Kurt Schwaen – Biography

Kurt Schwaen comes from a region with a rich musical heritage, a region in which during Schwaen's childhood and adolescence German and Slavic musical cultures were closely interwoven and mutually fruitful. He was born in 1909 in the city then known as Kattowitz, but which has had the Polish name Katowice since 1921, a town which even then was a leading center for mining and metallurgy in the province of Upper Silesia. It was here that Schwaen found his influential teacher and mentor, Fritz Lubrich, a student of Max Reger, who not only taught him command of the piano but also introduced him to playing the organ and to the fundamentals of composition.

From 1929 to 1933, Schwaen studied musicology, art history, philosophy and German at the universities in Breslau and Berlin. He was otherwise self-taught in terms of his further development in composition. This development was painfully interrupted by a three-year imprisonment, to which he was sentenced in 1935 as a result of his activities in opposition to the Nazi Regime.

After his release, Schwaen received lasting creative impulses through his work as a pianist in a studio for expressive dance in Berlin and with reknowned dance soloists such as Oda Schottmüller and Mary Wigman.

After the end of World War II, which Schwaen surived in the Penal Division 999, he found ample work in the rebuilding of the public music schools and as musical advisor to the German »Volksbühne« Theatre. He thus also felt himself as a composer confronted with the challenge of setting new musical accents through new and exemplary works, in particular for the young generation.

He has been active as a free-lance musician since 1953 and chamber music forms a significant part of his overall output as a composer, and this chamber musical stance can also be traced in Schwaen's orchestral and operatic works.

Of great importance in Schwaen's artistic maturation process was his

with Bertolt Brecht and with Brecht's aesthetic ideas concerning the theatre. The composition for the instructional work, Die Horatier und die Kuriatier, which was written at Brecht's request, opened Schwaen up to a new and important area of work, the children's opera, and led to a remarkable work for music theatre.

Schwaen has held numerous honorary positions, e.g. in the Association of Composers and Musicologists and in the Academy of Arts, to which he was named official member in 1961. His compositional output, which spans seven and a half decades, contains more than 600 works in every genre, from song and chanson to choral music, piano works, chamber music and orchestral works, and includes opera and works for the ballet.

English by Sidney Corbett

Reference Autobiographie: Stufen und Intervalle - ein Komponist zwischen Gesellschafts- und Notensystemen

Kurt Schwaen – a portrait

The composer Kurt Schwaen is about to enter his 93rd year and the guest experiences a man full of plans and enterprises, with an agile spirit, demonstrating kindness and friendliness. He lives his life as if he were in a rush. There are things to be done. And this is not just an air that appears in the later years: it has apparently always been this way. And so, there is a certain productive impatience that drives him on. He refuses to accept boredom, if he cannot rid himself of it on his own, instead he retreats. There is nothing he hates more than to waste time uselessly. He hates modern small talk with its pleasantries and prattling on about nothing. A playful pun, on the other hand, is quite a different matter, and here he is quite actively involved.

His eyes twinkle with his love of mockery, the corners of his mouth harbour scepticism. But in the course of a conversation he shows neither bitterness nor even cynicism, even if his century would have offered more than enough opportunities. There is something that protects him, something that would hardly come to mind looking at him, a happy naiveté. And that even though we know, that without it, art is inconceivable. Yet Schwaen is just that kind of spirited aphorist, such a brilliant conversation partner, whose bonmots buzz around him like bees. This, by the same token, does not make it that easy to see the melancholic depth of his humour. When he begins to reminisce it becomes growingly clear that happiness is a part of a naiveté that trusts in the power of life. For the way that Schwaen survived illegal work, prison and punishment battalion, sent around half of Europe, with so little to show for it, is almost a miracle (to call upon a God is strange to Schwaen). His own sub summation after the completion of such an incomplete century: He never could be robbed of his great hopes, the utopia he carried inside even in times of pain. At every panel he declares himself as a communist. This is not a dreamer speaking of dreams, but a meticulously observant realist, who is awake and full of a sense of solidarity.

However, Schwaen is a composer and sometimes he will casually and ironically explain: there's nothing else I am capable of. Like any artist he reveals a cosmos in his compositions, and his is full of an almost inexhaustible wealth. Characteristic of his work is his unembellished conciseness: "If you cannot say it in three tones, you cannot say it in one hundred" is the motto of his homepage. In 1992 he composed a piano work more than ten minutes in length, totally atypical of Schwaen. He was even astonished. It is certainly among the best that he has written in his whole long life: the "Nocturne lugubre". A dark, very tentative, pensive piece, a bit of dripping moonlight in it, some Blues, and an inconsolable sorrow. And yet, the way in which it continues on is not without hope, no, when it has come to a close and the last tone has sounded, there still is a silence that can be felt, one which makes you know that you are still alive

Axel Bertram (2001) / English by Eva Lipton

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