Wolfgang Rihm: Deus Passus

Audio is available for this one. The tracks are marked throughout the post. This analysis is the longest of the four, mostly because it is the one that resonated the most with me while I was studying the score. Hopefully, it will be worth the read.

There are very few texts that can provide more opportunity to explore extreme emotions than the Passion of the Christ. German composer Wolfgang Rihm rose to the challenge and produced a work that empathizes with a suffering God as well as rails against him for his inability to prevent suffering in the modern world. Rihm says, “the Passion is the space in which the suffering God occurs. However, the suffering that has been and still is being thrust into the world in the name of the Christian faith must also be held to account from the vantage point of this space.

Rihm chose St Luke’s Gospel in particular because it was the one that he felt was “least tinged with anti-Semitism” He felt that it would be impossible now for a German composer to use any of the other Gospels. St Luke’s account differs very little from the ones of St Matthew and St Mark but it has historically been the least favoured among composers of Passion settings. The Gospel details two scenes, the Way of the Cross and Jesus between the thieves, that are not mentioned in the other Gospels and contains three of the Seven Last Words from the Cross.

The bare bones are all that remain in Rihm’s version of the Gospel. He pares away all extraneous information, adjectives and third person interjections like “thus spake” or, “he saith” and leaves only dialogue and skeletal narration. Used less judiciously, this technique could render the story as dull and lifeless but Rihm clearly knew what he was doing. Far from a mere simplification of the story, this reduction frees the Passion from the elaborate prose and rhetoric common to those who use religion as a tool of manipulation. The final version, stripped of any dressing, gives the bare minimum of information required to tell the story but ends up being all the more poignant as listeners are free to form their own conclusions.

Throughout the Passion, Rihm is trying to sort out the paradox of violent acts committed in the name of God. His treatment of the text illustrates that beneath all the baggage attached to faith and the Church as an institution, Christ’s suffering has real meaning that is still relevant for today.

He interpolates only one additional passage of Scripture, Isaiah 53:4-5
. (Track 1) These verses are often used when talking about the Passion because they are the prophecy for which the Crucifixion is the fulfillment. Handel included these verses and two additional ones from Chapter 53 in the third part of his Messiah. In Rihm’s setting, the verses follow the moment of highest dramatic tension. Jesus has died and the crowd has dispersed leaving his ravaged body to hang alone on the hilltop. The text from Isaiah provides a respite from the drama and is a place for the audience to reflect on the brutal nature of Christ’s death.

paul-celan.jpg For the final fragment, Rihm chose to set Tenebrae by Paul Celan (1920-1970). (Track 2) The Romanian born Celan was the leading German language poet after the Second World War. He felt that German language had “passed through the thousand darknesses of death bringing speech” and his writing was focused on purging and remaking the language. Celan was no stranger to the inconceivable cruelties borne by Jews during the war. He lost his parents in a death camp at the start of the war and spent three years in a labour camp himself, managing to survive until it closed in 1943. Written during the war’s immediate aftermath, Tenebrae is a sort of reverse prayer in which the poet rails against God for the horrible injustices witnessed by those imprisoned in the camps.

The anger and bitterness expressed in the poem is in harsh contrast with the hope of Resurrection alluded to in the previous Passion fragment. )Track 3)This juxtaposition of hope and futility makes one wonder if Christ’s suffering was worth it since it appears to have done nothing the ease human pain

To begin his setting, Rihm skips the first three events in St Luke’s account and starts immediately with the Eucharist. (Track 4) Stripped to its bare bones, the text is set without dramatic repetition in a sound world that is reminiscent of Berg.

Christ’s ascent to the Mount of Olives and his Agony in the Garden are compressed into one fragment. (Track 5) The influence of Bach is heard section as Jesus’ words are set in a canon between the tenor and baritone soloists as well as numerous sequences with three quavers leading into the next measure.

The fragment featuring Jesus’ betrayal is quite fascinating. (Track 6) The words, “Judas, betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss?” are set in a proper chorale. The sudden unambiguous pitch centre and tonal harmony stand out against the more atmospheric fragments that came before. Rihm illustrates the bitterness and disappointment of being betrayed by an intimate friend by having the bass instruments resolve the cadence a half step above the anticipated tonic whilst the upper voices complete the pattern as anticipated.

Peter’s denial of Christ is full of early Baroque resonances. (Track 7) The two most prominent are the chromatic descending line of the lament aria and the use fourth species counterpoint. The descending line in an lament symbolizes death and is a sort of cantus firmus from which the melody is derived. In this fragment, there is no bass line as such so Rihm places the descending phrases in the melody instead. Peter’s accusers are allotted elongated lyrical phrases whilst his responses are short and agitated. The words of Peter’s last accuser are treated with species counterpoint and are sung as a duet between the solo soprano and tenor. Although the some liberties are taken with the intervals of the cantus firmus, the rules of counterpoint are followed fairly stringently and the section ends in a perfect fifth.

Rihm continues his use of counterpoint in the fragment describing Jesus’ trial. (Track 8) The tenor and baritone soloists illustrate the authority and learned nature of Pilate’s position by presenting his judgment in a mirror canon. As Pilate declares that he cannot condemn Jesus, the choir begins to whisper Barabbas’ name. The word is difficult to understand but the hard ‘b’ sound and elongated ‘s’ sound is menacing as portrays the crowd’s aggression. When Pilate tries again to let Jesus go, they begin to alternate “Kreuzige!” (Crucify) with Barabbas. The addition of the hard “k” and “tz” sounds almost seems to intimidate Pilate into submitting to the wishes of the crowd.

Christ’s last words from the Cross are delicately packaged. (Track 9) The three female soloists weave together as one voice and the exquisitely subtle changes in timbre amplify the peaceful nature of the fragment. The line is lyrical and melismatic, getting more rhythmically and melodically intricate as the fragment progresses. The string complement supports the soloists with steady quavers and harmony changes every two or three measures. Rihm adds an extra bit of shimmer by scoring small obbligato passages for cor anglais and oboe.

Deus passus is the other composition from the Passion 2000 Project that alludes to the Resurrection. Like the Water Passion, the connection is very subtle. The text is set very simply as fourteen bar aria for soprano and mezzo soprano to share. It is unaffected and is a gentle prelude to the understated anger and confusion of Tenebrae. (Track 3)

It is not difficult to understand why Rihm chose to imitate Bach in so many ways. since the two share the same cultural heritage and language. Rihm uses the composition as a vehicle to explore suffering, both human and divine as he is tries to work out a place for God in a world full of conflict. Deus passus is still hopeful despite the confusion of Tenebrae. In his composition Rihm shows that beauty and suffering can co-exist in the same space and that perhaps both are necessary for a full human existence.

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