Manfred Gurlitt

Manfred Gurlitt biography

The odds were against him and it was bad luck for the composer and conductor Manfred Gurlitt who was born in Berlin in 1890 and studied with Engelbert Humperdinck and Karl Muck. Under the Nazi regime he lost his official posts, while opportunists like Egk, Orff, Pfitzner and Strauss were critically acclaimed. Gurlitt emigrated to Japan, where he returned to after the war when he failed to continue his professional career in his mother country. He died in Tokyo at 81. His music fell into oblivion: songs and chamber music, symphonic and stage works. He created a distinct expressionist style embracing elements of late romanticism, neoclassicism, twelve-tone technique and free atonality.

Politically, Gurlitt was a leftist and the socially critical selection of his opera themes qualified him, intellectually and literarily, as a differentiated personality. The duplicity of events became his fate. His setting of Wozzeck was staged at the Bremer Stadttheater during his term as general music director only four months after the outstanding premiere (1925) at the Berliner Staatsoper of the opera of the same title by Alban Berg. Five years later he composed the opera Soldaten after the play by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz which faced strong competition from the so far unprecedented avantgarde opera of the same title by Bernd Alois Zimmermann written three decades later.

Gurlitt's Wozzeck is nevertheless a major work of expressionism: released on CD (Capriccio 60052-1, distributed by Delta Music) with great soloists, the Rias chamber choir and Rundfunkchor in Berlin as well as the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under the baton of Gerd Albrecht. Good is definitely not the enemy of the better.

Unlike Alban Berg who chose fifteen of a total of 26 scenes from Georg Büchner's Woyzeck-Fragment (in the adaptation by Karl Emil Franzos using a different title, text and characters) and split them into three acts, Manfred Gurlitt took 18 scenes from the same text source and added an epilogue. Formally Gurlitt followed Büchner's intention more closely than Berg as he did not try to tone down the linguistic directness of the original text nor create seamless transitions with flamboyant interludes.

Gurlitt's opera sets distinct accents in the characterization of figures, discovers events e.g. the main fairy tale - which Berg ignored. The cynism of humiliating medical trials is not dealt with. It is difficult to understand how this explosive work which uses very subtle, partly inconspicuous, partly flamboyant expressional techniques, could go unnoticed. Thanks to Albrecht: he opened a real treasure chest which could go down in history.

Works by Manfred Gurlitt in the UE

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