The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Jamie Reimer has donated a collection of published works, concert programs and reviews, photographs and other memorabilia she received from composer Robert Owens to University Libraries. The collection, titled “Robert Owens, Composer Papers,” will reside in the Music Library in the Westbrook Music Building.
“It’s overwhelming to think that a decade of a relationship has resulted in this tremendous gift,” said Reimer, associate professor of voice in the Glenn Korff School of Music.
Owens was a composer, concert pianist, vocal accompanist, and stage and television actor. Born and raised in the United States, he began playing piano at 4, composing at 8 and performing publicly at 10. After serving in the military, he studied at the L’Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris and the Vienna Academy of Music in Austria. He taught in the United States for two years before moving to Germany, where he lived for more than 50 years. A prolific composer, Owens is known for his song cycles based on the poetry of Langston Hughes and his opera “Culture! Culture!”
Reimer’s faculty recital on Sept. 18 will celebrate Owens’ work. Titled “Homage to Robert Owens,” her program includes three American premieres of pieces written by Owens in the last years of his life. She will be joined by Stacie Haneline on piano, as well as the Korff School’s Clark Potter on viola and Karen Becker on cello. She will also perform works by two composers who influenced Owens’ work, Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert.
Anita Breckbill, professor and head of the Music Library at Nebraska, said the material is a welcome addition to the university’s collection.
“Robert Owens’ collection is a fascinating slice of social history and musical composition, partially because Owens was an African-American composer who moved to Germany during the difficult civil rights period in the 1960s,” Breckbill said. “The scores in the boxes are ready to stand up and be alive and be performed. The collection will add diversity and breadth to the holdings of the Music Library.”
Reimer has been researching and performing Owens’ works since 2007. In August 2015, Reimer and the Korff School presented the North American premiere of “Culture! Culture!” He wrote the opera in Hamburg, Germany, in 1961 and premiered it in Ulm, Germany, in 1970.
Owens traveled to Lincoln in March 2015 to work with students and faculty on his music but was unable to make a return trip to see the opera performance that August. He died on Jan. 5, 2017.
“I learned while I was in Munich this summer that in the last days of his life, he was watching the DVD of our production daily,” Reimer said. “It gave him the most joy in the last days of his life. I think that was a tremendous gift that we were able to give him that he could see his opera realized. So it’s been this beautiful, symbiotic relationship between him and I and between him and our faculty and students. It’s what everybody wants to come from a relationship with a composer.”
Reimer first became acquainted with his music in 2006 when she attended a National Association of Teachers of Singing festival and received the score for the song cycle “Heart on the Wall,” based on Hughes’ poetry.
The next year, she began planning a 20th century recital and went back to his song cycle.
“I went to do research on the composer, which is what you do when you’re preparing a recital,” Reimer said. “And there was a paragraph on a website about him, and that was all. I said, ‘This doesn’t work.’”
She reached out to him and told him she wanted to study his music, but he said no.
“I tend to be persistent,” she said. “So I performed his songs, and I sent him a recording and said I still want to talk about your music. The rest is history.”
He was concerned about her “dissecting” his music, but she told him her goal was to share it.
“I told him what I wanted to do is share it with people. Not enough people know your music. Not enough people perform your music,” Reimer said. “His last gift to me is giving me everything I need to accomplish that goal, and that’s pretty spectacular.”
Reimer said what she loves about his music is its simplicity and complexity at the same time.
“When you sit down and take it apart, and you try to learn it, you get into the complexity of it,” she said. “But when you hear it, it’s so perfectly simple. He took this poem and was able to create melodies and harmonic contexts that absolutely, perfectly and pristinely express what the poet intended. He had such a deep understanding of words, and the way he was able to translate them into music is extraordinary.”
Reimer said she plans to create digital resources with the collection that will be available for research purposes.
“My goal is to have a history of his work that people from all over the world can see and research and hear,” she said. “In the long term, I want to record the pieces that haven’t been recorded yet so I can keep my promise to him that my whole purpose in doing this research is to make sure that these works are performed in the way that he intended. And for some of these works, I’m the only one who knows that, and I think it’s my purpose to communicate that to the larger musical world.”