(b Berlin, 22 Feb 1922). Australian composer of German origin. He received his early musical training from his father Boaz Bischofs Werder, a composer and conductor at a Berlin synagogue, and the Schoenbergian Arno Nadel. Following the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, the family moved in 1934 to London, where Werder completed a patchwork education embracing music and architecture. In 1941 father and son were deported to Australia as voyagers on the notorious refugee ship ‘Dunera’; while interned at Tartura, Werder was able to work as a composer and arranger (the First Symphony would appear to stem from this period). After military service, he was active as a carpenter, music arranger, teacher in schools, and then lecturer for the council of adult education in Melbourne. As the most interdisciplinary literate of his generation, he became a lively and provocative force in public education and criticism. In 1958 he co-founded the Camerata society to foster the works of Australian composers and joined the music staff of The Age, of which he was appointed principal music critic on the death of Le Gallienne in 1963. Werder had shown notable creative gifts and technical facility from his adolescence, but public recognition and performance were at first hesitant; the orchestral Balletomania (1940) had to wait eight years for its first performance. After 1948, however, commissions increased, and his many subsequent awards from 1968 on, both from Australia (including the Don Banks Fellowship in 1986) and Germany, attest not only to his compositional variety, but also to his provocative writing and broadcasting, and his contribution to the dissemination of Australian music (notably through the Australian Felix Ensemble which he formed).
In his extensive output of more than 300 works, Werder’s musical vocabulary has drawn on Jewish folk tradition and synagogue cantillation, evident in pieces with Hebrew or biblical titles (e.g. Koheleth for soprano and chamber ensemble, Bne Brith for orchestra, Kabbalah for solo viola and Chaldean Scenes for clarinet, viola and piano), as well as in other works of a more abstract character, such as Monostrophe or the First Symphony. But throughout his career Werder has also shown a readiness to confront and adapt many of the major new currents that have appeared since 1920, including neo-romanticism (e.g. Actomos for strings), Hindemithian counterpoint (Symphony no.1), dodecaphony, post-war serialism and pointillism as practised by Nono and Stockhausen, clusters in the manner of Ligeti and Penderecki, elements of Xenakis and Cage, aleatory means and the use of space. His creative exploration of these trends has been, as a rule, ahead of other Australian composers – an almost breathless searching process similar to that of Krenek.
According to Werder, his 12 string quartets chart the evolution of his style most evidently. One of the happiest features of his eclecticism has been the absorption of the formal, rhythmic and instrumental resources of middle and late Bartók, first heralded in the opening of the Fourth Quartet (1955) and developed more emphatically in the Fifth (1956) and Sixth (1962). With the Seventh Quartet (1965) a tauter, more individual style emerged, displaying a new clarity and depth of texture, and a more relaxed feeling. The Ninth (1968) introduced a freer technique using clusters. His music for mixed chamber ensembles has also enabled him to explore musikantisch and spielerisch elements of lyricism and contrast, in a style less pungent but more richly coloured than the quartets.
In his orchestral music, Werder initially incorporated both Jewish elements and 20th-century styles and concepts, but the symphonic genre has also been a means of reflecting on theoretical and aesthetic ideas from the literary and visual arts. Thus the Third Symphony (‘Laocoon’, 1965) and Dramaturgie (1966) confront the ideas of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s two similarly named treatises, for which Werder’s knowledge of the theories of C.P.E. Bach afforded the point of departure, while the Seventh Symphony (‘Pique Dame’, 1992) embraces Pushkin’s ideas about dramatic time and place, character and psychology. Werder’s prolific activity in this area led to a search for alternative abstract titles, resulting, in particular, in the Stropheseries. Musically speaking, he has sought to explore not only the resources and character of solo instruments and groups, but also spatio-temporal applications. His Abstract ’67 attractively incorporates antiphonal elements in the use of three separate orchestral units, and the Concert Music (1971) suggests an orchestral counterpart to the works for mixed chamber ensemble, with the interplay of free passages between flute and pitched percussion in the second movement. Other resources have included chance and improvisation, and the use of shimmering sound blocks, as in Sound Canvas (1969).
While Werder has set an international range of authors in his solo vocal and choral music, in his stage works he has, for the most part, acted as his own adapter-librettist or worked with Australian writers. Agamemnon (1967, rev. 1977) and Medea (1985) attempt to recall earlier incantatory styles; other scores, including The General, The Affair and Private, with their often acidic social commentaries, also employ Sprechgesang and highly angular vocal and instrumental lines, linking them to the mainstream of German post-expressionist music theatre from Krenek to Klebe.
Kisses for a Quid, op.39 (1, A. Marshall), 1960, Melbourne, Q Theatre, 23 March 1961
The General, op.69 (1, L. Radic), 1965, unperf.
The Agamemnon of Aeschylus (mime-chant op, 1, Werder, after Aeschylus), 1967, broadcast, ABC, 1967, rev. as Agamemnon, op.76, 1977, Melbourne, Grant Street, 1 June 1977
The Affair, op.99 (1, Radic), 1969, Sydney, Opera House, 14 March 1974
Private, op.103 (TV op, P. Rorke), Brussels, 1970, ABC, 7 Nov 1971
The Vicious Square, op.121 (op-masque, 2, Rorke), 1971, unperf.
The Conversion, op.138 (1, Werder, after F. Wedekind), unperf.
Bellyful, op.161 (1, Radic, after Bible), 1975, ?lost
The Director, op.190 (1, Werder), U. of Melbourne, 7 June 1980
Medea, op.222 (1, Werder, after Euripides), Melbourne College of Advanced Education, 17 Sept 1985
Belsazar, op.260 (1, Werder, after H. Heine), Dortmund, Gymnasium, 5 Oct 1988
Business Day, op.264 (Werder), 1989
The Last Tree, op.316 (favola in musica, Werder), 1994–5
En passon, op.61, 1964; La belle dame sans merci, op.130, 1973; Quantum, op.133, 1973; Bacchai Music Theatre Dance, op.289, 1991
Koheleth, S, chbr ens, 1951; Shir hashirim, cant, Mez, str, 1953; Radic’s Piece, op.82, cant, 1967; Francis Bacon’s Essays, op.119, orat, 1971; Jessaja, chorus (1994); settings of Hebrew texts, W. Blake, Catullus, G. Chaucer, J. Donne, A. Gryphius, F. Hölderlin, F. Nietzsche, R.M. Rilke, F. Villon, W. Whitman, W. von der Vogelweide