From heaven above to earth I come …
by Anja Weinberger
From heaven above to earth I come – or how everything turns out quite differently than expected
I am a flutist. For me, that means the following:
Three days a week I teach – not at a music school, but at my home. I have very different students. One or the other wants to start learning an instrument at the age of 5, 6 or 7. That’s the majority of my students, and since I also give piano lessons, there are really always some pretty young preschoolers in my class. I also prepare older students or high school graduates for entrance exams to study music. And there are a few adults who want to brush up on what they learned as a child, as it were, in second love. I spend quite a large part of my professional life on this activity and it gives me great pleasure to accompany my students on part of their life’s journey.
I also collaborate with fellow musicians, play a lot of chamber music in a wide variety of settings. For this I need the remaining mornings and afternoons of the week. Rehearsals take up a lot of time. Usually a longer journey is necessary, then the rehearsal itself (with a break this can be up to 4 or 5 hours) and finally the return journey. In the run-up to the rehearsal, literature has to be found, rehearsal dates have to be arranged and a suitable room has to be found. Most of the time, the literature and the room are not such a big problem. However, it looks quite different with regard to possible dates. For example, if a quartet is on the program, four different musicians’ daily schedules have to be reconciled. This sounds much easier than it is and the Doodle online scheduler is then our best friend.
And finally, the concerts. Usually they are on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays. Of course, there is always a shorter or longer journey. Concerts are rarely held during the week. This usually involves more planning, because students have to be rescheduled and the family should not be neglected on weekday evenings. The latter has been easier for a few years now, because our daughter has long since been standing on her own, very unconventional feet.
When you read this, it should be clear that there is plenty to do. I’ve never counted my hours per week at work, but I’m almost certain that 38.5 of them are already reached sometime in the middle of the week. Or to put it another way – I’m never bored. People who study music generally enjoy their work. And I’m one of the lucky ones who can also work independently.
Now here’s what happened:
A friend sends me a pack of handwritten sheet music sometime in the fall a few years ago with a request for a first performance. I look inside and realize: difficult. They are variations on the old song “Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her” (From heaven above to earth I come). So far, so good. However, the following seems to be problematic: The rather long work is for flute solo, i.e. flute without accompaniment, and there are a lot of notes to be seen, so it is very time-consuming, and thirdly, it is a Christmas carol, so it can only be used for a limited time.
On the one hand, it is actually made for an Advent concert, but on the other hand, the audience simply prefers it when a pianist or harpist or guitarist is also on stage – at least that is my experience and that of many of my flute colleagues. Real enthusiasm on my part was not present.
I did not find a good place for the ambitious work in any concert program during the following Advent season. And to be honest, I didn’t make much of an effort either, indeed I didn’t even look at the piece properly (my apologies, dear W.!).
The following year, the composer contacts me again and reminds me of his request. So I take the pile out of the drawer again, play through everything once and have to realize that it is … simply great. I really need people to hear it, I really need to find a way to play it. A little flute and so much Christmas spirit. I was surprised and enraptured.
But as it can be – also this year nothing was to be done.
Finally, a year later, I was already embarrassed by the whole thing. I thought about it and came to the conclusion that it didn’t have to be a concert. I could also play “Vom Himmel hoch…” during a church service. And so it was. In our congregation there is a lot of church music and so a place was found for “Vom Himmel hoch…”. So on the 25th of December in the Christmas service the so long postponed premiere took place. Actually, I was still convinced that the audience or the congregation would be relatively unaffected despite everything, possibly even pointing out that the whole thing “with organ” would also have been quite nice. All the greater my surprise and joy when the well-wishers crowded in after the service. I was able to report to the composer that his variation work for flute alone was really well received. One listener spoke from my heart when he said “How wonderful that this beautiful old song is not only sung, but can resonate in my head for a longer time in this way”. In fact, that is exactly how I felt. Christmas carols are very emotionally charged for all of us, everyone has a different favorite song and many memories are linked to them. It is a pity that they are only sung in church services or in the parlor, but rarely find their way into concert programs in one way or another.
And that just wouldn’t let me go. Finally, I took courage and asked three composer friends of mine if they might have the time and inclination to write something similar for me. I was firmly convinced that they would turn me down more or less immediately. But there it was, the second big surprise in connection with “Vom Himmel hoch…”. All three (three really very different and extremely successful contemporaries) were thrilled and immediately asked if they could use this or that song. I nodded, quite speechless, and after a few weeks I had three new pieces on my music stand. There is no such thing! My eyes flew over the staves, which were fortunately computer-written this time. Three times wonderful, three times unusual, three completely different ideas. This time it was easy, because an enterprising cantor asked if I might like to play my three premieres in one of the local Advent concerts. I liked, of course, and three composers were sitting in the front row at the concert a few weeks later, all of them having traveled more or less a long way, and all of them with quite a touched expression on their faces, after all, each of them had chosen their heart’s song. As I said, all three of them are old hands in their profession, so they are familiar with all the world premiere and concert waters, but that was not the only reason why I was touched. What Christmas carols and a flute alone can do.
Something I forgot…
Oh yes, my experience with commissioned works up to this point was zero. I didn’t realize that the composer would also ask whether one or the other was well-situated, how the articulation could be made most favorable, and whether the trill in measure 53 would perhaps be better trilled diatonically instead of chromatically. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that a composer would do anything other than simply write away and finally present a brilliant, but perhaps difficult and for the instrument unfavorable piece without batting an eye. That’s where I was wrong, and on reflection it’s perfectly clear. No composer masters all instruments, most composers are pianists by origin. And there it is right and important to ask the specialist, i.e. the respective instrumentalist, for advice, especially if one has perhaps never written for this instrument. “Is it possible to play pianissimo on the c4? Can you make a crescendo up to the lower b? And is the lower b even on your flute? I heard somewhere that harmonics go best on long fingerings, is that true? Why do flutists like B major better than A flat major?” So such and such was in the room. I took a deep breath and tried hard to answer all the questions as precisely as possible.
That was really a lot of fun and I could hardly believe that there are now three pieces in front of me on the music stand that someone had written for me and for which I now bear responsibility in a certain way. In addition, of course, there is no possibility of listening to how someone else would interpret the work, no, I am the first to launch the new piece – a huge responsibility even, I think, and it really feels a bit like a godparenthood.
But the really unexpected happened only afterwards. Because as soon as spring was in sight, a composer contacted me with a question about “Vom Himmel hoch…”. Would I still be interested in a piece? Well, definitely!
And that was not to be the last phone call. Over the next few years, there were always two or three new pieces for each season. In the meantime, a very beautiful, pre-Christmas concert form had developed especially for the “From Heaven on High…” project. Since many different Advent and Christmas carols had already served as models, the selection was quite varied. Many of the songs used are also in the church hymnal and so in the weeks before Christmas there was a lot of singing in many a congregation. For alternating with the new literature, the assembled audience is allowed to sing the original song just heard, accompanied by the respective congregational organist, gladly even more verses than would be the case in a church service.
Of course, “Vom Himmel hoch …” itself is always included, but also “Ihr Kinderlein kommet” or more unknown songs in Germany like “Masters in This Hall”, “Noël, Noël” or “Hört die Engelschöre singen” are on the program. Because, hard to believe, the project had long since reached composers abroad. And some of the pieces had already been published.
The collaboration with such different personalities has developed into a real psychological and philosophical school for me. Looking back, I remember the saying of my grandmother, who liked to say “The Lord God owns a big zoo”. How right she was!
Over the years, deep friendships have developed with some of the composers, for which I am very grateful. I am still in contact with many others, and one or the other collaboration arises. And a few still amuse me in retrospect, when I think of profound explanations, amazing self-awareness, violent gesticulation, and melodies sung aloud in a coffee or restaurant. What a gift!
And finally, to my great surprise (again), the opportunity arose to go into the recording studio and record a Vom Himmel hoch CD, as the Cultural Foundation offered to cover much of the cost. In the meantime, there was more new stuff than would have found room on a cd and I had to make a selection with a heavy heart.
And the fourth surprise will not be the last: A publishing house in northern Germany showed interest in the project and a whole booklet “Vom Himmel hoch…” was produced.
That’s when it really became clear how it is with commissioned work. The different pieces had to be collected from the various, widely scattered composers, the various computer music programs did not always want to work together, the booklet had to be proofread x times. Funny thing: all the publishing work took place in spring and summer – and I constantly had a Christmas song on my lips. My students were the first test subjects and they also found it strange in the glorious, not at all Advent-like sunshine.
In the meantime, a lot of literature for flute solo had been collected. Lighter and heavier, more modern and more traditional, some immediately recognizable, some rather hidden, short pieces and longer ones – really an amazing variety of different music, connected only by the fact that a Christmas carol was the original inspiration.
And for me the biggest surprise and the last one for now: we are currently planning the third volume.
So there will be no lack of work in the future.
(Text from 2020)