At the source of Schwitters’ Ursonate or “sonate in urlauten” (“primordial sonata” or “sonata in primordial sounds”) are two “Plakatgedichte” (“Poster Poems”) by Raoul Hausmann, which provided the sonata’s opening line:
“Fumms bö wö tää zää Uu, pögiff, kwii Ee”.
Schwitters used phrases such as this to provoke audiences at literary salons, who expected traditional romantic poetry, by endlessly repeating them in many different voices. In the course of ten years (1922-1932) he expanded this early version into a 30-page work, which Schwitters later considered one of the two masterpieces he created (the other one being the “Merzbau” in his house in Hannover, destroyed in 1944). As such, the Ursonate cannot be rightly considered a Dada work any more, since Dada was inimical to the notion of “masterpiece”.
The Ursonate has a structure similar to that of a classical sonata or symphony. It consists of four movements: Erster Teil (“First Part”), Largo, Scherzo and Presto.
After a short introduction the first movement opens with an exposition of its four main themes (subjects), each of which is subsequently “developed “ (in the sense of development in the classical sonata form), leading to a coda. It is noteworthy that the theme exposition returns as a reprise before each new development but the last one.
Both the Largo and the Scherzo have a centered (A-B-A) construction in which the middle part contrasts with the two identical outer parts.
The Presto has a strict rhythm broken only by a few interjections from the first movement and the Scherzo. Like the first movement, it follows the sonata form: exposition (repeated immediately in this case), development and recapitulation.
Next is the Cadenza, leaving the reciter free to choose between the written version and his own. However, in his written instructions for future performers of the piece, Schwitters says that he wrote his cadenza only for those among them who “had no imagination”. In my performances of the Ursonate I always create an improvised cadenza on the basis of the sonata’s thematic material. Only on the recording I issued, for reasons of completeness a recording of the written cadenza is included as a separate track.
As a Coda, Schwitters uses one of his earliest Dada poems: the German alphabet read backwards, here repeated three times with different tempo and intention.
Schwitters wrote a few pages of instructions for reciters of the Ursonate, mainly dealing with the correct pronunciation of the letters; apart from that, brief prescriptions regarding tempo, pitch, dynamics and emotional content are scattered throughout the sonata’s text. – Jaap Blonk