Kunsemüller / Drei Gesänge

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Kunsemüller, Ernst
(1885 -1918)

Drei Gesänge, Op. 12

für mittlere Stimme,
Horn und Klavier

Klavierpartitur und Stimmen

© 2005
ee 205040
ISMN M-700196-32-5



Ernst Kunsemüller was born on June 24, 1885 in Rehme near the Westphalian spa town of Bad Oeynhausen, where his father was a country pastor. The latter died when Ernst was an infant, and the son followed familial wishes as his schooling progressed, eventually studying theology in Bonn and Berlin. After a switch to history studies, he was awarded a DPhil in Bonn in 1909. This done, he promptly enrolled at the Cologne Conservatory for Music and worked exceedingly hard making up for lost time, studying piano from Clara Schumann’s pupil Carl Friedberg. Drawn especially to conducting, Kunsemüller established several choral groups while still a student, and took conducting lessons with the prominent Brahms specialist Fritz Steinbach. At his graduation in July 1912, Cologne’s Gürzenich Orchestra played Kunsemüller’s Serenade für kleines Orchester, op. 9 and he took the Franz Wüllner Prize as best conductor of his class. The same month he won the Conducting Competition of the city of Kiel. He was then offered the directorship of both the municipal orchestra and the choral society, to replace the departing Fritz Busch. Aside from conducting duties, Kunsemüller’s gifts as organist and pianist were also frequently featured on programs (he essayed the solo part in Richard Strauss’ virtuosic Burleske for Piano and Orchestra, and in tandem with Max Reger played the latter’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Beethoven for Two Pianos). In 1914 Kunsemüller also assumed the direction of the Kiel University music program. The season of 1914/1915 would prove to be the conclusion of his brief musical career.

In 1915 Kunsemüller was inducted into the military. A second lieutenant, he served three years of service in the trenches, earning the Iron Cross. In March of 1918 Field Marshall Ludendorff ordered the largest offensive of the later war. The very bloody and ultimately futile exercise (nearly 500,000 casualties and prisoners within a month) was called off on April 5th. On that day Ernst Kunsemüller was hit by shrapnel. They moved him to a hospital in Düsseldorf, where on April 25th he died of wounds to his lungs at the age of 33. Among his possessions was a letter that had arrived days before his death with the offer of the directorship of the Hamburg Singakademie. His funeral was only one among the flood of war dead, but the sixth month anniversary of his death brought large remembrance services in the cities of Kiel and Neuss. Erwin Schulhoff dedicated his Vokal-Sinfonie, op. 26/WW 44 (1918/19) to “his school friend in Cologne, Ernst Kunsemüller, a casualty of the war.”

Kunsemüller made thorough use of his limited time, producing seventeen compositions in varied genres. Unfortunately eleven of these — MSS that include three orchestral pieces and four larger chamber works — have disappeared. Only six pieces, and an isolated movement of a piano sonata, have survived. The dedicatee of Drei Gesänge, or Three Songs for Middle Voice, Piano and Horn, op. 12 was the Swiss concert singer Maria Philippi (1875-1944), “a superb oratorio contralto” (Hans Joachim Moser), who was “especially prized for her singing of Bach” (Alfred Einstein). The Three Songs were premiered from the manuscript on December 4, 1914, with the composer at the piano and Kiel solo player Willy Hilliger on horn. The setting was a chamber music series that featured solo winds and piano — a necessity, as so many colleagues had been taken by the military that assembling a good string quartet was no longer feasible. The Three Songs were published after the composer’s death by Carl Hermann Jatho of Berlin (plate no. 97).

The author of the song texts was novelist and poet Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885), a pioneer of the naturalist movement in Danish literature. Jacobsen was also a major influence on Austro-German writers and musicians at the turn of the century. The best-known use of his texts was made by Arnold Schoenberg in his monumental Gurre-Lieder, but Schoenberg’s teacher Alexander Zemlinsky also composed the first of the poems used in Three Songs (the third of which was set by Carl Nielsen).

A true miniature song cycle, Kunsemüller’s Three Songs works on a number of levels. There is a conscious progression of keys, as each song functions as the subdominant to the next. There is also a progression of moods: the stolid catechism of The Song of the Tower Watchman is haunted with doubt, Landscape presents a more diaphanous texture and volatile mood, and the closing Genre Painting offers gentle humor. The songs are full of individual detail. In tribute to the dedicatee, Bach’s “Wachet auf” is the horn’s cantus firmus to the Watchman’s vocal contribution (the contrast of chorale melody and chromatic solo line reminiscent of Peter Cornelius’ Die Könige), the Bach transformed into a lilting 6/8 meter. In Landscape the shift from the forest floor to gleaming moonlight is portrayed with a sudden, surprising shift from D-flat major to F-sharp minor, and muted horn accompanies the last quiet stanza.* To add a mocking touch to the page’s frustration in Genre Painting, the composer employed chromatic dissonance on words like “quält” (“tortured”). The song ends with echo effects in the horn as the page’s song resounds “over hill and dale.” The Neusser Zeitung cited Kunsemüller’s songs for “their melodic and rhythmic wealth, a sunny cheerfulness that does not preclude moments of asperity and detachment…”

The horn’s contribution to the Three Songs is technically modest, with a conservative range of just over two octaves. The emphasis on the instrument’s sonorous middle register was no accident. Cologne, where Kunsemüller heard three concert seasons of the Gürzenich Orchestra while a student, remained a stronghold of F horn playing (though hornists in southern Germany, led by Franz Strauss and his pupils, had increasingly favored the more reliable harmonics of the higher B-flat horn). The F instrument, with its premium on sound quality in the middle register, was used by Cologne’s solo hornist Ernst Ketz at the end of the 19th century on the most difficult modern literature (a regular in the Bayreuth section as well, Ketz had played the first horn part on the Cologne world premiere of Till Eulenspiegel). Cologne third hornist Richard Tornhauer defended the F horn’s attributes in print in the Deutsche Musiker-Zeitung, and at the Cologne world premiere of Mahler’s 5th Symphony in 1905 the difficult Scherzo horn obbligato was played by Max Hess on an F horn.

This publication represents the only work of the composer currently in print, and hornists have an opportunity to bring what scholar Michael Kube called the “highly personal musical language” of Ernst Kunsemüller back from its premature silence.

William Melton


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