Julius Bürger was born 11 March 1897 in Vienna, Austria. He was one of nine children to Joseph Bürger, a tailor, and Clara, a homemaker. His passion for music was evident from an early age and, as he lived in the cultural centre of Western classical music of the period, Burger had a wide variety of genres and styles at his fingertips. Burger decided on pursuing this passion as a career and enrolled at the Faculty of Arts-University of Vienna from the winter of 1916 until the summer of 1917. This represented Burger’s first formal training and he attended lectures by Moravian musicologist Guido Adler and Austrian (later British) composer and musicologist Egon Wellesz. The following year he began his studies in composition under famed Austrian opera composer Franz Schreker at the Universität für Musik und Darstellend Kunst,Vienna.
Burger’s study under Schreker would prove to be a defining moment in his development as an artist and provide him with a mould, of sorts, in which to create his own musical idiom. In 1920, Schreker took a new post as director of the Hochschule für Musik Berlin and later that year, he was followed by a talented array of students including Ernst Krenek (composer of jazz opera Jonny Spielt Auf), composer Karol Rathaus, conductor Jasha Horenstein, composer Alois Hába (known for compositional experiments in micro-tonality), among many others.
Also during this period (Oct.1920-July1921), Burger trained in conducting at the Hochschule, a skill which would serve him well in future endeavours. He graduated in July 1922 but financial difficulties meant he needed to supplement his income and capitalized on his newly honed talents including employment as accompanist to famed Moravian tenor Leo Slezak (1920-22). Burger, possessing a wonderful tenor voice himself, relished in this partnership and it is likely here that he developed his affinity composing for the tenor voice prevalent in his lieder.
Upon graduating from Schreker’s class in 1922, Burger took up a repetiteur post for the opera house in Karlsruhe and in following year, found himself on the move to New York City, where he would work as assistant to conductor Artur Bodansky at the Metropolitan Opera. Burger secured this sought-after apprenticeship through a recommendation by German-born conductor, pianist and composer Bruno Walter.
In 1925, while honing his skills at the Met, Burger took the opportunity to supplement his income as a pianist for the Ampico Piano Company, recording several piano rolls for their line of player pianos. These consisted of four-hand arrangements performed with Milton Suskind (pseudonym Edgar Fairchild) and conducted by Artur Bodansky. Burger stayed on at the Met for a little over two years, returning in 1927 to Europe where he accompanied contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink on a tour.
Shortly after the conclusion of this tour, Burger began work as assistant to German conductor Otto Klemperer at the Kroll Opera House. From 1929, he also conducted for Berlin Radio but, upon the ascension of Hitler to the position of Chancellor and the establishment edict for the Re-establishment of the Civil Service in the spring of 1933, Burger resigned from his post and returned to Vienna.
The sudden departure from Germany left Burger without employment. After several months, he was given a commission by the BBC as an arranger. While employed with the company, Burger pioneered a new radio genre which he named the “Radio Potpourri”. These were popular programmes consisting of large scale orchestral arrangements of various pieces around a central theme. Some nine Grand Potpourri were created during his five year employment, as well as dozens of smaller arrangements for various programmes. Examples of Potpourri titles include ‘Holiday in Europe’ (1934), ‘The Life of Offenbach’(1935), ‘Festival of Folk Music’ (1936),‘God Save the King Variations' (for coronation celebrations of George VI) and 'Themes of London' (1937).
The last title ('Themes of London') is a musical representation of London through the ages. It utilises a wide variety of music from the Baroque period up to popular Jazz numbers of the 1930s- all woven into an hour-long collage of music.
Recordings provided by BBC and permission granted courtesy of the BBC. See also the article, Julius Bürger’s Themes of London: An Émigré’s legacy at the BBC and also What's the link between a refugee composer, the BBC, and George VI's coronation? BBC Audio, April 2021.
Many Potpourri were centred around music of the British Empire territories and were utilized for propaganda purposes throughout the Second World War, including an ode to the British Empire in ‘The Empire Sings’. It should be noted that while Burger was employed as an arranger for the BBC, he was only given temporary visa status to visit on occasion and would do the majority of his work from Vienna, and later, in exile in Paris.
With the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in 1938, it seemed Burger sensed it was no longer safe to remain in Europe and managed to gain visas for himself and his wife, Rosa, to the United States. After a difficult beginning, Burger’s professional contacts aided in finding him employment with Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) arranging for conductors Arthur Fiedler and Andre Kostelanetz. Also during this period, Burger made his only professional engagement on Broadway, conducting the debut run of the show Songs of Norway. The show had boasted more than 500 performances at the Palace Theatre in London and was later made into a feature film in 1970.
Nearly two decades after concluding his apprenticeship at the Metropolitan Opera, Burger returned to the company as an assistant conductor and Repetiteur. He also served as accompanist and vocal coach for many of the great stars of the period. While Burger excelled in many areas, he would soon return to a skill he honed during his precarious years with the BBC: arranging.
After several years at the Met, Burger was approached with his first commission with the company which included a full-length ballet created in partnership with dancer and choreographer Zachary Solov. The result was the performance piece Vittorio, based on ballet music from several Verdi operas, which included a large portion of material from Verdi’s Un Giorno di Regno. The production also represented conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos’s Met debut (15 December 1954). After the overwhelming success of Vittorio, Burger’s arranging services would again be called on to create an adaptation of Offenbach’s La Perichole (1956) which also ran in several printings by publisher Boosey & Hawkes. The following year Burger was again commissioned by the Met to compose several entr’actes for a Peter Brook production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.
Burger retired from the Met in 1969 and set forth composing the majority of his known original works in this period. He also gained some recognition for one of his original works during this period, attaining first prize at the contemporary Music Festival of Indiana State University in 1984 for Variations on a theme by Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach composed in 1945. The reward for first place was a performance of the piece by the University’s orchestra. This represented one of the first times Burger had ever hear one of his own compositions in concert (at age 87).
Only a few years later, in 1990, Burger’s constant companion and wife of 57 years, Rosa (Blaustein) Burger, died. Now 91, Burger met with probate attorney Ronald Pohl, Esq. at the recommendation of a mutual friend, in order to arrange his own and his late wife’s estates.
Burger’s affable, kind nature and resemblance to Pohl’s late grandfather led to a life changing friendship. After some discussion, Burger expressed his wish to hear some of his own compositions before his death and shared with Pohl the stacks of handwritten scores collecting dust in Burger’s Queens apartment. With growing interest in the music as well as the elderly man’s plight, Pohl arranged for young Israeli cellist Maya Beiser to come to Burger’s apartment to play his Cello Concerto, with Burger himself accompanying on piano. The piece had been dedicated to his mother, who was shot en route to Auschwitz on 28 September 1942. The emotional magnitude of the piece moved Pohl to get more of Burger’s works publically performed and recorded.
Within a short period, a concert of exclusively Burger compositions was arranged to take place with the renowned Orchestra of Saint Lukes in Lincoln Centre, NYC (including the world premiere of the Burger Cello Concerto). Other performances followed with the Austin Symphony (3-4 December 1994), in Israel (August 1993) and in Berlin (September 1994). The amazing story garnered media attention and both men were featured in the New York Times (19 February 1993), Parade Magazine (5 September 1993) as well as CBS’s Person of the Week segment with the late Peter Jennings (12 March 1993).
The concert and publicity around Burger’s story also gained the interest of then record producer/creator of the Exil.Arte label, Michael Haas, now Senior Researcher at Exil.Arte Zentrum Archiv, Wien, and recordings of selections of Burger’s orchestral music were made with the Radio Symphonie Orchester, Berlin with Simone Young conducting and soloists Michael Kraus (baritone) and Maya Beiser (cello). These were later released on the Tocatta Classics label. Although in poor health, Burger was present for the sessions in Berlin. Sixty-one years after setting down his baton in the city, Burger now returned to hear his own music.
Julius Burger passed away on 12 June 1995, age 98, having largely achieved his wish to hear his music performed publically.
While Burger was able to find work in utilizing his musical talents, due to antisemitism, exile and decades of precariousness, he was not able to make a foothold in the field until the last years of his life, similar to fellow Schreker student Berthold Goldschmidt.
Burger’s style reflects that of the great Austro-Germanic composers of the early 20th century. The idiom is grounded in the late Romantic and Avant Garde (Neues Sachlichkeit) influences of the Weimar period. Burger shares much in his style with other contemporaries of the period, particularly that of his teacher, Franz Schreker. Other influences include Erich Korngold and Joseph Marx, with some comparisons also made to Alexander Zemlisky and Gustav Mahler, evident in his early composition Two Songs for Baritone and Orchestra (1919).
His compositional oeuvre can be divided into two periods. The ‘Early Period’ stems from 1915 with his earliest known piece titled ‘Dammernd liegt der Sommerabend’.This lied is a setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine (from collection Die Heimkehr, 1823-24). The period lasted until his employment at the BBC in 1933-34. This period also produced two commercial successes for Austro-Hungarian/Romanian tenor Joseph Schmidt including ‘Launisches Gluck’ (written on themes by Johann Strauss and incorporated into the operetta 1,001 Nights) and ‘Zigeunerlied’. The earlier was also featured in the 1933 film Ein Lied Geht um die Welt starring Joseph Schmidt as a burgeoning opera star ‘Ricardo’.
After this point, very few original works were composed until 1967, nearing the end of his tenure at the Metropolitan Opera Company. The ‘Late Period’ lasted from 1967 until 1988 and concludes with the aptly titled lied Goodbye, Vienna, also known as the Wienerlied. Burger composed some seventeen dated lieder (many undated pieces likely stem from this period also) as well as large orchestral compositions, works for chamber ensemble, and orchestral lieder arrangements.
Julius Burger’s estate is deposited on permanent loan at the Exil.Arte Zentrum Archiv der Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien, founded by esteemed musicologist Gerold Gruber and Senior Researcher and record producer, Dr. Michael Haas. Two albums containing selections of Burger’s orchestral works have been commercially released since his death. A large collection from his unpublished lieder catalogue has also recently been recorded by Burger scholar Ryan Hugh Ross for the album titled: A Journey in Exile: The Lieder of Julius Burger for the label Spätlese Musik (Autumn 2019).
Burger, Julius. Hochschulregistrierungsdokument-1916/1917. Philosophischen Fakultät der Universität Wien. Archiv der Universitat Wien, Österreich. Obtained 8 November 2018.
MacDonald, Malcolm. Julius Burger: Orchestral Music. CD insert. Toccata Classics LTD. 2007
US Holocaust Memorial Encyclopedia. Antisemitic legislation 1933-1939. US Holocaust Memorial Museum website. encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/antisemitic-legislation-1933-1939. Accessed 27 December 2018.
BBC Julius Burger Collection. Letters and Papers from BBC Music-General: Burger, Julius ’35-’42. BBC Written Archive Centre-Reading, England United Kingdom.
Graeme Kay. What's the link between a refugee composer, the BBC, and George VI's coronation? BBC Audio, April 2021
Ryan Hugh Ross. Julius Burger’s Themes of London: An Émigré’s legacy at the BBC December 2020
Haas, Michael. Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
Hailey, Christopher. Franz Schreker, 1878-1934: A Cultural Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Burger, Julius. Documents from the Julius Burger Collection. Exil.Arte Zentrum der Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Wien. Accessed November 2018.
Margolick, David. At the Bar; A probate lawyer turns impresario, reviving music so sweet to his client's ears. New York Times. New York, NY. Vol. 142, No. 49,247. Law Section page B7. February 19, 1993. Website: www.nytimes.com/1993/02/19/news/bar-probate-lawyer-turns-impresario-reviving-music-so-sweet-his-client-s-ears.html
Unknown. Julius Burger, 98, A Conductor, Dies. New York Times. New York, NY. Vo. 144, No. 50,098. Obituaries section page D26. 15 June 1995.
Segment on Julius Burger and Ronal Pohl. Person of the Week with Peter Jennings. World News Tonight. ABC News. 12 March 1993. www.pohllawgroup.com
Anna F. Joseph Schmidt - Am Brunnen vor dem Tore & Launisches Glück. From film Ein Lied Geht um die Welt -1933. Youtube video. Uploaded 14 January 2011. www.youtube.com/watch
Shishler, Rabbi Geoffrey J. Joseph Schmidt. Music and the Holocaust. World ORT Organisation. Website: holocaustmusic.ort.org/places/camps/josef-schmidt/
Prinzler, Hans Helmut. Editor. Ein Lied Geht um das Welt (1933 / 1958). 8 November 2015. Website: www.hhprinzler.de/2015/11/ein-lied-geht-um-die-welt-1933-1958/
Hunter, Stu. Julius Burger at the June Meeting. Ampico Newsletter. Volume 15, No.8. p.171-172. October 1978.
Further Information: www.rediscoveredbeauty.org