Kleist-Ouvertüre Op. 16
(b. Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia, 26 February 1875 – d. Erfurt, 16 January 1935)
Richard Wetz is a composer who is largely unknown today, both inside and outside his native country of Germany. Even when Wetz’s compositions manage to get a hearing nowadays their technical competence is mentioned and then they are dismissed as being the products of an epigone of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). Although Wetz was far more daring than Bruckner in his range of compositions (including even operas), there is no denying that in his symphonic music Wetz was indebted to Bruckner’s style to an extraordinary degree.
Indeed, modernism seems to have escaped Wetz’s gaze entirely, and he never deviated from the well-established compositional norms and philosophical ideals of German Romanticism. Although he received formal music instruction from an early age, Wetz was by nature an autodidact. Leipzig’s famous conservatory held no charms for Wetz, who left disillusioned after only six weeks. Most of his formal education in musical composition came from private tuition at the hand of Ludwig Thuille (1861-1907) in Munich.
For a number of years Wetz was a musical journeyman, taking temporary jobs in Stralsund and Wuppertal before securing a permanent position in 1906 as the director of the Erfurt Musikverein. He went on to teach composition and music history at the Erfurt Conservatory and the Weimar Musikhochschule. Although Wetz never achieved a great level of fame during his lifetime, his works were sufficiently noticed that he was elected to the Berlin Academy of the Arts. Wetz died of a bronchial infection in 1935, just a month short of his 60th birthday. Due to his formal conservatism and stylistic resemblance to Bruckner, Wetz’s music was much in favor during the Third Reich, so much so that Peter Raabe (1872-1945), president of the Reichsmusikkammer of the Propaganda Ministry caused a Richard Wetz Society to be founded in 1943 in the composer’s hometown of Gleiwitz. After the War there was little interest in Wetz’s music until the 1990s when tonal music once again became critically fashionable. A Wetz renaissance of sorts has been seen in the last decade, inspired in great part by new recordings of the composer’s works by the German record label CPO.
The Kleist Overture, Op. 16 is a single-movement tone poem that the composer worked on during the years 1900-1906. An earlier version was performed in 1906 in Erfurt, Bielefeld and Meiningen and in Gotha in 1907 before being reorchestrated by the conductor Arthur Nikisch. Nikisch then premiered the reorchestrated version in Berlin and Leipzig in 1908 to great acclaim, giving Wetz his first great public success.
The work is dedicated to Dr. Raoul Richter (1871-1912) who was a philosophy professor at the University of Leipzig. Although the overture is a tribute to the German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), the composition contains an epigraph by Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), another German writer greatly favored by Wetz and whose novel Hyperion formed the basis of the composer’s work of the same name of 1912 for baritone, mixed choir and orchestra. The epigraph is as follows:
Nicht in der Blüt’ und Purpurtraub’
Ist heilige Kraft allein, es nährt
Das Leben vom Leide sich,
Und trinkt, wie mein Held, doch auch
Am Todeskelche sich glücklich.
The work begins with four heavily accented short ascending chords. One immediately thinks of the beginning of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, however, the optimistic enthusiasm of Beethoven’s famous work contrasts heavily with the brooding, bi-polar nature of Wetz’s overture. Indeed, Wetz alternates between moments of ecstasy and periods of melancholy. Here we see the influence of Anton Bruckner whose symphonies generally display this type of emotional seesaw. But there is much more to Wetz’s compositional procedures here than just blindly following Bruckner’s style. A good case can be made that Wetz is trying to evoke in music the sort of spiritual and intellectual turmoil experienced by Kleist, whose own works explore the general gloom brought about by the transition from the naïve optimism of the Enlightenment to the brutal Realpolitik of the Napoleonic era. Like Beethoven, Kleist initially admired Napoleon before eventually rejecting his excesses and tyranny.
Although Wetz’s compositional style was, even in the first decade of the 20th century, old-fashioned and derivative, there is no denying that he was a master of musical form and counterpoint. In the best tradition of late German romanticism, Wetz’s style can be summed up with the phrase «motivic organicism.» Short motifs are contrasted, combined and developed to create larger musical forms. These motifs follow a logic of their own, as if they contain «musical DNA» that orders their growth and development. Another source, besides Bruckner, for this type of organic formalism may have been Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), whose scientific work on plant morphology had an enormous impact on theories of artistic organicism during the Romantic period. Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine a composer as knowledgeable of German literature as Wetz was not to have been influenced by Goethe in this regard.
Interestingly enough, Wetz denied any programmatic connotations for this work, a claim he also made for the tone poems of Franz Liszt (1811-1886). It is as though Wetz wants to eat his cake and have it too, that is, to appropriate the techniques and procedures of the program symphony and tone poem, but within the absolutist framework set forth by Bruckner.
The Kleist Overture proved to be one of Wetz’s most popular and enduring works. It was performed by major orchestras throughout Germany in every year from 1906 to 1914 and from 1923 to 1942. Subsequent performances have been sporadic at best. The score was originally published by Kistner und Siegel and the work proved popular enough that a 4-hand piano version was prepared.
William Grim, 2005
For performance material please contact the publisher Kistner und Siegel, Frankfurt. Reprint of a copy from the Musikbibliothek der Münchner Stadtbibliothek, München.
160 x 240 mm