Universal Edition - Wolfgang Rihm – About the Music

Wolfgang Rihm

Wolfgang Rihm

About the Music

Wolfgang Rihm could have become a poet or an artist. He felt the need to express himself creatively from an early age and always had a skill for abstract thought. In the end he became a composer, expressing himself through music.

Rihm is a larger than life phenomenon – in terms of both his encyclopaedic knowledge and his creative output, which also has something encyclopaedic, something all-embracing about it. The same is true of his activities as a teacher (he is a professor of composition at Karlsruhe University of Music), as a writer (he has published several volumes of written works, including interviews), as a lecturer (he is a charismatic speaker) and as a representative of his craft in public bodies, including the German performing rights society, GEMA.

To express yourself means wanting to communicate something. His music’s enormous desire for expression and its incredibly strong power of expression shocked (but also impressed) those present at the world première of Sub-Kontur, an orchestral work lasting almost 30 minutes, in Donaueschingen in 1976. Rihm was 24 years old at the time and had to suffer terrible insults – in the 1970s, his style of expressive music was simply not comme il faut.

Over 30 years later, this is already (musical) history. Rihm has remained true to himself and to his desire for expression, while the critical reviews of the time are now nothing but silent pieces of yellowing paper. Rihm has stayed true to himself. Put another way, his music defies all attempts to pigeonhole it. With each new piece, he surprises his listeners – and often himself. Each finished work raises questions which he then tries to answer in his next composition. These ‘responses’ published by UE alone already number some 350.

So how can this labyrinth be unravelled? This catalogue tries to help by listing the works by genre, instrumentation and sources of inspiration, as well as in alphabetical order. The first genre listed is ‘works for stage’. One year after composing Sub-Kontur,Rihm was commissioned by the Hamburg State Opera to write Jakob Lenz,probably the most frequently performed chamber opera by any living composer. Once again, he created a piece of wonderful, expressive music with ideal parts for baritone, bass and tenor. With eleven instruments, the orchestration is suitable for any workshop stage, but Jakob Lenzis also performed in large concert halls.

Die Eroberung von Mexico (1987–1991), described as ‘Musiktheater’ (music theatre) by the composer, is also a regular feature in the event calendars of opera houses, mainly in Germany. Séraphin, which bears the subtitle Versuch eines Theaters – Instrumente/Stimmen … nach Antonin Artaud, ohne Text (attempt at a drama – instruments/voices…inspired by Antonin Artaud, without text), presents a welcome challenge for directors who enjoy experimenting: ‘without text’ means without a storyline. This material has plenty of potential and can be used to tell a story, accompany acrobats performing on stage or videos …

Recently, Rihm has set his sights more and more on the stage: with the monodrama Das Gehege, Eine nächtliche Szene(2004–2005) inspired by Botho Strauß, Penthesilea Monolog (2005) inspired by Heinrich von Kleist (both these one-act pieces, together with Aria/Ariadne (2001), subtitled Szenarie,a setting to music of Ariadne’s Lament from Nietzsche’s Dionysos Dithyrambs, received their world première in Basel in 2009 as Drei Frauen, a full evening’s work for stage with new, specially composed interludes).

Goethe’s Proserpina was developed as a mono drama for the Schwetzingen Festival 2009. Nietzsche’s Dionysos Dithyrambs also served as the basis for Rihm’s latest piece of instrumental theatre Dionysos (2009–2010), which enjoyed a highly successful première at the Salzburg Festival in 2010. Rihm describes his piece as an “opera fantasy”.

Looking more closely at Rihm’s list of works, it soon becomes clear that many of the compositions form groups or series. Rihm has composed five works entitled Abgesangszene (1979–1981), for instance; the Chiffre-Zyklus (1982–1988) consists of eight numbered works as well as Bild (eine Chiffre)(1984), with an after-thought written in 2004: Nach-Schrift, eine Chiffre. Über die Linie is the name given to seven chamber music works either for solo instruments with or without orchestral accompaniment or for small orchestra. To date, he has written four orchestral compositions entitled Verwandlung (2002–2008), and it is possible that the series will be continued. The five pieces (Versuche – attempts) (Versuche) dedicated to the memory of his great friend Luigi Nono play a highly important role in his oeuvre. However, they are difficult to find in the index: the references to Nono only appear in the subtitles, such as: La lugubre gondola / Das Eismeer. Musik in memoriam Luigi Nono (5. Versuch) from 1990–1992.

The diligent reader of this catalogue will find hints at the composer’s creative process, namely in brackets after the titles. A good example is Jagden und Formen for orchestra, whose first two ‘Zustände’ [states, i.e. condition] (1995–1999 and 1995–2000) have been withdrawn. Two further versions are however still valid, that from 1995–2001 and the ‘Zustand 2008’.

Rihm’s compositions can also be categorised in another way: by their style or musical language. His music is avant-garde and (for the sake of a pun) arrière-garde. It is just as suitable for New Music festivals as for subscription concerts or religious celebrations. As a general rule, Rihm’s works for chamber ensemble (written for Ensemble Intercontemporain, Ensemble Modern, musikFabrik, ensemble recherche, etc.) can be described as ‘New Music’. Some have become part of the repertoire and are performed as a matter of course – just as orchestras 9 perform Mahler’s symphonies – as are the aforementioned Chiffrecompositions (individually or as a cycle) and Jagden und Formen, as well as abgewandt 1 and 2 (1989 and 1990), Pol – Kolchis – Nucleus (1996), Bild (eine Chiffre)(1984) and others. Strangely enough, some wonderful ensemble pieces have been forgotten – such as Cuts and Dissolves, the orchestral sketches which the 24-year-old composed as his first commissioned piece for Ensemble Intercontemporain, and which he only rediscovered many years later at Ars Musica in Brussels in 2004.

Among the works for large orchestra, there are also many compositions which can be labelled ‘new music’, including some cycles. Amongst them are: Klangbeschreibung 1, 2, 3 (1982–1987), Tutuguri I–IV (1981–1982) and Unbenannt I–IV (1986–2003).

When Rihm was commissioned to compose four short orchestral works to be interspersed with movements from the Brahms Requiem, he managed, without compromising, to integrae his music into that of Brahms’: Das Lesen der Schrift (2001–2002). The same is also true of another Brahms-related piece, Ernster Gesang (1996), which has become one of Rihm’s most frequently performed compositions. But how can the Wagnerian harmonies, the Wagnerian world of 3 späte Gedichte von Heiner Müller (1998–1999) be explained? Or the melodiousness of Deutsches Stück mit Hamlet (1997–1998), which is reminiscent of Schubert?

And to continue with the questions: how can the five pieces entitled Vers une symphonie fleuve (1992–2009) be categorised? New Music? Music for subscription concerts? Too traditional for some and too modern for others, It is music that has to be heard again and again until listeners find their way into its world (which is naturally the case for all of Rihm’s compositions, whether listed here or not).

Although this ‘sketch’ will never be complete, one thing has to be said: Wolfgang Rihm is one of the foremost Lied composers of our time. The range of poets whose work Rihm has set to music hints at how widely read the composer is. Examples include: Alexanderlieder (1975–1976) after Ernst Herbeck, Wölfli-Liederbuch (1980–1981), Das Rot (1990) after Karoline von Günderrode, Ende der Handschrift (1999) after Heiner Müller, Rilke: Vier Gedichte (2000), Lavant-Gesänge (2000–2001), Goethe-Lieder (2004–2007) and so on ...