December 18, 2009

Wolfgang Rihm


One reason I like hanging out with mathematicians at work is to hear them "talk shop".  There is so much in it that reminds me of how people talk about sports: there are the superstars, the almost-stars, the burnouts, the unfulfilled promises, the next big things, the rumored moves between universities, the awards and prizes won, the awards and prizes that should have been won but weren't, the eccentricities and hijinks at conferences and in classrooms...
      What I find especially interesting in such talk is its underlaying mixture of emotions and attitudes.  There is the awe of strikingly imaginative proofs and deep, novel concepts, of course, but also the general admiration for the craft involved in producing results of less-than-earth-shaking importance.  The latter, I think, is colored by the gentle melancholy of recognizing that what lies above and beyond craft is simply unreachable to all but the very few, regardless of how much effort one invests in trying to reach that level.
      This admiration for craft seems to exist only in the present.  At the distance of two or more generations into the past all this teaming 'inner life' of the profession is lost to sight.  All that remains visible are the superstars - the immortals whose names are forever attached to theorems and concepts of groundbreaking and lasting importance for the profession.  The mere craftsmen are swallowed by the immense, blurry crowd of their equally non-stellar predecessors - much like in the image at the top of this post.

 I can't resist seeing this as yet another similarity between the world of mathematics and the world of music.  Behind the small constellation of superstar composers, there is the immense and blurry crowd of craftsmen whose output - despite its skill, refinement, technique, and artistic sincerity - is barely noticeable (if at all) through specialized books on music history, or through recordings issued by small labels trying to squeeze themselves into the marketplace dominated by countless releases of Beethoven symphonies and Chopin sonatas.  Perhaps such a star system is justifiable in the training of our future composers (why analyze quartets by Ries and piano sonatas by Hummel when you have Beethoven's works in both genres).  But this star system is doubly unfair to the general music lover: it obscures his access to genuinely enjoyable examples of high musical craft (e.g., Dussek piano sonatas or Erdmann symphonies), while forcing on him uninspired and routine music occasionally (or even regularly) produced by the big-name composers  - e.g., Mozart's utterly dispensable 'Cassations' and early symphonies, the endlessly recycled music in many of Bach's cantatas, the frighteningly numerous and numbingly similar Vivaldi concertos, and more.

Of course, separating the immortals from the mere craftsmen among the living is a notoriously difficult and occasionally embarrassing task.  (Some music writers in the early 19th century expressed doubts as to the longevity of Beethoven's music, but were absolutely certain that Hummel had already established his immortality.)  So I will offer only a speculative bet that Wolfgang Rihm, despite his many honors and prestigious commissions, will eventually join the ranks of the craftsmen. 

8 comments:

maready said...

I am very much in agreement with your thesis, and think that all of our musical lives would be much healthier if we spent as much time (if not more!) with the 'craftsman' as the 'stars'. And I look forward to giving Herr Rihm yet another chance --- especially, as you mention, to hearing "Time chant" in an alternate recording.

Thanks!

Rob said...

Boom: Thank you very much for this post of Rihm's music. Although I agree with your thesis, I love Rihm's music and would hope that it lives on not as a culmination but as a transition into the 21st century as what is yet to be determined. But for now, great stuff! Thanks again. Rob

Fabioromano said...

Hi Boom, many thanks for the Rihm package of orchestral music. I would like simply to add the name of Marie Bérard, who's the violinist playing Time Chant. She deserves it, especially after your comment on the "mammasantissima" Anne-Sophie!
All the best for the forthcoming Xmas and the new year as well and, please, keep on offering the music we like.

Boom said...

ROB: I am so glad to see that my admiration for Rihm's craft is shared by other music lovers. I still recall how a young, talented, hard working, and ambitious Russian composer expressed his dismissive and even resentful attitude toward Rihm because he felt that Rihm was TOO PROLIFIC!
Perhaps this judgment is correct (although I can't see how it would not work against Haydn, Mozart and Bach as well). But even so, I think that the correct way to express aesthetic value judgments is to focus them on individual works, rather than to assess the composer in some "wholesale" manner. (This has long been MAREADY'S attitude, with which I could not agree more). And I think Rihm has produced enough works to deserve much admiration and respect from music lovers.
*****

FABIO: I can't believe I forgot to list Marie Berard as the soloist in Time Chant! After all, it is her playing that made the work "speak" to me in ways in which Mutter's recording never did. Many thanks for reminding me about my omission (which I immediately corrected).
*****

upkerry14 said...

Sweet! You already know I like the Rihmster. I haven't gotten around to a lot of his orchestral music and ma looking forward to this. Has anyone heard the ASM DG version of Timechant? I didn't care for the Beethoven Violin Piano Sonatas she did with whatshisname.....

sasha said...

Nice post..Always of interest to my ears and very much in agreement with you re: Mutter and the DG reading of Time Chant..Yet again (the post of Henze's 1st being another example) we have found the high profile recordings to have come up short..Might I though raise my hand on the side of those who might feel Herr Rihm is more than just a 'craftsman' (not that the term need be considered derogatory)..For me it aint a case of being either or (I'm sure you were being partly tongue-in-cheek!)..Being individually expressive and having the technique to present it suffices in my book..And Herr Rihm has both..His terrifically sensitive ear to sonority is almost unparrelled amongst living composers in my humble opinon.

Boom said...

SASHA: Obviously I share you high opinion of Rihm's music, for otherwise I would not take the trouble to share it. You may well be right about the future status of Rihm as a composer. I personally can't be sure, but I am sure that he is in the possession of the highest craft. (Which is something that already makes him one of the chose few, in a sense :))

sasha said...

Absolutely Boom and thanks to your post I can appreciate Time Chant in a way which I never could with Mutter and the DG recording..I love the underlying sense of drama in this composistion..And that great use of subdued dynamics and low orchestral colour is extremely beautiful..Almost a Debussy-like sensibility at times..The other works posted here are unknown to me so plenty to feast my ears on!