Obituary for Siegfried Matthus: The Master of Rheinsberg Castle

ERegardless of whether they had supported the state or had been mildly critical of the system, the mid-life composers of the former GDR in 1989 had a harder time with their artistic life after the fall of the Wall in Germany as a whole. After all, two of the most visible, also played a lot in the West, Udo Zimmermann, who was born in Dresden in 1943 and Siegfried Matthus, who was born in Mallenuppen in East Prussia, initially managed it pretty well.

Udo Zimmermann founded the Dresden Studio Neue Musik in 1974, which became the Dresden Center for Contemporary Music. In 2004 it opened up at the European Center for the Arts in Hellerau, which Zimmermann managed until 2008. He has suffered from dementia for many years. As a composer he fell silent before his illness.

Siegfried Matthus, who died on August 27 after a long illness in Stolzenhagen in Brandenburg, was in the end just a functionary – to a more modest extent. Although he was extremely creative until almost the end, the premiere venues became more peripheral and were finally limited to his own ruling realm. And that had mainly been the Rheinsberg Chamber Opera since the noughties.

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Siegfried Matthus was descended from farmers, and he was always proud of that. But his parents introduced him to music, first the piano, then, after fleeing to the West, to the Ruppin district, violin and trumpet. Even at the high school in Rheinsberg, the talented boy later took over the school choir and also wrote first pieces for the ensemble.

From 1952 to 1958, Matthus studied choir and ensemble conducting at the German University of Music in East Berlin, and since 1956 composition with the one who suffered under the Nazis and continued to make a career in the GDR Rudolf Wagner-Régeny. For two more years he was a master student of Hanns Eisler, then until 1964 a freelance composer; who also provided propaganda music for radio broadcasts about the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Walter Felsenstein noticed him and appointed him to the Komische Oper in 1964, where he worked alongside Götz Friedrich, Joachim Herz and Harry Kupfer for a long time as a dramaturgical advisor for contemporary music – and also composed. In 1972 he took over a master class at the Ost-Akademie der Künste and became secretary of the music section. His “Chamber Music in Conversation Series” was a nucleus for modern music in the GDR for 22 years from 1966 onwards. In 1985 Siegfried Matthus became a professor.

Successes in East and West

He had also been a member of the Academy of the Arts Berlin (West) since 1976 and a member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich in 1978. Germany’s composers moved together early on. And although Matthus was never at the forefront of the avant-garde, he was played and performed a lot in the West too.

In 1985, at the festive reopening of the Dresden Semperoper, which was also celebrated as a beacon for a historical reconstruction of the GDR, the opera was part of Siegfried Matthus’ festival program “The way of love and death of the cornet Christoph Rilke” premiered like Udo Zimmermann’s ballet “Pax questuosa”, choreographed by Ruth Berghaus. A career highlight for both.

However, Matthus, who was often decorated with awards and awards, had already caused a sensation with cheeky chamber operas, preferably on libretti by Peter Hacks, such as 1971 “Another spoon of poison, darling?” Or 1974 “Omphale”. His greatest successes were in 1984 at the Komische Oper with the tragedy “Judith” based on Hebbel, in 1988 “Graf Mirabeau” and after the fall of the Wall in 1990 “Desdemona and her sisters” based on Christine Brückner. Later he let Cosima Wagner, Michael Ende’s lucky dragon Fuchur and most recently Fontane’s Effie Briest in Cottbus in 2019 become opera characters.

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Siegfried Matthus, married to the singer Helga Matthus since 1957, wrote more than 600 musical works, many of them as commissions for initiations, anniversaries and days of remembrance. This includes 14 operas, over 60 large orchestral works, chamber music pieces, ballet scenes and film music. In 1979 the Dresden Staatskapelle played his response to the United Nations in New York. In 1982 he composed a concerto for trumpet, timpani and orchestra for the 100th anniversary of the Berlin Philharmonic. He composed his Te Deum for the inauguration of the Dresden Frauenkirche in 2005.

Matthew was representative in the best sense of the word. He was as inclined to dodecaphony as he was to serial music, but also brilliantly imitated the entire history of music from Bach to Strauss. He also felt obliged to a free atonality, used rows of seven to eleven notes – a cheerful polystilist.

In 1990, with foresight, he initiated the founding of the in his old home as the completion of his life’s work and home of his retirement Rheinsberg Castle Chamber Opera with an opera workshop and performances, of which he was artistic director until 2014. Here he wanted to revive the place of the muses, which was once created in the castle by the Prussian princes Heinrich and Friedrich. For since 1802 no more operas had been played here, and the theater had decayed; a grenade hit the opera house in 1945.

The only thing the GDR excelled in was that it did not tear down the ruins straight away, but simply let it continue to rot. After 197 years, on New Year’s Eve 1999, it was able to function again after a renovation for 23 million euros. It was no longer a court theater, just a sober enclosure that waited for its first kiss of the muses. And of course that took place with a Matthew opera: “Crown Prince Friedrich”. Perhaps his most beautiful, most lasting triumph.


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