Wenn ich komponiere, bin ich wieder in Wien – I Return to Vienna when I Compose


This is the title of the exhibition that accompanies the official opening of the exil.arte centre at Vienna’s University for Music and Performing Arts on May 22nd. It is also the reason that I’ve been away from the Forbidden Music blog these past months. The quote is taken from my conversation with the composer Robert Fürstenthal while visiting in San Diego. I mentioned it in passing to my colleague Prof. Gerold Gruber who immediately seized upon it as the title of the exhibition. It poignantly expresses the musical legacy displaced and destroyed by Hitler as seen through the lens of Vienna’s Music Academy. (Now the University for Music and Performing Arts)


(“Liebeslied” by Robert Fürstenthal as sung by Rafel Fingerlos, baritone with Sascha El Mouissi, piano)

A number of things have come to light in the process of preparing the exhibition. One of the most apparent is the city’s total immersion in music along with the variety and status of its many institutions. Many of the most important musicians studied at Vienna’s New Conservatory, an institution that was perceived as being more accessible to Jewish students. Some avoided conservatories and academies altogether and studied privately or at Vienna’s principal university where Guido Adler headed a department of comparative musicology, a discipline not available at the performing arts institutions. Most picked and chose, with nearly everyone taking something from somewhere. Georg Szell studied piano with Richard Robert at the New Conservatory, while studying composition and theory with Eusebius Mandyczewski at the Academy. Hans Gál also studied with both, but privately. Paul Pisk studied with Franz Schreker at the Academy and privately with Arnold Schönberg. Egon Wellesz only studied with Schönberg privately and with Guido Adler at Vienna’s University. Music instruction in Vienna was a like an enormous shopping mall with the Academy the largest store at its principal entrance. Everyone seems to have passed through at some point with even anarchic Arnold Schönberg teaching theory in 1910 and 1911.

Musik Akademie

The Music Academy’s new building next door to the Konzerthaus, opened in 1913

The city clearly divides into two separate epochs: the first took place pre-1914, when Modernism was born and Vienna had its own “Scandal Concert” at the Musikverein, offering black eyes and bloody noses several months before the more famous punch-up in Paris following Stravinsky’s Sacre. Weird and wonderful ideas flew about like bats at nightfall, all anticipating the inevitable apocalypse. Nothing was inconceivable or beyond the realm of possibility. Schönberg’s compositions from 1908 and 1909 still demand more input from listeners than equivalent works by Mahler, Schreker or Zemlinsky. Even passages from Strauss’s Elektra, premiered in 1909 in Dresden anticipate Stravinsky’s Sacre – just listen to the interlude preceding Clytemnestra’s entrance. Everyone knew the world, as they had known it was falling apart while nobody was quite sure when the final big-bang would come.


Vienna’s Watschenkonzert on March 31, 1913 with works by Schönberg, Berg and Zemlinsky

(Extract from Schönbergs “Book of the Hanging Garden”: Brigitte Fassbaender mezzo with Aribert Reimann, piano)

Musical life was decimated following the First World War. Everyone who was anyone abandoned Vienna and struck out for Berlin. As noted by Anton Kuh: “I moved to Berlin because I preferred the company of the Viennese”. Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve dealt with the alternative annexation of Germany by Austria in 1920. But what remained in Austria can’t be totally dismissed and makes up the second epoch: post-1914. Oddly enough, the pre-war complaints by progressives that Vienna was a city of irredeemable conservatives became a reality. Obviously it wasn’t entirely the case before the First World War, or they simply wouldn’t have been able to remain in Vienna and flourish. And of course, fin die siècle Modernism in Vienna did not solely apply to music. Schönberg’s own attempts to gain a footing in Berlin prior to 1914 prove this point with his return to Vienna after unsuccessful attempts to establish himself in what he believed to be more accommodating Berlin.

Christian Schad's portrait of Hauer

Josef Matthias Hauer as painted by Christian Schad in 1927

(Egon Wellesz in conversation with Derycke Cooke on Hauer and Schönberg)

But inter-war Vienna offered much that Berlin didn’t or still couldn’t. It was where in 1919 the monthly progressive magazine Musikblätter des Anbruch was published. It was where Schönberg would meet Josef Matthias Hauer and concoct his own variant of serial composition, leaving a legacy known as the Second Viennese School. It’s the only place where Musil’s Mann ohne Eigenschaften could have been written. Writers, musicians and artists reeled with the legacy of an empire that had been around for hundreds of years along with its accompanying institutions: elite education, multi-lingual internationalism and a well run civil service. Austria stood in relation to Germany, a new state only cobbled together in 1871, as Great Britain stood to the United States in 1945. The new kid on the block was now the biggest kid on the block, and everyone who was anyone rushed to join his gang. Like London after 1945, a smug post-imperial Viennese sense of innate superiority still prevailed. This core conservatism, however, brought its own compositional benefits. It grandly stood aside from the trends of New Objectivity and even struggled to find support for its own Schönbergian School. All of these “new fangled” developments represented to Vienna’s core establishment nothing more serious than a one-off drunken Seitensprung with someone else’s spouse in the context of a long stable marriage. Indeed, Vienna’s “conservatives”, or “tradtionalists” as they preferred to see themselves, also believed in “progress”, but they saw it as something organic and growing out of individual expression rather than jettisoning everything that had gone before. If Vienna was the city of Mahler and Schönberg, it was also the city of Brahms. It offered a southern alternative to Prussian severity and it’s no surprise that another German, Richard Strauss would become the dominant force, with local composers such as Franz Schmidt and Joseph Marx providing a creative environment where the likes of Erich Wolfgang Korngold could comfortably thrive.

3 Marx, 1925

Joseph Marx, 1925

(“Frühlingsmusik” from 1925 by Joseph Marx: RSO Vienna with conductor Johannes Wildner)

The Strauss, Marx, Schmidt and Pfitzner legacy of Austria and Bavaria would ultimately suffer the reputation of Nazi opportunism. They and the many young musicians who were developing within this environment, whether Jewish, Communist or neither, would also be dismissed as not only being irrelevant post 1945, but as having aesthetically contributed to the Nazi Zeitgeist. It was hard to disagree. Yet inter-war Vienna remained the home of composers Alban Berg, Anton Webern and Ernst Krenek. In addition to Schönberg’s subscription series of private concerts, there were contemporary music series initiated by Krenek, Paul Pisk and Friedrich Wildgans. It was where the ICSM was founded in 1922. Vienna’s Universal Edition, (UE) became the principal publisher for new music. It was, however, in keeping with Hanns Eisler’s description of Schönberg as a man “who started a revolution in order to become a reactionary”, a city of “reactionary modernism”. Berg’s expressionist opera Wozzeck lands right at the start of the post-Expressionist movement known as New Objectivity. Twelve tone-composition carried all the elitist hallmarks of Eisler’s hated l’art pour l’art. Webern receded into an introverted distillation of musical material, while Krenek sallied forth with unpredictable eclecticism. Vienna’s inter-war years are more nuanced and diverse than the simple formula that places Viennese conservatism against iconoclastic Berlin.


Ernst Krenek during the inter-war years in Vienna

(First movement to Krenek’s violin concerto op. 29 from 1924 with Chantal Juillet, the Radiosinfonie Orchester Berlin and conductor John Mauceri)

What remained above all was the sense that music was a Viennese way of life. Making music was seen as normal and unexceptional. It more easily crossed class, religious and cultural borders than any other medium. The concentrated geography of the city and the view that students should be offered maximum access, meant standing room was available to anyone with even cheap seats within reach of those prepared to wait until the night of performance. To this day, Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts comes in with the highest ranking in Europe, due as much to the quality of its instruction as to the easy access in Vienna of opera and concerts. Music was the default setting of many Viennese, and what surprises in this context, was the number of individuals we present in our exhibition for whom music was only secondary to pursuing degrees in law or medicine at other institutions.


The music venues in Vienna: Konzerthaus, the entry to the State Opera and the Musikverein all offering easy access to students and music lovers

One of the most sobering elements we touch upon in our opening exhibition is the generation of musicians whose access to the Academy was thwarted by Hitler’s annexation of Austria. It’s a generation that went forth and created Viennese outposts, whether as teachers, performers, theorists or chamber musicians. These are young people born around 1920 and include Hans Keller, Paul Hamburger, members of the Amadeus Quartet, Walter Arlen and Robert Fürstenthal. Each represented an element of cultural transfer that would ultimately be re-imported to their former homelands.

Walter Arlen, Chicago c.1942_Gerold Gruber

the 17 year old Walter Arlen freshly arrived from Vienna in Chicago

(“Island” from Arlen’s song cycle “Poet in Exile” with Christian Immler baritone and Danny Driver piano)

All of this brings us to the present. What is the point of a retrospective if not viewed through the lens of today? It would be disingenuous to compare the upheavals of the last twelve months with those in the run-up to 1939. Walter Arlen, for example, bristles when Donald Trump is compared with Hitler. He should know. There are, however, unsettling similarities to the years leading up to 1933: Former imperial powers trying by force to reassert themselves in a changed world; patriotism that has morphed into jingoism; “Nativism” that crosses into racism; ruthless politicians who lie with impunity; a press that is polarised between opposition and adulation and antiquated systems within democracy trying to keep pace with social changes. It’s created a world where again a feeling of impending apocalypse looms just beyond the horizon. We’re living with unstable leaders at the helm and “beggar thy neighbour” nationalism has turned aggressive. Authoritarian leadership is seen as an answer to the loss of social solidarity.

February 1975

Pro-European letter signed by members of the Amadeus Quartet from the Amadeus Quartet Archive of the Royal College of Music, London

Where these things led was what provided the motivation of a Europe that saw its future as ever closer cooperation. What started off as a common coal and steel agreement between Europe’s oldest enemies, France and Germany, merged into a union that guaranteed peace and prosperity for everyone. The generation that lived through the horrors of what the alternatives offered were the most active in its support. It is entirely appropriate therefore that this article closes with one of the most telling documents we requested for our exhibition. It was generously provided by the Royal College of Music, which has given me permission to reprint it on this blog. It comes from their Amadeus Quartet Archive, and frankly, their appeal for European unity in 1975 is as relevant today as it was 30 years after the Second World War. It’s a document, which I hope might bring a degree of measure to the Brexit dominated media in the UK, presently shouting down all dissenting voices, even denouncing Britain’s judiciary as “traitors”. To those who insist the Common Market of 1975 was different from the federating union of today, I can only reply that the federating Europe of today is infinitely stronger than it was as a mere common market in 1975. It has provided an unprecedented period of peace on a continent that has seen wartime as its natural state and its populations as mere cannon-fodder.