Hymnus An Das Leben

By Kyle Gann, Professor of Music, Bard College, New Music Critic, The Village Voice

Written for the concert Beyond Good and Evil: Nietzshe and Music, performed on March 8, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Born in 1952, Wolfgang Rihm worked with the most famous German composer of his youth, Karheinz Stockhausen, at Darmstadt from 1970 on. Subsequently, he seems to have inherited Stockhausen’s mantle, and become the composer in whose music the hopes for a continuing German aesthetic are most heavily vested. The progression is an interesting one, however, and says much about changes in Germany’s climate since World War II. Stockhausen was a highly theoretical visionary, limitlessly increasing the bounds of musical language in every conceivable direction (until some have thought he crossed the line into a peculiar form of creative insanity). The music of his protégé Rihm, on the other hand, is far more introverted and personal, a passionate, non-ironic, and quite unashamedly subjective romanticism devoid of obvious theoretical ambitions.

By the word “non-ironic,” of course, I mean to distinguish Rihm’s romanticism from the American genre of New Romanticism, which styles itself as a kind of postmodern attempt to simulate historical genres. Nothing so insincere, if one may use the word, can be attributed to Rihm, whose attachment to a history he continues as he moves away from it is quite deliberate. He described his work Hamletmaschine, for example, as being set in “’the ruins of Europe,’ whose dust is still the best nourishment for anyone who wants to confront things or wants to know where we come from.” In interviews, too, Rihm has embraced the Romantic label: “The Romanticism that interests me,” he has said, “is a literary Romanticism–Poe, Baudelaire, Hoffmann–art that cuts like a scalpel. Schumann, too; he was very important. Romanticism is such a misunderstood word. People think of it as a 19th-century musical style, but Romanticism can be found in much twentieth-century music, too, as with composers like Luigi Nono or Morton Feldman.”

Nowhere in Rihm’s output could one find a better example of his devotion to the German past than in his series of five Abgesangsszene for voice and orchestra. In the first place, abgesang is a term taken from the German minnesingers of the thirteenth century; it denotes the “B” part of a standardized AAB song form, in which the aufgesang, consisting of two paired stollen, is followed and completed by an abgesang. This is not merely an antiquarian reference, for minnesinger song imprinted a deep archetype on German music, and the operas of Wagner have often be analyzed as based in large-scale AAB forms; most of all, his opera about medieval German music Die Meistersinger, which was, since we’re on the subject, Nietzsche’s favorite among Wagner’s operas.

Secondly, where Stockhausen aimed to create ambitious musical totalities, Rihm has found more poignant significance in musical fragments–reminiscent of that poet of the fragmentary Robert Schumann. The Abgesangszene are based on fragments of what are already among Nietzsche’s most fragmentary writings, the Dionysus-Dithyrambs written in 1888 and described by their author as “the songs of Zarathustra which he sang to himself so as to endure his last solitude.” These, perhaps Nietzsche’s most subjective utterances, were written in the months before his final breakdown of 1889, and their fervent, arrogant self-questioning are often seen as a prelude to it.

Rihm wrote Abgesangsszene Nos. 4 and 5 in 1979-80, soon after the chamber opera Jacob Lenz, his first work to achieve a widespread reputation (and which also occasioned his first visit to the United States, for its American premiere in 1987). Based on the life of an 18th-century sturm und drang poet, Jacob Lenz tells the story of an artist misunderstood by his contemporaries; a similar theme is suggested in these Abgesangsszene, with their texts of loneliness and alienation. No. 4 opens with agitated repeated notes typical of Rihm’s early style. “Not much longer will you thirst,” sings the mezzo-soprano, quoting from the beginning of Nietzsche’s poem “The Sun Sinks,” and then the orchestra pauses in B-flat major for the next words, “O burnt-up heart!” Oppositions are the means by which Rihm creates his texture of paradoxes: rapid repeated notes and tremolos versus more conventional quarter- and half-notes; bursts of activity versus spots of silence and chords held with fermatas; dense dissonances in the bass versus more ethereal, almost-tonal chords in high register. Despite its forays into Webernesque angularity, the vocal line seems to gravitate toward G minor, and at last settles into languid 3/4 meter on the repeated lines: “So here I wait and firmly clasp/What eye and hand will let me grasp!” (from The Wanderer and His Shadow–the poem, not the eponymous book). On the final words “And under me–world, man, and death!”, the music dies away in ethereal dissonances spread throughout the string orchestra, resolving to an F#-major triad in the celesta.

Just as quietly begins Abgesangsszene No. 5, with the unusual texture of low, pianissimo tone clusters in the woodwinds. The vocal part here, articulating a single quatrain of Nietzsche’s poem Fame and Eternity, remains silent until the end of the piece. Trills and scales in the strings build up from a mild D major passage to a “tempestuoso” climax before the tone clusters reenter. The soprano and baritone, when they arrive, sing largely in parallel octaves and then parallel fifths, for Rihm a typically striking textural gesture. Both scenes bear out his statement, “In all of my music, there is a search for emotional extremes.”