On 15 November in Cologne as part of the WDR concert program Musik der Zeit, the Rundfunkchor Köln under the direction of Rupert Huber will perform the world premiere of Fabio Nieder’s Thümmel oder die Verlöschung des Wortes. Der Anfang. Die Mitte. Das Ende for mixed choir, three accordionists and three percussionists. The work was commissioned by the WDR. For the occasion we interviewed the composer.
The title of this piece refers to Thümmel, the main character in your opera, a project you have been working on for many years now. Who is Thümmel?
Viktor von Thümmel, also known in Trieste as Vito Timmel, was a painter born in Vienna in 1886. His father was a German aristocrat and his mother a Friuli aristocrat. He studied in Vienna, at the time the capital of the Empire, and in Trieste, then Vienna’s port and one of the richest cities in Austria. His tragic life led him to drink excessively, and in the end alcoholism drove him to self-destruction. In fact, he spent the last years of his life in the Trieste mental asylum and died there in 1949. His extraordinary painting technique was for a certain period reminiscent of the style of Gustav Klimt, but von Thümmel himself was a visionary, and his paintings are extremely original!In the years of his enforced confinement in the mental asylum he continued to draw with whatever he could find: tiny sheets of graph paper, a pen. He drew his dreams. Every drawing contains a text in ungrammatical Italian (Thümmel didn’t know Italian well, which was normal in Trieste at the time) in which he includes the contents of the dream, the date, and a dedication to the Trieste painter of Greek nationality Cesare Sofianopulo. There are several hundreds of these drawings. So, to reply to your question, Thümmel/Timmel is an ordinary human being, just like many others, and as such he is … simply “marvellous,” as he used to define the walks in his dreams!
Can you tell how this project came into being and how it is progressing?
By looking at those extraordinary drawings! Every drawing is an entire world, a complete and self-contained vision, even though in each one of these little pictures the same elements recur obsessively: a shoe, a dead friend, his deceased wife, the planet “Saturnio”, streets, bricks and, of course, the “marvellous walks”, as he called them. In 2000 Claudio Magris wrote a libretto for me which since then I have used only in part. I composed the first scene of Thümmel in 2001. What’s involved is the scenic/musical realization of the original drawing that pictures Thümmel’s flight to Saturnio in the company of an extra-terrestrial with claws in place of hands! The world premiere of the piece was performed by the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart at the Milano Musica Festival in 2006.
To what extent is Thümmel tied to Central Europe?
Thümmel/Timmel lived mainly in Trieste. This city, which was Austrian for six centuries, was the quintessence of Habsburgian Central Europe. So Thümmel is an expression of this culture, which was a Slavic, German, Hungarian, Ladin, Istro-venetian, and Dalmatian mixture.
How much have Thümmel’s drawings, his paintings influenced your writing, if they have?
The drawings Thümmel did in the mental asylum don’t appear to show any trace of his original style. Here, instead, he seems to draw like a child. The poverty he endured in life (He lived as a vagrant in Trieste’s old city, doing oil paintings in exchange for a glass of wine.) and in his later years in the asylum (All he had were tiny sheets of graph paper and a pen.) have influenced the overall conception of my work. The majority of the scenes correspond to drawings he made in the mental asylum. Others are my own inventions inspired by Thümmel’s world. My music here is “rudimentary music”. For instruments I also use broken radios, frying pans, shoes, chairs, and, naturally, accordions, here a symbol of a simple humanity, that of the popular festival, poor, grim, and anguished. The child-like quality too of Thümmel’s late “style,” if we can use that term, is present in the texts, in the child-like way of singing, in the apparent simplicity of the content of some scenes. In actual fact Thümmel expresses himself in six voices of different ranges which sing both in unison and individually. This opera of mine is made up of visions like the images in a magic lantern: fleeting, almost framed, blocked in the vacuum of an immobile temporality, just like the checked drawings of the Trieste painter. You have talked about the various scenes of the opera – some already performed - that will make up the framework of the work.
What’s involved are pieces for various types of performance groups (chamber music, choral, orchestral). And you have written these pieces having in mind a precise collocation in the structure, even if for the moment they are autonomous. How do you think it will be possible to realize the opera as a whole?
My Thümmel is a modular opera, making provision for variation in accordance with the specific performing conditions of any given situation, be it a conventional opera house or spaces of any kind, museums, gasometers, etc. The scenes can be mounted and dismantled at will, just as the overall length of the work too can vary considerably. Certain scenes have been conceived almost as installations and others as caricaturized opera scenes. Others still are visions without a name! But an opera house would nonetheless be an ideal location, not least because I imagine the whole structure of the theatre serving as the performance space: the stage, the stalls, the lower galleries, the upper galleries, even the foyer, the bar and … the loos (Don’t laugh, or rather, do, for this is a “rudimentary” opera that strips human beings bare…!). But in the final result all sorts of spaces would be feasible: on the ideal plane (by way of the very conception of this work of mine) I invite directors, painters, playwrights, etc. to work with me! What’s involved is a huge challenge, in the sense that Thümmel is not fixed, finite; he has to live out his cycles of deaths and rebirths, on each occasion in a different place. What’s involved is a call for imagination and human creativity!
How close are you to Thümmel?
Thümmel has accompanied me for the last 14 years of my life. This symbiosis has even resulted in my rediscovering a lost painting of Thümmel in Trieste’s old city!
This piece was commissioned by the WDR. And it is not the first commission that you have received from the orchestra.
In fact, this is the third commission I’ve received from Harry Vogt at the WDR in Cologne. The first one in 2005 was conceived to commemorate the 70th birthday of Helmut Lachenmann, and it was a piece written for Ensemble Recherche in Freiburg; the second in 2011 was a vast piece for piano, accordion, concert percussion, orchestra, and choir; and finally this year’s work. All three pieces are scenes from my Thümmel.