Kurt Schwertsik studied composition with Joseph Marx and Karl Schiske, and horn at the Vienna Academy of Music. In 1958, with fellow composer Friedrich Cerha, he co-founded the new music ensemble ‘die reihe’.
Schwertsik attended the Darmstadt Summer Courses at their peak around 1960, and was a pupil there and in Cologne of Karlheinz Stockhausen.
However, the influence of John Cage and other American composers, together with Schwertsik’s friendship with Cornelius Cardew, opened up alternative creative paths, leading to his ultimate rejection of serialism and reorientation towards tonality as a means of musical communication. In 1965 with the composer/pianist Otto Zykan he co-founded the ‘Salon Concerts’ in Vienna, and published a manifesto attacking certain aspects of the post-war avant-garde.
Over the past 30 years Schwertsik has attracted a reputation as one of Austria’s leading composers, cutting a mercurial figure in Viennese musical life. In recent years he has been a featured composer at the Almeida Festival in London in 1987, the Brisbane Musica Nova Festival in 1990, and was honoured in his home city with the largest retrospective of his music at Wien Modern in 1992. Works by Schwertsik were included in the Alternative Vienna festival, presented by the South Bank Centre and the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1995.
Schwertsik’s most significant compositions include the fantasy opera Fanferlieschen Schönefüßchen, commissioned by the Stuttgart Opera in 1983 for its new Kammertheater, and the cycle of five orchestral works Irdische Klänge, heard for the first time in its complete form at Wien Modern in 1992. Concertos by Schwertsik include those for violin, timpani, guitar, double bass, alphorn, trombone, and Instant Music for flute and wind orchestra. He has collaborated with the noted choreographer Johann Kresnik on the four ballets Macbeth, Frida Kahlo, Nietzsche and Gastmahl der Liebe.
Schwertsik is also active as a song composer, having written a number of cycles including Starckdeutsche Lieder und Tänze for baritone and orchestra to texts by Matthias Koeppel. With his wife, Christa, Schwertsik has presented highly successful Lieder evenings at many major music festivals.
Works from the 1990s included Sinfonia-Sinfonietta for the Musikverein in Vienna, Roald Dahl’s Goldilockspremiered by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and a Shrunken Symphony first performed at the Salzburg Mozarteum on Millennium Eve under the baton of Roger Norrington. Concertos include Violin Concerto No.2 written for Christian Altenberger and the Trombone Concerto Mixed Feelings premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra in 2002.
Over the past decade compositions have included Adieu Satie for string quartet and bandoneon premiered in 2003 and his opera, Katzelmacher, adapted from the film and play by Fassbinder, premiered at the Wuppertal Opera the same year. Divertimento Macchiato has been toured widely by trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger since its premiere in 2007, and recent commissions include Now you hear me, now you don’tfor marimba and strings, the ballet Kafka America (2008-09) choreographed by Jochen Ulrich for the Landestheaters Linz, the orchestral work Nachtmusiken (2009) for the BBC Philharmonic and a Flute Concerto (2011-12) for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Brucknerhaus Linz.
Recordings of music by Schwertsik have appeared on the EMI, Largo, ABC Classics and ORF labels and a recent Chandos disc includes Nachtmusiken and Baumgesänge (Tree Songs).
Kurt Schwertsik is published by Boosey & Hawkes