Barbara Arens, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My career in music came first: as a harpsichordist and organist. It was having been brought up on Bach recordings that inspired me to want to play baroque music. There came a point, though, where I felt I had said what I wanted to say in early music, and so I returned with renewed joy to the piano. A harpsichordist well-versed in thorough bass has practical harmony at her fingertips and is always improvising – so putting compositions on paper wasn’t a big step from there.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I had the incredible good fortune of being accepted by the Mozarteum in Salzburg at the age of 13, and so my years there were particularily formative. My seven years in Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Historically Informed Performance class definitely had the greatest influence on my way of playing, experiencing, but also teaching music. What passion! What total concentration! What an eye for detail! Drama, humour, emotions – yes! That’s what music is all about! So I’ve carried that over to my second musical career as a composer.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Like every composer I ever heard of, I had to write to a dozen publishers and received replies of “sorry –your works don’t fit in our programme”, which was awfully discouraging. And then what wonderful luck: Breitkopf & Härtel were the ones to say “Yes!”! But, because they only can publish one book of mine per year, it was a challenge finding the right publishers for my many other books. But this, too, proved a blessing in disguise, as I have also been publishing with Editions Musica Ferrum, Trinity College London Press, Spartan Press and other firms and now also self-publish, all of which gives my creativity unlimited scope.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Not exactly commissioned, but my primary publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, like it when I take on challenging niche-literature like piano music specifically for one hand, or for small hands. I love working within any form of boundaries: what interesting/beautiful/expressive/fun/pedagogically useful music can I create within those boundaries?

Of which works are you most proud?

Generally my last piece! I’ve been having a fantastic time writing chamber music lately. As a composer of piano works specifically for non-professional musicians, I sometimes long to write more complex music –and now, when writing for clarinet + piano, cello + piano, etc., I can do “more”. But amongst my piano works, I might single out “All the World’s a Stage –13 Shakespeare Characters for solo piano”. As a great Shakespeare fan, I really enjoyed “setting the stage” for characters like Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Juliet, Hotspur, Richard III, Shylock…

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Polyglot! Celtic, neo-baroque, dance music from the ‘30’s, film music, pop, rock, jazz, contemporary (whatever that means!)…

How do you work?

Late at night, knowing that the telephone won’t ring and no one will barge in… with pencil and paper at the piano.

Who are your favourite composers?

Not very original, I’m afraid: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Chopin

As a musician, what is your definitionof success?

Creating music –as a performer and/or as a composer, that conveys expression, that sparks the imagination. As a composer of pedagogical music, the ultimate success is having pieces selected by the exam boards for their syllabi.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Passion is the key to being a musician.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Still sitting at my old Steinway, pencil and paper at hand – and an unlimited amount of new ideas in my inner ear

Barbara Arens was born in 1960 and is a passionately dedicated piano teacher. She began her studies at the Mozarteum in Salzburg at the age of 13. After a concert career performing primarily as harpsichordist and organist, she now greatly enjoys composing for her piano pupils. Her works include “One Hand Piano – 40 pieces for Left or Right”, “21 Amazingly Easy Piano Pieces”, “Piano Misterioso”, “Piano Vivace/Piano Tranquillo”, and “Piano Exotico”, all published by Breitkopf & Härtel as well as “Rendezvous with Midnight – 12+1 Nocturnes for Teens” and “All Beautiful and Splendid Things – 12+1 Songs for Piano Solo on Poems by Women” published by Editions Musica Ferrum. She presently lives in a baroque house in a medieval town near Würzburg, Germany, after living in Beirut, Dallas, San Francisco, Singapore, Salzburg, London and Munich.


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