Wilhelm Grosz, 1894 – 1939: From Mahler Successor to the Santa Fe Trail


Wilhelm Grosz 1894 - 1939

Wilhelm Grosz 1894 – 1939

(Verflossen ist das Gold der Tage – Washed Away is the Gold of our Days – Rondel op. 11 from 1921)

“In comparison with all of these other would-be Mahlerians, Wilhelm Grosz rises far above and is already much more established.” Thus wrote the critic Julius Korngold in April 1924 when he compared various Viennese composers conspicuously demonstrating their Mahler credentials in their own works. If Wilhelm Grosz, (1894-1939),is remembered today, it’s probably for his London ‘Tin-Pan Alley’ songs, Isle of Capri, Red Sails in the Sunset, When Budapest was Young and Harbour Lights written under the name of Will Gross or Hugh Williams. One could even credit him with composing the first ‘Country Western’ hit with his song Along The Santa Fe Trail, intended but never used for the 1940’s film The Santa Fe Trail with Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn and a young unknown Ronald Reagan in a secondary role.


(Along the Santa Fe Trail)

Grosz died in 1939 at the age of 45 only a few months after arriving in New York en route to Hollywood to search out film Music opportunities. The stress of relocation to America killed him. He found himself stuck in New York with the outbreak of war, and his children still in Europe. Certainly few careers have been so turned upside down as Grosz’s. His first works, reviewed by Julius Korngold in 1918, are settings of Japanese poems by Hans Bethge and have a distinctively Mahlerian flavour. They were performed in a concert series entitled ‘Anbruch’, or ‘Dawn – in the sense of ‘a new beginning’. Korngold quips: Grosz’s songs were less “making up a new beginning” as “making off” with it. Notwithstanding, Korngold heaps the youngster with lots of encouragement.

(Lieder an die Geliebte op. 18 with texts by Hans Bethge ‘Nur Du Allein’)

Sganarell 1 libretto cover front

The following year in the same concert series, Grosz accompanied Arnold Rosé in a performance of his violin sonata in E major. It too is well received, this time in a review by Joseph Reitler, who admonished Grosz’s behaviour at the piano as being a “veritable pantomime carried on behind the back of the sedate and dignified Rosé.” Thus were detected the first signs of impish mischief that would weave a thread right through his life and work. (As one could possibly imagine from the accompanying photograph of Grosz with his daughter Eva Anneliese from about 1932)

Dr. Wilhelm Grosz with his daughter Eva Anneliese around 1932

Dr. Wilhelm Grosz with his daughter Eva Anneliese around 1932

Julius Korngold is much more critical of a set of symphonic variations for piano and orchestra, which he accused of losing the thematic material altogether. But – and this is the worst (or best) bit: “he injects a parlando flavoured passage in the middle that can only be compared with a [cabaret] revue!” His opera Sganarell based on Moliere, premiered in 1925, was again dismissed by Korngold, while still acknowledging his abundant talents. Indeed, it was in 1924 that Korngold made the above remark about Grosz and the post-Mahler generation of young composers. Korngold’s list of other contenders for the position of Mahler-successor is a nomenclature of nonentities with the exception of Grosz, while diplomatically omitting any mention of his own son, Erich Wolfgang. Julius Korngold then claims that though most of these youngsters are far from being taken too seriously, all will be heard “long after every memory of Schoenberg has vanished”. I find Julius Korngold always an engaging observer of musical trends in Vienna, even when he gets things spectacularly wrong.

concert Performance of 'Baby in der Bar'

Concert Performance poster for ‘Baby in der Bar’

Grosz left Vienna in 1927/8 for Berlin and composed a jazzy dance Pantomime called Baby in der Bar Later, he found himself setting many of the same texts as Zemlinsky from the collection of poems by African-Americans called in German ‘Afrika Singt’ or ‘Afrika Songs’ as he called the resultant cycle, premiered to considerable praise on Radio Breslau in 1930. A reviewer wrote that “it was music that represented the Zeitgeist of the age.”


(From ‘Afrika Songs’: Tante Sues Geschichten – Aunt Sue’s Tales)

Standby! Recording! is the English for his Burlesque Operetta Achtung! Aufnahme! and would be a major contribution to the genre of the  Zeitoper – or ‘contemporary opera’ – not opera with a subject from the past, but with Flappers, Radios, Jazzbands etc. It was not just a snap-shot of contemporary life, but a snap-shot of HIS contemporary life. He had taken over the recording label Ultraphon (the forerunner of Telefunken), where he possibly became the first recording producer – and therefore, holds a special iconic status for me and my colleagues – at least those of my colleagues who have heard of him.


A quote from a letter written by his granddaughter gives us the best biographical Information: “Dr. Wilhelm Grosz was born on August 11th 1894 in the city of Vienna. His parents Bernhard and Mathilde Grosz owned a jewellery shop which was located [on Vienna’s Graben no. 12 in the first district] He was an only child and studied theory and composition at the Vienna State Academy with Richard Heuberger (1910/11); Robert Fuchs (1911/12) Franz Schreker (1912 – 1916) and graduated with honours [and his dissertation Use of Fugue in Mozart’s Vocal and Orchestral Works under the supervision of Prof. Guido Adler which resulted in his Ph.D. in musicology in 1920] At the same time, he was studying piano with the famed Richard Robert [teacher of Georg Szell, Rudolf Serkin, Hans Gál and Clara Haskell] In 1921, he was appointed conductor in Mannheim but returned one year later to Vienna to work as conductor and pianist.

The Graben around the turn of the century - where the family Jewlery Shop was located

The Graben around the turn of the century – where the family Jewellery Shop was located

“Dr Grosz married [..] Elisabeth Schön Grosz on February 10th 1927. Elisabeth Grosz had a son, Peter Müller, from a previous marriage. In 1927, they moved to Berlin and Dr. Grosz became artistic manager of Ultraphon Gramophon Co. (Later called Telefunken). During [this time in] Berlin, he was commissioned by the Reichsrundfunk [Federal Radio] to write, especially for broadcast, [..] a Cantata for two voices and orchestra…Afrika Singt, also a play A Little Melody. It is about this time that Dr. Grosz began to devote more and more of his time to more popular musical forms. On March 16th, 1930, Elisabeth [gave birth to a daughter, their only child] Eva Anneliese. In 1933, Dr. Grosz became conductor of the Kammerspiel Theater in Vienna [after being forced to leave Berlin]. [..] In 1934 he took refuge in London […] where he became Close to the lyricist Jimmy Kennedy (who died in 1985) and composed several songs [which to this day have remained] internationally popular and extremely successful. At first he wrote under the name of Will Grosz, but later under the name Hugh Williams and then Hugh Grant. “


These songs of course were the ones listed above: Red Sails in the Sunset; Isle of Capri and Harbour Lights. Grosz had Little choice while living in London as Publishers were not interested in his serious compositions, and valued his talent for combining popular melody with dance numbers. She then goes on to write that her grandparents went to New York in 1938 but with the outbreak of war found themselves stranded. Their daughter Eva Anneliese along with half-brother Peter, were still in London where they remained with family members until 1945. This would obviously cause tremendous stress, which took its toll. Grosz’s granddaughter goes on to write that during a private recital on December 10th, 1939, in Forest Hills New York, while accompanying a trio of ladies in the final scene of Rosenkavelier, he collapsed at the piano with a massive heart attack just as the Marschallin sang ‘Im Gottes Namen!’

Photo Portrait of Grosz towards the end of his short life

Photo Portrait of Grosz towards the end of his short life

(From Grosz’s 1921 cycle: ‘Rondels’ Geh leise – Go quietly)

Early works of Grosz betray much Schrekerian influence with unmistakeably impressionistic textures, moods and instrumentation. Work at the Mannheim Opera, (inter-war the most forward looking of Germany’s opera houses), would certainly have brought him in contact with Ernst Toch and exposed him to yet another development emerging in the wake of the First World War – the first stirrings of ‘New Objectivity’. But it was the move to Berlin that allowed Grosz to move even more seamlessly than his fellow Schreker pupil Ernst Krenek from ‘serious’ music to a jazzy, popular vernacular. Indeed, he was the first Austrian composer to incorporate jazz into his music at all – quite a few years ahead of fellow Schreker pupils Ernst Krenek and Max Brand. Perhaps he was even the most talented to morph naturally from one genre to the other.

Louisiana Five Jazz Band

Louisiana Five Jazz Band

(Jazzband 1923)

With the Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933, Grosz, who was Jewish, returned to Vienna where he ran a chamber theatre group until the attempted Nazi coup in Austria in 1934 convinced him to get his family out of Austria. The move to London and the association with the song writer Jimmy Kennedy brought him into London’s Tin Pan Alley. Though these lovely dance numbers are not like his Berlin ‘hit’ songs, they appear to have been a natural Evolution. The clip below offers the only known film footage of Wilhelm Grosz.

Isle of Capri[1]

With the move to New York and the composition of Along the Santa Fe Trail he had embarked on what might have been a continuation of Erich Korngold’s own sector: namely, the film music for Hollywood’s golden couple: Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. I always suspect that it was the tragedy of losing a homeland, family and friends combined with the excitement of ‘making it’ in America that killed Kurt Weill at the age of 50. The year that Wilhelm Grosz died of a heart attack, 1939 would have meant that he was spared from the worry of knowing whether friends and family had been murdered in Hitler’s death camps: But the stress of relocation while standing on the threshold of success in a brave new world no doubt cost us all another promising talent.

(Rondel op. 11, 1921: Irgendwohin weht der Wind – The Wind must blow in some Direction)