Gurlitt, Manfred


Gurlitt, Manfred


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Manfred Hugo Ludwig Gurlitt

Musical Tragedy in 18 Scenes & Epilogue after Georg Büchner

(b. Berlin, 6 September 1890 – d. Tokyo, 29 April 1972)


Manfred Gurlitt was one of the most promising composers of his generation whose compositional career and the reception of his works were shaped by the geopolitical situation of the 1920s and 1930s as well as the ascendancy of dodecaphonic techniques. His parents were Annarella Gurlitt (1856-1935) and the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt (1854-1893). Gurlitt grew up in a very intellectual and artistic environment. His cousin was the musicologist Wilibald Gurlitt and both of his grandfathers were prominent in the visual arts. Beginning music lessons at the age of six, the composer went on to study with Moritz Mayer-Mahr, Rudolf Maria Breithaupt and Hugo Kaun. In 1907 Gurlitt began studies in composition with Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) and conducting with Karl Muck.

Young Gurlittt quickly found himself in demand as a conductor. He held the post of Kapellmeister in Bremen from 1914 to 1927 and assumed the General Music Directorship of that city in 1924. As a composer, Gurlitt’s interests were primarily in lieder (solo and orchestral) and opera. His first opera, Die Heilige, was premiered in Bremen in 1918. That work was followed by Wozzeck (1925), Soldaten (after J.M.R. Lenz, 1930), Nana (after Emile Zola, 1932), Nächtlicher Spuk (1936), Warum? (1936-45), Nordische Ballade (1944), and Wir schreiten aus (1958). Generally Gurlitt acted as his own original librettist or adapted works from literature. In the case of Nana, Max Brod (1884-1968) contributed the adaptation of Zola’s novel.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 Gurlitt joined the Nazi Party. At the end of her life, Gurlitt’s mother revealed to him that his biological father was not Fritz Gurlitt, but was actually his stepfather Willi Waldecker whom Annarella had married after the death of Fritz Gurlitt in 1893. Gurlitt’s disputed patrimony led to a review of his Nazi Party membership in 1937 in which it was revealed that Fritz Gurlitt’s mother Elisabeth was born Jewish. Gurlitt was declared a “jüdischer Mischling 2. Ordnung” (“Jew of Mixed Race of the 2nd Order”) and was expelled from the Party. A ban on Gurlitt’s music followed and in 1939 the composer emigrated to Japan where he lived for the rest of his life.

Gurlitt became a very respected figure in Japanese music circles. In 1952 he founded the Gurlitt Opera Company which did much to popularize European opera in Japan and the rest of Asia. The composer received many honors in the final years of his life, including the Bundesverdienstkreuz esrster Klasse in 1957 from the German government and an honorary professorship from the Showa Conservatory of Music in Tokyo in 1969.

Like Giuseppe Gazzaniga’s (1743-1818) Don Giovanni (1787) and Ferrucio Busoni’s (1866-1924) Turandot (1917), Manfred Gurlitt’s Wozzeck will forever be linked to its more illustrious counterpart, in this case, Alban Berg’s (1885-1935) Wozzeck (1925).
Gurlitt’s Wozzeck is not only based on the same edition of Georg Büchner’s (1813-1837) play of the same name (Woyzeck, 1837) used by Berg, both works were composed during the same time period and were premiered within months of each other, Berg’s opera on 14 December 1925 in Berlin and Gurlitt’s work on 22 April 1926 in Bremen.

Although Büchner’s play is full of extraordinary psychological complexities, its story is deceptively simple. Wozzeck, an army private, is taunted by his superior officers and is also being cuckolded by his common-law wife Marie with whom he has a child. When Wozzeck discovers evidence of Marie’s infidelity with the Drum-Major, he becomes consumed with jealousy and stabs Marie to death with a knife. Wozzeck discards the knife in a lake, but later becomes paranoid that it will be found by the authorities. He goes out into the lake to retrieve the knife and drowns; however, it is left unclear whether his death was accidental or suicide.

Although both composers worked on their operas without knowledge of what the other was doing, there are interesting similarities between the two works. Both composers approximated the disjointed and fragmentary nature of Büchner’s play by utilizing a different compositional procedure in each scene. The range of Gurlitt’s compositional choices are indicated in the chart below:

Scene Form/Compositional Device

1 A room fugue
2 An open field chaconne
3 The town march w/interpolated lullabye
4 A street developmental
5 A living room binary w/ostinato
6 A street fugal
7 Marie’s room recitativo accompagnato
8 The guardroom song form
9 The tavern ländler
10 An open field ostinato
11 The barracks ostinato
12 The barracks square dance form
13 Marie’s room fugue
14 A junk shop allegretto w/highly disjunct melody
15 A street dance w/ostinato
16 The barracks extended ternary
17 A forest path by the pool rondo
18 A forest path by the pool chaconne
19 Epilogue slow repetitive lament

Additionally, Gurlitt’s opera has a playing time of only approximately 75 minutes, which reinforces the brevity of the playwright’s dramatic action.

Although Gurlitt employs a heightened vocal declamation of the text, it is far more subdued than that of Berg. Gurlitt seems content to allow the words to “speak” for themselves and employs musical accompaniment to reinforce rather than transcend the text. In this regard, Gurlitt’s Wozzeck is less expressionistic than Berg’s work. Although Gurlitt employs a large orchestra (3 each of the woodwinds, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, percussion, celeste, harp and strings) he seldom utilizes them in tutti fashion. One interesting feature of the opera is the use of voices as part of the orchestra itself. These voices sometimes vocalize in wordless fashion as part of the orchestra, and at other times they function as a chorus, especially in the reiteration of the words “Wir arme Leut” (“We poor folk”).

Another difference between Gurlitt and Berg is that the former places much less emphasis on the Tavern scene. One scene that Gurlitt includes in his opera that is not found in the Berg is Scene 14 “A junk shop” in which Wozzeck buys from a character identified only as the “Jew” the knife with which he will eventually kill Marie. This scene is highly problematic in that the unflattering portrait of the Jew as a greedy capitalist, complete with a highly disjointed melody that serves to emphasize the Jew’s separateness from the other characters, is unmistakably anti-Semitic in design, although the culpability in this matter is Büchner’s, not Gurlitt’s.

Gurlitt’s selection of operatic subject matter (texts by Lenz and Zola in addition to Büchner) clearly indicate that he was interested above all in social criticism. Gurlitt’s Wozzeck is less a victim of pseudo-scientific experimentation (as emphasized in Berg’s opera, particularly in the scenes with the Doctor and the Captain) than he is a victim of society itself. And Gurlitt’s Wozzeck is not an atomized individual cut off from all society; he represents Everyman. This is emphasized by Gurlitt in the reiteration of the words “Wir arme Leut” (“We poor folk”) which first appears in Scene 1 in which Wozzeck is shaving the Captain.

In the original performance of Wozzeck in Bremen, Theo Thement took the title role while Gurlitt’s wife Maria Hartow performed Marie. The scenic design was done by Willy Becker and the composer conducted. Subsequent performances of Wozzeck have been few and far between. Most notable of these have been a concert performance in 1985 done by Austrian Radio with Lothar Zagrosek conducting and a 1987 staging in Bremen with updated scenic design by Arno Wüstenhöfer. A complete recording was made in 1995 by Capriccio Records with Gerd Albrecht conducting.

Peter Gnoss, 2004

Performance material: Universal Editio, Vienna

Score Data


Opera Explorer


160 x 240 mm







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