After the recent premiere of his Double Concerto in Dresden's Church of Our Lady, Germany's best-known living composer gives us a glimpse of how he works and explains what it's like to be a composer today.
Rihm's newest work, warmly aplauded at the premiere on October 24, was occasioned by a festival celebrating the 10th anniversary of the rededication of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in Dresden. The anniversary falls at a troubled time for the city, with mass anti-foreigner demonstrations regularly centered there. In this exclusive interview with DW, he explains what can be heard in the composition.
DW: Your new piece was written for the Frauenkirche anniversary. Does the music reflect the place or the occasion?
Wolfgang Rihm: Not directly. It came about because Jan Vogler asked me whether I might write a kind of double concerto for him and his wife. The occasion presented itself after the fact. So I thought: nice, I'll write something in which two voices interact in dialogue with each other and gradually unify.
That thought actually fits the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche, which was about coming together in a common effort. But it's more a matter of atmosphere, and perhaps my thoughts inhabited a certain visual realm. But I've haven't just written a symphonic poem about the Frauenkirche, its architecture and its history but instead, a piece for two humans and an ensemble.
The composer goes over his new double concerto with cellist Jan Vogler and his wife, violinist Mira Wang
You mentioned a visual realm. At this point in time, Dresden is full of images: 30,000 xenophobic demonstrators on one hand, the beautiful city center on the other. Is there a connection between these images and the ones going through your mind when you were composing this piece?
The image is more abstract, having to do with the will for a common effort to restore something that had been destroyed. It's a metaphor of course. And maybe that communal will could help to disentangle all the confusion currently taking place around this piece of architecture, at certain public demonstrations.
Do you only write works on commission?
When you've reached a certain age, everything you do becomes a kind of commission. A commission only means that somebody acquires the rights to perform the world premiere. It doesn't mean that somebody specifies that there will be a triad in bar 19 and a flute solo in bar 34. For me, a commission has come to mean, "Write a piece the way you want to." And then it becomes a commission.
Does that mean that outside influences play only a minor role in your music?
Only if I write for certain performers. And that's what we have here. I know the soloists, and I know they're married. So I had the opportunity to consider the solo voices in the context of a human relationship: coming together and moving apart, struggling and inwardness: these factors, together, shape the sound flow.
His opera "Dionysos" premiered in 2010 at the Salzburg Festival
That sounds like play in the true sense of the word.
Sure. This is music for virtuosos, for people who master their craft, not for amateurs. But although they're "playing," this is more than recreational. It's about impulses, action, energy and energy transfer.
Every composer has his signature. We instantly recognize a piece by Brahms, Mozart or Schubert of course, because we are familiar with that historic music. But nowadays there's such a plurality of music styles and approaches. In composition today, anything's possible. Do you have to reset the parameters with every new work? Or do you move along an established path?
Of course, there's a continuity to my creative work. I'm 63 now, and I've been writing music since early childhood. There's a flow of music that goes through me and that I initiate. As far as older music is concerned: If you play a symphony by Vanhal or Eberl to an informed listener today, he'll probably say: "Ah, Mozart!" or "Ah, Beethoven!" It sounds so similar, because that was the sound of the era. And I always like to cite one example: At the world premiere of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, a symphony by Anton Eberl was on the same program, and the audience found that one much better!
In 50 or 100 years, will we be able to say: "Aha, that's the style of the 2010s, that's a Rihm!"
If you listen to earlier contemporary reports, at all times people felt, "Yes, things used to be simple, but they're complex now." People in the age of Bach found Bach complicated, and it was the same with Beethoven and Wagner. That feeling goes away with time. The most important thing is that a work of music contains many things that can be found if you search right.
So regarding the music of today: We can't see the forest for the trees …
And that's absolutely normal! If my piece is played here at the Frauenkirche today, one person will hear the expression of a difficult modern situation in it, and another will hear consolation and an indication of healing powers. Every person approaches art with his own question and gets his own answer.
You've been a successful composer for some time now. How has your life changed over the years?
I'm a private person and don't like to travel. But meanwhile, I have more responsibilities, sit on various committees and participate in music life in an organizational way. It didn't used to be like that. I've come to the point where I have to fight for every free minute to work. Other things that aren't of central importance rob me of my energy, and I need that for work.
The performance of Wolfgang Rihm's "Duo Concerto" for violin, cello and orchestra can be seen and heard as video on demand at medici.tv.