Composition in his veins Composer Alexander Müllenbach talks about his career and Luxembourg’s budding composer scene.

When it comes to composing in Luxembourg, Alexander Müllenbach is a towering figure. In a way, he has taken on a pioneering role, having had almost all Luxembourg’s contemporary composers in his class. His own oeuvre comprises more than 100 pieces, some of which enjoy international renown. As Vice-President of Musicpublishers non-for-profit, he is also committed to promoting early Luxembourg composers from over 100 years ago. We take a closer look at an extraordinary career of an extraordinary man.

You discovered your love for music early on, and especially for composition. How did this come about?

In our family, everyone was musical – on both sides. My father (violin) and mother (piano) played operettas on Sunday afternoons. Some of my uncles played dance music semi-professionally, including my Uncle Fred, who inspired me immensely.

One day, when he was playing for us, he said: 'Now I'm going to play you one of my own compositions.' Wow, what’s that all about, I thought, and then I realised what he meant.

I was already playing the accordion at that time, and immediately set out to compose a waltz. I was only eight at the time, and wrote it all down. As I was already taking music lessons at school in Belair [a suburb of Luxembourg City, editor's note], I could already write music. Later on I took piano lessons, and that’s how I got into making music.

Your career then took you to Paris and Salzburg, where you studied and worked for some time. And yet Luxembourg remained a certain centre of gravity, you always found your way back. Why?

I am Luxembourgish to the core, and the destiny of our country has always been close to my heart. That’s why I set up composition courses at the local conservatoire in 1982, because there was no such offer in Luxembourg and virtually all our composers were self-taught. My first composition students, Claude Lenners and Camille Kerger, rated the course highly: they have developed into really great composers who don’t need to compare themselves with composers abroad.

What qualities do you bring with you as a Luxembourger when you work and live abroad?

One of the most important qualities of being a Luxembourger abroad is the fact that we have an affinity, linguistically and culturally, with both the German and French (and also Anglo-Saxon) culture. This allows us as Luxembourgers to have a different approach and access to these cultures, especially when working in the arts or cultural scene.

For me, this was a considerable advantage, as I was familiar with the music of Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleux, as well as with Schoenberg, Berg or Hindemith, for instance. This was generally not the case with my Austrian colleagues. It’s the same with literature, painting, etc. This says a lot for the cultural education at our schools.  

© Julius Klein

Alexander Müllenbach (*1949) found his way to music at an early age. After studies in Metz with Marcel Mercier and at the Conservatoire de Paris with Pierre Sancan, which he completed in 1969 as the best student in the piano department, his path led him to Salzburg and the Mozarteum with Gerhard Wimberger, with whom he enjoyed a lifelong friendship. After returning to Luxembourg, he taught composition at the Conservatoire de Luxembourg from 1982 onwards; a whole generation of Luxembourg composers have studied with him. In parallel, he led a popular theory of composition class at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, which later also included composition. 2013, together with violinist Claude Krier and others, he founded the Musicpublishers, which promotes the publication of works by Luxembourg composers. He now lives and works in Salzburg.

In 1971 you were appointed professor of piano at the Conservatoire de Luxembourg and also gave courses in composition. Today, one can say that virtually the entire contemporary composers’ scene in Luxembourg learned from you and that you have played a significant role in shaping the development of music in Luxembourg over the past decades. How do you think this scene developed in Luxembourg?

Together with René Mertzig, an eminent authority on Luxembourg composers at the time, I played an 'exchange concert' of Luxembourg music at the Albertina in Vienna in autumn 1976. The concert had been organised by René Hemmer, together with the Austrian composers Gottfried von Einem and Robert Schollum. These two in turn played a concert of Austrian music in the studio at Luxembourg City's Grand Theatre.

On that occasion, I spoke a lot with Mertzig and Hemmer about the state of Luxembourg music, and they convinced me that something needed to be done about it. That’s why later, together with a handful of confidants and like-minded people, I founded the 'Lëtzebuerger Gesellschaft fir Nei Musek' (Luxembourg Association for New Music). This was the beginning of a flurry of activity, with commissions to Luxembourg composers, festivals with new music, many premières, commitments for competitions at the conservatories, and much more.

At the same time, I led the preparation of a composition course at the Conservatoire in 1981/82, and I must mention the invaluable help I got, especially from Josy Hamer, the director at the time.

At that time, a whole host of colleagues of stature tried to bring the Luxembourg new music scene to a more international level. Ensembles were founded, recordings were made, concert organisations were created. Thanks to the work of the conservatoires, the level of young musicians rose, and so more and more instrumentalists dared to perform the new works. And more and more young musicians were accepted in music schools abroad, which raised the level in Luxembourg significantly.

I think a very similar thing was happening in other areas of the arts. Many people realised that something had to change in Luxembourg so that we no longer had to hide from our European neighbours.

Nevertheless, we in Luxembourg attach great importance to internationality, i.e. Luxembourgers also go abroad to gain experience, but many international artists also find their way to Luxembourg, whether to play in ensembles or to perform in front of Luxembourg audiences at festivals. To what extent is this openness towards foreign countries a key factor for Luxembourg? Is it perhaps even important for Luxembourg music?

As more and more Luxembourg students go abroad to study, they get to know many foreign musicians. In this way they discover the opportunities Luxembourg offers them to play in concerts, take part in festivals, etc. By encouraging them to include one or the other Luxembourgish work in their programs when they want to play in this country, this in turn supports Luxembourgish composers. I know of several composers whose works are played by international ensembles because their musicians were grateful to receive these works.

The not-for-profit association Musicpublishers has taken on the task of publishing works by Luxembourg composers and thus making these works easily accessible. The website allows people to discover and order the works of a wide range of composers.

You compose for orchestra, ensembles and diverse solo instruments, and have also written an opera, 'Die Todesbrücke', meaning you are very versatile in what you compose. How would you describe your style?

As far as my style and musical language are concerned, the excellent music writer Gottfried Kasparek, who regularly writes introductions for concert series of the Mozarteum Orchestra and some festivals, once put it this way:

'His style reveals great personal character and strength; tonality, atonality, dodecaphony, serial and post-serial techniques combine to form a musical language in which lyrical and dreamlike sound fields, delicate cantilenas and powerful expressivity, strongly emotional outbursts and surreal images find a compelling unity.'

What inspires you?

I like to be inspired by nature, which creates soulful landscapes in me. Often also from poems and paintings. Sometimes I also translate the name of a friend into music. But often it’s movements or moving bodies that show me the outlines of a musical process.

You were involved in the founding of Musicpublishers. What is its mission? Why did it seem necessary to found such a company?

My long-time friend Claude Krier – who as a specialist in musical computer writing has written the scores of a whole series of composers – came up with this idea at a dinner we had together. And I immediately assured him of my support.

Most of the composers, with a few exceptions, didn’t have a publisher. So one didn’t even know which compositions existed. You had to ask a composer, and that was the only way to get a photocopy.

Ever since, most of the composers in Luxembourg now work with our publishing house. We provide nicely presented, crisp scores, and there’s a great catalogue. And when you order a work, you receive it within a few days, together with a payment slip. All at international standards, in other words. The effect has been that we receive orders from countries like South Korea, Canada, etc. Claude Krier and his staff do an incredible job. 

Looking back, is there a moment in your career that you remember in particular?

One of the most important moments in my career was in 1985, when I received a commission from the Salzburg Festival to write 'Stimmen der Nacht' for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, a work which was premièred in the summer of 1985 and was a huge success. A lot of reviews appeared in the international press. This was immensely important for my career.

Can you tell us something about your next project?

I’m currently writing a series of small landscapes for piano, miniatures that evoke a certain atmosphere, comprising just a few notes.

Mr Müllenbach, thank you very much for the interview.

The interview has been shortened – the original can be obtained from the editors.