The bow of Maestro after the premiere of his successful Cello Concerto in Cologne is the first of many encounters I had with Johannes Fritsch. The year was 1990 and this concerto has intrigued me ever since. In the years to follow, I became acquainted with many more of his works and my respect for him has grown along with my knowledge and composing skills. Johannes Fritsch passed away this last spring at the age of 68 and I will remember him as a captivating, kind, and generous composer. He was my principal mentor during my composition studies in Cologne. I always enjoyed showing him my new works, learning about his latest compositions, and analyzing the works of other composers.
He felt most comfortable teaching in his Feedback Studio (Belgisches Viertel, Cologne), where I have heard most of his opinions. He was very inspired in that environment surrounded by scores he held dear, recordings on tapes and cassettes, along with studio equipment. He was always prepared to explain how other composers (especially those of his generation and the one preceding it) responded to similar musical problems that I would encounter. Enforcing the solution was not his method of teaching – he would rather provide options, and guide me to the best conclusion. It was the spirit of music that mattered to him, rather than hollow mechanics, which would take away the life, and deep purpose of the composition. The music to him was a product of composer’s reflections, and mindless note-scribing was meaningless to him. When teaching, his focus was not on easily examinable materials that build up the curriculum of an average composition class. He expected greater things from his students, as it was understandable they would have to develop all the techniques involved in the handling of instruments, sounds, scores, or anything else from the toolbox of a composer. Although the entrance criteria was already set high, he would not let his students become overwhelmed by the technology of music making at any stage of composition studies. On the other hand, he would not allow the practical side of composer’s work to become neglected. Hence, it was extremely beneficial to have many concerts organized with his help, and have the works rehearsed, performed, and recorded. The discussions that followed were illustrative for the early life of a particular piece of music. I benefited tremendously from his evaluation of my works in progress, as well as from the critiques, which followed the premieres. The fine touch of Johannes Fritsch was gently helping young composers find direction.
He gave me a lot of material to ponder over in the years that followed my studies, and occasionally memories will reappear through completely unrelated doors. These memories create questions I would have liked to have answered with his help. Sometimes I believe to be able to come up with an answer in his style. He probably would start with aesthetical considerations and never let them out of one’s sight. As the years have passed, I have come to the conclusion that his approach was right. The technicalities become trivial, and the true spirit of the matter is the only thing that matters. He believed that with so much music being written, one shouldn’t waste time repeating the things already heard. For him, it was not the endless analysis on where to place which tone, nor self-sufficient perfect organization of pitches, nor any other clockwork that can be put into music composition. He didn’t work that way and his music doesn’t work that way. He used to follow a big picture of a piece of music, and that musical vision mattered to him above all. In his music, he was making some deep cuts, and he knew where to cut. He would never do some irrelevant “surface scratching”, and then try to pass it along as something important. Furthermore, he never wrote cycles of works based on the same ideas and materials, as many composers who “crack the code” of success do. His opus would have been stylistically a lot less heterogeneous, and hence easier for music theorists to “encode” for teaching purposes. However, it was not like him to alter anything within his musical vision to make it more teachable or marketable. He was extremely uncompromising when following his musical visions.
Johannes Fritsch was deeply involved with philosophy and music aesthetics. He contributed to the perception of his work and views by publishing many texts in Feedback Papers, a music-theoretical magazine from his Feedback Studio. His output in the field is far from systematic, as we know it from the music-theoretical output of Schoenberg and Hindemith. Nevertheless, Feedback Papers provide a good introduction to his aesthetics. Contrary to many composers of the past century – whose writings were sometimes so elaborate, that the music itself often came as an anti-climax, Johannes Fritsch knew how to avoid such pitfalls. After all, he was primarily a musician, and always preferred music to words.
We spoke extensively about his Cello Concerto, and he presented me with the recording and score. I consider it one of the greatest works for a solo instrument and an orchestra of the past century. I believe that this single movement (of approximately 20 minutes) will become one of the milestones of the cello literature, along with concertos by Dvorak and Elgar. He once told me that the success of the concerto at the premiere was somewhat annoying to him, as he believed it was partially due to misunderstanding of his work. He seems to have heard too many remarks like “Finally a composer who is using his ears”, and he found out how bitter triumph can sometimes be. While such a success would have moved many other composers to exploiting the same vein, there was nothing alike to be expected from Johannes Fritsch. He turned to other ideas and composed music he believed he had to. It was his modest and down-to-earth, but also dreamy and mystical personality that lacked any interest in self-promotion.
I remember especially well the premiere of his Passacaglia for a large symphonic wind orchestra. It took place in the Altenberger Dom (Cathedral of Altenberg), a marvelous old church in which such an ensemble was sometimes hard to tell from the sound of an organ. His Trio (written for the rock-trio Ugly Culture) displayed his humorous side. The premiere took place in the Feedback Studio, as part of his Hinterhausmusiken (Backyard Music). The audience was surprised by the unexpected light-hearted directness from the Meister, exposing his bright side. This Trio appears to have been his sole contribution to the “minimalist” style. In regards to Hinterhausmusiken “concert series” (and the Meister would probably remind me – these were not typical concerts, and it was not a series), I must mention that they enjoyed a cult status in Cologne. Although barely advertised and detached from the mainstream concert life, these events were always presenting something new and intriguing. I have often been told of interesting, up and coming composers I should hear, only to find out that I have heard them a while ago in Feedback’s Hinterhausmusiken.
There are two more large works by Johannes Fritsch for which I believe will become widely known in the coming years. I haven’t so far heard these works live, but the Meister has sent me their recordings. One is the Konzertstück (1999) for two percussionists and an orchestra, in which he was revisiting and redeveloping several of his earlier ideas. It contains some of his most mature orchestral writing. The other work is called Herbstlicht (1994/95), and it is an atmospheric work filled with wonderful shadings and colors. His writing for strings is especially original and nuanced. In this work, he uses many elements from traditional Asian music of which he was very fond. His expertise in Japanese music led him to collaboration with many Japanese musicians and theorists.
In 2006, I received an email from Johannes Fritsch, inviting me to hear a program on the German Radio, on his 65th birthday. I savored the program, in real time. Although I truly enjoyed hearing him talk in depth about his music, some things in the program were surprising. I expected to hear about his more recent output, as all the composers seem to care only for the most recent compositions. However, he spoke mostly about his time and works in the sixties and early seventies. Something became clear to me. I remembered him saying to our class that there are more and less interesting periods in the history of music and that we, his students, live in one of the less interesting periods. He seemed to have a life-long fascination with the sixties, a period in which he played viola in Stockhausen’s ensemble. He held that period dear like an amulet, a materialized piece of music history, which he actively helped shape and form. Indeed, there was some pessimism he felt about current conditions in the world of music, and the world in general. While some of his senior colleagues were musically depicting intergalactic conflicts, Johannes Fritsch was concerned with the humans and the environment they inhibit on this planet. He felt that things got out of hand due to pollution, greed, and ignorance, and his work was a counterpoint to such state of affairs.
He was modest and a man of fair-play, characteristics that I feel are frequently missed in the world of classical music today. He always took interest in the work of his fellow composers, and I have witnessed many times his sincere congratulations after concerts. I believe he felt a sense of freedom by refusing to execute total control over a particular entourage of students and followers that many of the musical authorities consider necessary. He was a man who would openly discuss his interests, and was eager to hear the opinions of his students expressed. For his students, it was not compulsory to be a devotee of some personality or ideology.
I expect the importance of his opus to become widely recognized in the coming years. If I could make a single suggestion in a farewell to a great teacher, person, and artist, I would recommend to start studying the work of Johannes Fritsch at the same point where I have started: with his Cello Concerto!
Baltimore, December 2010