Kurt Schwertsik studied at the Vienna Music Academy and initially pursued a career as a horn player. He was a member of the Niederösterreichisches Tonkünstlerorchester (Lower Austrian Musicians' Orchestra) from 1955 to 1959 and from 1962 to 1968, and of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra from 1968 to 1989. He studied composition with German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Darmstadt summer course in 1955 and from 1957 to 1962 and at West German Radio's electronic studio. With Cerha, he co-founded the ensemble die reihe in 1958, conducting the group and playing the horn.
His early works reflect the post-War serialism of the Darmstadt school, but he soon moved away from the European avant garde under the influence of John Cage and British composer Cornelius Cardew. A performance of his neo-tonal work Liebesträume in Darmstadt in 1962 marked his break with the avant garde, a split confirmed by Schwertsik's publication of a manifesto attacking serialism in 1965. Also that year, with HK Gruber and composer/pianist Otto Zykan, Schwertsik co-founded the Vienna Salonkonzerte, which grew into the MOB art & tone ART ensemble, a group devoted to productions that fused performance, music, and speech and were meant to be accessible and entertaining. Contrary to what you might read in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Schwertsik is still very much alive; future projects include a new work for the Vienna Symphony and an opera for the Schwetzingen Festival.
Schwertsik's Verwandlungsmusik (Transformation Music), is drawn from his 1983 opera Das Märchen von Fanferlieschen Schönefüßchen (The Wondrous Tale of Fanferlizzy Sunnyfeet). The opera premiered in November 1983 at the Kammertheater Stuttgart, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies; die reihe gave the first performance of the Verwandlungsmusik under Friedrich Cerha at the Vienna Musikverein in December 1985. The opera is based on Clemens von Brentano's eponymous fairy tale, which follows the title character, a witch who travels with a talking (singing) goat and uses her magic to humble the upstart Jarum, King of Scandalia - who killed his father to usurp the throne - and return the kingdom to prosperity.
The Verwandlungsmusik is in 10 sections. Most of the titles are self-explanatory, but one might need further comment. The third section, "To Munkelwust," accompanies King Jarum's ride to his hunting lodge, Munkelwust ("Mutter-Rubbish"). Other movements accompany Fanferlizzy's spells, like "Castles in the Air." The music is simple, straightforward, tuneful, and highly approachable, in keeping with Schwertsik's rejection of the Darmstadt avant garde.
-- John Mangum is the L.A. Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.