Wolfgang Rihm was born in Karlsruhe, West Germany seven years after the end of the Second World War. As child, he wished to become a priest. His parents were not particularly religious but he was deeply attracted by the rites, incense, singing and the organ in the Catholic church. When he was eight years old, he decided to compose a Mass. It was meant to be in the style of Mussorgky’s A Night on Bald Mountain but it remained unfinished as he lacked the means to put it to paper. As was the custom in German primary education, Rihm had learned to play the recorder and was constantly improvising little tunes. His parents knowledge of music was on par with their religious devotion but they scrimped and saved to provide a piano and lessons for their son. He transferred his improvisations to the piano and, after his voice broke, became a chorister with the municipal choir in Karlsruhe. It was here that Rihm “became acquainted with the realities of orchestral playing and the inner functions of music.”39 The choir was one of the first to have Penderecki’s Lukas Passion in its repertory and the piece had a profound impact on the teenaged composer.
Rihm first encountered Karlheinz Stockhausen (b. 1928) when he went to study at Darmstadt in 1970 . It was to prove a fruitful partnership as Rihm has taught there each summer since 1978.40 Despite his close association with Darmstadt, the harmonic language of Rihm’s music is more closely allied with the Second Viennese school, completely devoid of Stockhausen’s theoretical ambitions. After intensive study of the music of Webern and especially Berg, Rihm found that it was possible to write music that was both highly organized but at the same time bursting with expressive power.41 For many contemporary composers of his generation, having their music labeled as Romantic is akin to being condemned as leprous. Rihm however, embraces this label and although he is careful to distance himself from the 19th century symphonic Romanticism of Bruckner or Rachmaninoff, his music is still very personal and passionate.42 “In all my music“, he says, “there is a search for emotional extremes.“43
There are very few texts that can provide more opportunity to explore extreme emotions than the Passion of the Christ. 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 [sic] account from the vantage point of this space.“44
Rihm chose St Luke’s Gospel in particular because it was the one that he felt was “least tinged with anti-Semitism” 45 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.46
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.47 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.
47 As he was yet speaking, behold a multiude; and he that was called Judas, , the twelve, went before them and drew near to Jesus, for to kiss him.
48 And Jesus said to him: Judas, dost thou betray the Son of man with a kiss?
49 And they that were about him, seeing what would follow, said to him: Lord, shall we strike with the sword?
50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus answering said: Suffer ye thus free of extraneous information.
far. And when he had touched his ear, he healed him.
52 And Jesus said to the chief priests and magistrates of the temple and the ancients,
that were come unto him: Are ye come out, as it were against a thief with swords and clubs?
53 When I was daily with you in the temple, you did not stretch forth your hands against
me: but this is your hour and the power of darkness.
Deus Passus no.6
….behold a multitude, and he that was called Judas…ent before them and one of drew near unto Jesus to kiss him…Judas, betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?…Be ye come out, as against a thief, with swords and staves…this is your hour, and the power of darkness.
Somewhat unusually, Rihm quotes only one other passage of Scripture in the Passion.
Surely he hath borne out griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did
esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was
wounded for our transgressions and…bruised. The chastisement of
our peace was upon him and with his stripes we are healed. Isaiah 53:4-5
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.
For the final fragment, Rihm chose to set Tenebrae 48 by Paul Celan (1920-1970). 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.49 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.
Here are we Lord
near and graspable.
Grasped already Lord,
clawed into each other, as if
each of our bodies were
your body, Lord.
pray to us,
we are near.
Wind skewed we went there,
went there to bend
over pit and crater.
We went to the water trough, Lord.
It was blood, it was
what you shed, Lord.
It case your image into our eyes, Lord.
Eyes and mouth stand so open and void, Lord.
We have drunk, Lord
The blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.
We are near.
The anger and bitterness expressed in the poem is in harsh contrast with the hope of Resurrection alluded to in the previous Passion fragment. 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 suffering in the world.
Along with Scripture and poetry, Rihm also includes portions of the Catholic liturgy for Holy Week. The ritual that he loved so much as a child is reflected in these Latin interpolations which parallel the function of the chorale in traditional settings. These interpolations are a place for the audience/congregation to reflect on the preceding narrative and contain some of the most stunning moments in the setting. One of the finest occurs immediately following Jesus’ betrayal.
Eripe me, Domine,
ab homine malo:
a viro iniquo libera me…
Response 2, Good Friday
[Shelter me, O Lord from evil men, set me free from the godless…]
The full orchestral accompaniment is gently dissonant and written with rhythm that is typical of a chorale. Although the harmonic writing is quite unlike that of the Baroque, Rihm incorporates indicators like 4-3 suspensions and and a very strong final cadential passages as a nod to tradition. The four remaining soloists join the orchestra for the final cadential passage with the text libera me. Rihm purposely includes “wrong” notes in the harmony to cloud the tonal centre and increase tension. The penultimate measure tricks the ear into thinking it will resolve but he notches up the tension even more by moving the chord up a wholly dissatisfying semi-tone. Catharsis is finally reached when the dissonance is suddenly transformed to a perfect fifth.
The complete paring away of unnecessary elements in the text is mirrored in the music as well. Deus passus is scored for five soloists (soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, baritone), chamber choir and chamber orchestra (2.2+1+baritone oboe/heckelphone.0.2+1, 0.0.4.0/ T2 P/ harp/organ/str 188.8.131.52) .50 In deference to Baroque liturgical tradition, trombones are the only brass instrument used. 51 The soloists are given their own material but often function as unit, one giant voice, with Rihm making expert use of tessitura to shade the line and add colour. The Passion is arranged in a sort of patchwork of twenty-seven fragments. Events take place chronologically but because of the text reduction, often only the essence of the narrative is present.
To begin his setting, Rihm skips the first three events in St Luke’s account and starts immediately with the Eucharist.52 Stripped to its bare bones, the text is set without dramatic repetition in a soundworld that is reminiscent of Berg. The strings-only orchestration is sparse and creates a mystical effect around the subtle colour changes of the split solo line. The pulse is relatively ambiguous due to the absence of strong downbeats and adds to the ritualistic tone. This contemplative beginning is followed immediately by a Latin Communion Antiphon which reflects on the Eucharist.
Christ’s ascent to the Mount of Olives and his Agony in the Garden are compressed into one fragment. The influence of Bach is heard again in this fragment 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. 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. 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. 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. 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, it connection is very subtle.
Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulcher…And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.
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.
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. The difference is that while Bach’s piece was written for the sole glory of God, Rihm used 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.