Interview with Michael Alexander Willens

Portrait Michael Alexander Willens Interview 250 Years Johann Wilhelm Wilms

Who was Johann Wilhelm Wilms?

Well, I didn’t know him personally, but judging from what I have read I would say this: Wilms was an exceptionally gifted musician, not only as a composer, but as an exceptional pianist and flutist as well. This was unusual, as Mozart and Beethoven for example were also gifted composers and pianists (as were many of their contemporaries ) but he was also active as a flutist, both as an orchestral player and soloist. He was also a teacher who showed true  dedication  to his students, (and was concerned about musician’s rights in general and a music critic.      

He made a considerable career in Amsterdam during his lifetime – do you have any guesses as to why he is so little known today?

I think the primary reason can be summed up in one word: Beethoven!  Not only Wilms, but many composers of his generation like Bernard Romberg, Sigismund Neukomm, Anton Eberl and Bernhard Crusell, just to name a few) all suffered the same fate: deservedly or not, their music  wound up in the shadow of Beethoven’s, even though they had all achieved a kind of  “Rock star” status in their own lifetimes.

What distinguishes his music?

I like the way a good friend of mine would have answered this question: It’s funny music, sort of like pastry—high fat, low protein, probably best consumed a bit at a time. But Wilms is a very professional pastry chef, who knows how to work out all the details. His thematic material, on the other hand, is almost childlike, as if he were a jingle composer before his time.

He was very active socially and for the rights of musicians, and was sometimes also somewhat ‘uncomfortable’ – is this also to be found in his music?

I certainly do not know all of his works, but I wouldn’t say that. The music of his that I know does not reflect those feelings.

Can you tell me something about the works in the upcoming concerts?

In choosing works for the upcoming concerts, I tried to give an overview of the development of his compositional style.  The early works  (the symphony no.1.  in C op. 9 and the  flute concerto in D op 24) show clear influences of late Baroque as well as Haydn and Mozart; while the later works (the 5th piano concerto in Eb  and overture in f) owe their debt to Beethoven and perhaps even a certain extent to Schumann as well. 

I also wanted to make the audience aware that not only was he a composer but an extremely proficient flutist and pianist given the technical difficulties of the concertos for the two instruments. I also find it good to have as much color as possible in the choice of keys and instrumentation and we definitely have that here; with the different keys I mentioned before and the fact that each work has a different instrumentation.

Join the Kölner Akademie in celebrating Wilms’ 250th birthday: