Sigfrid Karg-Elert was born Sigfrid Karg, November 21, 1877, at Oberndorf (Swabia) Germany. His father, the editor of a small town newspaper, died while Sigfrid was quite young. His mother was forced to rear her family on very little money. Fortunately, young Sigfrid’s talent for composition was recognized early, and he obtained a series of scholarships which enabled him to graduate from the Leipzig Conservatory. He was appointed to the staff of the Conservatory in 1919, succeeding his friend Max Reger.
At this time Sigfrid found it necessary to add his mother’s maiden name “Elert” to his own surname to reduce the ominous connotations of “Karg” (which means coffin) and to produce a more suitable professional name.
Although Karg-Elert wrote music in a wide variety of forms, he was and is most famous for his organ works. He was a virtuoso performer on the organ, widely acclaimed in England, Canada, and in the United States, but not in Germany. In truth, his volatile and uncompromising personality probably prevented his acceptance by the staid German burghers of his day. He was given to frequent outbursts of temper, as well as displays of clownish behavior. A friend, A. Heuss, described Karg-Elert as being “righteous, impulsive, highly aware, but unable to conform to social obligations. In short, he presented himself to the world as he was and appeared not to care whether he was accepted by influential men or not.”
Nevertheless, Karg-Elert’s letters indicate that the lack of recognition from his own countrymen grieved and disturbed him greatly. This undoubtedly hastened his early death from diabetes and neurasthenia. Sigfrid Karg-Elert died in Leipzig on April 9, 1933.
The 30 Caprices, opus 107, composed between 1915 and 1918, were inspired by Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s regard for Carl Bartuzat, principal flutist with the Leipzig Theatre and Gewandhaus Orchestra. The composer’s intent was to provide a series of studies that were technically more difficult than the music being written by Richard Strauss, Mahler, Reger, Schönberg, Scriabin, and Stravinsky. Karg-Elert’s premise was that the difficult always grows easier by overcoming the more difficult.
Prepare each of the Caprices by playing slowly and deliberately at first. Because the composer did not supply metronome markings, they have been added to serve as a guide and goal. Don’t feel frustrated if you cannot perform immediately at the tempos indicated. Many of the Caprices will take weeks of constant effort before they are mastered.
Mastery of the technical difficulties isn’t all that is required. As you begin to gain technical control of a Caprice, make an all-out effort to analyze and understand the motives, phrasings, and implied harmonies that the composer used in its construction. Proper intonation will then become easier to attain. Remember, intonation is a consideration whether you are playing alone or in an ensemble. For example, have you ever played a scale on a piano that is out of tune? You must listen to the intervals in arpeggios, scales, and leading tones, and adjust them for proper pitch relationships.
Finally, we come to the most important task of all, and that is to express the composer’s musical ideas. The 30 Caprices offer an amazingly wide spectrum of tempo and mood indications. We are told to play at various times the following ways: precisely, gently, brilliantly, not brilliantly, with daring, passionately, coquettishly, pointed, with humor, extremely fast, strictly in tempo, like a cadenza, spitefully, needle-sharp, frivolously, relaxed, gracefully, hurry-scurry, and with irony. It is a great challenge to be called upon to plumb the depths of our emotions as in Caprice 22, and, in contrast, to skim lightly over the surface, as in Caprice 12. Work hard to learn these 30 Caprices. Nothing that is worthwhile is ever easy to attain.
Each Caprice begins with explicit instructions in German. These words have been translated into English, and should be transcribed on to your copy of the opus, along with the suggested metronome markings.
Caprice 1: Moderate speed, with precision. quarter =88. Begin with vigor, but make the contrasts between the loud and soft passages sudden, both in volume and in character. The soft passages should sound light and gentle, compared to the hard-driving loud sections. M. 13: leicht means “lightly.” M. 22: breit means “broaden.”
Caprice 2: Lightly moving, but without brilliance eighth =160. There is a seeming contradiction in mm. 9-12, where diminuendos are indicated over a four-measure crescendo. The composer’s intent can be realized if m. 9 is played mp dim., m. 10 mf dim., m. 11 f dim., and m. 12 ff dim. M. 17: lieblich means “sweetly.”
Caprice 3: In the style of Handel, quick but not brilliant. quarter =88. This Caprice should be a trifle pompous in character. Make the dynamics black and white in contrast – no in-between shadings, except for a steady crescendo over the last two measures. Observe carefully the length of the double-dotted trills – students invariably play them twice too fast. M. 1: mit breitem Ton means “with sonorous tone.” M. 14: zierlich means “gracefully.” M. 16: ohne Nachschlag means “without grace note.”
Caprice 4: Very fast and sparkling,
dotted half =72. Keep an equal quarter note pulse no matter what the meter changes indicate. Even though there are wide and awkward leaps to contend with, concentrate on maintaining good finger coordination.
Caprice 5: Fast and precise. quarter =92. Notes with double stems are meant to be emphasized by playing them a bit longer, louder, and slightly more accented than the three notes which follow them. M. 2: quasi Echo means “like an echo.” M. 22: brilliant means “brilliant.”
Caprice 6: Fast moving, with fervor, an entire measure at a time. dotted half = 66. The words “stormy,” “turbulent,” and “troubled” apply to this Caprice. The first section surges and heaves like ocean waves in a gale. The second section also suggests wave motion, but more in the nature of a slight respite before the storm returns.
Caprice 7: Perpetual motion Equal, as fast as possible, =116-126. The idea of this Caprice is to play as quickly and evenly as possible, with absolutely no change in tempo from beginning to end. This would be a good one to memorize, because if it is played as fast as required, it is nearly impossible to read every note.
Caprice 8: With great spirit and vivacity. dotted half= 69. The mordants (m) are like quick single trills, played on the beat, starting on the printed note.
Caprice 9: Very quick and glittering. = 76. Maintain equal 16th notes, no matter what the grouping happens to be. There will be a tendency to rush the triplets. Despite the fact that the articulations are wildly scrambled, make a determined effort to play them perfectly.
Caprice 10: Light, quick, in a frivolous manner. =132. To achieve the lightness required here, scale down the dynamics. Where double piano is indicated, play triple piano, and make a mezzoforte the loudest volume. Also, in the triplet groups, where the first two notes are slurred and the third note is staccato, clip the second of the slurred notes and play the staccato note very short and light.
Caprice 11: Extremely fast, but loose and relaxed. dotted quarter =63. The speed of this Caprice is limited only by the rapidity with which the repeated triplet notes can be tongued. Set a beginning tempo that will not force a slow-down when the repeated triplets are encountered. M. 31 feurig means “fiery.”
Caprice 12: Light, graceful, and fast. eighth =112. Play this one with no more weight or importance than that of a dragonfly darting about over the surface of a pond. M. 1: durchweg pp means “always pianissimo.”
Caprice 13: Very light, with grace and charm. quarter =76. Here the composer asks for an imitation of two flutists playing alternately. In the beginning of the dialogue that ensues, both voices seem to be feminine, although the upper voice is more gentle and agreeable than the lower. Toward the end, however, the tables are turned, and the upper voice has the last word, with emphasis. M. 1: wie 2 Floten means “like two flutes.”
Caprice 14: Perpetual motion. eighth = 108. As in Caprice 7, maintain a constant tempo throughout. The 32nd rest over the note in parenthesis in the fifth measure is a breathing place, suggested by the composer. Note that mm. 8 and 15 are in 68, extended by the composer to accommodate lengthened phrases. M. 19: Flatterzunge means “fluttertongue.” There are two ways to fluttertongue. First, by rolling the tongue on an R configuration: T-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-. Second, glottally, as though clearing the throat. The flutter effect is then superimposed on the tone.
Caprice 15: Very light, floating. = 112. As a supplement to the first printed edition of the 30 Caprices, Karg-Elert wrote a lengthy treatise called The Logical Development of Modem Figuration. This Caprice, which seems to be filled with contradictory and confusing articulations and groupings, is meant to illustrate the composer’s ideas on harmony and phrase structure, as outlined in his treatise. Thus, the eighth notes trace the melody, the double 16ths outline the chord structure, and the single 16ths are suspensions and passing tones. The long slurs indicate the length of the phrase to be tongued and sustained, while shorter slurs within the longer slur indicate internal phrasing and nuance.
Caprice 16: Somewhat lively, with humor. eighth = 200. Humor is often conveyed through exaggeration. Overdo the accents and dynamic markings. Some notes are marked with a tiny arrowhead over or under them. Play these notes staccato with a slight accent.
Caprice 17: Very quick, light and playful. dotted quarter =66. Except in mm. 6 and 8, where some angularity is called for, strive for the smoothest legato possible. Extend phrases to their fullest length. The first phrase is four measures long, and repeated; the second, like a long sentence with many clauses, is seven measures long; the last phrase covers the final six measures.
Caprice 18: Slow, in the style of a cadenza. eighth = 52. Except in mm. 11, 16, 17, and 18, the notes with stems pointed upwards are the melody, while notes with stems pointed downwards are the accompaniment. Sixteenth rests above the accompaniment are not suggested breathing points, but indicate breaks in the melodic line. The last four eighth notes in the third measure before the end are rolled chords, played like arpeggios starting on the lowest note on the stem. M. 17: con fuoco (sehr heftig) means “with fire” (impetuous). M. 17: lebhaft means “lively.”
Caprice 19: Extremely fast, bubbling and sparkling. quarter =96. This composition might have been titled “Badinerie” or “Badinage” during the Baroque period. The impression is that of spirited lighthearted conversation at a champagne party. M. 17: spitzig means “pointed.” M. 36: sehr spitzig means “very pointed.”
Caprice 20: Daring, capricious, impudent, and fast moving. q =92. Observe all of the dynamic, tempo, and mood markings with care. The changes in character occur rapidly and with striking contrast. Bring out the differences by emphasizing the composer’s indications. M. 9: keck means “bold, impudent, cheeky.” M. 10: humorvoll means “full of humor.” M. 12: geschwätzig means “loquacious.” M. 15: boshaft means “spiteful.” M. 16: streng im Takt means “strictly in time.” M. 22: immer hastiger means “ever faster and faster.” M. 23: sich überstürzend means “press on recklessly.”
Caprice 21: In waltz time, coquettish. quarter = 126. Flirtatious, graceful, and charming are the characteristics of this little waltz. Triplets connected to an eighth note can be rushed slightly, and the eighth note gently clipped to achieve a buoyant effect. Play the staccato notes with a light, bouncy articulation – never short and dry. M. 9: zierlich means “gracefully.” M. 18: locker means “frivolously.” M. 36: neckisch means “in a teasing manner.”
Caprice 22: Agitated and passionate. eighth =96. The darkest elements of the human psyche are allowed to find expression in this ominous and frightening essay. Repressed hatreds and frustrations bubble and rise to the surface of consciousness, culminating in an outcry of rage. Even though emotions are displayed, the proper effect can only be achieved if the technical difficulties are thoroughly mastered. Work hard on this one.
Caprice 23: Slow, with fervor. Free, like a recitative. quarter =60. Karg-Elert stated that in some passages of the Caprices, he was influenced by typical forms of violin and piano techniques. This Caprice is obviously violinistic in its concept. For instance, the portamento 16th notes in mm. 4 and 8 should have the same quality that a violinist produces by bouncing the bow on a string. In passages where two notes share the same stem, play the lower note first, then the upper, with both notes sounding intense and vigorous, as though bearing down hard with a bow. M. 1: mit vollausladendem Ton means “with fully projected tone.” M. 6: leidenschaftlich means “passionately.” M. 10: drängend means “push forward.” Mm. 1, 2, 3, 5, 21, 23, and 24: r… a… means to broaden and hold back at first: then accelerate, hurry. Mm. 11-20: r… a… aa… means slowly at first, then press ahead urgently, finishing very fast.
Caprice 24: As fast as possible, with sharp pointed tone throughout. =54. Keep the 16th notes equal; the groups of three should not be played faster than the groups of two. This is an exercise in tonguing, perhaps inspired by the section in Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, which portrays critics spitting and snapping. Make the articulations very short, dry, and metallic in character, like a series of pinpricks. M. 11: nadelscharf, mit ironischem Ausdruck means “needle-sharp, with irony.” M. 26: ironisch means “ironically.” M. 30: scharf means “pointed.” M. 34: verhallend, doch straff im tempo means “fade away, but strictly in time.”
Caprice 25: Rather spritely, agile and capricious. eighth = 96. Play the grace notes rather quickly, but not so fast that they sound blurred. Make the eighth notes to which the graces are attached sound light, compared to the 16th note triplet phrases, which should sound rather heavy and ponderous. In the two measures marked “capricious,” imitate a heavy person trying desperately to appear dainty. The dotted bar lines are an indication that the composer intended to convey a feeling of a 3/8 pulse within the 6/8 measure. M. 8: resolut means “resolutely.” M. 14: kaprizziös means “capricious.”
Caprice 26: Coquettish and capricious. quarter = 104. In mm. 15 and 23 there are T marks under the slurs. They divide the 16th notes into groups of four over and above the groups of five indicated by brackets. The groups of four should be emphasized, and the groups of five outlined by slight accents on the first, second, third, and fourth beats. The result is five groups of four 16th notes combined with four groups of five 16th notes – a passage that leaves the listener (and sometimes the performer) completely baffled.
Caprice 27: Softly moving (but distinctly phrased). dotted quarter = 100. In order to achieve the distinct phrasing called for by the composer, take care to differentiate between notes marked with tenuto dashes, dots under dashes, staccato dots, and accent marks. Tongue lightly but clearly, so as to produce an immediate response. Clip the ends of slurs lightly, except where the end note is marked with a dash or an accent.
Caprice 28: Fairly quick, flowing and elegant. eighth =66. There is no doubt about it: this Caprice is tremendously difficult. The key signature, awkward intervals, and wide range of dynamics present a real challenge. One device that is helpful is to locate chromatic passages and bracket them in pencil. Isolating pre-learned patterns in this manner allows the attention to be focused on more complicated passages. M. 16: heftig means “impetuous.”
Caprice 29: Extremely fast and piquant. = 108. Keep the 16th notes equal, no matter what the groupings happen to be. Make the tonguing sound short, prickly and stinging, but not harsh. The German word prickelnd, which appeared in the original manuscript, implies a tickling sensation.
Caprice 30: Chaconne. (See music for metronome markings) Elements from many of the preceding Caprices appear in the Chaconne. Although each variation is rather short and an entity in itself, all are related to each other by way of the basso ostinato. Make a smooth connecting transition between each variation and the next, so that all flow smoothly and logically to the culmination in Variation XVII.