Kurt Schwertsik at 85

     By Peter Davison

2020 has been most notable for a disruptive worldwide pandemic, but it is also the year of Kurt Schwertsik’s 85th birthday. Kurt is one of Austria’s most respected living composers and a figure of historical significance because of his relationship with the post-War avant-garde, centred around the Darmstadt summer schools in the 1950s. His recently published memoir, Was und wie lernt man? (What and how do we learn?) reveals the amicable tensions between himself and Karlheinz Stockhausen, as he diverged from modernist orthodoxy and returned to tonal composition.

After hearing one of Schwertsik’s ‘regressive’ works, Stockhausen tossed him a packet of sugar which he had picked up in a coffee bar. Seemingly this music was too sweet for the great man, but Schwertsik recalls that Stockhausen then drew his attention to the printed message on the packet, Bitte beehren Sie uns bald wieder (Please honour us by coming again soon).

When I first came to know Kurt, I was immediately struck by his friendliness, his modesty and dry humour. He is genuinely interested in people and life, managing somehow to avoid the divisive polemic so characteristic of our times. His instinctive diplomacy should not be mistaken for vagueness, since he is true to his humane values, which he pursues without stridency or preaching, accepting the validity of paths which are not his own.

The breadth of his musical associations proves the point. Schwertsik is happy to champion his former teacher, Joseph Marx, whose richly coloured scores drip with impressionistic harmonies and emotional subjectivity. Yet he remains sympathetic to his late English friend, the dedicated Marxist, Cornelius Cardew, whose main goal was to dismantle the conventions of bourgeois musical life. Kurt himself enjoys being simultaneously a transgressor and a traditionalist. Like grit in the oyster, such fissures in the human psyche are a primary source for his creative material. 

Kurt Schwertsik has long been held in high regard in Britain, where he also feels very much at home. Many of the country’s finest ensembles and performers have commissioned works from him, including orchestras in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Schwertsik was also a featured composer during the 1993 Alternative Vienna Festival in London.

His affinity with Britain may be the consequence of his mother being born in London in 1907, the illegitimate child of his Belgian grandmother. These personal links may have granted Schwertsik a creative affinity with several talented Englishmen. Cornelius Cardew has already been mentioned, but Schwertsik also owes much of his international success to the late David Drew, who was his publisher at London-based Boosey & Hawkes until 1992.

During the course of the last century, the notion that any individual composer might realistically aspire to world-historic significance in the manner of Beethoven or Wagner grew more and more implausible. Historical events had exposed the dangers of elevating any visionary individual to cult status. In our own times, a composer may only realistically aspire to personal authenticity. Beyond that, the artist has become increasingly powerless. Kurt Schwertsik soon discovered that solidarity and entrepreneurial spirit were valid responses to the collapsed cultural consensus.

In 1958, he founded the avant-garde performing group die reihe (the row) with his friend, Friedrich Cerha. A decade later, no longer committed to modernist orthodoxy, Schwertsik worked with his fellow instrumentalists, H K Gruber and Oskar Zykan, to form the MOB art & tone ART ensemble. The latter group, according to Schwertsik, was dedicated to playing new works with broad appeal written in a tonal musical language. Here is a work from that period, his Symphony in Mob-Style (1972), with its witty allusions to jazz and the pop music of the day.

There is also a darker side to Schwertsik’s music. The invocation of a dream or fairy tale suggests a desire to reconnect with something lost to everyday consciousness; a bitter-sweet nostalgia for childlike innocence, for an idealised past, for certainties long gone. Schwertsik’s most Mahlerian work, his five-movement symphonic suite Nachtmusiken – ‘Nocturnes’ (2009) was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester for a performance paired with Mahler’s First Symphony.

Schwertsik’s music has haunting Viennese qualities, with its unashamed embrace of the sentimental and its witty even irreverent allusions to Mahler’s music. The first movement pays homage to Janáček and is entitled Janáček ist mir im Traum erschienen – ‘Janáček appeared to me in a dream’. It is dominated by an angry rhythmic motto with a Slavic linguistic accent, typical of Janáček’s musical idiom. But the surging intensity of the music is more Mahlerian, as waves of pathos reach an ominous climax.

In a Viennese context, the appearance of a Czech nationalist composer suggests a dialogue with the outsider or, in psychological terms, the wounded shadow is permitted to approach. This juxtaposition of Viennese and Slavic elements in Schwertsik’s work relates well to Mahler’s First Symphony, in which the narrative voice consistently identifies with the alienated victim. We gain the perspectives of the hunted rather than the hunter, the peasant rather than the urban elite.

Schwertsik’s hero, if that is the right word, is the eccentric French composer Erik Satie. Satie was the trickster deflating Wagnerian excess, the hoaxer and social radical blurring the boundaries between life and art. Yet, in his modest way, Satie influenced several generations of composers from Debussy to John Cage. His life and art intentionally mocked the grandiose attributes of the romantic genius.

In the cantata Socrate (1919), Satie depicts through delicate understatement the death of an outsider, executed for his wisdom and probing scepticism. Socrates is resigned to his fate, and there is no sense of grand tragedy. The powerlessness of the thoughtful man is accepted without defiant rage. Here is Schwertsik’s Adieu Satie (2002) for string quartet and bandoneon, a work dedicated to the subversive power of understatement.

A consistent theme of Schwertsik’s work has been to give voice to nature. Once he had abandoned his association with Darmstadt, he was able to return to established symphonic forms and to rediscover the musical possibilities of tone-painting. In true Mahlerian style, the natural world could again provide a source of inspiration.

In Schwertsik’s imagination, nature is not always pretty or pastoral – it possesses a threatening but vital energy. His orchestral cycle Irdische Klänge – ‘Earthly Sounds’ (1981) begins with a two-movement richly textured symphony which owes something to Stockhausen’s Trans for orchestra and tape, while also revealing debts to a variety of other musical sources such as Philip Glass, popular music, jazz and The Rite of Spring

The Fünf Naturstücke – ‘Five Nature Pieces’ (1984) that constitute Part 2 of Der irdischen Klänge are more picturesque, especially the flowing lines of Wasser (Water) and the exuberant chatter of Vogel (Bird). The final work of the series is Das Ende der irdischen Klänge (1991), a single movement which concludes with a frightening side drum riff, as if Nature’s voice is silenced by human tyranny.

Schwertsik’s most impressive work in this vein is Uluru (1992); a deeply felt response to the red rock which forms a sacred site for local Indigenous Australians. From nocturnal shadows, the dawn slowly awakens, culminating in a climax of Sibelian grandeur, as spirit once again seems to infuse matter.  For Schwertsik, the relationship with nature is both personal and spiritual, a mirror to his own inner life and the wider human drama. 

For all that Schwertsik is uncategorisable, he is not a post-modernist without allegiance to tradition. His outlook is closer to Stravinsky’s, another of his eclectic musical influences. For both composers, tradition is an Urquelle or original source from which one may draw nourishment, but to which one is not obligated. Like Stravinsky, Schwertsik borrows from a wide range of sources, encompassing not only the classical masters of the past, but also jazz, cabaret and other forms of popular music which have caught his ear.

In this manner, Schwertsik acknowledges that modernity has been a unique historical moment, but not a Utopian climax, as many had hoped. Indeed, Vienna’s decline as a power-centre and its loss of cultural dominance have liberated him, allowing him to be open to wider influences. Schwertsik has found fields of activity beyond the polemic of entrenched political and aesthetic positions, seeking the intersection between his commitment to social ideals and his search for personal authenticity. 

His most recent works possess an inner freedom which suggests an artist with nothing to prove and nobody to please but himself. His suite of miniature piano pieces Am Morgen vor der Reise – ‘The Morning before the Journey’ (2017) displays a Schumann-like inventiveness and fluency. Avoiding virtuoso display, he captures intimate and spontaneous feeling in a richly nuanced tonal language that sounds fresh yet familiar.

To conclude, we should let Schwertsik’s lyrically expressive music speak for itself in his Three Late Love Songs, Op.64. They combine the sensuality of Gabriel Fauré with more than a hint of Viennese melancholy, yet we are not allowed to become too comfortable. We are reminded of Schwertsik’s modernist roots which may still be heard in the tone clusters of the work’s middle movement.

Peter Davison is a concert programmer and cultural commentator who was formerly artistic consultant to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.