Wolfgang Rihm was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, and began composing at a very young age. He studied under Eugen Werner Velte and Wolfgang Fortner in his home town, and then under Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne. In 1970, he first attended the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music. Every summer, these classes—initiated in 1946 to revitalize musical creation, which had become impoverished following 13 years of official Nazi art and the exile or assassination of many artists—assembled the most prestigious avant-garde composers in Europe, including Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who would share and spread their radical artistic concepts.
When he composed Jakob Lenz, Wolfgang Rihm had already written one opera, and was seriously questioning serialism, the modernist legacy of his illustrious predecessors. Indeed, the young Wolfgang Rihm was wary of the zealous disciples of the Darmstadt School, who prized modernity above all else. He felt that this new avant-garde generation had become another form of academicism.
He broke with the dominant musical language, and caused a sensation at the 1974 Donaueschingen Contemporary Music Festival with Morphonie, an orchestral piece whose emotion and expressiveness were influenced by both the romanticism of Mahler and the early works of Schoenberg. In 1981, he, along with twenty other composers and musicologists, signed the manifesto “About the ‘New Simplicity’ in Music” in the Viennese journal Studien zur Wertungsforschung. These artists questioned the use of avant-garde serialism and believed that music should address the audience directly. They advocated for a return to expressiveness, melody and lyricism, and claimed the right to include musical collages and borrowed themes, and to create more traditional forms (e.g., concertos and symphonies). This “New Simplicity,” however, did not constitute an esthetic movement; rather, it was a specific approach towards contemporary creation, shared by composers from various backgrounds and career paths.