The Argentinean-German composer Mauricio Raúl Kagel died last Thursday, September 18th, and with him, you might say, the ‘60s that for so long defined modern music. With Stockhausen’s death last December and now Kagel’s, Cologne – and indeed the entire musical scene – has lost one of the last remaining “Darmstadt” composers. Nono (1990), Xenakis (2001), Berio (2003), Ligeti (2006) are dead already, only Henri Pousseur, Hans Werner Henze, and Pierre Boulez remain.
Kagel was born in Buenos Aires on Christmas Eve of 1931, a son of a Russian Jewish family with Ashkenazim and Sephardim background – a multi cultural household, living in a multi-cultural city, early-on fluent in five languages, and interested as much in photography and cinematography as in avant-garde music.
Pierre Boulez, impressed with Kagel’s compositions, recommended he go to Europe where Kagel found himself in Cologne in 1954. There he eventually became the successor of Karlheinz Stockhausen as head of the Cologne Courses for New Music. Although a devoted modernist, composing “elitist” music, he was primarily a theatrical composer, a main exponent of modern musical theater. “Staatstheater”, “Erschöpfung der Welt”, “Der Mündliche Verrat”, “Aus Deutschland” being examples thereof, even if they are not operas in the traditional sense.
Extra-musical matters like gestures, pictures, actions – especially humor, absurdity, and (very relative) accessibility define his work, much of which is highly unsuitable for recording on CD.
His originality was unsurpassed even by his most inventive colleagues; his success in Germany second perhaps only to Stockhausen. Unlike the latter, though, he did not influence non-classical music as much, nor as lastingly. Nor did he achieve anything like the fame (or notoriety) of many of his colleagues abroad.
Maurizio Kagel contributed several works to the ARD Music Competition and was closely associated with Munich contemporary musicmusica viva series that Karl Amadeus Hartmann had founded. His work was regularly featured at theDonaueschinger Musiktage. His music, suitable or not, was widely recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, then Disques Montaignes, and now is most ardently championed by the Munich record label Winter & Winter.
Kagel said of composing that “[a]bsolute and non-absolute music can be separated from each other only up to a certain point; the search for unequivocal certainty here leads to confusion. I myself continually blend absolute and narrative music, and constantly have in the back of my mind concrete impressions of emotional states which are far from being absolutes. Music is a realistic art.” Absolutism certainly isn’t something Kagel could ever be accused of. And to today’s viewer, even his more straightforward tributes – like the musical piece (not the film of the same name) “Ludwig van” – will leave the aftertaste of ambiguity.
His most interesting work to new ears otherwise eschewing avant-garde composers must be the 1985 “Saint-Bach Passion”, composed for the tercentenary of J.S. Bach’s birth. A work that channels the spirit and structure of Bach’s Passions without actually reproducing any of the music (or particularly close references), it is something any willing listener might be able to react to emotionally, not just intellectually. A fine example of that latter type would be a work like “Anagrama”: a grammatical, musical, intellectual brew in constant transformation, a game on words with words, a Latin palindrome at its heart, and allegedly implying criticism of the unyielding and prescribed rules of construction of serial music.
For those thus inclined, it will be undoubtedly interesting, possibly fascinating, to explore Maurizio Kagel’s work – his journey through the European avant-garde to modernist ‘outsiderdom’ to the relatively conventional music of the last two decades of his life. (Doppelsextett, Quirinus’ Liebeskuss et al.). But if my reaction to most of his music is anything to go by, the amount of listeners who also find this sort of exploration rewarding will be considerably smaller. Maurizio Kagel will be mourned because of his stature, influence, and renommé. He will be mourned by many more people than listened to – or liked – his music.
More reading: Appreciations of Maurizio Kagel in the Guardian, New York Times, and Times Online UK.