Walter Bricht was born on 9 September 1904 into a prominent Viennese musical family. His father, Baldwin Bricht, was a respected music critic for the Volkszeitung newspaper as well as a political editor of the conservative Catholic paper Volksblatt. Baldwin’s critical musical performance evaluations were said to be admired by fellow critic Julius Korngold, father of operatic and later Hollywood film composer Erich Korngold. Walter’s mother, Agnes Pyllemann, was a child-prodigy pianist who later established herself as a popular singer of operatic and concert repertoire. She is credited with premiering many selections of lieder by Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler in recital. As further evidence of the family’s status in European music circles, Agnes also reportedly counted composer Johannes Brahms as a personal friend. This environment was fertile ground upon which Walter Bricht began to nurture his musical pursuits.
Walter began taking piano lessons from the age of four and progressed to writing piano compositions and lieder by the age of twelve. By his twentieth birthday, Bricht also served as his mother’s accompanist and travelled with her to perform in various local and international engagements. This exposure, coupled with his advanced abilities, contributed to the demand for Bricht’s services as a preferred pianist for chamber and vocal recitals throughout Vienna.
The Brichts’ status as a prominent bourgeois family in early twentieth-century Vienna also afforded Walter the opportunity to attend some of the country’s best institutions. His early education was undertaken at the Academisches Gymnasium, a school that boasted alumni such as authors Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (1874-1929), the “President Liberator” of Czechoslovakia Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937), architect and leading member of the Vienna Secession movement Otto Wagner (1841-1918), musicologist Guido Adler (1855-1941), and the late Romantic composer Julius Bittner (1874-1939
Bricht went on to study at the Vienna Academy for Music where he studied composition with Austro-Hungarian cellist, pianist and composer Franz Schmidt (1874-1939). According to fellow student Walter Taussig (1908-2003), Bricht was Franz Schmidt’s favourite student and it is apparent that much of Bricht’s musical style was influenced by his former mentor.
Bricht graduated from the Vienna Academy in 1928 and became well known as a chamber musician. He also continued to perform as an accompanist to prominent soloists of the day including Moravian tenor Leo Slezak (1973-1946), American violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999), Austrian violinist Ossy Renardy (1920-1953) and Austro-Romanian violinist and founder of the Rosé Quartet, Arnold Rosé (1863-1946).
Bricht also began composing in this period. Compositions include his first four piano works (Suite in G Dur für Klavier Op.1, Variationen in D Dur über ein eigenes Thema für zwei Klaviere Op.2 (1925), Klaviersonate I in G Moll, Op.3 (1926), Klavierkonzert I in F Dur, Op.4) and his song cycle Sieben Lieder für Gesang und Klavier, Op.5.
From 1931-1938, Bricht taught counterpoint, composition and form at the Vienna conservatory. He further expanded his teaching from 1934 to include instruction in voice, piano and composition at Horak-Schulen in Vienna as well as the Mozarteum in Salzburg. The majority of his works stem from this seven-year period.
Notable pieces which received prominent premieres include his B minor String Quartet Op.14 which was first performed by the Rosé Quartet in March 1931. Other premieres include his Piano Concerto No.1 (premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic in March 1929), the orchestral work Verwehte Blätter, Op.18 (premiered by the Vienna Concert Orchestra in December 1933), and his Symphonie in A Moll für grosses Orchester, Op.33(1934). The latter work was scheduled for performances in 1934 by the philharmonic orchestras of Berlin, Vienna and Staatskapelle in Dresden.
Bricht’s career as a composer and performer was poised for success, with many internationally-recognised music organisations eagerly taking up his compositions. However, this positive momentum quickly dissolved between late 1933 and early 1934. Like so many other talented artists of his generation, Bricht too fell victim to antisemitic Nazi legislation. While Austria remained a separate nation until its annexation in 1938, many prominent organisations were sympathetic with German racial policies and followed Berlin’s example by removing and banning works by Jewish composers from their repertoire, and ultimately removing Jewish performers from their ranks all together.
Bricht’s Jewish lineage came as a surprise. Bricht, as well as his parents, had been raised in the Lutheran faith and only discovered his Jewish ancestry from government press releases. As a consequence, both the Staatskapelle in Dresden and the Berlin Philharmonic dropped Bricht’s Symphony Op.33 from their performance schedules. Austrian Radio also terminated all future scheduled broadcasts of his music following the Anschluss.
Bricht saw little future in Europe and decided his only option was to emigrate. He had been offered the status of ‘Honorary Aryan’ by the Nazi government, provided he swore allegiance to the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. Bricht refused and instead procured the necessary paperwork to emigrate to the USA in 1938.
Bricht’s self-imposed exile would have been challenging in the best circumstances. Despite no English language skills and few personal connections in the United States, he settled in New York City and found work as an organist, accompanist and coach. The stresses of starting his career over, coupled with acclimating to a new culture took its toll. A short time after his arrival, Bricht’s wife Ella Kugel filed for divorce. During this period, Bricht ceased composing all together. Despite these major setbacks, he continued to pursue academic employment and the following year, in 1939, he joined the faculty of Mason College in Charleston, West Virginia. Shortly thereafter, he became chairman of the music department. It was during his time at Mason College that Bricht met Donna Kuhn, a professor of violin. The two later married in July 1945 and had two daughters together, Dana Eve and Wendy Diane.
In 1944, the same year he became a US citizen, Walter moved the family back to New York City, where he assumed a faculty position at the New School of Music teaching piano and voice. He retained this position until 1963 when he was offered a professorship at the School of Music at Indiana University as a professor of piano. This role was altered to focus exclusively on voice and song literature in 1967.
While Bricht’s primary focus was his university work, he continued to perform and gave regular solo piano recitals, and performed in chamber music concerts with the Gordon String Quartet. He also served as an accompanist and coach. By many accounts, Bricht was beloved wherever he went. His playful nature and quick wit made him a popular choice as a performer and mentor. One of his ex-students, former Metropolitan Opera conductor and fellow émigré Walter Taussig, was quoted as saying:
“If I have anything valuable at all to offer as a musician, if there is any quality in the way I read music, make music or teach music, I owe all of it—hundred percent to Walter Bricht.”
A year after his arrival in Indiana, Bricht resumed composition after a decades-long hiatus. This revival may well have been due to the increased academic freedom which the professorship at Indiana University had afforded him. In any case, his Sonata for Flute and Piano (1964) was followed by two other works: Chaconne for String Quartet (1967) and a Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano (1968).
While Bricht appeared to be regaining his drive for composition, his health began to decline after developing Emphysema. After a lengthy battle with the disease, Walter Bricht died on 20 March 1970 at the age of 65.
Compositions and Style
Bricht possessed individualism in his compositions not unlike fellow Viennese exile Julius Burger. According to musicologist Michael Haas, Bricht’s music can be classified as late-Romantic modern or early modernist, with comparisons to composers such as Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Erich Korngold, Hans Gal, Karl Weigl, Franz Schmidt and early works by Arnold Schoenberg.
So many composers on the verge of an international career suddenly became marginalized and then largely abandoned serious composition. This was the case with Bricht, Julius Burger, Karol Rathaus and many others. While each situation is different, so too are the possible answers to the question, although common threads may be detected in each case.
Though the main cause is Nazi persecution, which forced a generation of Jewish composers into exile or death, other factors played a part. Bricht’s exile meant uprooting his entire world and starting from scratch. He arrived in the US without fanfare, had few connections, and spoke only German.
Such a major upheaval was also accompanied by financial hurdles. Comparisons can again be made with Viennese émigrés Julius Burger and Karol Rathaus, both of whom also largely gave up on composition as their central career path in order to put food on the table. Burger did arranging for the BBC before moving to New York City to work as a repetiteur and assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. Rathaus, on the other hand, emerged as a much loved professor of Music at Queens College, establishing a prominent music department within the university.
Shifts in musical styles also present a plausible reason. Modernist styles including New Objectivity, Schoenbergian serialism, and Jazz Operas such as Ernst Křenek’s ‘Jonny Spielt Auf’ were the rage in Europe. While in America, the soundscape was also changing from Bricht’s more traditional European sound.
A further possible reason for Bricht’s long hiatus from composition could stem from his divorce from wife Ella Kugel. Kugel was Bricht’s musical collaborator and premiered several of his works. The divorce served as a further blow in an already stressful situation. Major changes in commercial publishing and academic obligations meant Bricht had little time or interest in attempting a major restart of his former career. As a consequence, his works remain unpublished.
Bricht’s vast musical knowledge and talents did not go to waste, however. His contributions to musical education in Vienna and later in the USA stand as a testament to his resilience. Such contributions can be seen in his influences on conductors (such as Metropolitan conductor Walter Taussig, Frederic Kurt - formerly Albuquerque Symphony) to singers (Zinaida Alvers- Mezzo-Soprano and Beatrice Krebs Mezzo-Contralto) and practitioners (Robert Larsen - Founder of the Des Moines Metro Opera and editor of the staple Shirmer Opera anthology series for all voice types). Bricht’s legacy, with direct connections back to masters like Wolf and Mahler, continues in educational institutions today through former students such as Professor of Piano Roy Johnson (University of Kansas), Paul Stewart - Chairman: Keyboard Division, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Professor of Music Ted Wylie (Belmont University, Nashville, TN).
Walter Bricht’s estate has now been installed at the Exil.Arte Zentrum Archive in Vienna, where his music can be further researched, preserved and promoted.
Special thanks to Mrs. Dana Bricht-Higbee for generous contributions.
Editor. “Walter Bricht.” Walter Bricht website. URL: https://www.walterbricht.com/index.html. Accessed 24 August 2020.
Michael Haas. “Walter Bricht’s ‘Scattered Leaves’ Returns to Vienna”, ForbiddenMusic.org, 28 August 2018. URL: https://forbiddenmusic.org/2018/08/28/walter-brichts-scattered-leaves-return-to-vienna/ . Accessed 23 August 2020.
Rebecca Schmid, “Restoring Musical Legacies in Vienna”, The New York Times, 28 December 2018. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/28/arts/music/vienna-nazis-composers-exilearte.html Accessed 23 August 2020.
Walter Robert, Carl van Buskirk, Harry Houdeshel, “Memorial Resolution for Professor Walter Bricht”, Indiana University Bloomington Faculty Council Circular B11-1971, 29 September 1970, Indiana University Archives website,
URL: http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/bfc/view?docId=B11-1971&chunk.id=d1e95&toc.id=&brand=bfc . Accessed 29 August 2020.
Michael Haas, “Walter Bricht”, ForbiddenMusic.org, 12 November 2013, URL: https://forbiddenmusic.org/2013/11/12/walter-bricht/ Accessed 26 August 2020.