Stars, music and the mysterious language of trees

Settled in the centre of Stellenbosch, in the picturesque Victoria Street, and nestled between heritage sites and 100-year-old Oak trees, lies the Music Department of Stellenbosch University.

Lüdemann is a veteran of music. He studied his undergraduate degree at the University of the Free State, after which he completed his Masters and Doctorate degree. PHOTO: Stellenbosch University

Founded in 1905 by five private music teachers, it is the oldest institution of its kind in South Africa. Together, F.W Jannasch, Hans Endler, Armin Schniter and sisters Nancy de Villiers and Elisabeth von Willich borrowed money from surrounding wine farmers to build this historic institution.

When you walk up the front-steps of the Conservatorium, you are met by the Endler Hall, which stands in all its magnitude and vast bravado. It has showcased renowned national and international acts. It is a music-powerhouse, in all its right.

However, when you enter through the back entrance of this esteemed establishment, you find a music department masked behind the enormity of Endler Hall. Here, students appear to be stressed; it is, after all, examination period.

In the heart of this department, a maze of hallways leads you to room 107. Its occupant, professor, composer and musicologist Winfried Lüdemann, was Chair of the Music Department and Vice-Dean of Arts. Today, he is an emeritus professor, and will stay to lecture at the department “as long as they will have [him].”

The word emeritus is Latin in origin, meaning ‘veteran soldier’. Lüdemann is a veteran of music. He studied his undergraduate degree at the University of the Free State, after which he completed his Masters and Doctorates degree.

After hearing the knock on his room-107-door, Lüdemann opens it softly, revealing a messy office, with bookcases filled to the brim and reaching as high as the ceiling. A student sits on the edge of one of the giant red chairs inside; she looks worried.

The professor excuses himself and shuts the door again. From inside his office, his soft voice is barely audible. A few moments later, the student emerges. She looks relieved, as if her discussion with her professor has lifted a weight from her shoulders.

As a lecturing professor, he enjoys giving class. “You will always see the entire spectrum; students who are highly motivated and talented, and people who are just simply lazy, and everything in between,” he says. However, he has high hopes for the future of classical music, as he sees a wide variety of talent among his students.

A questionnaire among 50 students of the music department revealed that 55% of these students find their course work difficult. With ten being the highest, most students rated their stress level at either eight or ten.

Between subjects, time must also be dedicated to practising their instruments, as each student must play two. It comes then as no surprise that 50% of students spend two to three hours a day perfecting their musicianship. Of these students, 17% said that they spend up to twelve hours a day practising music.

Of course, such dedication leaves little time for sleep. Most students said that they sleep five hours a day, with 18% saying that they are lucky if they sleep for more than four hours.

Lüdemann is no stranger to the labour needed in the classical music industry. As a student, he dedicated six hours a day to practising his instruments. During his student career, his level of stress was “definitely an eight or nine,” he says. Thus, he slept less than five hours, and still does.

To him, however, it was a labour of love: “If you are in the field of music, your job and your hobby is one and the same thing,” he says. “You will not need to motivate yourself, as the motivation will always be there.”

To enter the classical music scene, he believes that one must be professionally trained: “Even great musicians such as Mozart received training. With other types of music, you might get away with teaching yourself. With popular music, many musicians are very talented, but self-taught. In classical music, you need to receive professional training.”

Lüdemann has dedicated most of his life to the study of music, but also plays the trombone and organ. These two seemingly very different instruments are both used to make music in the church and he has “always loved church music.”

This interest in classical music has always been a part of his life. “You do not choose music, music chooses you,” he says knowingly.

To him, classical music is all about interest. “You have to have a passion for it. You must go as far as you possibly can, because it is in you to do so.”

For some, classical music expresses profound sentiments. For others, it might be boring. Lüdemann draws parallels between music and language to explain this:

“Different types of music are like different types of languages. If you do not have the vocabulary, you cannot speak that specific language, and so it is in music. You must understand music to enjoy it.”

Other than music, Lüdemann also speaks the language of trees. His face lights up with the mention of his involvement in the Botanical Garden’s bonsai collection.

“Since a young age, I’ve always known the names of trees and had a relationship with them. If you live in town, you might have a small garden and cannot plant many trees. By having bonsai trees, you can have many trees,” he laughs, showing a spark of humour.

His icy-blue eyes, that have been windows to a formal and academic soul up until this moment, fill with warmth. He speaks about how trees spoke to him, and how he speaks to trees in, “a soft manner,” by nurturing them.

This child-like demeanour, which is far from his emeritus-manner, is echoed when he speaks about his second pastime; astronomy.

“When I was in grade eight, the Americans undertook the first flights to space,” which he eagerly followed it the newspapers. “Then I had to do an assignment about the solar system.” The space-bug had bitten him.

He was also interested in Pythagoras’ theory that there is a connection between music and stars:

“Pythagoras believed that the movement of planets created sound. Those sounds are similar to that you find on a musical instrument, and he thought that there must be some type of connection. In all its complexity, it remains a fascinating view of the universe. I just had to see what Pythagoras saw.”

And what does Lüdemann see for his future? He laughs light-heartedly and says: “I guess I’ll see how long they want me!”

As we walk to the foyer of the grand Endler Hall, students passing us greet the professor as they would a celebrity. In this industry, he probably is. “Good afternoon,” he greets back, falling back into his formal disposition.

I imagine, however, that his head is filled with stars, music and the mysterious language of trees. – Paula-Ann Smit

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