The following is an edited transcript of an interview of Helmuth Rilling by Chicago's WFMT radio host Jan Weller on January 8, 2004.
JW: We are pleased to be joined in the WFMT studios today by Helmuth Rilling, who is widely considered to be one of the pre-eminent authorities on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries. Herr Rilling is the founder of the GaechingerKantorei and its orchestral counterpart, the Bach Collegium Stuttgart. He is in our area to conduct a performance of the Bach Mass in B minor, at Valparaiso University's Chapel of the Resurrection. This is going to be the inaugural performance of the new Bach Institute at Valparaiso University and Helmuth Rilling is one of the official advisors to that new organization at Valparaiso.
Herr Rilling, thank you so much for taking the time to make the trip up to Chicago to be with us today. The Bach Institute of VU has been established to, in the words of its mission, "ensure the legacy of the music and the theological perspective of Johann Sebastian Bach for future generations" through performance of his works, but also, for discussion of his music and exploration of the music of Bach in various ways. Do you see this as an important way of approaching the music of Bach? Should it be taken within the context of theology and philosophy as well as simply a musical endeavor?
HR: I think in some ways to perform Bach's music is something different than performing the music of other famous composers like Beethoven or Mozart. I think Bach is a person coming from the church, and belonging to the church. Throughout his lifetime he is trying to explain with his music the faith of Lutherans in the Christian church. To approach that is something that is especially interesting, but I think also important.
JW: In a lot of ways this conforms to the way that you have gone about your life in music, in that you have always been considered a humanitarian and someone interested in relationships between different people and using music to help different people reach out to each other.
HR: I think this is a very important thing that music can do, that is, it can build bridges; and Bach certainly is one of the most important bridge-builders. I think his music conveys a message. To make that message understood in many countries with many different people, be it Christians or not, is something very interesting, intriguing, and important, at least for me.
JW: I wonder if we could turn right now to another work by Bach, his Christmas Oratorio. This time of year is certainly appropriate to be listening to this particular repertoire. The final part, as you pointed out before we began our interview, is especially appropriate for this particular point in time.
HR: Well of course, we are in the time of Epiphany, and the last, the sixth, part of the Christmas Oratorio is dealing with the gospel of Epiphany: the appearance of the kings and their devotion to the newborn child. As usual, Bach sets this to music in a wonderful way.
JW: Was the Oregon Bach Festival your first venture into doing this kind of musical programming here in the United States?
HR: I think the very first time I came here on such an occasion, I was teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia, but immediately after that we started the Oregon Bach Festival. I enjoy the festival very much because it is a combination of high-level concerts with teaching. We always have master classes there for conducting, and many of the younger American conductors who have come over the years to Eugene [Oregon] were a part of these master classes. So, they received some influence from myself, not only of Bach, but also of other composers.
JW: Since then you have instituted such programming around the country.
HR: Not only in this country—in the United States. I do this all over the world. As I said before, music can be a wonderful bridge. And we have done Bach academies—we call them Bachakademies—for example, many times in South America, many times in the former eastern (Communist) part of Europe, trying to build bridges to those people who could at that time not be reached so easily by Western culture. So, it is a network of Bachakademies that you have all around the globe.
JW: These are under the auspices of the International Bach Academy of Stuttgart, which you founded in 1981, correct?
HR: Yes, that is my home institution, and they have to organize all that. I think it is wonderful that in our times we can have the chance, that with music, we have human connections with many people from many different parts of the world, and Bach is a great Katalysator [catalyst].
JW: While you are known, Herr Rilling, as a Bach specialist, you are very interested in music by other composers and particularly contemporary composers. You have had a long reputation for encouraging the creation of new works. One of the composers who has written music for your performance is Krzysztof Penderecki.
HR: I think looking back to the music of the past is wonderful, but it is not enough. I think every living musician needs to be interested in contemporary music. In regards to commissions, I think we have to encourage people from our time to write new and interesting things, to be creative, and also personally to say something about existing problems, like war or peace. I think that giving the creative musicians of our time a chance is very important, and that is why I have done this throughout my life.
JW: What do you see as the interconnection—or is there one—between the music of our time and the music of Bach?
HR: Well, you must take it for granted that every intelligent composer or creative person of our time knows the music of the past. People to whom we give a commission, they will know the St. Matthew Passion or the B-minorMass. Of course, you would take this as a basic level of culture, and you should be ashamed if you did not. So, it is a very daring situation to know these pieces and then to say, "I, myself, what can I do now as I am perceiving a new piece ? On which level will I compose compared to this person?" On the other side—and this is always something that I think is special with Bach—Bach is a challenge. You see his master works and there is not one note that is unnecessary. This challenge is something necessary for a composer, not just to write a general piece to entertain people but to see what these great composers did. I think this is shown very clearly in many works that we could make possible with our commissions. You were talking about Penderecki. He is a friend of mine, a very close friend. He told me one day that without Bach he could not have written his St. Luke Passion.
JW: What about Penderecki's Credo?
HR: Well, the Credo is a relatively late piece of his. He is a composer who is interested in writing sacred pieces, that is, music to sacred texts. He has written many things in this regard. I remember talking to him and saying, "Krzystof, if you are approaching your seventieth birthday, this is the time when composers usually write a mass, as Bach did." And he said, "Okay. I will try to write a mass for you." And then we had a long discussion and had many discussions after that. Finally, he could not do the whole mass because his Credo was already more than one hour. So, he stayed with that Credo. This is a great piece and shows in many ways where we are today with the possibilities of our faith.
JW: Another work of even more recent vintage is the Osvaldo Golijov St. Mark Passion, which was one of four modern Passions commissioned by your organization. Wolfgang Rihm, Sophia Gubaidulina, and Tan Dun were the other composers involved in this. You were talking before about the importance of Bach to virtually all composers of our time and the importance of knowing his music. Certainly there is a very direct connection between these works and the music of Bach.
HR: When we planned (if I say we, I mean the Bachakademie, my home institution in Stuttgart) the year 2000, which was a Bach year, we thought, "What could we do for this special year?"
JW: This was the 250th anniversary of his death that you were commemorating?
HR: Correct. I thought we should do something not only by performing Bach's works, which we do all the time, but also for giving an incentive for the creation of new pieces. Though I thought Bach is for many people the composer of the Passions. Who, aside from Bach, has composed the story of the Passion in such a wonderful way as he did in his St. John and St. Matthew Passions? My question was, "Why don't we have other Passions?" Passion is a word that has so many meanings and certainly contemporary meanings also. This should be something that could interest composers. I thought the idea could be to have new Passions coming into existence.
Then my second thought was that it should not be just the middle-European, German, Bach tradition, but it should be something that would reflect the worldwide feeling toward these texts. So, I chose composers from four different cultural backgrounds. There was Wolfgang Rihm. He is German and composed a St. Luke Passion in German. There was Sophia Gubaidulina, who composed a St, John Passion in Russian. Then, there was the Chinese composer, Tan Dun, who composed the St. Matthew Passion in English and sometimes Chinese. Finally, there was Osvaldo Golijov, who composed the St. Mark Passion in Spanish. It was not only the languages and the different gospels of the Passion story, but it was also the different cultural ideas of these composers that interested me. So, I spoke with them. I said to Sophia Gubaidulina, "I would like to have something that reflects the Orthodox story and history and tradition of the Passion." I spoke with Golijov and said, "I want something where the special drama, fantasy, and enthusiasm of these Passion processions, which they have in Spain and South America, is reflected." I had also seen such processions in South America and Spain. This is something so completely different from our European and North American feelings toward these texts that you cannot imagine that this is the same thing. It is a celebration! This is not mourning about the death of Christ, but something completely different. I said to Osvaldo, "You have to do something different in this direction." So, he wrote a Passion that consists of structures of dance movements—South American, African, and Cuban dance movements—and I think it is fantastic.
JW: What I find really interesting about your choice of Golijov is that he is Jewish as well. So, he was coming at it from not only another cultural perspective from another country, but also from another religious perspective. At the end he actually includes a Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead, to close the work, which I think is just a wonderful touch.
HR: At that time in 2000, it had been my idea that these four new Passions should be performed by people from their respective countries. For this piece we had forces from Caracas,Venezuela, a place where I have worked very often with Bachakademies. The performance is conducted by Maria Guinand, a colleague of mine, with her chorus, the Schola Cantorum. We had instrumentalists from Stuttgart and New York City, and this wonderful chorus from Caracas with a lot of enthusiasm. They were not only singing and the instruments playing, but they were also acting. This was like theater, like a procession, and absolutely up to the work.
JW: Herr Rilling, we have time for perhaps a bit more music by Bach. We will end with another bit of the Mass in B Minor, which you are going to be conducting. But I wonder if first I could ask you to expound upon a quote that has been attributed to you. You are quoted as saying, "Music should startle people and reach deep down inside them, forcing them to reflect. It should never be merely comfortable, never fossilized, never soothing."
HR: It is certainly a principle of my music-making. I think this is especially reflected in the B-minor Mass. How can we explain why we are so much touched by Bach's music? I think very often this is because he is dealing with things, with themes, with problems, which existed at his time and still exist today. These are just general human situations like sadness or sorrow or having to deal with death—having to overcome things that are hard to understand. Take suicide in the St. Matthew Passion, or similar things. Bach can speak to these things in such a deep way, offering solutions for these kinds of problems. In his B-minor Mass, we often see at the end of his movements a little sign. We already see a sign at the very beginning. The sign at the beginning is "J. J." This means Jesujuva—Jesus, help. He starts his composition with sort of a prayer, but at the very end we see the letters "S.D.G.L.": Soli Deo Gloria—Only to God the praise or honor. I think this is something that we can hear in his music, especially in the final movement of the Gloria, the Cum Sancto Spiritu, which is full of an immense joy.
JW: And we will hear that as we end our program and our time with Helmuth Rilling. I want to thank you so much for spending some time with us today.
HR: It was great talking with you.
JW: And thank you for the recorded legacy that you've left to us. You have recorded the complete works of J. S. Bach for Henssler Classics, and that is quite something to leave for the world for all time. Thank you very much for that. We should mention also, that UNESCO awarded to Helmuth Rilling the Theodor Heuss prize for acts of reconciliation, recognizing his long commitment to using his music to further peace and reconciliation.