It is not Wolfgang Rihm's first setting of the Roman-Catholic Mass of the Dead, nor is it his first large-scale work with a religious slant. In 1995 Rihm was among the 15 composers commissioned by the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart to collaborate on a Requiem of Reconciliation. He was also one of the four composers invited by Helmuth Rilling in 1996 to set the four Gospel versions of Christ's Passion in four different musical idioms, somewhat as a tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach. At the time Rihm took on Luke's account of the Passion. Asked in an interview whether there is a latent religious or spiritual commitment to his works, he replied, 'Perhaps, but in that case allow me to leave it unnamed. If there is a truly religious component in my music, it is a veneration for that which is nameless.'
It thus comes as no surprise that Rihm, in addition to a large orchestra, should call for two women's voices and a boy soprano singing a wordless prayer, as in Requiem of Reconciliation. In Et Lux, too, he has not set the entire text of the Mass of the Dead, but has focused on a few salient lines, especially those used to pray for eternal light for the deceased. He claimed in an interview that the work's main idea, as is often his habit, was to unite a stream of vocal and instrumental melody in which the words, or rather text fragments, are 'remembered'. As in a case of amnesia, they crop up as 'remembered scraps of a context brought to mind one step at a time'.
The work also combines a very wide range of sounds from contrasting spheres. Hints of medieval motets, Renaissance polyphony and the classical string quartet tradition are impossible to overlook. Yet Et Lux sounds like a meditation on isolated elements from the Requiem, which promises hope with its idea of 'eternal light', but which, to Rihm's mind, also has a certain ambivalence: like everything unfathomable, there is something threatening about a never-ending ray of light. Wolfgang Schreiber, writing in the CD booklet, suggests that Rihm's interpretation of the Latin Requiem caused him to delve deeply into this ancient text and challenged him to find an existential answer to the frightening Requiem æternam: 'He scrutinises every textual component separately, examining and turning it, pruning the lines, shifting the syntax. Different words and meanings suddenly appear .... He even finds a gentle, soft, almost weightless inflection for metaphors of mortal fear.' The composer, Schreiber continues, has created a new horizon for the rite of the dead, one devoid of forerunners and conventions, by writing music of translucent yet rigorously constructed sonic relationships: 'In its expressive force, this music can dispense with all rabid vocal and orchestral obsessions.' The archaic Latin is thus transformed into a medium for 'fragile reflection and self-inquiry'.
For this recording, made in the Augustinus Muziekcentrum in Antwerp, Paul van Nevel has, with Rihm's consent, doubled the vocal parts, which were originally sung by solo singers.
Et Lux – for vocal ensemble and string quartet (2009)
Axell Bernage, Sabine Lutzenberger, soprano; Terry Wey, Achim Schulz, tenor; Stefan Berghammer, Matthew Vine, tenor; Tim Whitheley, Guillaume Orly, bass