Thoughts on Wolfgang Rihm’s Chiffre II (Silence to be Beaten)

by SMO co-Artistic Director Jérémy Jolley

Wolfgang Rihm’s artistic output reflects a profound admiration for the expressive power of the European cultural past. The German composer has a truly deep knowledge and understanding of its literature, visual arts, and music. Born in 1952, he has spent his career addressing and reclaiming this past in the “tabula rasa” artistic climate of the previous generation: Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Nono, Maderna, etc… Although a great admirer of these composers, he claimed the right (yes, we are talking about ethics here!) of hinting or layering several references of his cultural heritage without any quotational intent.

Chiffre II (Silence to be beaten) offers a panoply of references to his own works as well as others. This work, which can be performed by a full orchestra as well as a sinfonia ensemble like SMO, is part of a series of pieces titled Chiffre I – VII and recalls the preceding Chiffre for piano and orchestra. Its subtitle refers to Varèse’s direction to the conductor in a section of his Arcana. The music brings Varèsian bombastic brass gestures with a returning and inciting rhythm pattern in the piano, reminding me of Berlioz’s “Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat” from the celebrated Symphonie Fantastique… (or it is just me?) …which perhaps is one of the central ideas in experiencing Rihm’s works: your interpretation of the work say more about you than the work… your approach towards history reflects your needs for the future…

On our November 3 concert, SMO performs Chiffre II alongside Baltakas’ Redditio (Latin for returning, or recurrence – note also that Baltakas was a student of Rihm) and Waggoner’s new Concerto for Piano. I believe this program will inspire a rich conversation on the unprecedented place of the past in contemporary life, as each composer, in their own way, brings their perspective to Nietzche’s idea of “the use and abuse of history for life.”

CHIFFRE II (Silence to be beaten) – Large orchestra version – performed by Klangforum Wien, Sylvain Chambreling, conductor. SMO will perform the sinfonia version.

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