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Wilhelm Killmayer (1927-2017)

Aug. 24, 2017

Wilhelm Killmayer (1927-2017)

It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of Wilhelm Killmayer, who died on August 20, 2017, only one day before his 90th birthday. With the composer, the music world has lost one of its greatest individualists. By studying the tradition, he found his own contemporary unmistakable style. He created orchestral works and chamber music for concert halls and wrote compositions for the music theatre. Into old age, Killmayer gradually increased his comprehensive oeuvre of lied compositions. The fact that wit and parody have again found their way into contemporary art music, is, without doubt, one of his greatest merits.

Alfred Schnittke once said about Killmayer’s music that it was new music with old means. The cantabile character of Robert Schumann’s music was more convincing to him than the theoretical superstructure of the avant-garde following the Second Viennese School. Based on an emphatic fascination for the music of past epochs, Killmayer developed an individual style which was contemporary – not least due to his will to alienation. In Killmayer’s style, the unfamiliar and the familiar united to form something new. Some years later, many of his aesthetic views were grouped under the label of postmodernism, which gained him at least the recognition of critics and fellow composers that was refused to him in his early years.

Ever since the musical farce Yolimba, performed in 1964, Killmayer had made a stand against the aesthetic movements of his time. For the libretto, written by Tankred Dorst, he created an imaginative work full of musical wit and parodic references which had no fear of contact with entertaining and utility music.

Killmayer’s music theatre pieces were closer to both the buffooneries of Jacques Offenbach and Eric Satie’s Dadaism than to the theory-driven avant-garde of those years. For Killmayer, the rediscovery of the comical in music became a personal act of liberation which had a lasting influence even on subsequent generations of composers.

In his early works, Killmayer developed the ostinato as a defining element of his compositional style. Constant repetitions of motivic phrases or rhythmic figurations carried the tension of the dramatic development. Later, Killmayer added another essential means of compositional technique: radical reduction. Orchestral pieces like Nachtgedanken (1973) or the three chamber music works (The woods so wilde, 1970; Schumann in Endenich, 1972 and Kindertage, 1973) reduce the music to its component parts. The musical flow occasionally comes to an almost complete standstill, with soundless and noiseless bar rests constituting the end of a musical decay. Silence and sound, tension and relaxation are the contrastive pairs of this consistent reduction of the stylistic means to the essential. Although the melody remained as a principle, tonality and harmony lost their traditional function due to the separation of the sounds.

For Killmayer, composing music always was a process connected with the experience of nature:

I walk through almost silent late autumn woods and I hear my heart beating, I hear the sounds of the slowly surrendering nature and the echo of a bird’s call in my mind. Deeper and deeper do I go into its heart, where terror and peace are close to each other, where the fear stands still.

Once the compositional process has begun, it follows its natural laws. The sequence of tones develops out of its own self, does not follow any theoretical pattern. For Killmayer, the tones possess a kind of personality which, through the clashing of their individual characters, could create a dramatic action, even in an instrumental work. It is this childlike wonder about a single note, adopted from Schubert, Schumann and Mahler, that characterizes the melody in Killmayer’s works. “A single note is very precious to me – like a crystal or a flower.” The notes speak without using any language.

(Schumann in Endenich for piano, electric organ/harmonium and 5 percussionists)

The natural carrier of the melody is the voice. Killmayer gave expression to this idea in numerous vocal compositions. In the 1980s he composed the cycles of Hölderlin lieder which exist in versions with both piano and orchestral accompaniment. Later, he added Trakl, Eichendorff and Heine cycles. Until the last years of his life, Killmayer dealt with the lied genre in a productive way. The vocal works seismographically reflect Killmayer’s unique musical aesthetics. Here, again, the tension between repetition and reduction is present. Occasionally, the composer cautiously felt his way along the texts. The art of the fragile was created, showing breaks instead of covering them. Even the witty and the ordinary can be found in his lieder.

(Trakl-Lieder I for tenor and piano (1993); Markus Schäfer, tenor; Siegfried Mauser, piano)

Wilhelm Killmayer remained tied to his roots in the city of Munich all his life. Here, he attended school, studied with Hermann Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Rudolf von Ficker and Carl Orff. In 1973 he became professor at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik. Except for some stays in Rome, Paris and Frankfurt on the Main, he spent his entire life in the immediate vicinity of the Bavarian capital.

As composition teacher, he influenced a whole generation of composers. Due to his mistrust of any authoritarian system, learning was, to him, always a kind of experiencing based on his unrestrained curiosity. His way of teaching was undogmatic, the central thread running through his composition classes was provided by the works of the great composers themselves which were examined in perspective. Tracking down and actively understanding the creative process at the core of the compositions were at the centre of attention. Every student had to take the matter of implementing the experienced for their own process into their own hands: ‘In the course of composing a piece, the tones eventually tell you where they want to go to… there is nothing you can do against it.

Killmayer’s works live on, in every moment that they are played by a musician and listened to by a listener. ‘My music lives in the past and in the future, and perhaps that is why it is ever-present.’ It is vital to maintain this principle of Killmayer. Schott Music will always remember him and be grateful for many years of fruitful collaboration and friendship.

For more information on Wilhelm Killmayer, visit

Wilhelm Killmayer
Yolimba, oder die Grenzen der Magie (1962-1963; rev. 1970)
"Yolimba, or the limits of magic"
musical poses in one act and four praises
libretto (Ger) by Tankred Dorst and Wilhelm Killmayer
for 4 sopranos, 3 mezzo-sopranos, 2 altos, 7 tenors, bass baritone, 2 basses, speaking roles, SATB chorus and children's choir

Nachtgedanken (1973)
for orchestra

The woods so wilde (1970)
Chamber Music No. 1
for flute, 3 percussionists, viola and guitar

Schumann in Endenich (1972)
Chamber Music No. 2
for piano, electric organ (harmonium) and 5 percussionists

Kindertage (1973)
Chamber Music No. 3
for flute, viola, electric organ, piano, accordion, zither, guitar and 5 percussionists

Trakl-Lieder I (1993)
text (Ger) by Georg Trakl
for tenor and piano