Wolfgang Rihm’s Fetzen

HearThisInConcert-01Schnittke’s Serenade
Monday, 12 March 2018 at 12:15pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory

Contributed by Ding Jian Han (BMUS3, YST)

Having over a staggering 400 musical works to his name, Wolfgang Rihm is undoubtedly one of the most prolific contemporary classical music composers today. Rihm is known in music circles to be an immensely hardworking composer, always working on a new piece with little to no break in between pieces. Rihm humbly states in an interview with The Guardian’s Tom Service, “Every day I go through the same crisis, I sit there and nothing comes. But I win the struggle, because every day, I write.”

Rihm was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1952. Having evident compositional talents since young, he started composing and taking composition lessons at the Karlsruhe Musikhochschule while still in grammar school. He later on went back to teach at his alma mater from 1973–8, given the role of professor of composition in 1985, and still contributes to the University today as the musical director of its Institute of New Music and Media. However, behind all his academic and compositional accomplishments, Rihm is a man of magnanimous personality, with even his local taxi drivers acknowledging him as a big-hearted individual. His compelling character and music have together made him one of the most positive and influential figures in the world of new music.

Rihm’s musical style is rich and diverse, with influences from many of the great German masters such as Bruckner, Mahler, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, the composers of the Second Vienese School and Varèse. Perhaps as a result, his music is highly expressive, sometimes reminiscent of the late-Romantic period. His early years came at a time in the 1970s when leading composers such as Stockhausen and Boulez were spearheading the scene with total serialism and a focus on a structural (rather than emotional) conception of music. People have thus labelled Rihm as an ‘opposition to the avant-garde’ or part of the ‘New Simplicity’ movement. However, this is not true. Rihm was not interested in giving in to the nostalgia of the Romantic period and aesthetic simplification. Rather, he seeks to achieve a synthesis between musical expressiveness and intellectual and linguistic complexity. He achieves this by the use of shattering eruptions of sound, extreme dynamic contrasts and the juxtaposition of the highest and lowest registers with a somewhat hollow middle register. Of course, characteristics in his music have changed over the course of his compositional output.

Rihm has a penchant for re-contextualising fully-formulated compositions and using them as the basis for new pieces, adding new layers over the existing musical material. This was inspired by the concept of ‘Übermalung’ by Austrian painter Arnulf Rainer, in which he creates new layers of paint over photos of painters who inspired him, like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Doré, and Schiele. This technique is seen from the set of pieces called Fetzen. The original Fetzen 1 was re-contextualised in Rihm’s String Quartet No. 12, with new ideas woven around the original material. Fetzen 1 later became the foundation for Interscriptum, which Rihm calls a “duo” for string quartet and piano.


Figure 1 – Arnulf Rainer: On Van Gogh

This is even more poetic considering the fact that Fetzen means ‘scraps’ or ‘shreds’. It could very well be that the sharp and highly charged ‘scraps’ in Fetzen 1 are actually the smaller parts or fragments of the ‘finished’ quartet, Interscriptum and the later Fetzen pieces (there are a total of 8 pieces in Fetzen) for string quartet and accordion.

Fetzen 1 and 2 are short pieces which last about 2-3 minutes in length. There seems to be connection between these two pieces as the the first part of Fetzen 2 is almost a direct representation of the ending of Fetzen 1. The main rhythmic motive in Fetzen 1 is a triplet figure in the first violin, found at the start of the piece. The other three instruments seem to be taking a background role to this aurally compelling motive, at times entering as a form of punctuation to the forward motion and other times forming a brief still texture through quiet chords or harmonics. In around the midway mark of the piece, there is a musical climax with all four instruments playing in tutti and creating a deliberate interruption to the momentum caused by the rhythmic motive. This climax is harsh and highly accented, and seems to be derived from the punctuated chords before.

The rhythmic motive goes through variation and expansion in Fetzen 1. The most obvious development is the augmentation and diminution of the rhythm (like 16th note quintuplets and 32nd notes). The articulation of the motive expands as well too, from staccato to regular accents to martelé to martelé with staccato and so on. Towards the end of the piece, the rhythmic motive transforms into an insistent descending 32nd note figure that repeats nine times. This figure then forms the opening of Fetzen 2.

Like Fetzen 1, the rhythmic motive develops throughout Fetzen 2. The opening 32nd note figure now gets passed around the various instruments and even gets played by multiple instruments at the same time. Its rhythm gets even faster and more frantic before disappearing completely, instantly transforming the piece into a sort of dance or scherzo. The main triplet motive eventually develops into a recurring ‘long-short’ motive, further enhancing the dance-like nature of the piece. Surprisingly, the piece ends with a still, almost ethereal section of open perfect 5ths, airy and without vibrato. This almost feels like it is suggested before in Fetzen 1, through those brief moments of stillness. It is as though stillness in Fetzen 1, so briefly experienced, is a ‘scrap’ taking on a new form and acquiring a life of its own.

Fetzen was premiered by the Arditti String Quartet in Munich on the 23rd of June 1999.


Categories Compositions

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