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Rihm wrote “Thinking of Busoni” as the dedication of his Chamber Opera No. 3, which premiered in its new stage version (1976/77) at the Lower Saxony State Opera.
The work’s name and title are merely highly associative allusions having little to do with either Goethe or Shakespeare. The ingenious idea behind it is a quite timeless notion – to juxtapose the irresolute Hamlet character with another actor, masked as a Faustian savant and possessed by his obsessive researches – the veritable tragedy of a scholar.
Struggling with time as it constantly trickles away, the hero’s persona splits, fragmenting its own individuality, its originality, ignoring elementary aspects of human emotions; mother, wife, daughter, children and grandchildren become insignificant sacrifices in the endeavour serving merely to research the human brain, its expansion, its development.
But then the researcher’s monomania and his infallibility switch places; scholarship, the institutions which had formerly ignored him, suddenly acknowledge him – and as he is being awarded honours, praise and medals, the hero dies. His students, to whom he was a foil, open the dead man’s skull, only to discover that he himself had the largest brain of all (something he had sought in vain in others) – a grotesque, macabre joke.
The premiere of this new version – achieved with the composer’s genial accord – deciphers as it were the “permanent gravity of the scholar’s situation as he confronts his unlived life and is forced to perceive the latent ludicrousness of his actions.” This results in an overlapping of scenes and unveiling of stage settings, like in a film, achieving the cognitive periphery the composer endeavoured to attain: “the multifaceted richness of playful, associative, semi-absurd music – fleeing into the drastic and immediately finding shelter in dissociative compassion.”
From the programme booklet, Lower Saxony State Theatre Hanover, 1997, Günther Roth