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Kurt SCHWERTSIK (b. 1935)
The Piano Works
Fantasia & Fugue op.150 (2010) [11:09]
Albumblätter (1969-2015) [38:34]
Cinq Nocturnes op.10b (1964) [9:47]
Am Morgen vor der Reise op.119 (2017) [9:48]
Eden-Bar, Seefeld op.6 (1961) [6:16]
Aya Klebahn (piano)
rec. 2013/2019, 4tune audio productions Vienna; Studio Wavegarden, Mitterretzbach, Austria
Booklet notes in German and English.
GRAMOLA 99209 [75:01]

A good deal of Kurt Schwertsik’s work (including his works for piano) has been published by Boosey & Hawkes. If one consults Schwertsik’s page on the company’s website, one of the things one finds is the following quotation:

“Schwertsik’s music is homespun, witty, nostalgic, vegetarian, politically liberal, intelligent, anti-authoritarian, widely-read, and deeply in love with tradition” – Financial Times
I was sufficiently intrigued by these words to wonder who wrote them and when. It turns out that they were written with reference to the 1987 Almeida Festival’s survey of contemporary Viennese music, and published on June 22, 1987. The digital copy of the text which I was able to locate adds “byline – Dominic Gill, Andrew Clements”.

Actually, Boosey & Hawkes have edited the original slightly, in quoting it; I think it is worth undoing their editing, thus:

“The most pervasive qualities of the concert devoted to his work by the Almeida Festival last Friday were good nature, good humour, transparent sincerity, and a great quantity of genuine, infectious charm. Schwertsik’s music is homespun, witty, nostalgic, vegetarian, politically liberal (he could never have cohabited artistically or politically with Cornelius Cardew for longer than the half-dozen years he managed in the 1960s), intelligent, anti-authoritarian, widely-read, and deeply in love with tradition.”

This fuller, unedited, text makes clearer the major shift in Schwertsik’s musical/aesthetic stance.

Born in Vienna he studied in Vienna (being a pupil of Joseph Marx at the Vienna Academy of Music); in 1959 he formed, along with Friedrich Cerha, a new-music ensemble called “die reihe” (the row) which, not coincidentally, was also the name of a journal edited by Stockhausen in the 1950s. Through that decade Schwertsik was much influenced by Stockhausen, regularly attending summer schools in Darmstadt and Stuttgart, and associating with composers such as Nono and Klagel. He became disillusioned, however, with this musical direction. With a wit characteristic of the man (Schwertsik is witty in both his music and his words) he later explained the change in his musical aesthetic thus:

“Since 1961 - I have been writing various kinds of tonal music. I had the feeling that the complications in serial and aleatory music yielded only simple musical results, and that a simpler musical material would allow complications that could be experienced by just listening to the music.” (‘Looking into the Mirror: Fragments from Diaries, Reports and Manifestos’, Tempo New Series, 161/2, 1987, pp. 52-67).

This change of direction resulted in Schwertsik being touted, along with H K Gruber (the two often collaborated), as a member of the so-called Third Viennese School. For Schwertsik this meant, to some extent, what it meant for Gruber, that the distinction between ‘serious’ music and ‘entertainment’ music should be blurred or even transcended, that it was fine, even desirable, that those who attended ‘classical’ concerts should be encouraged to smile. Schwertsik’s later music is, indeed, “deeply in love with tradition”, in the words of Gill/Clements. One needs only to notice the titles of two of the sequences here, Alumblätter and Cinq Nocturnes, to be aware that this music has some kind of relationship with musical traditions which well predate the Second Viennese school. What kind of relationship? It certainly isn’t one of simple revival, of the imitation of older forms and styles; nor will it do to think of it as a matter of mockery or even pastiche. The best form of words I can come up with is that much of it is characterised by a kind of affectionate irony – with Schwertsik being the object of the irony at least as often as the music of his predecessors is.

I have especially enjoyed the set of fourteen short pieces which make up Schwertsik’s Albumblätter. There is, of course, something mildly comic about Schwertsik’s adoption of a term which was for so long associated with the music of the salons. Originally the term Albumblätt designated a short piece (most often, but not always, for piano) dedicated to a friend or colleague and intended to be placed in their album. In terms of compositions for piano, the most famous example is provided by Schumann (in his Albumblätter, 1832-45), but sets of such pieces, or single pieces with the title ‘Albumblätt’ (or the equivalent in another language) were written by a great many other composers, including, in no particular order, Mendelssohn, Reger, Liszt, Busoni, Cécile Chaminade, Niels Gade, Grieg, Smetana, Brahms and Joseph Marx. I have saved the name of Joseph Marx to the end of this list, so as to have occasion to mention that Schwertsik is President of the Joseph Marx Society (founded in 2006), which exists to promote the works of his old teacher Joseph Marx (1882-1964), whose reputation faded badly in the years after his death, but who had long been an important upholder of tonal music and its values. It is a measure of how complete the shift in Schwertsik’s approach has been that he should be willing to take on this position, something which would have been completely unimaginable when he was under the spell of Stockhausen.

My list, despite it being highly selective, of those who chose to call some of their works for piano Albumblätter, confirms that Schwertsik had a rich and diverse tradition to draw on in writing his Albumblätter. Several of Schwertsik’s pieces do, indeed, carry dedications, such ‘… for Rose Simpson’, dedicated to a former member of the Incredible String Band; ‘Papierblumen (… für Paul Kont’) and ‘… für Joseph Horowitz’, both dedicated to fellow Viennese composers; two pieces, ‘… für Dennis Russell Davies’ and ‘… für Mario Venzago’ are dedicated to conductors; one, ‘Attila im Bois (… für H.C. Artmann)’ is written for the Austrian poet (1991-2000), author of the lyrics used in Gruber’s Frankenstein !!) and another, for the dancer and choreographer Jochen Ulrich, ‘Zur Erinnerung an Jochen Ulrich’.

All fourteen of the Albumblätter offer things of interest. For me, particular highlights included the longest work in the set, ‘Zur Erinnerung an Jochen Ulrich’. This piece in memory of Jochen Ulrich was written around 18 months after his death in 2012; Ulrich and Schwertsik worked together on a ballet based on Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika. Understandably, Schwertsik’s memorial for Ulrich begins in a mood and a tempo one might describe as funereal, but it later articulates (and celebrates) Ulrich’s energy and inventiveness as a choreographer and a dancer, very much a man of the theatre. I have also found myself repeatedly playing ‘… für Mario Venzago’, a quiet and thoughtful piece which uses silence judiciously. Ian Julier, who worked for Boosey and Hawkes for some 27 years before becoming Senior Librarian of Glyndebourne Productions, gets a tribute from Schwertsik in what sounds like a chanson melody waiting for its text. Another piece I have played repeatedly, and one which illustrates Schwertsik’s fondness for the absurd – in his own work and in the work of others – is ‘Attila im Bois (… für H.C. Artmann)’. I wouldn’t have known the specifics of this piece, though sensing its mood, without the very useful booklet notes by Claus-Christian Schuster. Of this piece, Schuster writes “Schwertsik alludes to Artmann’s burlesque Drama ‘Attila ante portas’ (Malmö 1963), in which Little Red Riding Hood wanders through the Bois de Vincennes”. Apparently (again I owe this information to Schuster) the piece has a subtitle: “Mr. Big Bad Wolf maltreats his accordion trying to remember a Valse Musette”. Schwertsik’s music has an appropriately whimsical sense of the fairy tale, while not forgetting to provide some moments of moments of threat. Elsewhere ‘… für Christa’ is a beautifully affectionate and relaxed tribute to his wife, which at moments sounds decidedly Schubertian, and in the piece which closes the set, ‘Das letzte Albumblätt’, the writing has a charm and elegance which wouldn’t disgrace Mendelssohn.

If the 14 pieces collected as Schwertsik’s Albumblätter can largely be understood in terms of the composer’s ‘remaking’ of the Viennese (and wider ‘Germanic’) tradition (I say ‘largely’ because of Schwertsik’s habit of introducing additional elements from well beyond that tradition – as in the hints of bossa nova in ‘Abendlied’) the use of French titles in the Cinq Nocturnes implies something rather different. Each of the five pieces has a French title: ‘Simple’, ‘Intermède’, ‘Fantaisie’, ‘Caprice’ and ‘Double’. Schwertsik has more than once said that as he followed what Schuster calls his “path from Darmstadt to himself”, a major influence was Satie. To take just one example: “Erik Satie has shown that it is possible to remain true to one’s inner voice against every temptation and pressure. On the day of my fiftieth birthday I set to music a Satie aphorism: ‘I have lost the concept of time and space and it sometimes happens to me that I do not know what I say’. The selection of an aphorism by Satie appealed to me because I greatly esteem his humour, because I admire his lonely and uncompromising life, because I find his feeling for style exemplary, because I love many aspects of his music, and last but not least because he can only be viewed as an entity. His life was a work of art: he composed, made music, wrote poems, drew, worked at calligraphy, collaborated with Man Ray on a marvelous readymade, founded a religion, was a communist alderman, made a point of his characteristic apparel – in short, his life was ethically and aesthetically disciplined” (Quoted from ‘Looking into the Mirror: Fragments from Diaries, Reports and Manifestos’, Tempo New Series, 161/2, 1987). Given that Satie wrote precisely five nocturnes (between August and November 1919) – though he intended to compose seven – that Schwertsik produced a set of five and gave them French titles is hardly likely to be coincidental. Schwertsik’s nocturnes are not, of course, imitations of Satie’s – that would be unimaginable in the work of the mature Schwertsik and would, of course, have been false to the very nature of his admiration of Satie. But they do have the same kind of hard-won simplicity that characterizes Satie’s pieces, the same effective use of silence; in their respective nocturnes both composers write with less wit and more austerity of mood than they often did. Neither seems to have been much influenced by the example of Chopin, so that neither chooses to give us the kind of flowing melodies that are typical of Chopin’s nocturnes. For both Satie and Schwertsik, night seems inescapably to speak of death. The nocturnes of these two latecomers to the genre are (no pun intended) predominantly ‘grave’ in mood.

Altogether more playful (one might say more innocent) is Am Morgen vor der Reise. Again, I am indebted to Schuster’s notes for information on the origins of this work, “composed […] as a musical illustration for a reading from the 1978 book Am Morgen vor der Reise. Die Gesichte zweier Kinde […] by Jutta (Julian as of 1989) Schutting”. Schwertsik’s Am Morgen vor der Reise is in six short movements, varying in length from 0:57 to 2:44. The titles of the six movements might be translated as follows: Arrival – Children’s piano – Bird solo – Barcarolle – Double Counterpoint – Farewell. These are limpid pieces, childlike, one might say. That, however, is not to say either that they are intended only to be played by children or listened to primarily by children. It is, I think, very relevant here to quote from a document by Schwertsik, ‘Composing for the Young’, which first appeared in German in the Oesterreichische Musik-Zeitschrift in 1975; the English version appeared in Tempo, N.S. 128, 1979, pp.17-18. It takes the form of 33 short statements. I quote just a few of these:

3. Last year, at the Zappa concert, I noticed that I was twice as old as the average listener.
4. That’s why I want to define: the young listener is one who seeks an experience and is ready to listen.
7. There are people in every age-group who are unwilling to think on new lines.
8. I am writing for people to whom my definition under 4 applies.

For Schwertsik, in other words, being a ‘young listener’, being a child, even, is not a matter of calendar years but of attitude, of seeking “an experience” and being “ready to listen”. The same, presumably, would apply, mutatis mutandis to composers, making Schwertsik a young composer even as he grows older.

The six movements of Am Morgen vor der Reise are certainly, in these terms, ‘young’ music.

The Fantasia and Fugue (written in the same year as the Cinq Nocturnes) was commissioned by Angela Hewitt for her Bach Book and was premiered by her at the Wigmore Hall, November 23rd 2010. On the Boosey & Hawkes website there can be found Schwertsik’s own programme note for the piece:

“The formal repetition of a sequence of notes as a means of melodic development and the imitation of a motif to form a fugue survives to this day as an academic discipline. I never could or wanted to write these textbook fugues and my admiration for the Well-Tempered Clavier has nothing to do with the contrapuntal arts of stretto, inversion, augmentation, etc, but rather with the singing continuity of Bach’s melodic writing. The sober objectivity, whose inner expression develops from the theme within the piece and the developing undercurrent of the narrative shows the strength of the invention; for me it is an aesthetic pinnacle.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, on the other hand, succeeded in liberating himself from his father’s stylistic authority and adopted an entirely new tone. Apparently without a plan, indulging in sudden changes of mood, confronting opposites, but in fact clearly constructed, he narrates his story in the knowledge that his
father’s craftsmanship is fertile soil.

This stylistic tension between father and son has been of great importance for the further development of our music – up to the present day. My musical thinking, in any case, is influenced by it.”

Mark Berry reviewed the relevant concert for Seen & Heard. He found Schwertsik’s programme note more interesting than his music.

As I know all too well, reaching a sound judgement of a new work on a single hearing is exceedingly difficult, so I feel less troubled than I might otherwise have done in saying that I disagree with Mark, for whose views I have a high regard, on this particular occasion. I haven’t heard Hewitt’s performance of Fantasia & Fuga, but I have had the opportunity to listen to that by the Viennese-based, Japanese-born Aya Klebahn several times over. And, of course, hearing Fantasia & Fuga in the context of a whole CD devoted to Schwertsik’s piano music helps to attune one to the way his mind works. I find the Fantasia an exciting and inventive piece which has something of that grandeur which is one aspect of Bach’s keyboard writing; Schwertsik’s Fantasia is exhilarating in the way, if not, inevitably, the degree that Bach’s writing is. The Fuga has something, at least, of Bach’s architectural sense, and engages by its momentum, until a surprise ending.

Talking of surprise endings, I suspect that it was Kurt Schwertsik, rather than producer Richard Winter who determined the running order of this CD. On an album largely devoted to the music Schwertsik composed for the piano after abandoning the aesthetic implied by the word Darmstadt, the conventional course of action would have been to begin with Eden-Bar, Seefeld which is, in the words of Claus-Christian Schuster “the only ‘Darmstadt’ piano piece that withstood the criticism of the mature master”. This is the earliest composition included on the disc and, for that reason too, it might have been expected to be the first track on the disc. It seems thoroughly characteristic of Schwertsik’s own idiosyncratic approach to things that it should, instead, be the last piece!

The abrasive atonality of Eden-Bar, Seefeld comes as something of a shock if one listens to this disc straight through, as I did the first time I played it, even if one knows something of Schwertsik’s stylistic history. It brings out the contrast between his ‘mature’ work and his earlier work more vividly than any piece of critical writing could. Of its kind Eden-Bar, Seefeld is a decent example, but it is not a ‘kind’ I find myself listening to as often as I once did. The young Schwertsik could obviously write perfectly completely in the idiom he chose to abandon soon after writing this piece. I, at least, am pleased that he did abandon it. I shall certainly listen again to the other 27 tracks far more often than I shall to Eden-Bar, Seefeld.

Glyn Pursglove

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