by Anja Weinberger
Sigfrid Karg-Elert – one of the great “forgotten” composers
Siegfried was born in Oberndorf am Neckar in 1877 as one of 12 children in the Karg family. Even the little three-year-old boy displayed an almost morbid enthusiasm for bells and could be kept busy for hours with numbers and arithmetic problems.
In 1883, the family moved to Leipzig, where 11-year-old Siegfried sang in the choir of St. John’s Church. There his absolute ear was noticed and the choir conductor Bruno Röthig supported the young talent to the best of his ability.
Despite all his enthusiasm for music, he had to attend the teachers’ seminar in Grimma, following the wishes of his legal guardians. In his free time, however, he devoted himself to the oboe, the piano and composition, and eventually landed a position as oboist in the Markranstadt town band.
In 1896 he presented some works to the then very well-known conductor and composer Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek, who immediately placed him with a scholarship to the Leipzig Conservatory.
From 1901 he lived in Weimar as a piano teacher and pianist. Now he changed his name by deleting both E’s in his first name and adding his mother’s maiden name to his last name. By the former he hoped to avoid possible Jewish echoes, and the latter simply seemed more interesting to him in order to attract students and concert offers. A career as a pianist was now within reach.
But then, in 1904, Sigfrid Karg-Elert met Edvard Grieg, who on the one hand encouraged him to devote himself exclusively to composition, and on the other established connections with several influential publishers who were immediately interested. It was in this way that he finally came to the organ. For the publisher Carl Simon introduced him to the art harmonium, and then years later the Gewandhaus organist Paul Homeyer asked for arrangements of the harmonium works he had written for the concert organ. From 1909 on, Karg-Elert’s grandiose organ music came into being.
He experienced the war as a regimental musician and sat in the infantry orchestra right next to Carl Bartuzat, the first flutist of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He familiarized him with the Boehm flute, which had a difficult start in Germany. And so he was able to write the works that we flutists hate and love in equal measure today. Karg-Elert immediately understood the new tonal and technical possibilities offered by the Boehm flute and then exploited this wide palette to the utmost. The result is five masterpieces that challenge the entire musician technically, musically and physically, but in return present us with a completely new world of sound.
Without technical studies there is nothing to be done, and so the composer immediately put 30 caprices on the flutist’s music stand, which illuminate all concerns of modern music and explore “the immense technical possibilities of the Boehm flute” (Karg-Elert in the preface).
From 1919 Sigfrid Karg-Elert taught music theory and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory as Max Reger’s successor.
His Polaristische Klang- und Tonalitätslehre (Polaristic Theory of Sound and Tonality) of 1931 stands at the end of a long series of music-theoretical writings. He himself regarded harmonology as his life’s work, in which he attempted to restructure the major/minor system with all its centuries-old regularities. Similar things happened everywhere in the musical world during this time. One only has to think of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and the French polytonality.
In the English-speaking world, his organ music in particular was enthusiastically received. A twelve-day Karg Elert Festival was held in London in 1930, and he became an honorary member of the London Royal College of Organists. In 1932 he then traveled throughout America as a concert organist.
The creeping nationalization of German musical life visibly worsened Karg-Elert’s position in Leipzig from the late 1920s. He, who was more internationally oriented, quickly became seriously ill after his return from the U.S. and died in 1933 at only 55 years of age.
German National Socialism negated Karg-Elert’s work. After his death, the name of the non-Jewish composer Karg-Elert was included in the first edition of the infamous “Encyclopedia of Jews in Music.” Thus, the compositions of the extraordinarily imaginative, eccentric musician, who today is considered the quintessential Art Nouveau composer, were not heard for a long time. After the war, a new generation of musicians was already waiting in the wings, and Karg-Elert’s great music was forgotten.
We flutists know Karg-Elert’s name well, but never pronounce it without a certain reverence. Because his works are … difficult. There is simply no other way to express it. However, they offer an abundance of highly romantic phrases, let us revel in clouds of sound and lure us into the most diverse worlds of feeling. As an example, here are just the movement names of the Suite pointillistique for flute and piano: Lightly moving – Extremely stretched (The sick moon) – Scherzo (Diavolina and Innocenz) – Weighty, broad. His chamber music occupies an important place in the flute literature, bridging the gap from late Romanticism to free-tonal Expressionism. Its technical refinements show that Karg-Elert was a precise and interested connoisseur of the Boehm flute, which had just become fashionable at the time. The B-flat major sonata is dedicated to his colleague at the neighboring console, Carl Bartuzat.
He probably created his flutistic masterpiece with the Sonata appassionata – the first German work for solo flute in the 20th century. This genre, so long forgotten, should now experience an enormous revival.
Adorjan, Andras (Hrsg.) u.a.: Lexikon der Flöte, Laaber 2009
Blume, Friedrich (Hrsg.): Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Berlin 2004
Schenk, Paul: Sigfrid Karg–Elert. Eine monographische Skizze mit vollst. Werkverz., Leipzig 1927