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Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)
Written by Kurt Schwitters
Performed by Ernst Schwitters
[[ view the score ]]
1. einleitung und erster teil: rondo (21:58)
2. zweiter teil: largo (3:12)
3. dritter teil: scherzo - trio - scherzo (2:24)
4. vierter teil: presto - ablosung - kadenz -schluss (13:36)
On the Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters
A complete authentic recording is still unknown.
Since 1993, a CD containing the complete Ursonate has been distributed as an “Original Performance by Kurt Schwitters” (WERGO, Mainz, WER 6304-2). The authenticity of the recording has been doubted since its release by artists, scholars, and critics due to the manner of the interpretation and the pitch of the speaker’s voice.
Supposedly, as the publisher quotes the artist’s son, Ernst Schwitters, in the accompanying booklet, it is “—probably the only—original recording spoken by my father himself and just as I have always known it…” (May 1992). Jack Ox “discovered” the recording in the possession Michael Waisvisz, who in turn is supposed to have attained it from the archive of WDR [West German Radio]. The provenance, however, still remains open and the sources on Kurt Schwitters provide no indication as to whether the artist in fact ever succeeded in producing a complete recording. On the contrary, much indicates the futility of his attempts.
In order to clarify these doubts, the Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Foundation commissioned an expertise in 2006 from Prof. Dr. Jens-Peter Köster, University of Trier, based on an analysis of the voice. For the expertise, three recordings were compared to each other: the original Kurt Schwitters recording from 1932 (source: Kurt Schwitters Ursonate, recording from 5 May 1932 at the SDR [South German Radio], 78 rpm shellac recording in the estate of the Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Foundation), Ernst Schwitters’s 1958 recording of “Sonate in Urlauten” (source: Kurt Schwitters, Ernst Schwitters and Philip Granville, An Anna Blume.
Die Sonate in Urlauten, Lord’s Gallery, London, October 1958; 100 copies, 33 1/3 rpm long-playing record) and the above-mention Wergo CD. The analysis confirmed the suspicion and proves that the CD distributed as a recording by Kurt Schwitters is in fact a performance made by his son Ernst Schwitters.
Schott Musikverlag, which has been aware of this fact since 2007, continues to hold to its earlier statements made in the CD booklet. (See the article concerning this matter “Wer spricht die Ursonate?” in Der Spiegel, 8/2008, p. 147) The foundation requests all those interested in Schwitters to take this information into consideration. All of Kurt Schwitters’s original interpretations in addition to numerous later recordings of the Ursonate have been available as mp3 files since 2008 on the “Kurt Schwitters. Urwerk” issued by Zweitausendeins.
Other Versions of the Ursonate on UbuWeb Sound
Kurt Schwitters' rendition of the Ursonate on UbuWeb Sound
Jaap Blonk's renditions of the Ursonate on UbuWeb Sound
Adachi Tomomi's rendition of the Ursonate on UbuWeb Sound
Sébastien Lespinasse's rendition of the Ursonate on UbuWeb Sound
Ensemble Ordinaire's rendition of the Ursonate on UbuWeb Sound
Christian Bök's rendition of the Ursonate on UbuWeb Sound
Linnunlaulupuu's rendition of the Ursonate on UbuWeb Sound
Christopher Butterfield's renditions of the Ursonate on UbuWeb Sound
Anat Pick's renditions of the Ursonate on UbuWeb Sound
Kurt Schwitters, et. al. "Die Sonate in Urlauten" and Other Works
Lord's Gallery, London
33 1/3 RPM LP, Limited Edition 100
1. An Anna Blume (Kurt Schwitters)
2. To Eve Blossom (Ernst Schwsitters)
3. A Anna Lafluer (Philip Granville)
4. Die Sonate in Urlauten (Ernst Schwitters)
Sonata in Primeval Sounds / Sonate Presyllabique)
Einleitung. Erster Teil. Schluss. Zweiter Teil. Largo. Dritter Teil. Scherzo. Trio. Scherzo. Vierter Teil. Presto. Abolsung. Kadenz. Schluss
Kurt Schwitters was born in 1887 in Hanover, Germany, in the Golden Age of business and bourgeoisie, and had a conventional background and upbringing. He studied art in Hanover, Berlin and Dresden with an interruption caused by World War One, when, in his own words, he "gallantly fought on all fronts of the Waterloo Square", (Hanover's parade ground). He hated war and the false ideals it was fought for. When peace at last came, the revolutionary search for a better future, for truer ideals, for a strong, functional culture inspired him immensely, and from the very start he was in the forefront of cultural development. In 1917 he painted his first abstract pictures; and 1918 saw the birth of his famous technique of collage which he called MERZ (and incidentally of myself).
MERZ-collages were stuck, nailed, in fact built of a large variety of hitherto-for the purpose of creating art-unlikely bits of refuse, used as splotches of colour, shapes, suggestions of movement, in completely abstract compositions. "Nothing is too low to be used as elements of a composition; in fact the patina of age and signs of wear produces its own kind of beauty". 1 believe it is true to say my father saw the great beauty of weariness and ruin, which surrounded him everywhere after the war, and also how, by making use of the qualities associated with these characteristics, he could rebuild a better, sounder, more honest culture. Beyond this, no "symbolism" should be read into his work as a painter. He made pure compositions.
A parallel development took place in his writing, particularly during his first dadaistic period. While bits of advertising, proverbs, sentences, etc., cut so as to lose their meaning, were combined in his pictures to make a new composition, in his dada writing there was a deeper meaning, however nonsensical it appears at first sight. The aims of my father's dada writing was to destroy utterly by ridicule and subtle sarcasm the false and hollow sentiments of decadent bourgeois culture, thus "ploughing the ground", as it were, for the seeds of a sounder culture. To achieve this he often used those very sentiments of the bourgeoisie interspersed with hilarious nonsense. But the average bourgeois was so foxed by this method that he simply declared Kurt Schwitters "mad"!
"An Anna Blume" (1919) was the most successful of his poems. It was the highlight of my father's traditional "Merz-evenings", lecture-recital evenings at his home in Hanover, regularly attended by the Hanover intelligentsia, and by artists and people interested in art from all over the world. Eventually
in 1927 the Süd-deutsche Rundfunk got my father to recite this poem and his equally famous "Sonate in Urlauten". The present L/P record begins with the original recording made then of "An Anna Blume" by my father. "An Anna Blume" is a conventional bourgeois declaration of love, interspersed with sarcastic nonsense, to force us to smile at our own futility.
During those turbulent years of cultural development Kurt Schwitters met and collaborated with other leading Dadaists, Arp, Tzara, van Doesburg, Raoul Hausmann and others. During a lecture tour in Prague in 1921, Kurt Schwitters heard Raoul Hausmann's sound-poem "fmsbw". He immediately recognised the potentialities of this new form of expression, and he recited it constantly in his lectures calling it "Portrait of Raoul Hausmann". The time had come to rebuild after destruction and in a more "constructivist" period, which in Kurt Schwitters' collages, paintings and sculpture extends from about 1923 to about 1928, he built up slowly, but with great logic and concentration, a totally abstract "sound-poem", the "Sonate in Urlauten". Over the years the Sonata grew, both in size and variations, until it had little or no resemblance to Raoul Hausmann's original poem. The original "fmsbw" became "fUmms böwötää zaäuu-pogiff-kwiiee!" and was merely part of one of the many themes of the Sonata.
As a four, five and six year old I used to have my regular place in the centre of the front row at these many MERZ-evenings, sitting directly opposite my father, it was during those evenings that the Sonata grew. It was never read from a manuscript, although it has been published in artmagazines everywhere in its various stages of development. But my father knew it by heart and preferred improvising the recitation, as this gave him the possibility to develop it continuously. Thus a great many people witnessed the slow development of this unique piece ofshall we saymusic or abstract poetry.
Kurt Schwitters realised that a phonetic notation for the Sonata was essential if it should not die with him. Ordinary notes, as used for music, would not do here. With each successive publication of the Sonata he improved on the form of notation, and finally in 1932 the "Sonate in Urlauten" was published as the last number of his MERZ-magazine, No. 24. Although this is the most up-todate notation, it is virtually impossible to recite it correctly without having heard it recited by Kurt Schwitters as often as possible.
Under pressure from all sides I have finally agreed to try to recite it. Though I am aware my recital can, in no way, be compared with my father's, I have one advantage over all other people, I drank it, so to speak, at the same time as my mother's milk. I heard it at least two or three hundred times. I followed closely its development. I admired it immensely, as I admired my father. I believe I shall never forget the intonation and pronounciation of it. Anyhow, it is the best I can do.
London, September 27, 1958.
What a Beauty/Die Ursonate und Andere Lautgedichte
Composed by by Kurt Schwitters
Performed by Die Schwindlinge
5. Simultangedicht Simultangedicht kaa gee dee (1919)
bii büll ree (1936)
Niesscherzo e Hunstenscherzo (1937)
The real disuda of the nightmare (1946)
Total time (6:39)
6. Ursonate, Merz #24 rec. Frankfurt, May 5, 1932 Die Sonate in Urlauten
Lord’s Gallery, London, October 1958; 100 copies, 33 1/3 rpm long-playing record
1. einleitung und erster teil: rondo (21:58)
2. zweiter teil: largo (3:12)
3. dritter teil: scherzo - trio - scherzo (2:24)
4. vierter teil: presto - ablosung - kadenz -schluss (13:36)
Tracks 1-4 performed by Ernst Schwitters (Wergo Records)
Track 5, performed by Trio Exvoco:
Hanna Aurbacher, Teophil Maier, Ewald Liska
from the LP Futura Poesia Sonora (Cramps Records, Milan)
Track 6 from Lunapark 0,10, Sub Rosa Records
The sonata consists of a written organization of phonetics, with notations in German. No notes, tempi, or formal dynamics are given, allowing the performer a bit of freedom.
Schwitters' own comments:
"The Sonata consists of four movements, of an overture and a finale, and seventhly, of a cadenza in the fourth movement. The first movement is a rondo with four main themes, designated as such in the text of the Sonata. You yourself will certainly feel the rhythm, slack or strong, high or low, taut or loose. To explain in detail the variations and compositions of the themes would be tiresome in the end and detrimental to the pleasure of reading and listening, and after all I'm not a professor."
From the liner notes to Futurism + Dada Reviewed
(Sub Rosa, SUBCD 012-19)
and URSONATE (Wergo Records):
Born in Hanover, Germany, his studies in art were interrupted by WWI. In 1917, he painted his first abstract pictures and in 1918 saw the birth of his famous collage technique "Merz."
During these turbulent years of cultural development, Schwitters met and collaborated with other leading Dadaists such as Arp, Tzara, Hausmann and others. On hearing Hausmann's sound poem "fmsbw"in 1921, he immediately recognized the great poetntial of Sound Poetry. With great logic and concentration, he built up a totally abstract piece, "Sonata in Urläten." Over the years, the Sonata grew in both size and variations, and realizing that some phonetic notation for the Sonata was essential if it was not to die with him, he finally published his notations as the last number of his Merz magazine in 1932.
In autumn 1921, Kurt Schwitters travelled to Prague, together with Raoul Hausmann, Hannah H6ch and his wife. On September 1, at the "Commodity Exchange Hall", Raoul Hausmann performed his phonetic poem beginning with the line "fmsbwtazdu", which served as an impetus for Schwitters' Ursonate. It was not until 1926 that the sonata achieved the form in which it was published in 1932. The final version, however, developed by way of innumerable performances given by Schwitters between 1926 and 1932.
Comments on my Ursonate
The sonata consists of four movements, an introduction, an end, and a cadence in the fourth movement. The first movement is a rondo with four motifs, which are especially indicated in this text of the sonata. It is rhythm, strong and weak, loud and silent, dense and spacious, etc. I do not want to explain the delicate variations and compositions of the themes ...
Signs in my Ursonate
The letters applied are to be pronounced as in German. A single vocal sound is short ...
Letters, of course, give only a rather incomplete score of the spoken sonata. As with any printed music, many interpretations are possible * As with any other reading, correct reading requires the use of imagination.
The reader himself has to work seriously to become a genuine reader. Thus, it is work rather than questions or mindless criticism which will improve the reader's receptive capacities. The right of criticism is reserved to those who have achieved a full understanding. Listening to the sonata is better than reading it. This is why I like to perform my sonata in public. But since it is not possible to give performances everywhere, I intend to make a gramophone recording of the sonata ...
The Ur-Story Jack Ox
During my first years in Germany I got the idea to continue my work in "translating" compositions written in the aural language of music into a visual language executed in painting with a visual performance of the Ursonate. I had great difficulties locating any recorded performance of the Ursonate at all, and was distressed because I realized that there was actually little information to be had from the only published "score", that of Jon Tschichold's typographical Concrete poetic form. All of the phrases were placed with a visual idea on the page, giving no melodic, rhythmic, and little dynamic information of how the piece was or should be performed. In fact, because of its visual poetic form, this score has led performers, quite understandably, to believe in the right of improvisation implicit when reading poetry. I felt that the Ursonote was much closer to music, and therefore must have a more specific structure.
During my search I spoke of my difficulties to my friend Michael Waisvisz. He said quite casually that he had Kurt Schwitters' own performance once copied by his friend Dick Raaiimakers. My initial reaction was total disbelief. After hearing the tape simple amazement remained. How could something, which none of the experts knew about exist so casually and easily in the Netherlands, saved from obscurity by people in the music world who had no idea that it was so rare?
Where was the original shellac recording made? We can speculate but in reality it remains a mystery.
Kurt Schwitters is generally acknowledged as the twentieth century's greatest master of collage. Just as collage is essentially the medium of irony, so Schwitters' life is characterized by paradox and enigma. Born in Hanover, the only child of affluent parents, he was a loner in his youth, plagued by epileptic attacks, introverted and insecure, and as a student at the Dresden Academy of Art he proved as apt as he was unimaginative. Although his contact with Expressionist artists in Hannover in 1916 gave him more confidence to develop his own style, even his most impressive works (such as Mountain Graveyard) were little more than imitations of his contemporaries.
A major challenge came in 1918 with the invitation to exhibit at Herwarth Walden's notorious Sturm gallery in Berlin, for Walden had contacts with most progressive European artists, including the Zurich Dada group. Schwitters found further stimulus in the activities of the revolutionary Berlin Dadaists. (The generally accepted story that Schwitters was rejected by Berlin Dada is, however, not true.) But it was Hans Arp, himself a pioneer of collage, who first persuaded Schwitters to abandon his sterile academic techniques. Schwitters' first known collage, Hansi, is strongly reminiscent of Arp's work, and soon afterwards he began making assemblages from scraps of refuse, including one he called the Merz picture. Subsequently he referred to all his work as Merz.
A Sturm exhibition of his new style in mid-1919, which showed his abstract Merz works and some whimsical 'Dada drawings' (such as The Heart goes from Sugar to Coffee) caused a furore among the critics, as did his 'Anna Blume' poem published in the same year. Schwitters thrived on public opposition, and from 1919 to 1923 he created a succession of Merz pictures which are now seen as his greatest contribution to twentieth century art. These pictures carry an inner tension that derives from the sensitive juxtaposition of abstraction and realism, aesthetics and rubbish, art and life, and their innate dynamism is one of the characteristics of Merz. Schwitters stands alone in the consummate mastery of colour, the delicate balance of content and form and the intricate interplay of coarse and filigree displayed in Merzbild Rossfett; the almost minimalist Revolving, using the barest of materials, conveys a mysterious shadowy rotating cosmos extending far beyond the bounds of the frame: in Construction for Noble Ladies, the precarious equilibrium of the disparate elements is stabilised only by the side-on portrait of Schwitters' angelic and long-suffering wife Helma.
Schwitters' revolution came late - he was 32 at the time of the first Merz exhibition - but Merz changed his life radically. He suddenly found himself at the forefront of contemporary art and quickly allied himself with the avant-garde, including various European Dada groups, the Bauhaus (Schlemmer, Klee, Kandinsky, Feininger, Gropius) and the new generation of Contructivists from Eastern Europe and the Netherlands (Lissitsky, Moholy-Nagy, Theo van Doesburg). By now his fantasy knew no bounds and over the next decade he undertook radical experiments in such fields as abstract drama and poetry, cabaret, typography, multimedia art, body painting, music, photography and architecture. He published a Merz magazine which appeared irregularly from 1923-32 and founded what was to become a successful advertising agency in 1924.
Schwitters was a master of subtle colour and precarious balance, and during the twenties the influence of Constructivism, with its clinical reliance on primary colour and clear geometrical forms, was not always advantageous to his work. Although a quasi-minimalist approach came naturally to him (he experimented with it early, in pictures like Coloured Squares), he introduced Constructivist ideas more rigorously into his work after 1924. The composition of the Merz pictures becomes more clear-cut, the textures more uniform, the individual elements larger and simpler. But luckily he never abandoned the principles of Merz, as can be seen from the splendid Relief with Cross and Sphere and Cicero, where the effects of stark Constructivist colours and tight composition are brilliantly offset by sharp curves and shadows and Schwitters' beloved scraps of battered Merz refuse. An equally startling example is Small Seaman's Home (made in Holland, where Schwitters would comb the beaches for Merz finds during his summer holidays).
For thirteen years (1923-36) he also worked on an extraordinary construction that came to be known as the Merzbau; it was what we would now call an Environment and eventually spread to eight rooms of his house in Hannover. Its original name was the 'Cathedral of Erotic Misery' and its contents were as shocking as anything produced by radical young artists today.
With the rise of National Socialism in Germany after 1929, Schwitters found himself in serious difficulties. As the artistic community emigrated or went into hiding, so Schwitters was robbed of much of the impetus that was crucial to his art. The death of his father and of Theo van Doesburg in 1931 mark the start of a new phase of his work, as Schwitters himself makes clear in 'New Merz Picture', with its contemplative mood and coarse dabs of colour. The sombre restraint of Pino Antoni is likewise in sharp contrast to the works of the exuberant early Merz period.
Schwitters kept a low profile during the Third Reich and emigrated to Norway in January 1937, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained. But the Gestapo were certainly on his trail, and in summer 1937 his pictures were displayed at the infamous 'Entartete Kunst' exhibition in Munich. Clearly his return to Germany was blocked for ever.
Depressed at abandoning the Hannover Merzbau to an uncertain fate, Schwitters completed a similar construction in Oslo, but in 1940 Nazi troops invaded Norway and he was forced to flee for his life. He finally landed in England, where he was interned until November 1941. Yet the Merz pictures of this turbulent period give little indication of the fact that Schwitters suffered from poor health and time and again found himself in life-threatening situations. Merzbild Alf is often cited as an example of his brief interest in Surrealism: it is difficult to imagine that Spring Door, the superb Glass Flower and Merzbild with Rainbow, with their sparks of light and swinging rhythms, were created at a time of increasing isolation and despair for the artist.
After release from internment, Schwitters lived until 1945 in bombed-out London, where the unfamiliar surroundings gave him fresh inspiration for Merz pictures. He made light of his heap of problems in Difficult, echoed the dismal fabric of wartime Britain and the blows of fate in the ironically-named Heavy Relief, reworked the great masters in inimitable tongue-in-cheek Merz fashion in Die heilige Nacht and recalled the dark days of the Nazi regime in the sinister black shapes and blood-red background of Hitler Gang (named after a film). He was fascinated by the comics sent in letters from compatriots in the USA and used them in his famous For Kate, a collage now regarded as a forerunner of Pop Art.
In 1945 he moved with his young companion, Edith Thomas, to Ambleside in the English Lake District, where, financed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he started on a new Merzbau that came to be known as the Merz barn. At his death he had completed only one wall, now to be found in Newcastle University. Sadly, no other of Schwitters extraordinary Merzbau constructions have survived. He died at the age of sixty, poverty-stricken and neglected, but in the knowledge that his work would one day be recognized as that of a genius. As he saw, the language of Merz now finds common acceptance and today there is scarcely an artist working with materials other than paint who does not refer to Schwitters in some way. In his bold and wide-ranging experiments he can be seen as the grandfather of Pop Art, Happenings, Concept Art, Fluxus, multimedia art and post-modernism.
Through all the tribulations of his life, Schwitters stood his ground with his undogmatic, non-élitist and democratic creation of Merz, which conjured up its own magic from the rejected and the discarded: small wonder that the Nazis found Schwitters' art subversive and tried to eradicate it. And in our own age of increasing extremism, his message is as valid as it ever was.