A few years ago I sat on a transatlantic flight to Europe. All was well. The excitement of embarking had died down, the plane was quiet, dinner had been served and passengers were getting ready for the night. I felt comfortable. I was flying home. I had a window seat, I looked outside and for the first time on a plane I saw the sun set. The sky changed its colors in fractions of ten, twenty seconds and it was beautiful and overwhelming to watch. An idea of the vastness of space. An idea of the vulnerability of earth and humanity. A glimpse of God.
The emotions I felt that moment made me think of a contemporary piece written by the German composer Wolfgang Rihm: Astralis. It is a slow meditation echoing a poem by the German poet Novalis (1772-1801). The poet saw a wonderous world shimmering, but his vision ends on a tragic note: “The body will be dissolved in tears”. Strangely, the music does not sound tragic at all to me. It makes me feel comfortable – I almost wrote comfortably numb, as it goes in that old Pink Floyd song. But no, I am not numb, the music is dense, precise and it requires my full attention. It makes me meditate just like that view out of the airplane window.
Deceleration in a loud world
Rihm presents a chorale-like music, accompanied by a cello at times singing, at times weeping. The two timpani remain in the background, almost imperceptible, mysterious, as if they were thundering from afar. The composer insists that the singers have to sing as slow and as calmly as possible – the opposite of a loud world spinning out of control. The idea of deceleration is paramount for Rihm: Breathe slowly, deeply, feel the connection to the world. Step aside, find your bearings, look for the essence, not the shiny veneer on the surface – this is what Rihm seems to say in his interpretation of Novalis poem.
As a matter of fact, Novalis poem does not express an overall pessimistic mood. It announces enlightenment, the discovery of a deeper truth, the rebirth of a human being. “The world becomes a dream and the dream becomes the world.” Novalis explains the rebirth by the fact that love will start to rule the world and warns “He who will surrender to absolute love, will never totally recover.” Novalis was a Romantic poet, no doubt: the glorification of love, the knowledge that such love will lead invariably to death and perdition.
Rihm was born in 1952; Oxford Music Online counts him “among the most influential of European composers born in the decade after World War II.” He is a prolific composer of vocal and instrumental works. Rihm’s references are Bruckner and Mahler, they also include Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, the atonal works of Schönberg and Janacek. Astralis was written in 2001. It has been recorded by the RIAS Kammerchor under Hans-Christoph Rademann.
© Charles Thibo