A Saxophone oratorio? Listen to Wladimir Vogel’s 1930 oratorio, Wagadus Untergang durch die Eitelkeit

Wladimir Vogel (1896-1984)

When I started making the list of operas and ballets in the database, I did not include oratorios for one simple reason, the saxophone wasn’t used in oratorios. There’s an exception here and there (Massenet has an oratorio in this database) but for the most part, the oratorio excludes the saxophone. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon Wagadus Destroyed or in the original German, Wagadus Untergang durch die Eitelkeit, for vocal soloists, chorus, and a saxophone quintet by Wladimir Vogel.

Wladimir Vogel (1896-1984) is unfamiliar to me. Originally a German national, Vogel went to Moscow to study composition with Scriabin in the 1910s. After WWI, he moved to Berlin where he studied with Ferruccio Busoni and befriended other Berlin composers: George Antheil, Stephan Wolpe, and Kurt Weill—all who have works in this database. Vogel became active in the workers’ movement, even setting communist writings to music. He was heavily influenced by the expressionist movement and later worked with the 12 tone technique. In 1933, he moved to Switzerland after he was forced to leave Germany after Nazis assumed power. Swiss authorities refused to allow him to work, and he relied on wealthy patrons to support him. Despite theses difficulties, he remained active in ISCM and taught privately. His music can be found in the Bibliothèque du Conservatoire Musique de Genevè which includes the score to Wagadus Untergang durch die Eitelkeit.

I found this oratorio through the Guardian’s archive. Here is the article from May 16th, 1936 on page 2.

This work stands out for several reasons. The first is the oratorio is accompanied by 5 saxophones, that’s it. Voice and saxophone? This might be the earliest work in the database that only has saxophone instrumentals—although not the only one. The other item that stands out is the legend of the Kabyles. What was the legend? How was this work received in Germany? Unfortunately I don’t have the background to study how the Kabyle people were accepted in German society in the 1920s. All I can say is it’s complicated.

Musically, I have to say this is unlike any work I have heard before. It doesn’t sound like the other works coming out of Berlin in the 1920s. It is also removed from the Russian works of Prokofiev and others. The influence is more Russian, almost folk like melodies—sung in German— and the saxophones work more like a string quartet. It’s hauntingly beautiful at times, dense and complex at others.

This recording is from 1968 Festival d’Olanda. The saxophone ensemble is the Belgishes Saxophon-Ensemble directed by François Daneels.

Vogel wrote one more work for saxophone, a wind quintet for flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, and bassoon called Ticinella, written in 1941.

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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