Wolfgang Rihm

Wolfgang Rihm biography

Wolfgang Rihm was born on 13 March 1952 in Karlsruhe, a city near the French and Swiss borders, at a stone’s throw from Strasbourg and Basel, two of the many places where he and his music are at home. He lives there to this day in a spacious apartment not only full of books and scores – those one takes for granted – but also of paintings by contemporary artists, mainly by Kurt Kocherscheidt, the Austrian painter with whom Rihm was befriended and to whom he has dedicated a number of works.

Rihm is a composer, professor of composition at the Music Academy of his native city (where his students included Vykintas Baltakas and Jörg Widmann), a remarkable writer on music with several books to his name, including collections of his articles and interviews. He also sits on a number of influential committees in Germany and has a say in decisions affecting the working conditions of his fellow musicians.

No doubt about it: Wolfgang Rihm is a unique phenomenon, larger than life. His knowledge of music (the art and craft of composition as well as of music history from ancient times up to the present day) is vast. But he also seems to know everything worth knowing about literature, painting, architecture, philosophy and he freely draws on those as sources of inspiration. A look at the texts he has set to music is an indication of the breadth of his culture: from Homer through Hölderlin and Goethe to Rilke, Botho Strauss and Durs Grünbein.

The world he has created with his compositions which now outnumber 400 works is a veritable universe. As such, it cannot be pidgeonholed. To paraphrase the title of a well-known British film on Thomas More, he is a composer for all seasons. Rihm has written 'new music' as it is commonly called and some of his titles have become signposts in the history of post-war music. Soloists, chamber groups and orchestras programme these works as a matter of course now, they have become an integral part of the repertoire (Jagden und Formen, Chiffre-cycle, Pol -Kolchis -Nucleus). Of similar significance are the compositions which take their cue, as it were, from music of past centuries: oratorios with Johann Sebastian Bach as a point of reference (Deus Passus), orchestral pieces of Brahmsian sound and gesture (Ernster Gesang, Nähe fern 1-4), chamber music in the wake of Robert Schumann (Fremde Szenen).

Already at the age of 25, he composed a chamber opera (Jakob Lenz) that has since proved itself as probably the most often produced piece of contemporary music theatre in Germany. Jakob Lenz has been followed by a series of large-scale operas (Die Hamletmaschine, Die Eroberung von Mexico, Das Gehege, Dionysos).

Wolfgang Rihm is one of the foremost song composers of our times; his string quartets are often presented in cycles by a wide range of groups.

Rihm is a composer who puts a giant question-mark over whatever he is doing. Each new work is an answer to the question raised by the previous piece; each new work poses questions which he will seek a reply to in the composition to be written next. There come about work cycles, work families which form a web with other cycles and individual pieces. Everything is in permanent growth, work never stops, new compositions are produced, brought into intriguing relationships with other works, revised and supplemented.

If you consider that he is also a remarkable draughtsman and if you read the poem he has written for/about the trumpet concerto Marsyas, you will have to admit that Wolfgang Rihm is indeed larger than life.


1952 – Born March 13th in Karlsruhe, south-west Germany

1963 – First compositions

1968-1972 – Secondary School (Humanistisches Gymnasium); simultaneously studies in composition at the Karlsruhe Music Academy (Eugen Werner Velte);
further composition studies with Wolfgang Fortner and Humphrey Searle

1970 – Attends the Darmstadt Summer Courses for the first time

1972 – Completes secondary school studies, diploma in composition, Karlsruhe Music Academy

1972/1973 – Composition studies with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne

1973-1976 – Composition studies with Klaus Huber and musicological studies with Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht in Freiburg

1973-1978 – Teaches at the Karlsruhe Music Academy

1974 – Awarded the City of Stuttgart Prize

1975 – Awarded the City of Mannheim Prize

1976Faust und Yorick - chamber opera No 1 (Jean Tardieu/Frithjof Haas)

1977/1978 Jakob Lenz - chamber opera No 2 (Georg Büchner/Michael Frühling)

1978 – Awarded Berlin Art Prize Fellowship; Kranichstein Music Prize Darmstadt;
Reinhold-Schneider Prize Freiburg

since 1978 – Lecturer at the Darmstadt Summer Courses

1979 – Receives Fellowship Award of the City of Hamburg

1979/1980 – German Art Academy Fellowship at the Villa Massimo in Rome

1981 – Awarded the City of Bonn Beethoven Prize. Teaches at the Munich Music Academy

since 1982 – Presidium member, German Association of Composers

1983 – Fellowship at the Cité des Arts in Paris

1983/1986Die Hamletmaschine, opera, (Heiner Müller/Rihm)

1984/1985 – Fellow of the Berlin Science Institute, Presidium member, German Music Council

1984-1989 – Co-editor of the music journal Melos

1984-1989 – Musical advisor, Deutsche Oper Berlin

since 1985 – Professor for composition at the Karlsruhe Music Academy (successor of Professor Velte).
Member of the advisory council of the Heinrich Strobel Institute, South-West German Radio Baden-Baden

1986 – Awarded the Rolf Liebermann Prize for the opera Hamletmaschine

1986/87Oedipus, opera, (text by Rihm after Sophokles, Hölderlin, Nietzsche, H. Müller)

1987/91Die Eroberung von Mexico (The Conquest of Mexico), opera, (Antonin Artaud/Rihm)

since 1989 – Member of the Board of Directors, GEMA

1989 – Awarded German Distinguished Service Cross

1990–93 – Musical advisor to the Centre for Art and Media Technologies in Karlsruhe (ZKM)

1991 – Guest speaker at the opening ceremony of the Salzburg Festival.
Member, Academy of the Arts in the cities of Munich, Berlin and Mannheim

1994Séraphin, ‘an attempt at music theatre/instruments, voices...’ World première in Frankfurt;
February: Big Rihm-Portrait (35 works) at the Éclat Festival, Days for New Music, Stuttgart

1997 – Awarded the Prix de Composition Musical de la Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco;
Composer-in-residence at the Festival Lucerne

1998 – Awarded the Jacob Burckhardt Prize of the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Foundation;
Honorary Doctorate of Freie Universität Berlin

2000 – Awarded the Bach Prize of the City of Hamburg;
Composer-in-residence at the Salzburg Festival and the Musica Festival in Strasbourg

2001 – Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Jagden und Formen
The French Ministry of External Affairs confers the title of 'Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' on Wolfgang Rihm.

2001/2002 – Large-scale celebration of the composer’s 50th birthday throughout Europe, with several festivals and concert organisations devoting series of concerts to his oeuvre. Numerous world premières.

2003 – The Ernst von Siemens Music Award goes to Wolfgang Rihm. This honour has been formally bestowed upon him on 22 May 2003 at Munich's Cuvilliéstheater.
7 November: Entry in the Golden Book of the town of Karlsruhe

2004 – 8 May: Recipient of the Medal of Merit of Baden-Württemberg/Germany

2006 – 27 October: World première of the opera Das Gehege (after Botho Strauss' play “Schlusschor”) at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich

2009 – 2 May: World première of the monodrama Proserpina at Rokoko Theatre Schwetzingen (Germany)

2010 – 27 July: World première of the opera Dionysos (an operatic fantasia based on texts by Friedrich Nietzsche, libretto by the composer) at the Salzburg Festival

2010 – 30 September: Awarded the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement for the Music sectors of the Biennale di Venezia

2010 – 18 November: World première of Lichtes Spiel for violin and small orchestra at the Avery Fisher Hall New York

2011 – Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany

2011 – 15 January: World première of Will Sound More for ensemble at the Alte Oper, Frankfurt am Main

2011 – 03 April: World première of Dyade for violin and double bass at the Avery Fisher Hall New York

2011 – 22 June: World première of Nähe fern 1 for orchestra at the KKL Luzern

2011 – 09 July: World première of Eine Strasse, Lucile for soprano and orchestra at Karlsruhe

2011 – 19 October: World première of Nähe fern 2 for orchestra at the KKL Luzern

2011 – 25 October: World première of Will Sound More Again for ensemble

2011 – 29 October: World première of Der Maler träumt for baritone und ensemble

2011 – awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany

2012 29 February: World première of Nähe fern 3 for orchestra

2012 13 June: World première of Nähe fern 4 for orchestra

2012 20 August: World première of „Dämmrung senkte sich von oben“ for baritone and orchestra at the KKL Luzern

2012 – receives the order Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts

2013 – 10 February: World première of Epilog for string quintet at the Eclat Festival Stuttgart

2013 – 5 April: Opening of the Wolfgang-Rihm-Forum at the University of Music in Karlsruhe

2013 – 18 April: appointed Commandeur dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres

2013 – 27 April: World première of Stille Feste for choir and orchestra in Stuttgart

2013 – 23 June: World première of A Tribute for orchestra

2013 – 20 October: World première of IN-SCHRIFT 2 for orchestra

2013 – 20 November: World première of Verwandlung 5 for orchestra

2013/2014 – Capell-Compositeur at the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden

2014 – 10 May: world première of Transitus at the Teatro alla Scala (cond. Riccardo Chailly)

2014 – 4 June: world première of Verwandlung 6 at the Philharmonie Essen

2014 – 19 August: world première of the horn concerto at the Lucerne Festival (Stefan Dohr, hn)

2014 – 25 August: world première of the Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Salzburg Festival (Tzimon Barto, pno)

2014 – 17 September: the Trio Concerto is premièred at theMusikfest Berlin (Trio Jean Paul; WDR SO Köln, cond. Jukka-Pekka Saraste)

2014 – 6 October: awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany

2014 – 6 November: awarded the Robert Schumann Prize for Poetry and Music 2014

2015 – 9 January: Gedicht des Malers (Poème du Peintre) is premièred by Renaud Capuçon and the Vienna Symphony under Philippe Jordan

2015 – 23 July: awarded the Honorary Medal of the Province of Salzburg

2015 – 15 October: world première of the Duo Concerto atCarnegie Hall (Mira Wang, vln; Jan Vogler, vc)

2016 – March: member of the Académie royale des sciences, des lettres et des beaux-arts de Belgique

summer 2016 – artistic director of the Lucerne Festival Academy; resident composer at the Fast Forward Festival

2017 – 11 January: world première of Reminiszenz | Triptychon und Spruch in memoriam Hans Henny Jahnn at the Elbphilharmonie opening

2017 – awarded the Preis der Europäischen Kirchenmusik 2017

2017 ­­– 30 March: world première of Requiem-Strophen at the Herkulessaal in Munich

Wolfgang Rihm lives in Karlsruhe and Berlin.

All works

Works by Wolfgang Rihm in the UE

In our online shop

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.

Future performances

Other UE composers

Sign up for our newsletter!

You will regularly receive information about new scores with free downloads, current prize games and news about our composers.