Schnell und rastlos – quick and restless – is the name of the first movement of Wolfgang Rihm’s String Quartet No. 5, a piece that itself has no proper name. Quick and restless – that’s me, to the great despair of my contemporaries. I have little patience and I like to get things done fast. At times my attention span is limited too, and I like to do several things at the same time usually messing up one or two. Quick and restless – is that the corollary to an ardent desire to live, to see, to hear, to do? I suppose it is.
Rihm’s String Quartet No. 5 works me up – positively. Rapidly repeated pitches, a perpetual drive forward, strident, insistent – attack, attack! All the energy and endurance that you can hear in the recording of the Minguet Quartett is focused like a laser beam until, plop, it seems to be switched of. Pulses, bulky pieces of music, vibrating sounds – one commenter I came across during my research spoke of “a tour de force of expressionist angst and fury”. Ha!
The German composer was born in 1952, by now he has written more than 400 works. He taught for many years at the Hochschule für Musik in Karlsruhe, he won widespread recognition for his avant-garde compositions and he still give composition master classes. He wrote concerts, operas, chamber music and religious music. He has been marked by the 12-tone serialism* while the music of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and Morton Feldman influenced him too. He wrote String Quartet No. 5 between 1981 and 1983; it saw its premiere with the Arditti String Quartet in Brussels on December 9, 1983.
Rihm’s expressive power has quickly become his hallmark, and in a biography edited by his publisher it says: “His music defies any effort of categorization. With each work, he surprises his audience, and quite often he surprises himself. As a general rule, one can say that any finished composition raises questions, for which [Rihm] tries to find an answer in his next project.”
As for his technique, here is what Rihm said in August 2018 in an interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung: “What I deem important [in compositions] is whether a specific work evolves organically, or whether it loses energy over time. By energy I do not necessarily mean loud rumbling, but rather the internal tension of a composition. I am always looking for a higher density […] and I often advise my students, to place musical building blocks closer together. It is essential not to lose any energy, at the same time it is important to integrate a certain decompression into the work. You can learn how to do this with Mozart, Brahms and Schönberg, as well as with [Pierre] Boulez or Stockhausen.”
© Charles Thibo