Jewish Music Institute Return to JMI  homepage
JMI HomepageAbout JMILatest News and UpdatesWhat is Jewish Music?LibraryJMI NewsletterContact JMISearch the JMI websiteSitemap
   

The Emigré Composers
by Michael Haas

At the time of Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Jewish musicians were perhaps Germany's and Austria's most important living cultural assets. There was hardly a note of popular music that did not rely on Jewish artists for either the tunes or the words, and often both. Jewish musicians were equally active in the established and avant garde music scenes. Of almost seventy composers who came to the UK to escape Nazi persecution between 1933 and 1945, some remained permanently while others stayed only a short time before moving on to the Americas, South Africa and Australia. Refugee Jewish doctors, academics and scientists were made more welcome in Britain than musicians. By 1938, the Foreign Office had decreed that 'musicians and minor commercial artists' were 'unsuitable' for entry. Yet composers and performers saw the UK as a haven of liberalism and tolerance. Among those who came and stayed were Berthold Goldschmidt, Egon Wellesz, Hans Gál, Franz Reizenstein and Karl Rankl. Almost all of them stopped composing for a long period during some or all of their exile. Many other musicians came and, recognising the lack of opportunity, left for more welcoming shores, among them the composers Kurt Weill, Ernst Krenek, Theodor Adorno, Ernst Toch and Karol Rathaus and the instrumentalists Artur Schnabel and Emanuel Feuermann.

By presenting these concerts and seminar we might come to understand the difficulties experienced by Jewish and political refugee musicians coming to the UK in gaining acceptance from a nationalist musical establishment. Perhaps the most representative example-even years after the War-was the 1949 competition for a new 'English opera' to be performed as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951. The contestants wrote using pseudonyms so that anonymity could be guaranteed. The principal winners were works by the refugees Berthold Goldschmidt (Beatrice Cenci) and Karl Rankl (Deirdre of the Sorrows). Yet the hoped-for performances of the winning operas never took place. The new English operas performed at the Royal Opera House through the Festival of Britain were Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd and Ralph Vaughan William's The Pilgrim's Progress. Years later, Berthold Goldschmidt philosophically admitted that he had, if nothing else, contributed to the canon of English-language opera.

In spite of the difficulties endured by many of yesterday's musical 'asylum seekers', including confinement in British internment camps and deportation to New Zealand and Australia, they made an important contribution to their new environments. Composers as highly regarded in Germany and Austria as Walter Goehr, Hans Gál and Egon Wellesz were appointed to prestigious university positions, influencing future generations by bringing a range of new invigorating influences to their students. Other composers used the British pastoral style and spun it into a uniquely central European language. In his association with the BBC, Berthold Goldschmidt conducted many new works. He helped prepare the performing version of Mahler's Tenth Symphony with Deryck Cooke and conducted its première. He also advised Simon Rattle, who in turn was one of the first to rediscover Goldschmidt's own compositions.

An examination of musical exile in the UK gives us an opportunity to look at British attitudes seventy years ago and compare them with opinions today. Many of the central figures have died; indeed, some of their children are now in their seventies and eighties. The contribution made to British musical life by the refugees, who were accepted only grudgingly and then sidelined, has never been fully assessed or even adequately acknowledged. These concerts and recordings aim to redress that imbalance. With debates on asylum being raised again, it is useful to refer to the displaced musicians of seventy years ago who have made much of today's British musical life possible.

back to top

Hans Gál (1890-1987)

Hans GalInterest in the music of the Viennese-born composer Hans Gál is resurfacing after almost half a century of neglect. Gál arrived in this country in 1938, having fled twice from the Nazis (from Mainz in 1933, and then from Vienna following the Anschluss). He was uprooted during the most successful and productive period of his life, and this in itself could have been enough to destroy his career. But in addition, by the end of the Second World War he found himself in a musically alien environment where his works were often misunderstood and, above all, under-represented.

During the 1920s and '30s Gál had experienced enormous popularity, especially with his operas Die heilige Ente and Lied der Nacht. Die heilige Ente was staged in over twenty theatres, including Breslau, Weimar, Aachen, Chemnitz, Kassel, Königsberg, Prague and Berlin, and was still in the repertoire of German opera houses in 1933. One work, his Overture to a Puppet Play for orchestra, became an internationally popular concert piece and had over 100 performances in a short time, under conductors such as Furtwängler, Keilberth, Szell, Weingartner and Busch.

The sudden loss of a significant public platform after so much activity left a vacuum that affected his output. Although the flow of compositions from Gál's pen continued unabated, through this and every other phase of his life, he preferred to compose with the prospect of immediate performance, and not merely for posterity. As a result he turned increasingly to chamber music in his old age, often for specific performers, but no doubt also reflecting the more personal, more inwardly orientated situation of a composer who now lived far from public life and in increasing isolation. His very last works are all for solo instruments.

There were exceptions. The conductor Otto Schmidtgen premièred the 1937 cantata De Profundis (dedicated to 'the memory of this age, its agony and its victims') in Wiesbaden in 1948, along with other wartime orchestral works such as the Second Symphony (1942-43). Rudolph Schwarz, then conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, eventually gave performances of all four symphonies. Gál took advantage of these opportunities, and continued composing orchestral works, concertos and a second large-scale cantata Lebenskreise (Life Cycles).

By the end of his long life (he died in Edinburgh at the age of 97), he had left a legacy of around 140 published works, over half of which were composed in Britain.

Simon Fox and Eva Fox-Gál. See www.hansgal.com

back to top

Peter Gellhorn (born 1912)

Peter GellhornPeter Gellhorn was born in Breslau (now Wrocláaw) in Poland on 24 October 1912 and attended the Berlin Hochschule für Musik-where his main teachers were Richard Rössler (piano), Leo Schrattenholz (composition) and Julius Prüwer and Clemens Schmalstich (conducting)-before going on to study music history (with Arnold Schering) and art history at Berlin University. Franz Schreker was the director of the Hochschule on Gellhorn's arrival but with the Nazi accession to power he was replaced by Fritz Stein, whom Gellhorn is quick to defend: Stein 'was quite helpful-he behaved very well indeed, and I have only very pleasant memories of him and of Schmalstich. One could hardly refuse the jobs they were offered, but they didn't approve of what was going on.'

In 1935 Gellhorn escaped to Britain, coming to London after a few months in Ascot and, at the end of the year, moving to Toynbee Hall (a settlement of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge) in the East End of London. There, until 1939, he lectured on opera, conducted the chorus and presented chamber concerts and piano recitals. It was at Toynbee Hall that he made his début as an operatic conductor, presenting Gluck's Orfeo in a translation by Edward Dent (who was present). The décor was by Lotte Reininger, for whom Gellhorn had written film scores in Germany as he did again in England.

In the first months of the War, Gellhorn toured a concert programme with two singers, before returning to London where, in 1940, he was interned. His first internment camp was at Warth Mills, near Bury in Lancashire ('an awful place'), before he was moved to the Isle of Man, where his fellow internees included Hans Keller and three members of what would become the Amadeus Quartet. 'I never did more music than in that camp,' he recalls. Although he was not allowed access to scores (the inmates were forbidden to have any printed material), he called on his memory to give piano recitals, and taught harmony, the piano, singing and so on.

Upon release in 1941 he went to Burnley to meet the agent of the 'Vic-Wells' company-The Old Vic and Sadler's Wells-and was engaged as répétiteur for Sadler's Wells opera by the singer Joan Cross, its director, and Lawrance Collingwood, the music director.

It was through Vic Wells that Gellhorn met his wife, Olive (daughter of the economist Lord Leighton), who was an actress with the Old Vic. On the evening of their wedding Gellhorn conducted his first Traviata, with the whole company present at the reception (Joan Cross sang Violetta, and Peter Pears, as Alfredo, was making his first appearance in opera). In 1943, after a year at Sadler's Wells, Gellhorn was called up for industrial war service and spent the remainder of the conflict working in a factory that made components for aircraft.

With the return of peace he joined the Carl Rosa opera company (1945-46) before becoming conductor and head of music staff at Covent Garden, remaining there for seven years before spending seven more (1954-61) as conductor and chorus director at Glyndebourne Festival Opera. He conducted numerous operas for both institutions. He then moved to the BBC, where for eleven years (1961-72) he was director of the BBC Chorus, conducting them at several Proms. In 1974-75 he returned to Glyndebourne for two years, since when he has been active as a freelance pianist and conductor, leading his own choir in Barnes from 1973 until two years ago.

Peter Gellhorn has been associated with many other music-groups. He was co-founder and music director of Opera Barga in Tuscany (1967-69), conductor of the Morley College Opera Group (1973-79) and the Elizabethan Singers (1976-80), music director of London Opera Players (1960-2000), member of the opera-school staff at the Royal College of Music (1980-88) and professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (1981-92). He has also lectured and adjudicated widely, in Britain and abroad. (Martin Anderson)

back to top

Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-96)

Berthold GoldschmidtThe musical life of Berthold Goldschmidt straddled the twentieth century. He was born on 18 January 1903 and grew up in Hamburg. He studied composition with Franz Schreker at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin (1922-24). In 1925 he was employed as a répétiteur under Erich Kleiber, preparing the première of Berg's Wozzeck at the Staatsoper, and the following year saw the premières in Berlin of his prize-winning Passacaglia, which was conducted by Kleiber, and of his First String Quartet. In 1927 he worked for Carl Ebert at the Landestheater in Darmstadt as music adviser and conductor. His opera Der gewaltige Hahnrei (1929-30) was successfully performed at the Nationaltheater in Mannheim in 1932 and was to have been scheduled at the Städtische Oper in Berlin where Goldschmidt worked for Ebert (1931-33), but the Nazi rise to power led to their dismissals and Goldschmidt fled to England in 1935.

As a refugee he initially struggled to find paid work in London, but by the end of the War he was musical director of the German section of the BBC European service (1944-47), and soon re-established himself as a conductor in performances with the Glyndebourne company at the Edinburgh Festival. Over the next decade he composed the opera Beatrice Cenci (1949-50, not staged until 1994) for a Festival of Britain competition and three concertos for cello, clarinet and violin, but with the seeming lack of interest for his works amidst the prevailing avant-garde climate he ceased composing. The major enterprise of these years was his collaboration with Deryck Cooke on the completion of Mahler's Symphony no. 10, the première of which he conducted in 1964.

In 1982, after a compositional silence of twenty-four years, he began composing again, leading to a series of new chamber works and orchestral songs. A Goldschmidt revival, led by conductors Sir Simon Rattle, Lothar Zagrosek, Charles Dutoit and Yakov Kreizberg, and the record companies Largo and Decca, resulted in the nonagenarian composer attending performances and recordings throughout Europe, and enjoying an Indian summer of public acclaim. The most notable outcome of this reappraisal of his work was the rediscovery of Der gewaltige Hahnrei as a major opera of the Weimar Republic years, which resulted in successful new stagings in Berlin, Bern and Darmstadt. He died on 17 October 1996 in London. The centenary of his birth will be celebrated in 2003. (Boosey & Hawkes)

back to top

Karl Rankl (1898-1968)

Karl RanklKarl Rankl was born near Vienna, one of a large family, though many of his siblings died in childhood. Although Rankl died at Salzburg in 1968, he had been based in England from 1939 until his death and was a naturalised British citizen, becoming celebrated as the first post-war Musical Director at Covent Garden. Between 1947 and 1951 it was Rankl who, with David Webster, re-established the opera house as a leading international centre. Rankl's musical pedigree was of the highest. A pupil of Schoenberg and later of Webern, his was the classic German training of conducting in provincial German opera houses: he was chorus-master at the Vienna Volksoper under Weingartner, then conductor at Reichenberg and Königsberg, Prussia, arriving at the Kroll Opera in Berlin in 1928 as chorus-master, where for three years he worked with Otto Klemperer and became an advocate for new music. Rankl appeared as conductor during the Kroll's last two years. Later he was at Wiesbaden, and for five years he was opera director at Graz, Austria, and then briefly at the German Opera House at Prague, where Zemlinsky had earlier been conductor, and he conducted the only performance of Krenek's Karl V in 1938.

Rankl came to England largely through the good offices of Kenneth Wright of the BBC Music Department, arriving shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939. Early in the War Rankl was among the many German musicians to be interned on the Isle of Man, but he was eventually released and lived in Oxford where Professor Gilbert Murray provided a cottage.

Rankl's career as a conductor in the UK was launched by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, when he was contracted to conduct a series of concerts thanks to Felix Aprahamian. Later he appeared with various other British orchestras, not least the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, who programmed his First Symphony in January 1952.

Rankl made a number of recordings for Decca in the 1940s, beginning with the overtures to The Barber of Seville and Euryanthe, and including Beethoven's First Symphony, Brahms' Fourth and Schubert's Fourth, the latter very favourably received. Indeed, Rankl's musical world was focussed on the Austro-Germany tradition, even masterminding a pioneering performance of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder in the early 1950s. Yet he failed to establish the kind of reputation which fuelled the careers of other Austro-German conductors and this aspect of his art has largely been almost forgotten. Later he was appointed permanent conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra from 1952 to 1957; he spent three years in Australia as Musical Director of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust.

Rankl's music is dominated by eight symphonies written between 1938 and 1963, two sinfoniettas, various other orchestral works, a late oratorio, Der Mensch, chamber music, songs and his opera Deirdre of the Sorrows, one of the winning scores in the ill-fated Festival of Britain opera competition in 1951 (it was not produced). Rankl conducted the UK première of his First Symphony at Liverpool on 29 January 1952, a work of particular interest tonight for its word-setting-the Molto Tranquillo middle movement is for three solo sopranos, combining a text he found written on a way-side shrine near Graz with two settings of Mathias Claudius, the minor German poet from whom Schubert took the words of Death and the Maiden and Wiegenlied. Rankl's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies were broadcast many years ago, but it is the opera Deirdre of the Sorrows which remains the greatest might-have-been. In 1995 the present writer was commissioned by the BBC to present a programme telling the story of the legend of Deirdre by linking extracts from the various operas written on this theme. Two extracts from Rankl's opera were specially recorded and revealed amazing vitality, lyrical invention and a powerful large-scale conception.

Rankl's highest recognition in the UK was his appointment as Musical Director and Chief Conductor of the Royal Opera Covent Garden during its revival and rebuilding after the war. But we have not heard any of Rankl's music for a long time, and it is a matter of musical necessity that these considerable scores are given an airing at an early date. It is good that Rankl is represented in these programmes. (Lewis Foreman)

back to top

Franz Reizenstein (1911-68)

Franz ReizensteinFranz Reizenstein was born in Nuremberg on 7 June 1911 and showed exceptional musical gifts from early childhood. He studied composition with Paul Hindemith and piano with Leonid Kreutzer. With the Nazi advent to power, he decided to leave Germany and, having an uncle in Kingston, Surrey, came to London and went to the Royal College of Music in 1934 to continue his studies. Later he became Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music) and was a visiting Professor of Composition at Boston University in 1966.

The writer and critic Mosco Carner wrote of Reizenstein: 'The combination of creative and performing musician was to be the hallmark of his entire career. He was an admirable pianist for whom technical problems did not seem to exist. [...] He was twenty-three when on account of the Nazi regime he left his native Germany in 1934 and settled in London. For us musicians it was highly interesting to see how this former pupil of Hindemith (who considered Reizenstein one of his most talented students) would in time respond to the influence of the English musical climate-then so different from that of the Continent. Reizenstein's earlier works, though for the most part already written in England were all instrumental and in their contrapuntal perplexity still echoed the manner of Hindemith. A first step in this direction was Reizenstein's decision to take further composition studies with Vaughan Williams. But it was some time before an appreciable change occurred in his style. It was really not until the early 1950s, in such splendid works as the cantata Voices of Night and his opera for radio Anna Kraus (whose heroine was a German refugee) that Reizenstein showed the extent to which he had absorbed the tradition of English music, which was largely vocal. Moreover, in his settings of the English words, he demonstrated great sensitivity to their characteristic accentuation and inflexions [...] He rejected Schoenberg's twelve-note method of composition as going against the very nature of music, just as he later rejected the, for him, entirely abstruse experiments of the present avant-garde. Reizenstein gave courageous and articulate expression to this views although he knew that his was "a voice in the wilderness". Reizenstein was contemporary in the sense that he freely availed himself of the rhythmic and harmonic device of modern music. He was a traditionalist in his close adherence to tonal music and the logical, cogent development of musical thought. Perhaps the outstanding work to show this inspired conservatism is his Piano Quintet in D major of 1959, Opus 23. Here style and idea, matter and manner are fused into a complete organic whole, not to mention the brilliant exploitation of the medium. His insight into and understanding of every medium he chose to write in-chamber music, works for orchestra and chorus, and pieces for solo instruments were most remarkable and ultimately sprang from an intuitive and keen ear for sound'.

He composed a number of works for winds: a duo for oboe and clarinet, a trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon, several for wind and piano, a set of variations for clarinet and string quartet and, the largest and most elaborate, a Serenade for nine wind instruments and a string bass, Opus 29, first played at the 1951 Cheltenham Festival of Contemporary Music by the London Wind Players under their conductor Harry Blech, who had commissioned it.

Reizenstein composed music for feature and documentary films, incidental music for BBC radio features and plays, but he is best remembered for his chamber music, such as his Piano Quintet (which 'stands alongside Shostakovitch's as the most noteworthy of this century's piano quintets', as Lionel Salter wrote in The Gramophone in 1975).

He was persuaded by Gerard Hoffnung, who knew Reizenstein's lively personality and infectious sense of humour, to write a work for the first Hoffnung Festival Concert, given at the Royal Festival Hall in 1956. This led to the inimitable Concerto Popolare or 'The Piano Concerto to end all Piano Concertos'. For the second Hoffnung Festival Concert in 1958, Reizenstein wrote the tongue-in-cheek Britten parody Let's Fake an Opera, collaborating with William Mann as librettist. Reizenstein, who was married, with one son, died suddenly in 1968 at the age of fifty-seven.

back to top

Mátyás Seiber (1905-60)

Matyas SeiberMátyás Seiber was born into a musical family in Budapest and began studying the cello from the age of ten. From 1919 to 1924 he was a pupil at the Budapest Academy of Music where he learnt composition with Kodály. Realising that artistic environment in Hungary was too provincial, he moved to Germany in the late 1920s. He eventually settled in Frankfurt where he played the cello in the Lenzewski Quartet and founded a pioneering class in the jazz composition at the Hoch Conservatory. Dismissed from his teaching post in 1933 after Hitler took power, Seiber returned to Budapest and visited Russia before emigrating to England in 1935.

Initially unable to secure a permanent teaching post in England, Seiber worked as a freelance musician, developing a degree of versatility and resource unrivalled by most of his contemporaries. During this period he completed a ten-part accordion tutor, acted as a music adviser to a publishing firm, embarked on a career writing film music and even collaborated with Adorno on a jazz research project. By the 1940s his financial position became more stable, particularly after he was invited by Michael Tippett to teach at Morley College in 1942. One year later, he collaborated with another émigré musician, Francis Chagrin, in founding the Society for Promotion of New Music. Seiber's tireless work on behalf of his composing colleagues made him a driving force in post-war British music. He was also widely admired as a teacher and his pupils included such diverse figures as Don Banks, Peter Racine Fricker, Anthony Gilbert, Peter Schaat, Ingvar Lidholm and Hugh Wood.

Seiber's tragic death in a car crash while visiting South Africa represented a severe loss to British music. Up to 1960 he had produced a steady stream of distinctive works which responded creatively to musical developments on the continent, while at the same time he had preserved the versatility of outlook which had sustained him earlier in his career. Thus he was able to compose serious concert works such as the Third Quartet and the cantata Ulysses which reveal the influence of Bartók and Schoenberg while at the same time completed the film score to Animal Farm, an award-winning pop song entitled By the Fountains of Rome and a jazz piece written in collaboration with Johnny Dankworth. The 1960s modernist avant-garde may not have approved of such diversity, but in the more culturally pluralist environment of the twenty-first century Seiber's achievement demands much wider recognition. (Erik Levi)

back to top

Leopold Spinner (1906-80)

Leopold SpinnerLeopold Spinner was born in 1906 of Austrian parentage, in Lemberg (now Lwów), Poland. From 1926 to 1930 he studied composition in Vienna with Paul Pisk and afterwards began to attract international attention with works which were performed at the ISCM Festivals or awarded prizes. Nevertheless, from 1935 to 1938 he underwent a second period of study, as a pupil of Anton Webern. In 1939 Spinner emigrated to England and spent the war years in Yorkshire, working part of the time as a lathe-operator in a locomotive factory in Bradford. Afterwards he worked as a music-copyist, moving to London in 1954. From 1958 until his retirement in 1975 he was an editor for Boosey & Hawkes, where his skills and exactitude were highly prized by Stravinsky.

From 1926 to his death in London in 1980 Spinner steadily and painstakingly built up an individual body of work, adapting and renewing classical forms along the lines (but eventually, much further) that had been indicated by his teacher Webern. They include an Overture in honour of Schoenberg's seventieth birthday (1944), a Piano Concerto (1947), Prelude and Variations dedicated to Stravinsky (1962), Ricercata for orchestra (1965), cantatas on poems of Nietzsche (1951) and on German folksong texts (1964), string quartets, trios, works for violin and piano, solo piano pieces, several sets of songs and some arrangements of Irish folksongs. His last work was a Chamber Symphony (1977-79).

Almost all Spinner's music was written according to the twelve-note method (on which he also wrote an important textbook). His early works, up to and including the Zwei kleine Stücke (Two Small Pieces, to be heard in the concert of 9 June) are clearly influenced by Berg and middle-period Schoenberg. From the mid-1930s the general idiom, expressive intensity, dramatic economy and impeccable craftsmanship bear witness to his admiration for his teacher Webern-and, through Webern, for the whole Austro-German tradition from Bach onwards. Spinner himself carried that tradition a stage further. While retaining the purity and thematically essentialised textures of Webern, his works show a concern for larger and bolder gestures than was the norm for Webern. In his later music, beginning with the perhaps ironically named Sonatina for piano, the expressive pressure applied to strict motivic working results in a wholly individual style of almost explosive force. (Calum MacDonald)

back to top

Vilém Tausky (born 1910)

Vilem TauskyVilém Tausky was born-in Prerov, in Czechoslovakia-into a very musical family: his mother was a singer who had worked with Gustav Mahler, and her brother was the operetta composer Leo Fall. Their father, Moritz Fall, led a famous salon orchestra in Berlin. It was seeing 'Uncle Leo' conduct the Viennese première of Madame Pompadour that filled the young Vilém with the ambition to become a composer-conductor. When he was conductor at the Brno Opera House in the 1930s Tausky´ collaborated with Jaromir Weinberger on three of his operettas over a five-year period, and on Katuska with Rudolf Friml before his return to America. He also wrote four of his own-Marcella, Cristobal Colon, Usmívejte se (There's always something to laugh about) and Devcátko v modrem (The Girl in Blue). Marcella was broadcast in April 1934, the first operetta ever broadcast on Czech radio. It was also awarded the State Radio Prize. The same year Usmívejte se was premièred in Brno and was sufficiently successful to also be put on in Sofia and Prague. It was then chosen for the New Year's Eve performance in Prague that same year. Tausky´'s intended operetta based on the life of Bata, the shoe manufacturer, never materialised as its librettist 'Beda' (Dr Fritz Löhner), who had written books for Lehár and Kálmán, was killed by the Nazis before they could begin work.

After arriving in England as the military bandmaster of the Free Czechoslovak Forces in 1940, Tausky´ continued to promote operetta, largely Czech and Viennese, with the Carl Rosa and Sadler's Wells opera companies, at the Viennese Nights at the Royal Albert Hall with the BBC Concert Orchestra and at the Guildhall School of Music where he was Director of Opera and Head of Conducting for over twenty years, as well as through regular broadcasts, particularly Friday Night is Music Night. He also gave the first performances of a number of important Czech orchestral works, including several by Martinuû.

His compositions include two cello sonatas (1925, 1964), Symfonieta for orchestra (1930), a string quartet (1965), Fantasia da Burlesca for violin and orchestra (1957), a Concerto for Oboe and Strings (1968), a Concertino for Harmonica, Strings, Harp and Percussion (1973) and Serenade for Strings (1998). (Martin Anderson)

back to top


Egon Wellesz (1885-1974)

Born in 1885 into an affluent Viennese family of Jewish origin, Wellesz studied musicology at the University of Vienna under Guido Adler. At the same time he was taking private lessons with Schoenberg in harmony, counterpoint and fugue. This makes him one of Schoenberg's earliest pupils and helps to explain his teacher's lifelong influence over him-Wellesz published the first biography of Schoenberg in 1920-even if the pupil's use of serial techniques in his own compositions was highly selective. The other dominant presence in his early life was that of Mahler, then at the Court Opera in Vienna. Wellesz dated his ambition to compose from attending a performance of Der Freischütz under Mahler. In Vienna Wellesz pursued a twin-track career as composer and academic musicologist, becoming lecturer and later Professor of Music at the University. His specialist fields of study were Baroque and eighteenth-century opera, and Byzantine music (in the latter field he became a world authority). Between 1914 and 1931, as he consolidated his reputation as one of Austria's leading composers, he composed nine stage works-four ballets and five operas-which were performed and well received in Germany and Austria.

In the 1920s he formed an important friendship with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss's librettist, which led to several collaborations. This period culminated in 1931 with the production of Die Bakchantinnen (based on Euripides' Bacchae) at the Vienna State Opera under Clemens Krauss. Wellesz was in Amsterdam attending a performance of his symphonic poem Prosperos Beschwörungen conducted by Bruno Walter when he heard of the Anschluss. Seeing no future in his native land, he took the advice of friends and emigrated to England. There, in January 1939, he was offered a teaching post at Lincoln College, Oxford, and here he lived until his death in 1974.

For several years the shock of exile silenced Wellesz the composer, but with the Fifth String Quartet (1943) he found his voice again. The next thirty years brought forth a stream of music, including nine symphonies (often described by those who know them as a last flowering of the Austrian symphonic tradition), a Violin Concerto, a fine Octet, and a mass of chamber music. Reluctantly exiled from his Austro-German roots, he took no part in the post-war rebirth of English opera, but, through the composers and musicologists who studied under him, he exerted an unseen influence on British musical life out of proportion to the lamentably few performances of his own music. (Philip Ward)

back to top

last modified: 5 April 2004

 

Suppressed Music Home
ICSM Annual Report
Suppressed Music Activities
Emigré Composers: Project 2002
Thwarted Voices: Conference 2000
Impact of Nazism: Conference 2008
Donate to Spoli Fund
Read ICSM Online Journal
Read ICSM Newsletters 2001-4
Join ICSM Discussion List

 

JMI HomepageAbout JMILatest News and UpdatesWhat is Jewish Music?LibraryNewsletterContact JMISearch the JMI websiteSitemap
Performances. Jewish Music Live JMI Library Jewish Music Courses
The Jewish Music Institute is an independent Arts organisation based at SOAS, University of London. It is an international focus bringing the ancient yet contemporary musical culture of the Jews to the mainstream British cultural, academic and social life. Its programmes of education, performance and information highlight many aspects of Jewish music throughout the ages and across the globe for people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures.