Reimer donates composer papers of Robert Owens to University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries

Jamie Reimer with Robert Owens. Courtesy photo.
Jamie Reimer with Robert Owens. Courtesy photo.

Reimer donates composer papers of Robert Owens to University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries

calendar icon11 Sep 2017    

Lincoln, Neb.--Glenn Korff School of Music Associate Professor of Voice Jamie Reimer has donated a collection of published works, concert programs and reviews, photographs and other memorabilia she received from composer Robert Owens to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries. The collection, titled “Robert Owens, Composer Papers,” will reside in the Music Library in Westbrook Music Building.

“It’s overwhelming to think that a decade of a relationship has resulted in this tremendous gift,” Reimer said.

Reimer’s faculty recital on Sept. 18 will celebrate the work of Owens. 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, piano, as well as the Glenn Korff School of Music’s Clark Potter, viola, and Karen Becker, cello.

She will also perform works by two composers who influenced his work, Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert.

“Those were his favorites,” Reimer said. “Those were the composers that drew him to Germany, where he lived since 1964.”

Anita Breckbill, professor and head of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Music Library, said the material is a welcome addition to the university’s collection.

“Robert Owens’s 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. I’m grateful to Dr. Jamie Reimer for being the force behind this acquisition. 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 Glenn Korff School of Music presented the North American premiere of Owens’ opera titled “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. I’ve been given it with a bow on top, and I feel so overwhelmed and so grateful to be entrusted with this gift.”

Owens was born in the U.S. in 1925 and grew up in California. His mother, Alpharetta Helm-Owens, was a pianist, and Owens began playing the piano himself at age four, composing at age eight and performing publicly at age 10. After serving in the military, he continued his musical studies in Paris at L’Ecole Normale de Musique under renowned pianist Alfred Cortot.
After teaching in the U.S. for two years, he returned to Europe to live and work in Germany, where he was a composer, pianist and stage actor.

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 his song cycle titled “Heart on the Wall,” based on poetry by Langston Hughes.

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 was able to track down his contact info and 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. And from then on, the rest is history.”

He was concerned about her “dissecting” his music, but she told him her goal was to share it with people—a goal made easier to reach with this gift.

“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. 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,” Reimer 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 is grateful for his music and collection of papers to reside at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries. There are plans to pursue creating digital resources 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.”