An introduction to Schwertsik’s music by David Drew
Born in Vienna in 1935, Schwertsik became in 1959 the first Austrian composer of the
younger generation to make the pilgrimage to Darmstadt and Cologne, and to do so with the
specific intention of studying with Stockhausen. Thirty years later, his tributes on the
occasion of Stockhausen’s 60th birthday, and the ‘3 sonatas and 2 fugues’
expressly provided ‘for Karlheinz Stockhausen’s entertainment’, reflected
gratitude, respect, and affection, as if from a great distance.
The memories of Cologne and Darmstadt that have remained closest to Schwertsik’s
heart (as his 5 Nature Pieces movingly testify) are those of his friendship with
Stockhausen’s English pupil and amanuensis, the composer Cornelius Cardew. Equally
influential and in some respects decisive were his encounters with John Cage. Although the
‘experiments’ with triadic harmony in the Liebesträume of 1963 owe
nothing to Cage’s music – indeed, they are already characteristically
Schwertsikian – they represent as clear a break with Darmstadt orthodoxies as do the
more Cageian chance-operations he applied to Liszt’s own long-suffering Liebesträume.
It was surely from Cage that Schwertsik now found his way back to Erik Satie, just as it
was through Satie that he soon began to develop a chanson-style that would incorporate
elements from American and European popular music of the 60s and 70s.
From 1962 onwards, Schwertsik’s entire work seems to defy the traditional notion
of canonical status. Manifestly not an ‘œuvre’ in the 19th century sense,
it responds to local and even parochial considerations in ways that suggest a composer who
might once have been admired (or mildly deplored) as ‘Bohemian’ but today is in
constant risk of prosecution under Europe’s culturally stringent vagrancy Acts. Adept
in the forensic arts, Schwertsik would surely welcome such charges, and refuse legal aid.
As for expert witnesses, he would happily dispense with them all, so long as he could
still identify the many and various non-professional audiences that enjoy his music and
hold it dear.
A few areas of his work – such as the extraordinary Jandl cycle, ich sein
blumenbein – may be marked ‘private’. Many others, including the lost
Viennas of Wiener Chronik 1848 and the Altenberg cycle, the found (or
invented) Viennas of the Artmann and Nöstlinger cycles, and the Ubu-esque fairy-tale of Fanferlieschen
Schönefüßchen, have already proved widely accessible. With time, the
time-travelling fantasies of Tag- und Nachtweisen, the Alphorn Concerto, and
the ‘Concerto of Sensibility’ (ein empfindsames Konzert) should prove
But the ultimate challenge for listeners in the 21st century will surely be the Irdische
Klänge cycle and its successors. In these post-Mahlerian songs-of-the-earth and
intergalactic missions, Schwertsik’s orchestra becomes one with his intense feeling
for nature and his profound concern for the future of the environment. What posterity
might make of all that – what ‘on earth’, as it were – is another
question; and not just for the composer.
Fragments from diaries, reports and manifestos
by Kurt Schwertsik
The masters formulated their music boldly and without circum-locutions, and today we
are still occupied with the task of absorbing the intellectual content of the powers of
expression inherent in their works. That task is at once an encouragement and a stimulus
to every living composer: each one should offer, without shyness, whatever is his own. It
may not stand up to the test of proximity to the masters; it may even appear laughably
simple; and yet it is our one hope of reaching outwards and upwards. And so l say again:
Popular music, etc, etc
Two insights are essential for the composer of serious music: first, that he is no
longer the sole keeper of the holy flame; second, that he should do all he can to
understand the burning questions of the day. Now it is not sufficient to say, ‘Look,
that is what the world is like! Our music is only the mirror we hold in front of human
beings.’ Art must show that it is possible to raise oneself; to take decisive steps;
perhaps even to float.
After a long period of reckless belief in science, our culture again tries to
understand old ways of life – not in order to return to an apparently intact world,
but rather to check the axioms of the basis of our thinking. Limited to natural notes,
some of which do not accord with our scales, the alphorn connects us with the oldest
layers of our culture. The attempt to confront this instrument with our own orchestral
sound makes its foreignness clear, not least where the archaic sonority harmonizes with
the aesthetic sensibility of our own day.
11 May 1979
I am becoming more attentive to everyday sounds: I can detect a greater variety of soft
and loud sounds, simple and complex ones, natural and artificial ones, real and imagined
ones. I listen more precisely, and observe the richness and variability of fundamentals
and overtones. Thus the ‘everyday’ becomes a non-stop concert.
For our everyday life, our everyday observations suffice. But there is no insurance
policy against chronic atrophy of consciousness, and none against emotional sterility and
irreparable damage to the imagination. Music, which emerges from so deep in our inner
world of images and penetrates back into those depths, cannot be harmless. It is one of
the most secret means we have of expressing our situation here on this earth.
As a young man, I laboured under the delusion that I would find the answers to my
questions in the learned books written by my elders… Later I found much of what I was
looking for in the Dadaism of Zürich – unruliness, disrespect for false beards,
self-irony through experiment… Today I know that basically I was seeking artists who
combine in one person the quality of Satie, Ives, Schwitters, Wittgenstein, and Gandhi. I
was looking for the unity of life and work, for an artist whose work was not only part of
his life, but whose life was also part of his work. For this reason I admire Cage –
he is always entirely himself. For that reason I am also happy that Cornelius Cardew was
my friend – one who went his own way, alarmed but steady.
has to do with the ability to move people. The question whether a composer uses this
ability for good or evil is not entirely unimportant.