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The earliest piece by Mauricio Kagel to have been published by Universal Edition was the Sexteto de Cuerdas (1953-1957). The Spanish title is an indication that it was composed before Kagel left Argentina to live in Germany. The world premiere took place in Darmstadt, in 1958, a year after he settled in Cologne. For a few years, he continued to give his pieces Spanish titles (such as Transición II for piano, percussion and two tapes, written in 1958-1959).
However, unlike the string sextet, Transición II is accompanied, beyond the basic data of instrumentation, duration and year(s) of composition, by detailed instructions concerning performance. All future works were to be similarly adorned.
In subsequent years, Kagel would use German and, in some cases, Latin titles. More importantly, his works became enriched by a pronounced leaning towards music theatre, tinged with humour and irony.
His titles have a tongue-in-cheek character: Mirum for tuba (1965), Unguis incarnates est for piano and…(1972) which has a liturgical and suitably final air about it, but in fact all it means is “ingrown toe-nails”. Recitativarie (1971-1972) is meant for a singing female harpsichord player. And how about the following unwieldy monster of a title: Variationen ohne Fuge über die ‘Variationen und Fuge’ über ein Thema von Händel für Klavier op. 24 von Johannes Brahms (1861-1862) (1971-1972) (in English: Variations without Fugue on the ‘Variations and Fugue’ on a theme by Händel for piano op. 24 by Johannes Brahms (1861-1862) (1971-1972). This orchestral work has Handel and Brahms make an appearance in period costume, wig, beard and all.
Neither was Beethoven spared. Ludwig van (1969) is described as an homage by Beethoven, with a minimum duration of 15’. According to the catalogue, “The score consists of blown-up details of a range of props, wholly pasted over with notes by Ludwig van Beethoven.”
Importantly, there exists also a film version (duration: 100’). It possesses a documentary value so that those interested in the composer’s own approach to his work have an authentic interpretation at their disposal. Moreover, it represents another major area where Kagel was active: the production of films.
At a time when composers after World War II turned to Webern for guidance and many of them became faithful adherents of the serial method of composition, Kagel represented a fundamentally different endeavour: he placed a question mark over traditional concepts of music, poking fun at genres and institutions such as music theatre and the opera house.
Mauricio Kagel’s writings published by DuMont are replete with passages that clamour for quotation. Here are two paragraphs, in the way of proof and example:
“As a composer, I feel more and more committed to non-sounding materials. I do not regard them as substitutes for composition proper – on the contrary. They serve as confirmation of the fact that the definition of 'composition' in encyclopaedias, that is, 'putting together' and 'mixture' are to be accepted just as consciously as the usual 'setting of tones'. Quite apart from such terminological speculations, the application of musical thinking to purely theatrical thinking is a matter of course.
Word, light and movement are articulated similarly to tones, timbres and tempi; the sense and nonsense of any event on stage fail to make any impact without musicality, for the means of expression applied by the homme de theâtre are inspired more than anything else by genuinely musical methods of composition (…here is, to my mind, a point of departure for a gentle expansion of my musical tools to incorporate theatrical tools as well.)”
Written in 1966, those paragraphs formulate the programme to which Mauricio Kagel remained faithful as long as he was published by UE (that is, until 1981). Mauricio Kagel died on 18th September 2008.