…always new, always himself!
In January 2012, Thomas Quasthoff retired from the stage as a classical singer. For many this came as a surprise. Even to him, it was very sudden – but logical.
“I did not live up to the high standards I set for my artistic work, and therefore asked my manager to cancel all the following concert dates,” he explains. The death of his brother had put him in a kind of shock, Thomas Quasthoff recalls. Popular sayings are there for a reason. Grief tightens the throat; with mourning comes muteness.
“In Michael, I lost my dearest and greatest confidant, in both artistic and human matters.”
Today, Thomas Quasthoff describes the time that followed as difficult but groundbreaking. A time of reflection, but also a time of artistic experimentation on the path towards an artform which he had always loved but until then not practised. Thomas Quasthoff became a jazz singer.
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“I learned to play a new instrument called the microphone. I’ve learned how to create timbres, for example by getting up close and creating a soft ballad sound. This opens up a whole new universe of intimacy for me, and I find more and more security there. For this you have to control the intonation more, which you do not have to do with a piano or even with a big orchestra. My voice has long since completely recovered; I feel good. At the same time, I am also discovering upper registers where my voice had not responded well for a while. That’s incredibly satisfying. “
Thomas Quasthoff’s stage partners are jazz pianist Frank Chastenier, contrabassist Dieter Illg and drummer Wolfgang Haffner. They appreciate Quasthoff’s unconditional musicality. And he appreciates theirs.
“We are friends, and that makes it great. The most beautiful thing is that everyone is happy when the others achieve something good. That means that more and more freedom is possible; I no longer feel the stringency of the classical concert. Basically, I pulled myself off a pedestal. The nicest compliment for me is when I hear: ‘He’s not a classical singer who does jazz – he’s a jazz singer.’ In contrast to a Lieder recital, I don’t feel like the main character of the evening; I’m one of four fellow musicians.”
“One of my favourite pieces is ‘One for My Baby’. A guy sits at the bar and tells the bartender: ‘Listen, I feel bad. My girlfriend left me. That’s why I’m going to buy one drink for her and then another for the path my life will take from now on.’ If it were a classic song, it would only describe the situation. In jazz, on the other hand, I can voice all the emotions of the person who sings. Within the same sentence, I hear a thousand times more about the guy sitting at the bar. Even in Schubert’s Winterreise, I didn’t just want to interpret, but to BE the Miller’s boy, or in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, I want to really ask for purity of heart as a plea, directly addressing Jesus. In jazz, I can do even more. In classical music, I sing exactly what is there, with the precise note length. If I want to in Summertime, I can stretch the sound; with the phrase “spread your wings”, you can really create the image of someone stretching out their wings. That kind of complete freedom of expression that you have in jazz is forbidden in classical music. Classical artists sing their own interpretation, but never as an entirely new version – at best, as they think it is intended to be artistically.”
Public reading has proved a further treasure-trove for Thomas Quasthoff – poems by Heinrich Heine, letters by Goethe or Mendelssohn, a recently-rediscovered journal by Johann Andreas Silbermann, who accompanied his uncle, the famous organ-builder Gottfried Silbermann, on travels in the 18th century. For Quasthoff, both sung and spoken melody are forms of music.
“I enjoy working with everything that has to do with language and with my voice, with which I like to experiment. It is not enough to say that I like to make music; I would say that 75 to 80% of my well-being depends on music. From the start of each day, while I’m in the shower, I do singing exercises or hum some melody to myself. It was like that even when I was a child. I wish that many of my students were able to live 100% of what has been given to them.“
Thomas Quasthoff still has a singing professorship at the Hanns Eisler School of Music in Berlin.
“It’s important to me to train mature, knowledgeable singers who will develop their own voices. I don’t want to be the omniscient guru who guards and protects young singers. I experienced that myself, and I freed myself from it. When I won the ARD competition in 1988, there would certainly have been more open doors for me if I’d gone to see Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for example. But I didn’t want that, because I think that with everyone who has studied with him, you can hear that they have. I wanted to sound like myself instead. Even today I don’t sing like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby or Tony Curtis. Sometimes I add some of their characteristic colours as a stylistic device, but I’m interested in singing their songs as I feel them at that moment. In jazz, I find other, more liberating expressive possibilities. A tempo indication, for example, should be understood only as a guideline in jazz. That’s a huge gift for a singer. The path I took – removing myself from one musical field myself and working my way into a different genre at the same level – has been a wonderful experience.“
His 65th birthday is still far ahead, but Thomas Quasthoff is looking forward to it – not least because it ties in with another milestone in his career.
“That will also be my 50th anniversary as performer. It would be cool to celebrate that on the stage!”