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ClassicsOnline Home » KARG-ELERT, S.: Flute Works (Complete) (Roorda, Tsvereli)
Karg-Elert occupies a remarkable niche in the history of German music. He is best known for his compositions for organ and harmonium but this first recording of his complete works for flute, reveals a completely individual voice. The ground-breaking Sonata in B flat, Op. 121 stretches virtuosity to the instrument’s limits, the Suite pointillistique is exquisitely colourful and the Sonata appassionata romantically expressive. Each work, not least the challenging Caprices, reflects Karg-Elert’s kaleidoscopic imagination, and represents a significant body of music for the flute in the twentieth century.
Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877–1933)
Complete Works for Flute
The life of Siegfried Karg (Oberndorf am Neckar, 1877–1933, Leipzig) both personally and musically, is highly intriguing. It was Grieg who advised him to change his given name to Sigfrid especially because—with this spelling—it would not be thought that he was of Jewish ancestry. His mother’s name, ‘Elert’, was added later to facilitate an appointment at the Magdeburg Conservatory. The assumption was that students would find the idea of a teacher with a double surname more appealing. Emil von Reznicek, recognizing his talent, enabled him to study at the Leipzig Conservatory under Reinecke and Jadassohn for composition and theory, respectively. Among his first publications were compositions for the ‘Kunstharmonium’, or art harmonium, an instrument that had a strong attraction for him due to its richness of colour. Indeed, his oeuvre centres on compositions for harmonium and organ. Grieg went to some lengths to recommend Karg-Elert’s early works to various publishers. In view of his having had to relinquish his post at the Magdeburg Conservatory in 1904 due to a nervous breakdown brought on by an impossible love affair and an illegitimate child, the income gained from these publications was more than welcome. During the First World War he was appointed oboist and saxophonist in a military band, which enabled him to avoid active combat. From 1912 to 1914 he had been completely under the influence of Schoenberg, Scriabin and Debussy. He broke loose from these influences, however, through gaining a better knowledge of the great classical composers via musicians of the Gewandhaus Orchestra who were also in the military band. In 1919 Karg-Elert was appointed to succeed Reger for composition and theory at the Leipzig Conservatory: a post he held for the rest of his life. His musical oeuvre can be regarded as a quest for a completely individual language. With his magnum opus, the ‘Harmonologie’—his response to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and the French modes and polytonality—he also attempted to tread his own paths.
This first recording of Karg-Elert’s complete oeuvre for solo flute and for flute and piano is intended to highlight the unique position this music occupies in flute literature. It is at the same time a plea for its broader recognition. Of the twenty four compositions for flute that Karg-Elert wrote, only nine have appeared in print. The other pieces have disappeared without trace. The source of inspiration for his works for flute was the playing of the solo flautist of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, Carl Bartuzat. According to Karg-Elert, the ‘unimaginable technical possibilities’ of the Boehm flute, introduced in Germany relatively late on, had scarcely been exploited. He embarked on an intensive exploration of all these possibilities, and numerous passages from his works for solo flute and for flute and piano stretch instrumental virtuosity to the limit and are groundbreaking in this area. In this respect, the Sonata in B flat, Op. 121 (1918), is dedicated to Carl Bartuzat, who was his oracle regarding the (im)possibilities of the flute. The Impressions exotiques, Op. 134 (1919), were written for his friend and fellow student under Reinecke, the composer Walter Niemann. He dedicated the Suite pointillistique, Op. 135 (1919) to Arthur Nikisch, conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1895 to 1922, and the Sinfonische Kanzone, Op. 114 (1917) to ‘[his] faithful friend Dr. Jos Weber.’
The works for flute and piano, though not written over a great time span, differ greatly in character, expression and style. In the Sinfonische Kanzone and in the Sonata in B flat classical principles of form are still to some extent significant. The Impressions exotiques and the Suite pointillistique, however, reveal totally new perspectives, described by Karg-Elert as follows: “…my mind’s eye is intoxicated with the wonders of exquisite displays of colour: my desires wander into an undiscovered exotic dreamland, where objects are enveloped in a strange light and the contours become a quivering blur.” This could have been the programme of contemporary painters of the Dresden artists circle Die Brücke or of Der blaue Reiter in Munich.
‘Aggravated’, ‘forlorn’, ‘restless’ and ‘fantastic, almost hasty.’ These are all expression marks that the ‘eccentric, extrovert’ Karg-Elert used in his music. His style of writing for the piano, with indications such as ‘quasi Celesta e 4 Viol. Flageolet’, ‘quasi Celesta’, ‘quasi Tamtam’or ‘quasi 4 Hörner’ is conceptually highly orchestral and colourful. His direction to make a crescendo on one single note on the piano or to write for the flute mf and for the piano p in combination with the direction for the flute ‘dem Klavier unterordnend’ (Sonata in B flat), gives an idea of his intricate inner perception and of his attempts to involve the performers intensely in his exceptional depiction of sound.
In the Impressions exotiques and the Suite pointillistique a freer tonality—already revealed in the Caprices—comes to the fore. It is clear that Karg-Elert is falling increasingly under the spell of Impressionism. Harmony, form and the use of the instruments—he for instance employs the various registers of the flute in a highly refined and effective way—gain a new dimension here. But even so he notes: “I cannot say that I pay homage exclusively to Impressionism and Expressionism; in this respect there are too many threads binding me to the Classical-Romantic styles…” In the history of music Karg-Elert is indeed often placed between Reger and Debussy.
A comparison between the Sonata appassionata, Op. 140 (1917), the first twentieth-century German solo piece for flute, and Debussy’s Syrinx (1913) shows clearly that Karg-Elert wished to unleash a whole spectrum of emotional expressions from the flute while Debussy opted simply for a pastoral and mythological setting. The Sonata appassionata must then be seen as part of the great Romantic tradition. In an article in the German journal Tibia (2/1991) Frank Michael identifies the relationships with Beethoven’s work of the same name, Scriabin’s Poème de l’Extase and Wagner’s harmonic theory.
In the period in which Karg-Elert was writing the Caprices, ein Gradus ad Parnassum der modernen Technik für Flöte allein (a Gradus ad Parnassum of Modern Technique for the Solo Flute), Arnold Schoenberg was already well advanced with his new dodecaphonic, atonal composition techniques. Although Karg-Elert experimented with atonality, in the end he did not proceed with this in his style of composition. The second movement of the Suite pointillistique, entitled Der kranke Mond, is in fact not an attempt to follow in Schoenberg ’s footsteps, but rather a commentary on the eponymous part of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, composed seven years earlier. He retained a strong link with the language of Late Romanticism, with the frequent use of chromaticism, rich decorations, capricious groupings and adventurous chromatic key relations sometimes in very quick succession.
The 30 Caprices, Op. 107 (1918–1919) reveal a crucial moment in Karg-Elert’s quest for his own style, in which he employs Classical, Romantic and even Baroque forms. He writes, “The Caprices have their origin in the Classical technique of Bach, Handel and Mozart and quickly ignore contemporary dictates.” In each of the Caprices a different musical idea is pivotal and is worked through with extreme precision to achieve a polished whole. For a flautist, as the player of a monophonic instrument without the support of accompaniment, it is the supreme challenge to penetrate the deeper meaning of the work. Karg-Elert provided the Caprices with a preface and an extensive theoretical account: Die logische Entwicklung der modernen Figuration (The Logical Development of Modern Figuration). In this he provides a large number of examples of simple harmonic formulations which change their form through decorations, auxiliaries or rhythmic alterations, and chromatic and compositional representations. The understanding and recognition of these elements of the compositions is one of the main purposes of the Caprices. Karg-Elert indeed stressed in his preface: “Here, the recognition of the harmonic functions is for the performer the main requirement for the solution of the technical problems posed if he is not to leap blindly from note to note”. This necessity becomes abundantly clear when we regard the arsenal of techniques he employs in these studies. Without claiming to be exhaustive: functional and chromatic harmony, parallel harmonies, quasi polyphony, shifted accents, irregular groupings and hemiolas, sequences, pedal points and symmetrical octave divisions. In terms of style and technicalities of form, as indicated in his preface, a gamut of influences are apparent, from Bach and Handel (Nos. 1 to 3), Chopin (Nos. 6, 7), Impressionism and Late Romanticism through to his contemporaries Strauss and Schoenberg (Nos. 25, 29). While in the first half of the work we encounter more traditional elements, the complexity gradually increases to the point where tonality almost disintegrates through the rapid succession of triads that apparently have nothing to do with each other (No. 25), or phrases that border on atonality and in which all twelve tones are assimilated (No. 29). A caprice such as No. 24 seems to be a precursor of the atonal style that was so popular for the flute in the 1950s. The Chaconne, based on four notes and used so often in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for variations, forms, with all its technical achievements, the musical climax of this series.
The Caprices in the style of Bach and Handel are provided with the dated performance indications typical of this era (amongst others, grave il suono, non troppo brillante) that must, to our ears, result in the rather emphatic and heavy interpretation that was in vogue in Karg-Elert’s time.
The opus number Op. 107 given to the Caprices seems a totally illogical choice in view of the chronology, but is actually the number of the regiment in which Karg-Elert served with Carl Bartuzat.
Rien de Reede and Karst de Jong
English version: Gerald Mettam
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KARG-ELERT, S.: Flute Works (Complete) (Roorda, Ts...