The prolific composer Wolfgang Rihm's music is unpredictable, with wide mood swings and shocking juxtapositions between harsh utter violence and gentle, lovely sounds.
He began composing at the age of 11. In 1968, he began studying at the State Hochschule für Musik in Karlsruhe where his composition teacher was Eugene Velte. He also attended a special course in Humanities on modern composition with composer Wolfgang Fortner and Humphrey Searle, one of the best-known British composers using Schoenberg's 12-tone system. In 1969, Rihm went to the German center of avant-garde music, Darmstadt, to attend a course in new music. He graduated from the conservatory in Karlsruhe in 1972. After that, he pursued further independent study with Karlheinz Stockhausen, then attended classes with composer Klaus Huber and musicology with Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht.
From 1973 to 1978, he was a member of the faculty of the Hochschule für Musik in Karlsruhe and, in 1978, was a lecturer at the Darmstadt Festival courses. He wrote two chamber operas, Faust und Yorick (1976) and Jakob Lenz (1977-1978), which were given in Hamburg in 1979. He gained considerable recognition, including the Hamburg City Prize, the Berlin Arts Prize, the Darmstadt Kranichsteiner Music Prize, and Freiburg City Reinhold Schneider Prize, and the German Prix de Rome, which carried with it a residency at the Villa Massima of Rome.
In 1985 he was named professor of composition at Karlsruhe. He has continued to win awards and prizes, such as the 1986 Rolf Lieberman Prize for his opera Hamlet-Machine (1983-1986), the 1997 Prince Pierre of Monaco Prize for Musical Composition, the Jacob Burckhardt Prize of the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Foundation (1998), and an honorary doctorate from the Free University of Berlin.
He has gone on to write the operas Oedipus (1986-87); Die Eroberung von Mexico (1987-91); Andere Schatten, (1985) which is what he called a "musical scene"; and Séraphim (1994), designated "music theater without a text."
He tends to follow the 12-tone system as used by Anton Webern, Luigi Nono, the later composers William Killmayer and Helmuth Lachenmann, as well as being influenced by the music of Stockhausen and Morton Feldman. Most of his compositions are works for orchestra or for larger groups of instruments, although many of these works include vocal parts. The vocal-orchestral pieces include the Third Symphony, the Konzertarie on a Telegram from King Ludwig II to Richard Wagner, O Notte, Hölderlin Fragments, Abgesangszene No. 1, Doppelgesang No. 1 and Dies. He wrote a series of seven works based on the writings of Antonin Artaud, Tutuguri, many of which feature leading parts for percussion. His chamber music, which includes several string quartets, also includes works with vocal parts and unusual combinations of instruments. One of the works for which he is best known internationally is his violin concerto, championed and recorded by Anne-Sophie Mutter. He has also written a small quantity of piano and organ music.