Interview with Elmer Schönberger

World premiere Ithaka Symphony

On Friday, March 18, Otto Kettings will give the world premiere of Ithaka Symphony, an orchestral work specially composed for the Residentie Orkest by Elmer Schönberger. The basis for this fascinating music goes back to 1986, when Kettings's opera "Ithaka" had its world premiere at De Nationale Opera in Amsterdam.

Elmer Schönberger (b. 1950) is a writer, composer and pianist. After studying musicology, piano and composition, he composed music for musical theater, and for some time wrote for the Volkskrant and later for Vrij Nederland. "In those years," Elmer says, "writing soon became more important than composing. I found my own voice in that, wrote not only journalistic pieces, but also plays and novels. Nowadays I am composing more than before. I feel completely free in that, not burdened with a competitive position, imagined or otherwise. As a writer, I quickly opted for this freedom at the time: write what I want. My recently published booklet Hier rust Schönberger is an example of that: a collection of mini-essays on the various aspects of listening to music.'

'From the first time I heard the Ithaka opera, I was captivated by it. And this music hasn't been heard since 1986!'

Photo: Elmer Schönberger - Photographer: Ilja Keizer

Recently, your biography of Otto Ketting came out. Why did you write it?
"Otto passed away in 2012. Over four years ago, Otto's daughter Sophie and his second wife Gaby van Otterloo asked me to consider writing a biography. What immediately inspired me was the memory of the first time I heard Kettings's work. That was in 1973 at the Concertgebouw, where I had gone to hear Arthur Rubinstein play Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. I don't remember anything about that, but the work of Ketting that was played, Pas de deux, made a huge impression on me. Later I also got to know Otto personally. We were on the editorial board of Keynotes magazine together, I interviewed him several times, and as dramaturg I was closely involved in the development of his opera Ithaka. In all these years I have also heard a lot of his music: always surprising and of great class. Surveying his entire oeuvre, I thought: Otto Ketting deserves a biography. Then I went to work. And now the book is finished. It is called: Inspiration I distrust deeply. It came out last January.'

How did the Ithaka Symphony come about?
'This orchestral work is based on the opera of the same name, composed on the occasion of the opening of the Muziektheater in Amsterdam in 1986. The libretto was written around a poem by the Greek poet Kaváfis. Ketting had been intending for some time to take this poem as the basis for a symphony, mindful of Mahler's Fourth Symphony. So, on the basis of the opera, I bring the music back to the original idea: a symphony with a voice singing Kaváfis' poem in the Last movement."

"At the time the opera was created, I was the dramatist, so I know the work inside out. That's why I dared to rework the opera into a three-part orchestral work. I had to cut and paste, of course, and re-instrument here and there. But all the notes are Ketting's own. I concentrated on three characters: "the woman," "the macho" and "the poet," who sings his own poem. In doing so, the basic tone of the opera remained intact. The original music, and thus this symphony, is permeated with deep melancholy, of longing, of a reaching for. The thrust of Kaváfis poem is: the purpose of life is not death but life itself. Being on the road, being open to what you experience, to the people you meet.'

Kees Hin, Otto Ketting and Elmer Schönberger at the time of the production of the opera Ithaka (September 1986). Photographer: Taco Anema.

Why was the opera never performed again?
The opera has been a very frustrating experience for Otto. It was rushed; there was only two years between the first interview and the performance. All sorts of things went wrong: the soprano Otto wanted could not come, conductor Edo de Waart, who incidentally got on well with Otto and his music, dropped out, and the director, whom Otto could not choose himself, started doing very different things with the opera than Otto had envisioned. In the long run, the two could no longer get along! Afterwards, Otto was completely done with it. He vowed never to set foot in the Muziektheater again. He didn't want to talk about his opera anymore. It was literally the end of the story."

"From the first time I heard the Ithaka opera, I was captivated by it. And this music hasn't been heard since 1986! So very special that the Residentie Orkest is going to perform this music again, and in a symphony composed especially for this orchestra.
Ronald Touw

Join us March 18 for the world premiere of the Ithaka Symphony.