Saturday, June 16, 2012

A lovely composer of whom you've likely never heard: Sigfrid Karg-Elert

I first came to know Karg-Elert's compositions when I competed in state UIL competitions in high school.  His devilishly fast and complex solo pieces for flute were superb training grounds and a great way to separate the wheat from the chaff amongst aspiring flautists.  I was extremely competitive at that time and placed well in competitions (always first in my district) and I earned a couple of scholarships which-- in my infinite teenaged wisdom-- I opted not to use, plunging instead into what would be my *aherm* illustrious professional life.

I was privileged to take private flute lessons from an elderly gentleman in Dallas named Ralph Utley. Mr. Utley was a former jazz trumpeter, if I recall correctly, but he also played violin beautifully.  He did not train me in a strictly theory-sense, but worked more on musicality and the directional line of music.   My being a wordy sort of person, he had a brilliant sense for teaching me the conversational aspect of instrumental music.  The front room of his house was where I took lessons, and it was an elegantly appointed little room filled with dozens of antique clocks.  Lessons never ran late. :P  This serene place seemed its own universe beyond which no world of plastic and kitcsh could possibly exist.  I appreciated then the incredible refinement of that experience, and it is a pleasure to remember. 

When I set my chops to enter a competition, the assigned music included 2 Karg-Elert pieces which at first appearance were dense smears of black on a page on which the white background was fighting for its very existence.  And what key is this?  Q-flat?  Jeepers!  What a beast this composer was!  I'm sure I was in the throes of a full-on teenaged freakout, and Mr. Utley sat with me very methodically and asked me what I was looking at.  "A mess."  He made me take a pencil and circle what I thought were the most important notes.  He showed me the melodic lines were usually the upper notes in the phrase and the lower notes were mere underpinnings which supported the musical idea like buttresses.  This dense flurry of notes was a foundation to support the upward spiraling strains.  Mr. Utley was absolutely right: this music was not impossible, but was a wonderful challenge.  

I'm sure I did not play as well as the talented Nina Perlove below, but I wasn't bad. Mom and Dad will recognize this piece:

Today, I looked up Karg-Elert and was surprised and delighted to learn that as a young man, he discovered the harmonium and made compositions for this instrument his primary focus from 1903 onward.  The Wikipedia link above says that after WWI, there was an anti-foreign sentiment in German (go figure!) and Karg-Elert's French inspired stylings fell out of favor.  Pity, that.    He died rather young at 55, but left a lovely catalog of music which I know will continue to confound and inspire musicians for centuries to come.

Anyway, I stumbled upon the below video which is beautifully produced and features a Jonathan Scott performing Karg-Elert's Totentanz. Stunning display of a fine organist operating the controls of the harmonium.  My German is super-rusty, but I think the name, Totentanz - means "death dance?"  I'm seeing plucky, skinny little devilkins prancing about and making mischief, delighting in their grim tasks. A little dark, a little charming.

Fun stuff!


Old NFO said...

Yep, that one is a 'tad' busy... :-)

Matt G said...

I had no idea you had these talents in your repertoire,
my friend.

Anonymous said...

RN to be and a fellow flautist? Someday I hope to meet you in person. I remember that particular piece all to well!
Remember that professors come and go, some good, some bad, but all knowledge is worthwhile!

An Old RN.