Beyond the Ink: Karg-Elert’s Sonata Appassionata

As discussed in my previous post, the performers in Karg-Elert’s life had a profound impact on his compositional output. Fortunately for flutists today, one of those influential colleagues was Carl Bartuzăt, flutist and fellow member of the 107th Infantry Regiment band during World War I. In the preface to his Thirty Caprices, op. 107, Karg-Elert credits the inception of his flute works composed between 1915-1918 to Bartuzăt. This Preface also provides the crucial raison dêtre for these exercises. Karg-Elert sought to mimic the challenges found in the demanding modern orchestral repertoire and exploit the new technical capabilities of the Boehm flute. He discusses the need to form this “connecting link between the existing educational literature and the unusually complicated parts of modern orchestral work” in the following excerpts*:

Advances in harmonic vocabulary:

The enormous progress made in the domain of
harmony urgently demands a corresponding development of intonation. Here, a clear recognition of the harmonic functions is the chief essential needed by the flautist to solve the given technical problems, if he would avoid leaping shortsightedly from one note to the next.

Increased desire for composer expression:

The modern orchestral composer never considers the “convenient technique,” but, where needed, his desire for expression creates a new technique which often presents the most difficult problem to the instrumentalists. Thus it is not only the virtuosi, but above all the composers (think of Berlioz, Wagner, Richard Strauss, Mahler etc.) who have extended and are still extending the language of the instruments… [the composer] has in mind only the individual effect produced by the tone-quality of the instrument. And unfortunately, these requirements are often not compatible with the physical structure of the instrument.

 Mechanical improvements to the flute:

These Caprices are therefore meant to be a synthesis of all the possible progressive technique demanded by the character and construction of the modern flute, above all the unparalleled ‘Boehm flute;’ and it was far from my intention to write work that “lies easily in the fingers.” On the contrary, the student must learn what does not lie easily.


Silver Boehm & Mendler flute circa 1887

1920 Boehm flute

Rosewood Boehm system flute by Rudall Carte circa 1920

It is impossible to discern solely from the text of this Preface how Karg-Elert was so intimately acquainted with the challenges facing flutists of the early 20th century, but the circumstances referenced in this writing suggest that these details may have come from conversations with Bartuzăt.

Karg-Elert completed the Sonata Appassionata, op. 140 just before the Thirty Caprices, but this sonata exhibits many of the principles set forth in the above-mentioned Preface. It is interesting to note that he completed his op. 140 before his op. 107, a prime example of his misleading and often out-of-order opus numbers. Some of the focal points of the Thirty Caprices that are immediately evident in the Sonata Appassionata are “chromatic or major second transpositions of large or small groups or motives,” “broken fourths, fifths, major sevenths and minor ninths,” and “extreme breaks of two harmonically independent parts.”

Below is a discussion of the formal structure, harmony, and compositional style of the Sonata Appassionata. I have chosen the Zimmerman edition of the score (pictured above). Many thanks to my dear friend, Meghan Naxer, for her input on this subject! Meghan is currently pursuing her PhD in Music Theory with additional studies in Flute at the University of Oregon.

The Sonata Appassionata is a one movement, sonata form work with a late-romantic chromatic language and an emphasis on timbral changes. The sonata opens immediately with a break of two independent parts in the primary theme. These two voices are clearly differentiated using split stems. The upper voice is a two measure, major second ascending sequence followed by a descending, repeated chromatic sequence leading to a half cadence on the dominant.

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid Sonata Appassionata, m. 1-3.

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid. Sonata Appassionata, m. 1-3

There is an emphasis on the interval of a minor second throughout the entire piece. First, Karg-Elert establishes the importance of the relationship between f#m (i) and DM (VI) in m. 5-10, with D being the upper neighbor to the dominant (C#). In addition to this harmonic relationship, Karg-Elert uses chromatic transpositions of sequences in the transition and development sections.

Sequence is the primary compositional technique used in the transition (m. 15-29). Karg-Elert focuses on the repetition of small fragments in various diatonic and chromatic transpositions while moving quickly through different key areas.  Measures 23-24 are an example of a descending, chromatic transposition of a four note fragment.

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid. Sonata Appassionata m. 23-24

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid. Sonata Appassionata m. 23-24

The transition concludes with a sequence of broken fourths that expand to an octave through a series of widening intervals (M3-A4-M6-A6-P8). This phrase establishes A as the dominant before presenting the secondary theme in D Major.

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid. Sonata Appassionata m. 26-29

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid. Sonata Appassionata m. 26-29

The secondary theme, marked sehr ausdrucksvoll (very expressive), requires the performer to make sudden timbral changes in the middle of the melodic line. One could infer that these demands on the flutist stemmed from Karg-Elert’s experience composing for the harmonium, an instrument with various stops capable of making sudden changes in tone color. Examples of these timbral changes are m. 30-32 and m. 36-37.

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid. Sonata Appassionata m. 30-32

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid. Sonata Appassionata m. 30-32

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid. Sonata Appassionata m. 36-37

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid. Sonata Appassionata m. 36-37

The short development begins in m. 52, quickly passing through sequenced material that sets up the recapitulation. Karg-Elert establishes C# as the dominant, presumably to prepare the recapitluation of the P theme in f#m. Instead, he returns to the S theme in F#M. The expected order of the P and S themes are therefore reversed. An alternate transition from m. 79-82 leads to the delayed recurrence of the P theme at m. 83.

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid. Sonata Appassionata m.

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid. Sonata Appassionata m. 79-86

The coda, m. 101 to the end, continues to use repetition and sequence. The split-stem voicing returns in m. 105-107 with the upper voice emphasizing minor second eighth note couplets as the remainder of the pitches fill in the implied harmony.

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid. Sonata Appassionata m. 105-107

Karg-Elert, Sigfrid. Sonata Appassionata m. 105-107

Karg-Elert concludes the Sonata Appassionata with one final statement of the i-VI-i progression before a strong cadence in f#m.

All engraving for this article was done using Noteflight, a wonderful FREE online notation program!

*A full text reprint of the Preface to the Thirty Caprices may be found here:

Scott, Lorie Elizabeth. “Gradus Ad Parnassum of Modern Flute Technique: An Explication of Musical Intention and Design in “30 Capricen Fuer Floete Allein: Opus 197” by Sigfrid Karg-Elert Together with Three Recitals of Selected Works by Schulhoff, Telemann, Berio, J. S. Bach, Rodrigo, Gieseking, Reinecke, and Others.”University of North Texas, 2005, (accessed May 8, 2013).


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