ArticlesNo. 97, Spring 2014

The Lost Movements of Ernst Toch’s Gesprochene Musik

Gesprochene Musik, by Ernst Toch (1887–1964), is a forgotten milestone in the history of electronic music.1 A three–movement suite consisting of spoken music for choir, it is one of the few paradigmatic representatives of the genre of Gramophonmusik, which made use of prerecorded gramophone discs in a concert setting. The work was premiered in 1930 at a Berlin festival devoted to new music, in a concert featuring original works for gramophone playback by two rising stars of the German contemporary music scene, Toch and Paul Hindemith. The pieces were performed only once, yet through the intervention of a young John Cage, the score of the third movement of Gesprochene Musik, the “Geographical Fugue,” appeared in Henry Cowell’s journal, New Music, five years later. Although Cage published the piece in the context of a collection of music written expressly for gramophone, his version led the “Geographical Fugue” to receive a new lease of life as a purely acoustic choral showpiece performed live, which would, ironically, become Toch’s most famous work.2

Given that there was no further trace of the gramophone discs from the original concert, the first two movements of Toch’s suite were long considered lost. However, Toch’s original sketches were in fact fortunately preserved at the Toch Archive at UCLA. Guided by the composer’s grandson, Lawrence Weschler, Christopher Caines rediscovered the sketches for “O–a” and “Ta–tam” in 2006, and created the first full edition of Gesprochene Musik as part of a project he choreographed entitled “Worklight.” This was the frst complete performance of Gesprochene Musik since the work’s premiere in 1930. The current essay presents an introduction, contextualization, and analysis of the first two movements of Gesprochene Musik ahead of the publication of Caines’s (2014) preface and edition in the current volume of this journal.

  1. Special thanks are due to Christopher Caines for generously sharing his edition of Gesprochene Musik, and to Ren Weschler and Dina Ormenyi of the Ernst Toch Society for all their help. Additional thanks are due to Tom Fogg, Tomas Patteson, Courtney Tompson, and Nori Jacoby for their helpful suggestions, and to Dan Harrison, Evan Cortens, and Caroline Waight for their encouragement.
  2. As Weschler (2003) writes, Toch himself considered the piece a joke.