Leading German composer Wolfgang Rihm celebrated his 70th birthday on 13 March. His output over the past fifty years has been immense; he has probably averaged something like one new work per month during his composing career. A couple of weeks ago we gave an overview of the music of American composer George Crumb, who passed away in February, presenting the works in chronological order of their composition. As a salute to Rihm and an introduction to his music for anyone unfamiliar with it, would a similar approach be appropriate? Well, here’s what Rihm once said of himself as a young composer:
“Let us be clear about one thing: art is ageless. As is artistic productivity. When I am composing, I even dive across biological time. I might be 89 at one point, then four, then 53, then 26½, then 73, and then dead. That is, I intermittently fulfill age-related stereotypes. Of course I will never grow up; that is also part of it, which I cannot accept either.”
Chronological development doesn’t sit comfortably with that outlook, so we’ll hop around his catalogue to hopefully get a glimpse of Rihm the eclectic, starting with one of his 7 Passion Motets. Written between 2001 and 2006 for the ensemble we hear on the recording (Singer Pur), Rihm seems to have one foot in the sixteenth century, the other in the 21st. Here’s Caligaverunt oculi mei.
Next we have a work dating from 1991-92: Gesungene Zeit (Time Chant). Subtitled ‘music for violin and orchestra’, it was commissioned by Paul Sacher for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and Rihm had her playing in mind when he wrote the piece, especially the vibrant and rich sound of her rendering of high notes. In a score remarkable for its economy of means, the solo violin part consists of one elongated and ever-flowing, fine-spun melody, commented upon and developed by the accompanying orchestral forces. Our extract is taken from the opening of the work.
To music for piano and four hands now with Rihm’s Several Short Waltzes, dating from both 1979 and 1988. Waltzes for this instrumentation provided a common conviviality in the early 1800s. Rihm upholds this tradition in his short waltzes, but taken together they provide both a fascinating reflection and development of the genre, variously tonal, atonal, conventional and Viennese subversive. Rihm himself remarked:
“I wrote these small waltzes with one of two unoccupied left hands (sic), usually in passing or between meals — or during meals or during nothing at all. Often while fasting. They are usually meant as small gifts. Or they are played to newly arriving composing guests in order to whet the palette.”
Not easy to find a suitable pigeon-hole for these nineteen miniatures, then, as this selected trio demonstrates.
More music for piano now, but from rather a different stable. Rihm wrote his Concerto for Piano and Eight Instruments in 1969, aged seventeen, introducing it as follows:
“This short piece is surely the result of my preoccupation with Anton Webern, as encouraged by my revered teacher Eugen Werner Velte. Today I hear its delicate poetics in my often rumbling early work shimmering through sound like a coarse film of longing. The experience of 1960s music in a pianistic setting can also be experienced manually. The Webern nerve tracts are somehow pulled along with steel cables. The airy flesh of Webern’s textures is reproduced as if with wooden splinters. A young composer‘s studies are audible.”
The 3-movement work lasts just four minutes, so we can hear all of it.
Written in 2004/05, Rihm’s Das Gehege (The Enclosure) is subtitled ‘a nocturnal scene for soprano and orchestra’. It was the result of a commission by the conductor Kent Nagano who planned to precede a new production of Richard Strauss’ Salome on becoming musical director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich in 2006 with a new work. He approached Rihm, who replied: “There’s only one thing: the final scene from Schlusschor by Botho Strauß. I saw the production by Luc Bondy in Berlin in 1992 and was thrilled by the final scene. I thought at once: I’ll make it into a monodrama.” Nagano’s commission became the catalyst for transforming that desire into reality, and the parallel with the depraved, gory plot of Strauss’ Salome is clear in the synopsis of Das Gehege:
On the night the Berlin Wall fell, a woman leaves a restaurant in West Berlin and goes to a golden eagle’s cage in the zoo and cuts the wire grating of the aviary, seeking to unite physically with the proud heraldic creature. She offers herself up and propositions the grand bird, enticing, berating and provoking it. But it only makes tame gestures. She quills and kills the majestic denier of her wishes. At the end, she stands there, up to her knees in feathers, with a blood-stained face, the bird’s severed claw in her drooping hand.
Here’s the final scene, Wie ich dich täuschen konnte! (How I could fool you!).
The title of Rihm’s Marsyas refers to the Phyrigian satyr Marsyas. He picked up the flute which the goddess Athena had thrown away because playing it distorted her face, and then developed an extraordinary mastery of the instrument. When he challenged Apollo to a musical competition, and then lost, Apollo tore off his skin. His blood, and the tears shed for him, flowed together to form the Marsyas River.
The full title of the work, as revised in 1999, is Marsyas, a rhapsody for trumpet with percussion and orchestra. Here’s the final combative section in which the orchestra finally overwhelms the trumpet amid forlorn jazz utterances and the soloist’s sinking to the depths.
How to conclude this brief, patchwork quilt touching on Rihm’s eclecticism and unpredictability? Perhaps with his appropriately titled Abschiedsmarsch (Farewell March) for four trumpets, 3 trombones and percussion. And, yes, it’s by the same Wolfgang Rihm.