More and more frequently since the publication of ‘Forbidden Music’, I have people asking me if I have heard of this or that composer. I have to confess that usually, I can admit to having heard, or at least read the name at some point. It doesn’t mean that I have any clear idea as to what their music was like. Such was the case when John Mclaughlin Williams wrote to me about the Viennese composer Walter Bricht. I visited the Bricht homepage which offers a treasure trove of interesting information. Bricht was born in 1904 making him a year older than his far better known contemporary Erich Zeisl. And like Zeisl, we are dealing with an Austrian composer whose earliest mature years as a professional coincided with Hitler’s rise in Germany and the onset of Austro-fascism in 1933. For obvious reasons, these composers could not do what Hanns Eisler, Erich Korngold, Ernst Krenek, and other slightly older Austrian composers had managed. They could not strike out for fame and fortune in Germany. Yet despite the oppressive political environment throughout Europe, Vienna continued to produce talented musicians at an alarming rate with apparently nowhere to go. It would continue to be the case throughout the following decades with Georg Tintner, born in 1917 and Walter Aptowitzer aka Arlen in 1920.
Bricht was born in Vienna’s first district, the son of a prominent opera and oratorio singer and a music critic. He certainly grew up in a well-connected, family. His godmother was the Countess Bienerth-Schmerling, the wife of Austria’s Imperial prime minister until 1911.
Like so many precocious musical children, he was tinkering away at the piano, playing melodies with perfect recall, virtually singing before he could talk and even composing children’s Christmas songs. He was obviously academically gifted as he attended the prestigious Akademisches Gymnasium, the former school of such important figures as the writers Johann Nestroy, Arthur Schnitzler, Peter Altenberg, Richard Beer Hofmann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal; the economist Ludwig von Mises, the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Masaryk, the musicologist Guido Adler, the composers Julius Bittner, the architect Otto Wagner, and a seemingly endless number of chemists and physicists. Should anyone wish to locate the provenance of fin de siècle Vienna, they could do worse than examine the list of Akademisches Gymnasium alumni. It was at this time that Bricht began studying composition with Franz Schmidt, one of Austria’s most important composers. Along with Joseph Marx, Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek, Julius Bittner and Wilhelm Kienzl, Schmidt represented a recalcitrant conservatism that would mark Austrian music throughout the 1920s and ‘30s. With the advent of the anti-Nazi Austro-Fascist years, it would become crucial to establish a separate musical identity from the Nazi enemy across the border. For these composers, Austrian music was defined by looking away from Nazi Germany and in the case of Joseph Marx, looking south towards Italy. Paradoxically, Schmidt was an unapologetic pan-German nationalist whose last work, the oratorio German Resurrection, was begun following Austria’s annexation by Germany in March 1938. It would have the good fortune to remain incomplete at the time of his death in 1939, thus saving Schmidt from more incrimination than he would have deserved. Despite such ambiguities, there can be no argument regarding Schmidt’s competence and abilities as a composer. He was unapologetically conservative, tonal and late romantic.
Upon completion of his studies, Bricht taught at Vienna’s conservatory, and the Horak Music school. It was from 1931 until 1938, that Bricht was most active as a composer. The website above offers a number of historic performances of some of Bricht’s works. He appears to have been a young composer with considerable profile. Performances were even reviewed by Julius Korngold until his retirement in 1934. He was unusually positive about the young composer, and after 1934 by Joseph Reitler who accorded him some of his highest words of praise. His B minor quartet was premiered by the Rosé quartet – an honour that was granted to only very few young composers.
Bricht was raised a Christian, but had Jewish born grandparents on both sides of his family. He refused to accept honorary-Aryan status and chose instead to leave for America, losing everything at the border upon his departure. It is in many ways a typical story. But most tragic of all, it was with his arrival in America that he put composing to one side. As with all émigrés, his first priority was simply to survive. His music, such as can be ascertained, can be classified as late-Romantic modern, or early-modernist. It remains tonal and fairly typical of the generation composing at the time of Austria’s clerical dictatorship. Bricht does, however, seem to offer a degree of chromaticism that distinguishes him from other contemporaries. His music sometimes hints at influences from Franz Schreker or Karol Szymanowski. Though not mentioned in official biographies, there is the same ‘glow’ (as Julius Korngold described it) of Austria’s Jugendstil composers – meaning Schreker, Zemlinsky, early Schoenberg and Karl Weigl. Of all of these composers, Weigl remained in Vienna and it is his musical language that seems to come closest to what I can hear in Bricht’s. Indeed, I would even go so far as to suggest that I hear more Weigl than Schmidt in the extracts available on his website. This remains my opinion even after hearing the longer clips sent to me by his daughter Dana Bricht.
Bricht would become a much loved professor at one of America’s most highly regarded conservatories: Indiana University School of Music. The testimonials of his many well-established pupils make for impressive reading. He did not lead a wasted life in a mid-western college like so many others. Yet his ultimate talent was to survive, and his is a life that demands answers to many questions. Would he have carried on composing had he stayed in Austria? Most certainly, but it is admirable that he turned down the offer of an honorary Aryanship. Indeed, as the Nazi party became more and more swivel-eyed in its anti-Semitic paranoia, one wonders if he would have continued in safety or faced eventual deportation. Had he stayed and continued to work as a successful composer he would have come away with the taint of prospering under the Nazis. This is the fate that even today keeps such composers as Egon Kornauth and Joseph Marx from the recognition they deserve. Bricht was a life saved, but a career lost. Austria can offer a list of a hundred similar destinies, not all having to do with music. Yet Walter Bricht must be one of the more tragic ‘might-have-beens’. Mercifully, his output, even for his short period in Vienna, was by no means insignificant, and one hopes that soon the means can be found to make his music available again. It not only belongs to the story of music in Vienna during the 1930s, it belongs to everyone who is interested in the many directions that music was developing. How tragic that in the case of Bricht, this development was brought to a halt. How lucky that the music survives and indeed, how fortunate, that HE survived.
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