Wolfgang Rihm is among contemporary music’s most prolific composers, his oeuvre consisting of hundreds of pieces, including operas, concertos, and string quartets, as well as orchestral, instrumental, and vocal works. Ever since I first heard his Time Chant for violin and orchestra more than 20 years ago, I’ve been trying to explore more of his eloquent, stylistically diverse work. He was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1952 and started playing the recorder as a young child before graduating to the piano and organ. By 11, he was writing music. He also sang in choirs, an experience that was essential to his development, not only because of the repertoire he encountered—Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien, Zoltán Kodály’s Psalmus hungaricus, and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Lukas-Passion were particularly influential—but also because of what he was able to learn onstage, his vantage from the heart of a chorus allowing him to carefully observe conductor and orchestra alike. He could not have imagined, he has said, a better preparation for a life as a composer.
Starting in 1970, Rihm began attending the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music—the preeminent breeding ground for a generation of avant-garde composers. There he met the controversial iconoclast Karlheinz Stockhausen, with whom he ended up studying, if only for a brief period. Unlike many of his Darmstadt colleagues, however, Rihm did not spend very long genuflecting before the 12-tone scores of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, in which he heard a certain academic coolness. By contrast, Alban Berg, a composer who infused his own 12-tone music with strains of Romantic opulence, spoke to Rihm in a more visceral way. During the late 1970s and early ’80s, Rihm moved further away from the aesthetic of Stockhausen (and other Darmstadt masters such as Pierre Boulez), becoming associated instead with the New Simplicity movement, which was characterized by neo-Romantic or neo-expressionist impulses. Not that Rihm didn’t feel Stockhausen’s influence in other ways. The older composer once sent his student the briefest of letters with a bit of advice that Rihm has followed ever since:
Dear Wolfgang Rihm:
Please only heed your inner voice. With kindest regards.
Many of Rihm’s works take their inspiration from literature, for example, the 2001 choral piece Astralis, based on a poem by the early German Romantic Novalis. In that lyric, Novalis evokes a miraculous and shimmering world that has been created from the ruins of a former realm, a dreamlike place where physical laws such as time and space do not apply, and everything quotidian is transformed into something “strange and wondrous.” The poet’s vision, however, is profoundly gloomy. Life is death, death life, and
The body is dissolving into tears,
The world becomes a wide grave.
How to render such a world in sound? Two explicit instructions on the first page of Rihm’s score suggest one approach: “The basic tempo of the whole piece: as slow as possible (depending on the natural breathing capacity of the choir)—but not rigid!” And: “The underlying dynamics of the whole piece: as quiet as possible; exceptions (accents, crescendos, etc.) are specified.” As if to complement this ethereal sonic aesthetic, Rihm calls for spare instrumental textures, with a single cello and two timpani accompanying a small choir.
The first note, a very high E flat played by the cello, with its mute on but without any vibrato, is perplexing: it doesn’t sound like it comes from a cello, this strange sonority arriving from a great distance away. The word astralis means “revealed by or related to the stars,” and when the voices come in, the soundscape does indeed resemble some luminous, spectral expanse. Perhaps because the music unfolds at so steady and meditative a tempo, I detect a feeling of religious reverence in its passages. I’m tempted to relate this sensation to Rihm’s own experiences in church. As the composer has previously said, “I was very religious [as a child] and wanted to become a priest. Whenever I could, I made my way to the church. One reason was, of course, that I was deeply attracted by the rites (I was Catholic), the incense, the singing, the music as such—above all the organ.” Is it a coincidence that the intensely beautiful choral harmonies in Astralis, both lonely and comforting, sound like a sequence of organ chords slowly pealing in some grand, resonant sanctuary?
Listen carefully to Astralis, and you will experience a slow struggle between stasis and movement, enacted over the course of half an hour. The subtle changes in the music both surprise and delight—the intrusion of a hemiola (three beats against two) into a certain rhythmic pattern, or a half-step descent in one of the voices during a long, sustained chord. Meanwhile, whereas the timpani are almost indiscernible, so hushed is the heartbeat they provide, the cello has a more prominent role, that of a Greek chorus, dolorous and keening as it comments on the unfolding drama. There are at least two extended solos for the cello, but most often, the lone string instrument conveys its expressions of grief via a brief phrase, a fragment, a single tremolo, a fugitive harmonic, a rapid percussive effect.
As if reflecting the dichotomies in Novalis’s poem, Astralis sounds at once ancient and modern, distant and familiar, brilliant and somber, with life and death inseparably entwined. When the chorus crescendos to a rare fortississimo (fff), having sung pianississimo (ppp) for so long, the shock to the system is intense and profound. By the work’s end, the music’s transformation, almost imperceptibly brought about, is deeply satisfying, even if the sensation you’re left with is an enduring and abject pessimism.
Listen to Hans-Christoph Rademann lead the RIAS Chamber Choir, with Dirk Wietheger (cello) and Rie Miyama (timpani), in Wolfgang Rihm’s Astralis:
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