updated 14 September 2021
© Andrea Medici, Baci & Baci Studios

Matthias Pintscher

German composer and conductor born 29 January 1971 in Marl (Germany).

German composer and conductor Matthias Pintscher first studied piano, percussion, and violin, and later, conducting, quickly going on to lead the youth orchestra of his hometown. This experience reinforced his love of orchestral music, and influenced his early works, which are characterised by their “symphonic” nature.

After study in London in 1988, Pintscher studied composition with Giselher Klebe at the Detmold Hochschule für Musik. In 1990, he met Hans Werner Henze, and from 1992 to 1994, studied with Manfred Trojahn in Düsseldorf.

Numerous study grants and residencies punctuated Pintscher’s rapid development as an artist. His catalogue includes two operas - Thomas Chatterton (1994-98) and L’espace dernier (2004), with a libretto by the composer based on the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud - and the ballet Gesprungene Glocken (1992-93, revised in 2000). In his instrumental music, a sort of “imaginary theatre” is alluded to; works such as Allegoria sonora, per un violoncello e gruppo stumentale (1992), Fünf Orchesterstücke (1997), and Sur « Départ » (1999) are experienced as veritable musical dramaturgies. The influence of visual arts and poetry is also palpable in Pintscher’s music: for example, Giacometti’s work is evoked in Figura - Zyklus, Frammento (1997), and Rimbaud’s poetry has been included in several pieces which seek to embody the “colour” of the French language and musically depict the poet’s distinct style. Pintscher uses the term Sprach-musiken to describe the dramaturgical nature of his compositions and the declamatory power which he seeks to give musical sound. In 2009, he composed Songs from Solomon’s garden, based on the biblical Song of Songs.

In 2008, Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered Pintscher’s Osiris. Subsequent works of note include a cycle for string instruments (with orchestrations ranging from solo violin, in Study III for Treatise on the Veil, to string quartet, Study IV for Treatise on the Veil [2009]), she-cholat ahavat ani (2008) for mixed choir a cappella, and the Sonic Eclipse cycle, comprising three concertos for brass instruments: celestial object I for trumpet, celestial object II for horn (2009), and Occultation for horn and trumpet (2010). In April 2013, Hérodiade-Fragmente was performed by the Vienna Philharmonic at Musikverein Wien, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

Matthias Pintscher has taught composition at the Munich Hochschule für Musik und Theater and served as Artistic Director of the Heidelberg Spring Festival Workshop since 2007. As a conductor, he is regularly invited to lead the world’s most revered ensembles and orchestras (BBC Symphony, The Cleveland Orchestra, Ensemble Contrechamps, Ensemble Modern, Klangforum Wien, Museumorchester Frankfurt, NDR Sinfonierorchester, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, etc.).

Following residencies with the Saarbrücken Radio Orchestra in 2006-07, the Cologne Philharmonic in 2007-08, and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony in 2008-09, Pintscher moved to New York. In 2012, he was named Music Director of Ensemble Intercontemporain, a post that he has occupied since the 2013-14 season. In 2014, he became a composition professor at the Juilliard School. In 2015, he was Composer-in-Residence at the Grafenegg and Moritzburg Festivals. From 2016 to 2018, he was Head Conductor of the Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy, and in 2017-18, undertook further work as a mentor of students and young musicians during the Berlin Philharmonic Karajan Academy. In the following season, he finished a nine-year Artist-in-Association contract with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and was the Artistic Director of the Tonhalle Orchester in Zurich and Artist-in-Residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Also in the 2018-19 season, he conducted the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, with whom he premiered Beat Furrer’s opera, Violetter Schnee. Pintscher’s piano concerto, Nur, was premiered in January 2019 by Daniel Barenboim and the Boulez Ensemble, and the following June, a work for baritone, choir, and orchestra was premiered by Dietrich Henschel and the Tonhalle-Orchester in Zurich.

In February 2020, he conducted the premiere of his new work for baritone, choir, and orchestra, Shir IV, performed by Georg Nigl and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks at the Musica Viva festival. In the summer of 2020, Matthias Pintscher took up the position of Music Director of the 74th Ojai Music Festival. In 2020-2021, he began a three-season tenure as the new Creative Partner of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Awards, Grants, and Prizes

  • First Prize in the Hitzacker-Kompositionswettbewerb, and Audience Prize at the ISCM World Music Days in Warsaw, for String Quartet No. 2
  • First Prize in the Agosto Corcianese Composition Competition (Perugia)
  • 1994: SACEM Prize (Paris)
  • 1995: Kasseler Kunstpreis
  • Körber Foundation Prize for Vocal Music for Thomas Chatterton (Hamburg)
  • 1999: Prince Pierre de Monaco Prize for Thomas Chatterton
  • VR-Leasing AG Culture Prize (Frankfurt)
  • 2000: Composition Prize at the Salzburg Easter Festival
  • Hindemith Prize from the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival
  • 2001: “Grand Prix” from the Charles Gros Academy for the CD published by Teldec in the “New Line” Series; Cecilia Prize (Belgium)
  • 2002: Hans-Werner-Henze Prize (Westphalia)
  • 2012: 6th Roche Commission Prize for Chute d’étoiles

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2019


  • Éditions Bärenreiter
  • Site du compositeur (voir ressources documentaires)
  • Michael Töpel : « Confidence in the Power of the Poetic : The composer Matthias Pintscher » dans Tempo n° 205, juillet 1998.

By Pierre Rigaudière

While it may be an absurd exercise to use the light of an artist’s career to peer into their past, to beam it over their childhood and their training in search of those elements most likely to glimmer back with programmatic shine, it is nevertheless tempting to gather from the biography and the words of Matthias Pintscher a number of facts and features that were, if not fateful, at least decisive for the future musician. Among these, we might note that he was sent for piano lessons starting at the age of five – an activity for which he had no apparent enthusiasm. Even today, he says he has not mastered the instrument as a composer – although that verdict is hardly final. By contrast, he learned the violin of his own accord, with the combined goal of physically experiencing the production of sound – his writing for strings reveals to the fullest extent how connected he still is to its physicality – and of sharing music by playing with others. After that came orchestra conducting classes. These gave the young Pintscher, just fifteen at the time, the opportunity to lead the small orchestra in Marl, his hometown. “The physical contact with this collective organism fascinated me”, he would later recall1. His work as an orchestra conductor, at the head of the Ensemble Intercontemporain as well as of many other formations, still seems to be underpinned by this sense of physical involvement in sound production. Pintscher is Jewish, and his parents insisted that he learn Hebrew at the age of six. This was not a particularly productive exercise at the time, but he returned to it as an adult, connecting to the language and to a form of spirituality that runs through a significant portion of his music today.

Kennst du das Land…

Pintscher, who studied composition with many leading lights, readily affirms – as have others before him – that his “greatest professor remains Debussy2”. At fifteen, he soaked up scores by Ravel, Debussy, the Second Viennese School, and Stravinsky. His technical foundations come more from the study of these major works of the 20th century than from his formal training with Manfred Trojahn and Giselher Klebe, Henze, Lachenmann, Rihm, Sciarrino and Boulez. Pintscher cultivated friendships with these teachers, and their contributions to his education lie mainly in reading scores together and exchanging ideas about poetry, cinema, painting, and music, suggesting maieutic forms of teaching more than academic transmission.

Still, it was Hans Werner Henze who took the then nineteen-year-old Pintscher under his wing during his summer courses at Montepulciano, and gave him his first commission. Here, the teacher transmitted to the student a penchant for Latin culture, italianità, in which one might be tempted to perceive the far-off legacy of German Romanticism. Yet the taste for French culture was at least as significant. This taste can be seen as a translation of the distance the composer placed between himself and German culture as he approached twenty. For him, at that time, German culture was associated mainly with excessive, heavy seriousness. To this he readily opposed Latin elegance and sophistication, as well as humor. Notable in this period are a first series of quartets, titled Quartetto d’archi, two of which remain unpublished. His affection for Italian culture is evident in the 4° quartetto d’archi “ritratto di Gesualdo” (1992): it is a recomposition of the madrigal “Sospirava il mio core” of Book Three of Gesualdo’s Madrigals – whose study Henze had recommended to the young composer – or rather, its “super-augmentation,” a madrigal “examined through a magnifying glass3”. Its harmonic progression, while heavily masked through microtonal intonation, is completely respected. Polyrhythms, pointillism, and touches of noise are balanced by sections with clear melodic elements and harmonic stases enameled with tonal incrustations, through which the original madrigal appears furtively. Numerous stage directions in Italian suggest a latent dramaturgy, which is confirmed in the sung and spoken voices of the performers, which burst forth with the word “morir.” Italy remains the dominant inspiration in La metamorfosi di Narciso (1992), including in its subtitle, “allegoria sonora,” which dates from Pintscher’s time studying with Manfred Trojahn in Düsseldorf. Narcissus’ reflection in the water finds its mirror in the writing for instrumental ensemble, which recalls and even multiplies the acoustic image of the part for solo cello. Here again, a Gesualdo madrigal, this time the celebrated Moro lasso of Book Six, is quoted surreptitiously, almost subliminally, in the fifth part, the “lament of the nymph Echo.” A brief section makes use of partially indeterminate writing, which the composer rarely used after that. Similarly, the quotations that he painted into his “youthful” works have no equivalent in his later work; the composer now considers these gestures as somewhat naïve, and above all as a form of tribute with no intellectual thrust.

Adventures with Rimbaud

Poetry sparked Pintscher’s feeling of closeness to French culture in the beginning – in particular the poetry of Rimbaud, as well as the figure of the poet himself, which the composer found equally moving. His affection for Rimbaud was almost obsessive, to the point of dedicating a major series of compositions to him: the poet “is poetry personified.” To Pintscher, “it is more than the color, he breaks down barriers of format and expression. He is a visionary4”. That a young man of eighteen could have penned the opening lines of Départ – a poem to which he would return numerous times – astonished Pintscher: it was as if the experience of living had crystalized within the poet in an extraordinarily short time. The philosophical richness, as well as the stratification of meaning, which worked as a prism crafted to diffract emotions, inspired Pintscher enormously, first in the series Monumento (I to V), composed between 1991 and 1998. The music of Devant une neige (Monumento II) is also, in its way, a kind of foliated creation, coloring the orchestra with lively hues. With its brio and its bursts of tension, Départ (Monumento III) typifies a period that, despite the obvious display of Italianism (numerous stage directions add Latin lyricism to this series), remains very German: its tenor is dark and dramatic, its density seems to pull together the legacies of Romanticism and Expressionism. The more complex Choc (Monumento IV) involves an ensemble structured in several groups, bringing to life the piece’s antiphonic dimension and proposing alternating and diverse textures. One section includes parts for violin and viola that contain motives to be combined freely; in another section, a quotation of Thomas Tallis’ O sacrum convivium emerges. As with the use of resonance for the piano, the harmonic consistency of the fullest textures lightly suggests the influence of Boulez. One notes a tendency toward proliferation and contrast; a certain atonal harshness, albeit tempered by the polarization in its discourse; and, again, a latent dramaturgy, linked in particular to the antiphonic distribution of musical roles. Two related pieces, Sur Départ and Vers quelque part… - façons de partir, have in common three cellos and an ensemble of woman vocalists (sixteen and eighteen, respectively), but are distinguished by the presence of three orchestral groups in the first case and by a text for woman narrator in the second case. In both pieces, the sung vocal parts are seen as a prism through which the text is diffracted. This, along with a relative sparseness of the material, and the relegation of the dramaturgical role to silence, recall to a certain degree the late work of Luigi Nono.

The opera L’espace dernier, whose Parisian premiere took on symbolic resonance, settled in some ways Pintscher’s account with Rimbaud. The presence of two narrators and a woman’s choir recalls the link to the two texts described above, but the opera sets itself apart in scale more than in dramaturgical content. The composer was placing himself in the tradition of “Musiktheater,” favoring a succession of mental states over a univocal narrative style or teleological inclination. While the vocality of the rather parsimonious solo parts adopts an atonal idiom whose tension is created by wide intervals, the women’s choir is raised to a state of aura-like emanation, and the electronic processing of the text frequently pushes toward the dissolution of meaning as a way to exalt the phonetic and sculptural potential of the word.

Poetry and theater

Observing Pintscher’s work in the 1990s and the beginning of the decade that followed, it is worthwhile to distance oneself as much as possible from the composer’s fixation on Rimbaud. Instead, pieces from this time should be appreciated for their multi-layered tectonic friction, the implication being that several lines existed along which the composer made gradual aesthetic adjustments, both separately and concurrently: a slide toward a more dramaturgical treatment of poetry, the introduction of a dimension that, if not figural, was at least spatial, and an inclination toward refining textures.

In his first creative period, driven by the intense influence of Rimbaud, Matthias Pinstscher often invoked “poetic force.” Often this force appeared fragmented, as in the Mallarmé text in Hérodiade-Fragmente (1999), where the gaps created by the placing of the text are made more perceptible by the silences that separate its five sections. Treated as a monodrama, in certain sections of heightened expressionism, this “dramatic scene” for soprano and orchestra seems almost to recall Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Composed after the eponymous piece by Hans Henny Jahnn, Thomas Chatterton (1994-1998) is probably a more literally operatic work than L’Espace dernier, despite the composer’s apparent hesitation between a fully lyrical form and a more composite musical theater style, including a brief monodrama and a “tableau” borrowed – once again – from Rimbaud.

When Pintscher became interested in the poetry of E.E. Cummings, this “poetic force” seems to have spun off into “theatric force.” The composer reported experiencing such force in Lachenmann’s music, whose influence on him was pivotal, visible notably in a kind of imaginary theater made up of visuals and gestures. It is in these pieces for voice that his work is closest to the intimacy of the Lied, and that he tends – and not in any paradoxical way – to soften the dramaturgical quality of his music, densifying it by the very fact of condensing its means, or, more precisely, of re-centering them on the music itself. A Twilight’s Song (1997) captures the in-betweenness painted by Cummings in IV (“the hours rise up putting off stars and it is”), a nighttime world hovering between dream and awakening, here, through the development of a narrative arc – from one sunset to another – structured by an evolving ritornello (“And it is dawn/day/dusk”). The rapport between the soprano and the piano in Lieder und Schneebilder (2000/01) is that of stage partners, and the composer calls on the effects of musical figuration and the piano, as well as whispered vocals, to depict atmosphere (Erstes Schneebild). Pintscher has said he was “struck by the simplicity and the modesty of Cummings’ poetry,” which for him was accompanied by a feeling of “almost being able to physically touch the words, words so pure that they left the composer their freedom5”. The fairly complex rhythmic writing that features in several passages seems above all to seek tremendous flexibility, confirmed by instructions such as “ruhig fliessendes und sehr flexibles Tempo6”.

Of particular interest is the notion of perspective, which appears in a direction included in the score of Monumento IV (1996), and seems to be as much about dramaturgical perspective on a given musical situation than it is about its spatial projection. This would become more and more crucial in later works, and can also be seen as a way of involving texture in the dramaturgy of the work, as well as the beginning of a phase marked by a more figural understanding of its formal dynamic. The light electronic processing of the solo viola in Tenebrae (2000-2001) is intended to be almost imperceptible, its effect limited to the spectral dispersion of the acoustic instrument, to which the writing for the instrumental ensemble also contributes. Seen in this light, an acoustic perspective is being opened up. The strong scordatura applied to the same viola does a similar thing in a different way, driving it toward an acoustic place rarely visited by the viola, a kind of no man’s land of shadows.

The work of refining and enriching textures that took place over this decade must therefore not be taken on its own terms, as a simple evolution in musical language. It can be seen as a corollary to an attempt, as the composer put it, to formulate “evolutionary trajectories that follow a dramaturgical principle” or, in expanded terms, to create “situations and spaces in which sound configurations are established that modify the exposed material before diluting it so that it is generated in a new form7”. This phase of renewing textures gave rise, among other works, to the series Figura I to V (1998-2000) written for string quartet and accordion. These instruments were used both alone and conjointly, depending on the piece; Figura V / Assonanza was written for solo cello. The series uses breath and noise (notably saturation by overpressure of the bow), the use of plectra, the fusion of timbre, precarious sounds (flageolet, balzato, flautando), and interference beating on the accordion. In addition to the use of extended technique, their combination provokes complex sounds whose precise origin becomes difficult to identify. Moreover, the structuring of the discourse through the use of recurring features that are individually recognizable but are put together in different ways, appears as a favored approach in this cycle, as it is based largely on the idea of recombining a limited number of families of material.

The far larger ensembles of Fünf Orchesterstücke (1997) underscore the composer’s taste for acoustic ambiguities as well as complex rhythmic stratification (particularly in the second piece), tending toward micropolyphony. An instruction such as “sospeso, molto irreale, come da lontano” (piece 5), which was used in numerous variations at the time, further highlights the link between the acoustic perspective and a certain dramaturgical impressionism.

Figural, musical

While it would be inaccurate to speak of a sudden change in paradigm, the composer’s thirtieth birthday coincided with an increasing attraction to the contemporary arts. Certainly, earlier work, such as the pieces mentioned in the previous section for their figural dimension, may appear as augurs of this change. The subtitle of Dernier espace avec introspecteur (1994), “Betrachtung einer Raumplastik von Joseph Beuys8” signifies in itself the search for pathways among the arts. In the same vein, the composer has observed that “visual impressions cannot be composed or ‘put to music’ – there is no real interdisciplinary way to create a correspondence between forms that are heard and forms that are seen9”.

Matthias Pintscher is an admirer of numerous visual artists, and maintains friendships with some of them. His catalogue features numerous pieces linked in various ways to artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Barnett Newman, Cy Twombly, and Joseph Beuys. The latter, along with Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Richard Serra, Fred Sandback, and Robert Raymond, are high on his list of “heroes” whose work he owns. When he mentions these artists, in addition to their graphic and visual qualities, he often evokes the media of their work, and it is tempting to draw a metaphorical link between his taste for canvas or paper and the separation, in his music, between two families of materials – the first being the framework or the surface, which then forms a backdrop against the second, the outline or the figure.

From this perspective, Study for Treatise on the Veil (Study I to Study IV, 2004 to 2009) marks a significant phase in the composer’s reflections on his own artistic practice. This series is inspired by calligraphy on two levels. Pintscher considers that his “ideal for the conception of a work of art is that of Japanese calligraphy: years, decades of preparation and concentration, and then the act of a single iconic gesture that happens in two seconds and cannot be modified.” Aware that long composition time makes such immediate gestures impossible, he has nevertheless reflected on ways to introduce a phenomenon that resembles the pictorial gesture into sound art. Studies for Treatise on the Veil are in part studies on drawing, on the search for the visible spontaneity of graffiti or inscription, and for this reason refer to the eponymous work by Cy Twombly (1968). The theme of the veil appeared again that same year in Veil of Orpheus. The veil in question here is also the veil Twombly frequently included in his own work by adding a transparent layer that muted its contrasts. Twombly was making reference to the Italian velo invented by Leonardo da Vinci to help to detect perspective, and Pintscher took it up as a way to reveal the details of his writing, employing techniques to produce complex sounds or prepared strings. The composer drew a parallel between the bow and the paintbrush, both of which are subject to subtle motions and variable pressure depending on the desired density. In Study III for “Treatise on the Veil” (2007) for example, the two strings are prepared with the addition of a piece of paper, producing distorted sounds, loaded with high-pitched harmonics, and, indeed, “veiled” (verhangen) by an almost electronic halo. In addition, two types of mutes, including a metal one, are used, and the favored mode of contact between the bow and the string is the flautando, produced with slow, low-pressure bowing. From this perspective, the duet for viola and cello Janusgesicht (2001) clearly prefigures the application of this veiled writing for strings, rich with many micro-details, while En sourdine (2002) for violin and orchestra shows in the outline of the solo part the implicit model of the calligraphic line.

Pintscher makes a direct reference to Anselm Kiefer in Chute d’étoiles (2012), whose title is a direct translation of Sternenfall, which premiered in 2007 at the Grand Palais for Monumenta 2007. Most likely Kiefer’s influence should be identified in the significance he assigns to the relationship between material and color, the second emanating from the first. In addition to the myth of Osiris – the god killed by his violent brother Seth, who scatters him in pieces across the land, and who is patiently put back together by Isis, making possible his resurrection – it is the myth’s treatment by Beuys in Osiris (1970/79) that interests Pintscher in his orchestral etude Towards Osiris. Where Beuys applied bits of fabric to bare canvas, Pintscher exposes sound as an organic unit, broken down into distinct elements that he allows us to observe, then reconstructs, in this way communicating new sound qualities to the listener.

Pintscher was also inspired by the art of Barnett Newman, from whom he borrowed the title of the cycle Profiles of light, which draws together piano and cello, as well as the titles of each of its constituent pieces, Now I, Now II, and Uriel. The composer has taken certain common goals from the visual artists he has observed, despite the differences in their artistic fields. What stands out in particular is the idea of writing in strata. This does not only mean – and does not even necessarily mean – the technical principle of superimposing layers, as one sees in the work of Rothko, for example. Rather, it points to the idea that “any major work of art, in architecture, painting, sculpture, poetry, novels, music, etc. has a quality of not hurling a fully formulated message at its audience10”. This quality lies in the open and stratified formulation of meaning, offering spectators or listeners a space of their own to inhabit.

Uriel, the flame of God, is the angel who chased Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. For Newman, Pintscher’s inspiration, Uriel is Uriel Da Costa, the 17thth century Portuguese philosopher who converted to Judaism from Christianity, but ended up critiquing both religions and calling for a more rational one, leading to his exclusion from both. At its climax, Pintscher’s piece is ripped apart by a gesture that is a direct reference to Newman’s “zip” paintings. Here, again, meaning is stratified; one of these strata is religion, or, more generally, art’s spiritual dimension – an emerging preoccupation for Pintscher.

The spiritual in art

“I am Jewish, and since I moved to New York, my awareness of my Judaism has reemerged. I was already studying Torah and Halakha before I turned thirty, but I hadn’t lived my religion in England or in Germany. When I lived in Frankfurt, the synagogue was super Orthodox, attended by older people from Russia and Eastern Europe, there was no joy there. As a child, I learned Hebrew, but I hated it, because I felt forced to do it11”. His closeness to the Hebrew language reemerged during a stay at a kibbutz in Israel. Pintscher defines himself as a “spiritual person” but not a religious one, this spirituality being directly linked to his reflections on his own artistic practice, to the idea of questioning, a way of scrutinizing a tradition in order to better focus on the here and now. The Torah, the Mishna, and the Talmud are also, in a way, layers of meaning.

The composer’s attraction to Hebrew comes in part from the power of that language to condense expression, creating polysemy in that it builds meaning through context. In the cycle Shir Hashirim, the language functions like a prism, and the narrative voice fluctuates. The poetry of the Song of Songs, a reservoir of feeling, solicits the senses and also shows a tendency – an advantage in the composer’s view – toward occasional ambiguity in the narrative voice, meaning that it is not always easy to know who is speaking. Written for mixed acapella choir, She-Cholat Ahavah Ani12 (2008) is built on the fifth of the Songs of Solomon, whose sixteen verses Pintscher draws on as he covers an emotional range that moves from despair to ecstatic delight. He makes use of the unfixed perspective to alternate the voices of the man, the woman, and the maidens of Jerusalem. He employs a broad range of textures (monody, vertical and contrapuntal polyphony, heterophony, static harmonic fields), enriched with the occasional use of antiphonic and responsorial principles, as well as a solo voice singing the verse that includes the title, and quasi parlando-style singing where the focus is on the musicality of the word. It may be presumed that the piece’s strong tendency toward harmonic polarization – here, around the D/E-flat pairing – is intended to recreate a vocal style that resembles cantillation. The solo baritone in Songs from Solomon’s garden (2009) appears as a character in dialogue with a second character, embodied by the chamber orchestra; occasional doubling implies moments of agreement in this dialogue. The vocal melody is clear, at first centered on a limited range, and the orchestra becomes all-enveloping, as if in order to expand its field of resonance. The discourse is focused on the singing, and to this end the composer draws on the cantillation of Rabbi Moshe Weisblum, while maintaining his own distance from it. In formal terms, the priority given to the melodic curve results in an expansive expressive trajectory. Surprisingly, Pintscher returned to Chapter 2 of the Shir Hashirim in Shirim (2016-17), also for baritone and orchestra.

In Bereshit (2012), the composer turned to the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Genesis. His intent here was to find a musical language for nothingness, for darkness, for what is to be born and is not yet structured, but also for the stasis of eternity. Articulating nothingness, inspiring listening, making it possible to perceive a discourse becoming complex as it passes through different phases of chaos – here, once again, is a way of articulating musical dramaturgy that is both self-sufficient and programmatic. The musical resources mobilized here do not exclude conventional associations (an indistinct bass note for the initial chaos, for example), but the progressive adding of fibrousness to the texture is particularly effective, as is the rhythmic figuration that produces the movement’s increasing agitation and acceleration.

While Mar’eh (2011, revised in 2015) has no connection to Biblical texts, the emphasis placed on the melodic line in the Shir Hashirim cycle appears as a major focal point here: the composer specifically set out to compose a “song, a line” for the solo violin, and for the first time “wanted a path that sets out from point A to go to point B […], a plainsong that unwinds and unfolds, resembling the sun’s trajectory as it rises and sets13”. Once again requiring a concertante configuration, Un despertar (2017) leaves the solo cello to express itself in a somber register that tends, in this context, to corroborate the soloist’s instrumental and vocal bivalence. The old man incarnated by this cello part is the same one in the eponymous Octavio Paz poem, whose title, (“A Waking”), seems for the composer to take on the spiritual resonance of an awakening of consciousness and self-awareness.

Texture and surface

Concurrently with this series of works, which foregrounds poetic and spiritual expression, based on enunciation and lyricism, Matthias Pintcher developed another group of works over the same period. These might seem to be, if not the dialectical antithesis, then at least representative of a parallel search, this one focused on texture and its projection into space. Many of these pieces, then, are characterized by a deepening of work on perspective, the latter being significantly conditioned by the textures themselves, as well as by their combinations and their interactions. These pieces at times evoke electronic, synthesized, or processed sounds, where they do not directly involve electronics. This is true, notably, in Verzeichnete Spur (2005), whose live electronics in no way preclude the instrumental technique, tending to blur the legibility of sound sources, as suggested, for example, in measure 52, which specifies, “molto irreale, sintetico.” Fairly radical in that it is very muted and focused on the quality of diffracted timbre, this piece notably uses scordatura for the low strings and the harp, prepared cello strings, and a brush on the piano chords, while the percussion provides numerous resonant sounds, with electronic processing used mostly to create reverberation. The triptych Sonic eclipse (2009-2010), which unfolds against a cosmological background, coincides with the composer’s renewed interest in brass instruments. Indeed, this was his first time writing solo parts for them. Treated in a fairly idiomatic fashion, the solo trumpet of Celestial object I (2009) glides through a sophisticated acoustic environment with an effectiveness that, given its economy of means, recalls the music of Peter Eötvös. It joins the horn, the soloist in Celestial object II, in Occultation, where a latent musical scenography results from the play with overlay, with eclipse. Subject to their respective idioms, the two instruments only find each other for a brief instant of mutual mimicry. Curiously, Osiris (2007) seems to go against this tendency, favoring fuller, sometimes magmatic material within a wide variety of textures and moods, presented as a welter of vignettes. Outpourings of almost post-Romantic lyricism assigned to the strings, as well as the generous use of brass, may be explained by the institution behind the commission: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the conductor at the premiere, Pierre Boulez, whose influence, manifest in many other pieces, appears here most notably in mixtures of wind instruments that seem to echo the electronics in Répons.

Questions of language

There have been no abrupt turns in the course of Matthias Pintscher’s musical production. Rather, its evolution has been smooth, spurred along by adjustments, additions, and simplifications. As the composer himself has pointed out, deciding what is essential is a long process, and rarely one to which young composers are drawn. While never excessive, if the works of his youth and early maturity may be characterized by the highly dense material that correlates with the expressive tension described above, it is no doubt because he was at the beginning of that long process. The operas from these years are dramatic, steeped in despair, catastrophe, and suicide, which, looking back, Pintscher feels “is easier to express than lightness14”. This long process of refinement seeks the state of transparency described earlier as “perspective.” The slow emergence of a certain expressionism is thus for Pintscher the fruit of a change in state of mind, but one that cannot be disentangled from the process of perfecting the more technical means of composition.

In this way, although Pintscher has never felt the need to create a system for organizing pitch or to call on the techniques of serialism, he once embraced a composite approach in the service of producing a language whose chromatic coloring is flexible. He distanced himself from this approach in the 1990s in favor of more clearly polarized harmonic sequences. Significantly, one of these polarities, E-flat, plays a significant role and has recurred in his work since On a clear day (2004) for piano, representing for the composer a certain softness, an acoustic comfort, as well as a horizon, a vanishing line disappearing into the open sea. His abandonment of modal or pseudo-modal thinking can no doubt also be explained by his increasingly fine-grained mastery of orchestration, which, operating in the sense of a dissolution of sound’s density, acts jointly on the expansion of the harmonic movement, its clarification, and its tendency toward greater radiance. This more textured orchestration seems to have distanced the composer from thinking in terms of intervals and of mechanisms of tension and resolution. It is difficult not to see in this evolution a link to Pintscher’s experience as a conductor. The influence of Debussy, and even more of Ravel, whose scores Pintscher admired for the fact that one could hear everything that is noted in them, led him to avoid excessively dense textures in which masking can occur.

Form, process, and dramaturgical effects are linked for Pintscher. Drama is built by modulating density, complexity, and the openness of the sound field. Processes are understood in energetic terms, their dynamics being provoked by the interaction of objects – motive, harmony, rhythmic figure, timbral combinations – depending on their energetic potential and according to simple categories such as fusion, imbrication, opposition, or changing levels. The composer says that this creates “a repertoire of gestures or of voices15” that allows form to be drawn in stages.

Dividing line

The three facets of his musical work – composition, conducting, and teaching at the Juilliard School in New York since 2014 – to which can be added curating and programming, all show the care Matthias Pintscher invests as an artist in transmission and sharing. His renown and his institutional reputation have given him weight to make programming choices and to commission works, as he did in a particularly interesting way in 2017, when he invited seven composers to write a ten-minute piece for each day of the creation story, as part of his Genesis Project.

Each of these activities requires a specific kind of presence and possesses its own temporality, and their interaction as well as the boundaries among them play a decisive role in a musician’s profile. For a composer-conductor, composition is often seasonal, and even fragmentary work. More risky than retrospective musicology, which strives to see in the composer’s current music the results of an evolutionary process, is the prospective approach: this would seek to anticipate the musical future of Matthias Pintscher. To do so, one must – in addition to searching for hints that might possibly foretell the composer’s return to the piano, a renewed attraction to vocal writing, or perhaps the temptation to explore microtonality – attempt to identify the direct influence that the concrete techniques of creative work might have on the nature of Pintscher’s works still to come.

  1. Matthias Pintscher, unpublished interview with Pierre Rigaudière, 13 March 2018.
  2. Matthias Pintscher, interview with Pierre Rigaudière (3 February 2014), Diapason N. 624, May 2014.
  3. Matthias Pintscher, unpublished interview with Pierre Rigaudière, 13 March 2018.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Matthias Pintscher, filmed interview with Mark Mandarano: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7J0XdQBLVs0
  6. Serenely fluid and highly flexible tempo.
  7. Matthias Pintscher, press release written in 1998.
  8. Contemplation of a sculpture by Joseph Beuys.
  9. Taken from a program note written for a concert in the “Leading European Composers” series, The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., Thursday, 13 December 2012.
  10. Matthias Pintscher, unpublished interview with Pierre Rigaudière, 3 February 2014.
  11. Ibid.
  12. The title means, “Death for Love of You”.
  13. Matthias Pintscher, interview with Jéremie Szpirglas, Accents, online magazine, 25 February 2016. (http://www.accentsonline.fr/2016/02/25/mareh-entretien-avec-matthias-pintscher-compositeur/)
  14. Matthias Pintscher, unpublished interview with Pierre Rigaudière, 13 March 2018.
  15. Matthias Pintscher, interview with Arnaud Merlin in Le portrait contemporain, France Musique, 15 March 2017.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2019


  • Hans-Peter JAHN, « “Next generator?” - Matthias Pintscher » In Next Generation. Matthias Pintscher, [Programme du festival de Salzburg], 1997, p. 40-48.
  • Rainer NONNENMANN, « Der blinde Pluralismus : Kritische Anmerkungen zu Matthias Pintscher Fünf Orchesterstücken » in MusikTexte, Zeitschrift für neue Musik, n° 92, février 2002.
  • Éva PINTER, « Aus dem warteraum zum erlösenden licht : With lilies white von Matthias Pintscher – eine wegbeschreibung », in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 2005, n° 6, p. 34-37.
  • Reinhard KAGER, « Theatralik im Blut: der Komponist Matthias Pintscher », Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 1998, n° 1, p. 42 - 44.
  • Thomas SCHÄFER, « Imagination aus der Kraft des Poetischen. Über den Komponisten Matthias Pintscher », in Neue Musikzeitung 46, Regensburg 1997, p. 12.
  • Thomas SCHÄFER, « Sprachmusiken jenseits der Sprache. Der Komponist Matthias Pintscher. » In Next Generation. Matthias Pintscher, [Programme du festival de Salzburg], 1997, p. 17-33.
  • Michael TÖPEL, « Confidence in the Power of the Poetic: the Composer Matthias Pintscher », in Tempo, n°205, 1998, p. 12–14.
  • Dirk WIESCHOLLEK, « Matthias Pintscher » in: Komponisten der Gegenwart n° 23, avril 2002.


  • Matthias PINTSCHER, Bereshit, Uriel, Songs from Solomon’s Garden, Ensemble Intercomtemporain, Matthias Pintscher, direction, dans « Bereshit », 1 CD Alpha Classics, 2016, ALPHA 218.
  • Matthias PINTSCHER, A Twilight’s Song, On A Clear Day, Monumento V, Sieben Bagatellen Mit Apotheose der Glasharmonika, Janusgesicht, Study II for Treatise on the Veil, Ensemble Contrechamps, Matthias Pintscher, direction, dans « Solo and Ensemble Works », 1 CD Neos, 2014, NEOS 11302.
  • Matthias PINTSCHER, Monumento I, Nacht. Mondschein, Lieder und Schneebilder, Birds, I Will Wade Out, To Stand (Alone), Arstes Schneebild, The Moon is Hiding in her Hair, Lady of Silence, Zweites Schneebild, Tableau/Miroir, On a Clear Day, Alfonso Alberti, piano, dans « On A Clear Day », 1 CD Stradivarius, 2014, STR 33970.
  • Matthias PINTSCHER, Sonic eclipse ; A twilight’s song ; She-cholat ahavah ani (shir ha-shirim V), Marisol Montalvo : soprano, Garethn Flowers : trompette, David Byrd-Marrow : cor, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), direction : Matthias Pintscher, SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, direction : Marcus Creed, livret de Marie Luise Maintz, 1 cd Kairos, 2011, 00135162KAI.
  • Matthias PINTSCHER, Janusgesicht ; Study 2 ; Sieben bagatellen, ensemble Contrechamp, Ernesto Molinari, Geneviève Strosser, Daniel Haefliger, 1 cd æon, 2008.
  • Matthias PINTSCHER, « en sourdine » : en sourdine ; tenebrae ; Reflections on Narcissus, Frank Peter Zimmermann : violon ; Christophe Desjardins : alto ; Truls Mørk : violoncelle, Ensemble intercontemporain, NDR Sinfonieorchester, direction : Matthias Pintscher, 1 cd Kairos, 2007, n° 0012582KAI.
  • Matthias PINTSCHER, Toward Osiris, avec Holst : Les planètes, et des œuvres de Saariaho, Turnage, Dean, Berliner Philharmoniker, Simon Rattle, direction, 2 cds Emi classics n° 69690, 2007.
  • Matthias PINTSCHER, « Portrait du compositeur » : Janusgesicht ; a twilight’s song ; lieder und schneebilder ; vers quelque part…-façons de partir ; in nomine, Alban Gerhardt, violoncelle, Julie Moffat, soprano, Tabea Zimmermann, alto, Klangforum Wien, chœur de la NDR de Hambourg, Matthias Pintscher et Hans-Christoph Rademann, direction, enregistré en 2001, 1 cd Wergo, 2005, WER 6553-2.
  • Matthias PINTSCHER, Study I For “Treatise On The Veil“, avec des œuvres de Honegger, Martinù, Bach, Ravel, Frank Peter Zimmermann : violon, Heinrich Schiff : violoncelle, 1 cd Ecm New Series n° 000732902, 2006.
  • Matthias PINTSCHER, Figura I - IV ; 4° Quartetto d’archi « Ritratto di Gesualdo » ; Dernier espace avec introspecteur, Teodoro Anzellotti : accordéon, Quatuor Arditti, 1 cd Winter & Winter, 2004, WDR3 n° 910097.
  • Matthias PINTSCHER, Sur Départ ; Hérodiade-Fragmente ; Musique de Thomas Chatterton, Claudia Barainsky : soprano, Dietrich Henschel : baryton, Hamburg North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, direction : Christoph Eschenbach, 1 cd Teldec, 2001.
  • Matthias PINTSCHER, Fünf Orchesterstücke ; Music aus Thomas Chatterton ; Choc, Urban Malmberg, baryton, Symphonique de la Radio de Berlin RSO, direction Matthias Pintscher, Wien Klangforum, direction : Sylvain Cambreling, 1 cd Kairos, 2000, KAI 1205.

Liens Internet

(liens vérifiés en septembre 2021).