Wolfgang Rihm

Born 1952

Wolfgang Rihm



German composer Wolfgang Rihm is equally at home in nearly every existing musical genre within the “classical” realm, in addition to genres he invented himself, making him perhaps the most versatile composer of the 21st century, and possibly ever. Not only has he composed in many genres, but his style has been influenced by a wide range of composers, leading to a vast variety in his tremendous output of 400+ works.

Wolfgang Rihm was born in Karlsruhe in the spring of 1952 and began composing at the age of 11. At the Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe from 1968 to 1972, Rihm received composition lessons from Eugen Werner Velte. During this period, he also attended the Ferienkurse in Darmstadt (1970) and received much encouragement from composers such as Wolfgang Fortner and Humphrey Searle. Rihm continued his studies with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne, though this lasted just one year, and then with Klaus Huber at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg in Freiburg im Breisgau from 1973 to 1976. While in Freiburg im Breisgau, Rihm also studied musicology at the Universität Freiburg in Freiburg im Breisgau with Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht.

Before finishing his studies in Cologne and Freiburg, Rihm began teaching composition courses at the Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe (1973-8). Later, in 1985, he was appointed professor of composition at the school. In addition, Rihm has given lectures regularly at Darmstadt since 1978 and briefly held teaching posts at the Musik-Akademie München in Munich (1981) and at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin as a fellow (1984-5).

In addition to teaching, and composing of course, Rihm has been active on the board of a number of organisations including the Deutscher Komponisten-Verband (since 1982) and the Deutscher Musikrat (1984-5). During the 1980s he held the position of co-editor for the journal Melos and as musical advisor to the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Additionally, between 1900 and 1993, Rihm served as the musical advisor to the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe. Rihm is still a member of the advisory council of the Heinrich Strobel-Stiftung des SWF in Baden-Baden (since 1985) and a member of the board of directors of GEMA (since 1989).

Wolfgang Rihm is quite a celebrity in his hometown of Karlsruhe as he was not only born and raised there, but has also been active in the local music scene, with church choirs and is now a teacher at the conservatory. The taxi drivers are all very well acquainted with Rihm, stating “we pick him up all the time. He doesn’t drive, so he knows us all pretty well. He’s a really nice guy”. He is also a whiskey-aficionado and collector of books and CDs. One reporter described Rihm’s workspace as “orderly chaos”, to which Rihm smiled and responded, “That’s the combination I need. The one corrects the other, so it achieves a kind of equilibrium. Like in my music”. 

Rihm is constantly exploring various music and books, looking for inspiration; his Steinway grand piano “groans under the weight of scores, books and yet more CDs”. Open to inspiration overall, Rihm has recently pondered the music of Miles Davis,Sweelinck, Stockhausen and Elliott Carter and always has the score ofSibelius’ Fourth Symphony in his pocket. He is greatly influenced byElgar, proclaiming “you can learn so much from his orchestration”. Rihm even learnt that Schoenberg had shown interest in Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and had been experimenting with its theme. Regarding his compositional process, Rihm explained, “You play with some ideas as a composer, you want them to show you something. It’s a technical experimentation with different forms, but then something happens, and the music starts to play with me. And then I play with it again. It’s like a love relationship, or a form of sex—in the best sense”.

Though his output is huge, Rihm claims that “composition is not easy for me: I don’t compose quickly”, though he is able to produce so many quality works by composing steadily as he “can concentrate very well, and…stick at one thing for a long time”. It is unique in the music world, especially with composers today, to find someone who almost exclusively composes. Apart from one day a week teaching at the conservatory, Rihm devotes the rest of his work time to composition, which he does in a space separate from his house.

Despite his strict routine, Rihm claims, “every day I go through the same crisis. I sit there and nothing comes. But I win the struggle, because every day, I write. And this crisis refreshes me. But it can be terrible, too—I become depressed if no ideas are there. It’s always difficult at the beginning of a piece, when nothing is there, and at the end, when I don’t know how to finish. And it’s the same whether it’s a two-hour opera or a little waltz”.

Rihm’s works represent a bit of a rebellion in post-WWII music. Instead of being drawn to purely structural and intellectual music, Rihm was fascinated with a rich and flexible language influenced by, without trying to recreate, the past. Of particular importance to Rihm were the great late- and post-Romantic composers, which can be observed in his references to the styles of both Bruckner and Mahler. It is of importance to reiterate the fact that Rihm was not striving to revive this music or create a feeling of nostalgia, but instead to create a unique fusion of characteristics from previous styles. This can be seen in his works from the 1970s, including the violin concerto Lichtzwang(1975-6) and orchestral works such as Morphonie (1972), Dis-Kontur (1974) andSub-Kontur (1974–5).

While these works are utterly expressive and explore harmony and dynamics, his next major works, including the Third Symphony (1976-7) and the five Abgesangszenen(1979-81), are in more of a narrative style and possess a sound reminiscent that found in the Austro-German orchestral tradition in works by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann,  Brahms, Mahler and Bruckner. He is also influenced by the freely composed works of Schoenberg in addition to the works ofBerg, Webern, Janáček and Varèse. Influences of his teachers,Stockhausen and Huber, are also evident in his works during the early 1970s.

Despite the many different influences on his music, it contains nothing of Hindemith, Ligeti or American Minimalism. A trace of post-serial sound masses of microtonality can be found in his works, and little ofStravinsky.

During the 1980s, Rihm fell under the influence of his friend Luigi Nono. This can be seen in his extremely high writing for solo soprano parts and his use of spatialization and fragmentation. Further, both men considered themselves outsiders to all the existing genres; Rihm described himself as a “pathless wanderer”. Works from this period include the cycle of chamber works Chiffre(1992-8), Klangbeschreibung (1982-7) for orchestra and Kein Firmament (1988) for chamber orchestra. During the 1990s, Rihm experimented with “sound points” and a greater sense of fluidity, without abandoning his previous foundation.

Rihm believes that it is possible “to find and invent the unusual far more blatantly within the usual”, which would explain his use of standard settings such as violin and piano, for which he composed not only a Violin Sonata, but also works such asPhantom und Eskapade, Antzlitz and  Über die Linie VII, which all sound surprisingly different. He has also focused on the string quartet, composing works such asIn Verbundenheit.

Rihm’s works are in demand worldwide and have earned him an array of awards. His most successful opera,Jakob Lenz (1977-8), is one of the most famous operas today in the German language. His stage works include a full-length rhythmic ballet,Tutuguri (1980-2) and the music theatre piece Die Eroberung von Mexico (1987-91). His works have been performed by the Arditti String Quartet, theBBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta, among many others. He has also served as composer-in-residence at both the Salzburger Festpiele and the Musica festival in Strasbourg in 2000 and at the Internationale Musikfestwochen Luzern in 1997.

Recent awards include the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Large-Scale Composition (2001, forJagden und Formen), the Ernst von Siemens Musikpreis (2003), the Verdienstmedaille des Landes Baden-Württemberg (2004), First Prize in the ARD competition in Munich (2004, for Quartettstudie from 11. Streichquartett), and the British Composer Award for International Composition (2007, forVerwandlung I).