(b Vienna, 21 Oct 1885; d Oxford, 9 Nov 1974). Austrian composer, musicologist and teacher. His importance as a composer rests chiefly on his stage works and symphonies. While his creative career was divided between Vienna and Oxford, his musical style was unpredictable, showing his affection for beautiful melody often with wide leaps and angular in profile. As a musicologist, he did pioneer work on Byzantine chant.
1. Vienna: 1885–1938.
2. Oxford: 1938–74.
CAROLINE CEPIN BENSER
1. Vienna: 1885–1938.
Wellesz was born into comfortable circumstances in the Schottengasse. His father Samú Wellesz was in the textile business; his mother Ilona Lovenyi met and married her husband in Vienna after they had each come from the Hungarian part of the empire. Wellesz inherited his musical inclinations from his mother, who had once studied the piano with Carl Frühling, to whom she sent her son. Even so, his parents had expected him to study law and follow in his father's business; however, on his 13th birthday he heard Mahler conduct Der Freischütz at the Hofoper, and his decision to become a composer was galvanized.
In 1905 he registered for instruction in harmony and counterpoint under Schoenberg at Eugenie Schwarzwald's school, which became an important focus for him in his young years. He conducted a small choir there and gained acquaintance with a progressive circle that included Rilke, Adolf Loos, Kokoschka (who painted the 1911 portrait of him) and Emmy Stross, a student whom he married in 1908. Rigorous training in the fundamentals of music took place at Schoenberg's Liechtensteinstrasse apartment and left him with a lifetime of respect for his master's teaching ability. His compositional heritage was so grounded in Viennese tonality that only on occasion did he adopt 12-note technique, principally in his later symphonies. But his Drei Skizzen for piano (1911) strikingly reflect the atonality of Schoenberg's Drei Klavierstücke, and he was an active member of Schoenberg's Verein für Musikalische Privataufführungen after World War I. He also wrote enthusiastically about Schoenberg, and devoted himself in the summer of 1920 to the first Schoenberg biography.
He left off private study with Schoenberg after beginning serious work with Guido Adler at the University of Vienna. With Giuseppe Bonno the subject of his dissertation, he made Baroque opera the centre of his earliest musicological studies; he earned his degree summa cum laude in 1908, and his dissertation was published the next year. He also edited Fux's opera Costanza e fortezza for Adler's Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich. Fux was to him the epitome of the Austrian Baroque, and thus a forerunner of Viennese Classicism; he published a Fux monograph in English in 1965. Meanwhile, in 1913, he was appointed lecturer in music history at the university.
His interests now turned to the common elements in Eastern and Western chant. In part he was reacting against the tradition in Western music history of ignoring the Eastern church, but he was prompted to do so by the presence in Imperial Vienna of Armenians and other ethnic groups, and by his wife's study of art history at the university under Josef Strzygowski, whose lectures identified Syria as a source for both Eastern and Western culture and were keenly debated by young Viennese scholars. There was, however, the problem of deciphering Byzantine notation. With encouragement from his Cambridge colleague H.J.W. Tillyard, who had worked out the melodies, he began tackling Byzantine rhythm in 1913, and by 1918 had made his solution public. The lengthy process of collecting photographs of Byzantine manuscripts and transcribing them eventually became the work of the Monumenta Musicae Byzantinae, founded in Copenhagen under the auspices of the Royal Danish Academy in 1932 by Tillyard, Wellesz and Carster Høeg. The same year Wellesz established the Byzantine Research Institute at the Austrian National Library and began training students.
From Wellesz's youth onwards there was an international breadth to his thinking, despite the strength of his Viennese background. In the summer of 1906 he had made a trip to Cambridge to study 18th-century English culture and renew his friendship with Edward J. Dent, a friendship begun when both had attended Mahler's performances of Mozart operas. After World War I he and Dent joined Rudolf Réti to found the ISCM, and through Wellesz's efforts Vaughan Williams, Bliss, Holst and other English composers were heard for the first time on the Continent. His friendship with Dorothy Moulton led to her singing much English music for the Viennese, and later she sang Wellesz's songs in England. He was, too, a leader in the musical cross-pollination with France. He encouraged performances of Milhaud, Poulenc and Ravel in Vienna and led the applause for the 1921 performance of Pierrot lunaire in Milhaud's French version. He also wrote numerous articles for Der Merker and the Musikblätter des Anbruch between 1911 and 1935 on Ravel and Dukas, as well as on composers closer to Vienna: Bartók, Mahler, Schoenberg and Strauss. Paris and Vienna were, he felt, the ‘birthplaces of this “Ars Nova” of our time’. Many French and English musicians were guests at his and Emmy’s Kaasgraben home in the 1920s.
As a composer he had begun chiefly with songs and piano music. His first publication was Der Abend, a set of four piano pieces crucially influenced by the music of Debussy, which a friend had brought from Paris, and issued in 1911, thanks to Bartók's introduction, by Rózsavölgyi. He then went on to write five operas and four ballets in Vienna, and these enjoyed great success in Weimar Germany. The conservatism of his home city, and his reputation there as a university scholar, however, kept his work from the Viennese stage until 1931, when Die Bakchantinnen was produced at the Staatsoper, conducted by Clemens Krauss after 60 rehearsals with the chorus and 20 with the orchestra.
Important to these works was not only Wellesz's admiration of Greek myth but also his study of Baroque opera, his love of Gluck and his collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who sketched the beginning of the Alkestis libretto. Hofmannsthal based his work on his 1909 version of the Euripides and left the composer to complete the text. Alkestis is an energetic, powerful score, marked by long melodic lines, pantonality, extensive choral passages that are often in unison, solo timpani, and dance as an essential element of the drama. After its 1924 Mannheim première, Alkestis was produced by eight other German theatres by 1930. Die Bakchantinnen, for which Wellesz wrote his own libretto after discussions with Hofmannsthal, is a complicated piece that requires a large chorus and features a crazed, ritualistic dance scene.
The arrival of the Nazis, and the subsequent closing of Germany's stage to Wellesz's work, roughly coincided with a spiritual change. Though part Jewish by birth and Protestant by upbringing, he converted to Catholicism, influenced by his friendship with Father Thomas Michels in Salzburg and by his readings in the mystics. An outward reflection came in the cantata Mitte des Lebens (1931), which he dedicated to Oxford University in thanks for the honorary doctorate he received in May 1932: Oxford was celebrating the bicentenary of a previous honorary doctor, Haydn, and wanted to acclaim another Austrian composer; Wellesz was gratified to be singled out for his creative work, which frequently got ignored in favour of his scholarly achievements.
His major work after this was Prosperos Beschwörungen (1934–6), a Straussian set of five motivically unified pieces descriptive of characters from The Tempest, which he had originally intended to make into an opera. The score became one of his favourites, thanks in part to the role it played in his life. He was in Amsterdam to hear Bruno Walter conduct a performance – a late substitution – in March 1938, just when Hitler was annexing Austria. English friends warned him by telegram not to return to Vienna, and he proceeded immediately to England. A decade was to pass before he set foot on Austrian soil again.
2. Oxford: 1938–74.
With help from his English friends he settled into life in Oxford, where he became a fellow of Lincoln College in 1939, a university lecturer in 1943 and Reader in Byzantine Music – a post created for him – in 1947. He was a revered teacher. His pupils in Byzantine studies included Dimitrije Stefanović, while Wilfrid Mellers in 1945 was among those who first sought him out for composition lessons.
Separation from Austria, though, was far from easy. He had to endure several months of internment on the Isle of Man before Vaughan Williams succeeded in bringing about his release in the autumn of 1940. More alarming still was his inability to compose, even if this made possible the concentration on Byzantine research that resulted in his Eastern Elements in Western Chant and A History of Byzantine Chant and Hymnography, completed in spring 1942 and August 1946 respectively. By the time of the latter book he had broken his creative silence with his important Fifth Quartet (1943–4), and in 1944 a new era had opened with his setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins's The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, one of the loveliest and most often performed of his English compositions, remarkable not only for its fine handling of a complex text but also as a metaphor for the struggles of the composer's bifurcated career.
The seal was set on this new period with his First Symphony (1945), which continues the Austrian tradition of Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler, and which had its first performance by the Berlin PO under Sergiu Celibidache in 1948. Wellesz's nine symphonies earned him the compliment he most cherished, that of being Bruckner's heir, and it may be that in exile his sense of his musical heritage was intensified. The symphonies, along with the symphonic Prosperos Beschwörungen, have been well received in Austria, Germany and England, though ignored in the USA. The first four are principally diatonic; the others include both tonal and atonal elements. Important too among Wellesz's English works are the Octet – a divertimento-style companion piece to Schubert's – and his last opera, Incognita, which he wrote for the Oxford University Opera Club with the Oxford poet Elizabeth Mackenzie, and which was his second comic essay, after Scherz, List und Rache (1927).
Besides his other activities, he also wrote for the BBC, served the New Oxford History of Music as editorial board member and contributor, helped revive the IMS, and took part in symposia and research projects at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC. Though grateful to England, he remained loyal to his home country, and in 1962 began a warm relationship with the Viennese publishing house of Doblinger. He had officially retired from his Oxford readership in 1956, but did not stop composing until after the stroke he suffered in 1972. He was buried in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, and his widow returned to the city; she died in 1987.
Die Prinzessin Girnara (Weltspiel und Legende, 2, J. Wassermann), 1919–20, Hanover, 15 May 1921, vs (Vienna and Leipzig, 1921), rev. version, Mannheim, 2 Sept 1928
Alkestis (Drama, 1, H. von Hofmannsthal, Wellesz, after Euripides), 1922–3 Mannheim, National, 20 March 1924 (Vienna and New York, 1924)
Die Opferung des Gefangenen (kultisches Drama, 1, E. Stucken, after Aztec legend), 1924–5, Cologne, Neues, April 1926, vs (Vienna and New York, 1925)
Scherz, List und Rache (Spl, 1, after J.W. von Goethe), 1927, Stuttgart, 1 March 1928, vs (Vienna and Leipzig, 1927)
Die Bakchantinnen (2, Wellesz, after Euripides), 1929–30, Vienna, Staatsoper, 20 June 1931, vs (Berlin, 1930)
Incognita (E. Mackenzie, after W. Congreve), 1950, Oxford, 5 Dec 1951
Das Wunder der Diana (1, B. Balász), 1914–17, Mannheim, 20 March 1924
Persisches Ballett (1, E. Tels), 1920, Donaueschingen, 1924
Achilles auf Skyros (1, Hofmannsthal), 1921, Stuttgart, 4 March 1926
Die Nächtlichen (Tanzsymphonie, 1, M. Terpis), 1923, Berlin, 20 Nov 1924