Remembering Klaus Huber

Text and Title Image · Translation and · Date 10/05/2017

I haven’t composed anything in three years,” he laughed, “too lazy!” That was two years ago. Klaus Huber was 90, and knew full well that his oeuvre was complete. He took another Mozarella in Carozza and a sip of prosecco, and blinked in the north-German April sun—already anticipating, perhaps, the summer at his house in Panicale, with its view of Lake Trasimeno, where he and his wife Younghi Pagh-Paan would live and compose for a few months each year. I first visited them there. Huber had just been awarded the Ernst von Siemens music prize, the Nobel Prize of the music world. Huber, on crutches and supported by an assistant, continued to go to the piazza for an evening espresso, as familiar to the inhabitants of the small mountain town as to those in the new music world.

Lakes of sounds: precious, fine, sparkling, unfathomable in their colors, broken up by small percussion hits, cautious brass accents, transparent like Turner’s varnishes, which seem to provide a window back through time. The first thing I heard by Huber was the 2001 premiere of his “Schwarzerde” in Basel. It has a deep, quiet breath within, first noticeable through the gradual layering and peeling off of sounds, through which words are scarcely spoken and sung, a far-reaching drifting. The anxiety of Osip Mandelstam, who was murdered by Stalin, was not dissolved, but became distinct—the poet and his words were brought back to life through the music. Such was my discovery of Huber.

Klaus Huber, “Schwarzerde” Sequence 1, “Geliebtes, Blindes, Egoistisches Licht”; Arturo Tamayo (conductor), Basel Symphony Orchestra, Basel Theater Choir • Link to full album

Why so late? Unlike the other greats of his generation, he was not a figure affected by the media. The genius emperor Boulez, the sensuous artist-prince Henze, the galactic Stockhausen, had all already cut their own paths as Klaus Huber continued to teach 40 violin students per week, and only pursued a vocation he’d long known in the mornings. He was already composing at six years old, as the son of a school musician and choir conductor, who also wrote music in Basel. “He didn’t encourage me to compose. I was supposed to play the violin. He thought, ‘what if my son falls into the same trap as me,’ because my father never had any success with his compositions. That hurt me, that he had no interest in what I wrote.” All the more violently, he freed himself from the romanticism in which his father reveled. “Preferably no harmony at all!”

The 33-year-old orchestrated the monophonic music of the Middle Ages. His breakthrough came in Strasbourg in 1958, when he wrote a chamber symphony with solo alto to the texts of Mechthild von Magdeburg. But with mystical Christian texts and a twelve-tone-serialism into which he brought the intervals of just intonation, the late newcomer stood quite alone, opposed to the avant-gardism of Boulez and Stockhausen. 10 years later, his peers could no longer ignore him. The Crucifixion music “Tenebrae” for orchestra is a monstrous piece, a piece of mountain rock, “Golgatha” more than just in name. Three twelve-tone rows are compressed to a texture of dark transparency. At first attempt, nobody can hear how the quarter-tone canon structures develop, but the fact that everything is so deeply worked out gives this enormously expressive art its truth—something objective and liberating. There’s never an imposition of a message. Instead, one sees.

In Huber’s mid-40s, it was possible to think that he had found “his” style, or, as his student Brian Ferneyhough has written, that he was “ready to be defined by a set of market-friendly stylistic elements,” like “some other members of his generation.” Ferneyhough admired Huber for the way “each one of his works is a both a highly individual answer to a focused, technically sophisticated set of questions, and a precise, constantly-renewed exploration of the relationship between contemporary music language and the real, imperfect world.” This demeanor, which had a thoroughly political facet, led to “Schwarzerde,” and his later, intimate studies of Arabic music. Starting in 1973, it made itself felt among his students in Freiburg as well: Ferneyhough and his colleagues found Huber to be a teacher who was incomprehensibly open-minded, exacting, and inspiring.

Among his students were composers like Wolfgang Rihm, Michael Jarrell, and Johannes Schöllhorn. Toshio Hosokawa first turned to the musical sources of his native Japan on Huber’s recommendation; likewise for Younghi Pagh-Paan of South Korea, whose first encounter with the “Occident” had knocked the wind out of her creatively. She and her teacher would become a couple—possibly the first couple in music history to be on equal footing. In 1982, a barkeeper in Panicale found them so charming that he found them a house to buy. Huber used the house as a base from which to explore constantly shifting horizons. “During the Gulf War, every little newspaper was demonizing Islam. I couldn’t just let that stand. I had to investigate for myself.” He delved into Arabic music and its intervals outside of equal temperament. They took him further even than the world of “Schwarzerde,” to a place beyond Europe’s borders.

In 2002, the Palestinian poet of occupied Ramallah, Mahmoud Darwish, wrote a poem entitled “The Soul Must Descend from its Mount and Walk on its Silken Feet.” Huber, a religious Christian, approached the work with an empathy as strong as the one he had for the Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam. The instrumentation of the resulting work, “Die Seele muss vom Reittier steigen,” was an unusual one: countertenor, modern and baroque instruments, harp, percussion, theorbo, cello, baryton. Huber spent hours with me going through the work page by page. He showed me the place where “the wolf is dozing on the skin of my goat,” and where Darwish added, “He dreams as I do, as the angel does.” “Is there anything dearer to say to one’s enemy?” Huber asked. Finally we came to the end of the piece. “Here’s the A♭,” Huber said. “That’s because of my father. He’d analyze the repertoire: A♭ is the note of love, from Bach onwards. It’s here in the theorbo and the flute, a sixth of a tone higher in the clarinet, a sixth of a tone lower in the bassoon…”

Talking about the piece, he jumped from detail to divination, from poetic musings to the finer points of instrumental technique, from the phrase “the drunkenness of light” to the characteristic rubbing of a sixth-tone interval. He took a cigar break from time to time. I had never “heard” music this way. He wasn’t talking about it, he was talking in it, from it, making connections in centuries of history from the entire world. That was eight years ago. Soon after, he began a slow and gentle process of removing himself from the world—though the process was partial, too, because Huber, with a white beard and a red turtleneck, still never missed a fall in Donaueschingen, and remained a living legend to his students and their students. Younghi stayed by his side, guarding his well-being. “You have a zigarettli there,” he said after the prosecco, using a Swiss diminutive of the word in his melodious accent, and I reached for the pack to give him one, but Younghi stopped us in her friendly way.

Now I’m smoking the cigarette for him. Klaus Huber died on October 2, 2017 at the age of 92, in hospital near Panicale, his Umbrian second home. As time passes, we’ll increasingly perceive the thing that binds all of his diverse music together: a love of humanity so trusting and sanguine that it can change the world. ¶