Egon Wellesz was an Austrian-born composer, teacher and musicologist. During the inter-war years, Wellesz worked with many of the composers of the Second Viennese School including Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. After the German annexation of Austria in 1938, Wellesz fled to England where he made a career as a lecturer at Oxford University. His output includes nine symphonies, nine string quartets, an octet, piano and violin concertos, chamber music and numerous stage works including ballets and six operas; the opera Die Bakchantinnen was recorded in 2002 by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. He also wrote books on Oriental and Byzantine music, and a biography of Schoenberg.
Wellesz was born to Hungarian parents with Jewish ancestry. He studied at the Institute of Musicology in Vienna with Schoenberg and Guido Adler, a friend of Gustav Mahler. Wellesz married art historian Dr. Emmy Stross in 1908. Amongst his musicological interests were Byzantine music, Oriental music and Baroque opera; he began working at the Neue Wiener Konservatorium in 1911 and wrote his doctoral thesis on Guiseppe Bonno. Wellesz and his wife withdrew from the Jewish community and Egon converted to Catholicism, possibly to avoid growing antisemitism at the university.
While working as a composer and musicologist in Vienna, Wellesz travelled to England and met musicologist Edward J. Dent. During the inter-war years they together founded the ICSM (International Society of Contemporary Music), which enabled Wellesz to bring British music by composers such as Arthur Bliss, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst to Austria; he was also the first to bring Debussy’s music to Vienna. Wellesz participated in Schoenberg’s Verein für Musikalische Privatauffuhrungen (Society for Private Musical Performances) which promoted concerts of contemporary music in Vienna. Wellesz was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1932, the first composer to be given such an honour since Haydn.
Wellesz’ works were banned in Austria from 1933, though the composer maintained that he was not Jewish. In 1938 Wellesz travelled to Amsterdam to hear his work for orchestra, Prosperos Beschwörungen, conducted by Bruno Walter. Whilst in Amsterdam the composers heard about the Anschluss and were advised not to return to Vienna. Egon escaped for England and was later joined by his wife; they were able to escape more easily by emphasising their politically compromised positions as ‘monarchists’ rather than their Jewish ancestry – it was easier to obtain British visas on political rather than racial grounds.
During the war Wellesz was interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien. He stopped composing during this time. A campaign by H. C. Colles, music critic for The Times secured Wellesz’s release, and he took up a fellowship at Lincoln College, Oxford in 1943 where he was reunited with his wife. He also began composing again, beginning with his fifth string quartet. Wellesz would never be successful in regaining his old lectureship in Vienna.
Wellesz’s early compositions are tonal, showing influence from Mahler and Debussy; his later works move towards serialism. During the First World War his output was influenced by the Ballets Russes, and his stage works inspired by Greek mythology were admired by Kurt Jooss, Rudolf Laban and Ellen Tels. Inspired by Baroque opera, Wellesz incorporated dance into his operatic works. He wrote his first opera, Die Prinzessin Girnara in 1918 with librettist Jakob Wasserman. Wellesz began writing symphonies after the Second World War. His first symphony was premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in March 1948.
Wellesz was awarded Vienna’s most prestigious prize for cultural achievement, the Staatspreis für Musik,’ in 1953, as well as an OBE in 1957. He remained in Oxford until his death in 1974 and is buried in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna.
By Abaigh McKee
Egon Wellesz Fonds. www.egonwellesz.at [accessed 30/9/2017]
Jeffrey L. Buller (2003) ‘Die Bakchantinnen (review)’ The Opera Quarterly 19(2), 306-9.
Michael Haas, ‘Egon Wellesz (1885-1974): The Forgotten Modernist,’ 4/6/2014.
forbiddenmusic.org/2014/06/04/egon-wellesz-1885-1974-the-forgotten-modernist/ [accessed 27/9/2017]
Amanda Holden (2003) ‘Viennese School – Amanda Holden remembers Egon Wellesz.’ www.amandaholden.org.uk/egon-wellesz/ [accessed 30/9/2017]