerto, de figuris, with the support of the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation. It will be performed by organist László Fassang and the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège (OPRL) conducted by Gergely Madaras, on 17 September at BOZAR, and the following day, at the Salle Philharmonique de Liège. Philipp Maintz talks to us about his new work and his passion for the organ.

Philipp Maintz © Roselyne Titaud
Philipp Maintz © Roselyne Titaud

You are familiar with Belgium, and Liège in particular, for having studied there. What’s your connection with the city and its philharmonic orchestra?

While I was studying in Maastricht, I was invited to Liège by the Centre Henri Pousseur for courses on composition with electronic devices. I subsequently worked there on several occasions. I’ve always wanted to work with the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, but I never had the chance up till now. I was delighted when Ulrich Hauschild (the director of BOZAR Music) offered me the commission for an organ concerto to be premiered by the OPRL.

You have composed several works for solo organ, but until now no concerto for this instrument. Why?

For a long time, I thought of composing a concerto for organ and orchestra, but the task is more complex than a concerto for piano or cello. When composing for the organ, you have to think in a more abstract manner, and rely on a performer who can colour and adapt the score to the instrument.

L'orgue du Palais des Beaux-Arts dessiné par Victor Horta © Denis Erroyaux
L'orgue du Palais des Beaux-Arts dessiné par Victor Horta © Denis Erroyaux

How did you ensure that the work could be played on different organs?

I looked at the description of the organs at BOZAR and in Liège, and I was able to get a sound image of both instruments from a distance. I also worked closely with the organist László Fassang, who will perform the solo part at the premiere. It is important to trust the soloist and to have time in the weeks leading up to the performance to adapt the score to the instruments.

László Fassang © Müpa Budapest Szilivia Csibi
László Fassang © Müpa Budapest Szilivia Csibi

Is the organ an important instrument for you?

Absolutely. When I was five or six, I used to go to church with my father and I would ask him to take me to see the organ up in the gallery. I was fascinated by the “monstrous” instrument! The organist showed me the instrument; I went into the organ case, listened to the instrument from the inside and fell in love with it at once. However, I had to wait until I was 12 before I could take my first organ lessons.

When did you first start composing for the organ?

I started composing for this instrument as soon as I was old enough to do so. As I mainly played works from the French Romantic school, my compositions resembled the style of Widor, Franck or Dupré. I then shifted to a more modern way of composing, as a result of my training with Robert H.P. Platz – a pupil of Stockhausen. It took me a long time to write organ music. My meeting in 2007 with Jean Guillou, organist at the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, was decisive. I was living in Paris at the time when I received a commission for solo organ for the documenta in Kassel. I was having a lot of trouble finding the right sounds. Jean Guillou gave me invaluable advice on using registration and rekindled my appetite for organ composition.

Jean Guillou © DR
Jean Guillou © DR

Hence the reference to Jean Guillou (1930-2019) in the introduction to the score of your concerto…

Yes, it is a nod in his direction.

What are your influences?

I have a great admiration for French romantic organ music. My musical language is far removed from it, yet I nevertheless owe it a great deal. For this concerto, the orchestration is probably influenced by Ravel, his Daphnis and Chloé in particular. I also love Witold Lutosławski’s sense of the dramatic, Richard Strauss’s playful instrumentation, and the way Sergei Prokofiev forces the line with his harmonies and rhythm. In short, my aesthetic is not very German.

philipp maintz: orchesterwerke by philipp maintz

Your concerto is entitled de figuris and is inspired by the engravings of Albrecht Dürer. Why such a choice?

When I was studying in Austria, I visited an exhibition of Dürer’s engravings at the Albertina museum in Vienna. I was fascinated by the artist’s small and incredibly detailed work. Later, I bought a reproduction of his series of engravings of the Apocalypse and was able to study them in depth.

Albrecht Dürer, Apocalypse (1496-1498)
Albrecht Dürer, Apocalypse (1496-1498)

Then one day, the organist Bernhard Buttmann asked me to compose a piece for solo organ. It turned out that Buttmann was the organist at St. Sebald’s Church in Nuremberg, the very church where Dürer was baptised. The project seemed evident! I wanted to write a kind of symphonic vision of Dürer’s Apocalypse. But I didn’t want it to be a literal portrayal of the engravings. I grouped the fourteen of them into a seven-movement work called septimus angelus.

For my new composition, de figuris, I started out with the musical material from septimus angelus, which I spread across the concerto to open a new reflection on Dürer’s Apocalypse and to explore it in greater depth.

How is music born out of images?

Reading a poem, contemplating of a work of art evokes sensations, flavours, scents... The attention to detail and the depth of the engravings influenced my work on de figuris.

Philipp Maintz | Interview | BOZAR

Can you describe how the music, and the relationship between organ and orchestra, evolve in de figuris?

De figuris is a concerto in three movements, each of which illustrates a particular relationship between the organ and the orchestra. At the beginning, the orchestra plays alone. The organ tiptoes in, then gradually takes its position as a soloist. In the second movement, the organ and the orchestra interact to recreate the sensation of an organ playing in a cathedral. The orchestra acts like a reverberation, and then develops its own presence. The third movement is a finale without a real improvised cadenza. The virtuosity relies not so much on instrumental playing as on the handling of the organ itself: the organist plays long chords while rapidly changing the registration. In this respect, organist László Fassang wanted to know exactly how to programme the registration. I explained that the aim was not to programme it but to improvise using the previously recorded registrations in the instrument by other organists.

De figuris was composed during lockdown: how did such a context affect you?

Many of my friends complained about the situation, about remote working, the lack of social interaction… Personally, I really enjoyed the quiet period, without concerts or rehearsals. I was able to concentrate on my work; composing is a slow process.

Your concerto will give its world premiere in front of a small audience and will be broadcast on the Mezzo television channel. How do you feel about this?

It’s a pity not having an audience. But I’m pleased with the opportunity of a televised broadcast. Considering the current situation, it’s better than a cancellation. I think people need art, it nourishes their soul, their spirit. We would go mad without art.

Interview by Luc Vermeulen

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