Egon Wellesz – Composer, Musicologist, Byzantinist

  1. Curriculum Vitae (PDF)

  2. Composer

  3. Musicologist

  4. Byzantinist

  Egon Wellesz – a classical of the modern age


Had there been a survey in March 1938 in Austria asking who were among the most important composers in our country, the name of Egon Wellesz would soon have been mentioned. After the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra had performed the symphonic suite „Prosperos Beschwörungen“ (Prospero’s Invocation) under the direction of Bruno Walter, more performances (again under Bruno Walter) from the Amsterdam "Concertgebouw-orkest" (as it was called then) were expected on March, 13th (Amsterdam) and 16th (Rotterdam). Two years previously, the Philharmonic Orchestra (directed by Felix Weingartner) included Wellesz’ „symphonic tone poem“ „Vorfrühling“ in their programme and in 1931 and 1932 his opera “The Bacchae” after Euripides was performed at the Vienna Opera House under the direction of Clemens Krauss. Eventually, in 1934 and 1935, two leading articles on the composer were issued in „Der Anbruch”, the most important magazine in the field of modern music. These granted him effusive praise as a “musician who fully realized the responsibility of the creative artist” and in whose works the “basic elements of music, such as melody, harmony and rhythm are newly discovered and brought into a new context.”

In addition, in 1938 it was well remembered in Vienna that only a few years ago Wellesz was one of the most frequently performed contemporary composers – until the rule of terror put a definite end to Art. After its première in 1924 in Mannheim his opera „Alkestis“ was also staged in Hanover, Bremen, Gera, Cologne, Dessau, Stuttgart, Coburg and Berlin, his one-act-play „Scherz, List und Rache“ in Stuttgart (1928), Magdeburg, Dortmund, Lübeck, Görlitz and Berlin (and also in Salzburg, Vienna and Linz), his „Persian Ballet“, which is dedicated to Arnold Schoenberg, in Donaueschingen (1924), Munster, Mannheim, Gera, Darmstadt, Stuttgart, Saarbrücken and Mainz, and also his ballets „The Miracle of Diana“, “Achilles on Skyros“, “Die Nächtlichen” and “Die Opferung des Gefangenen” were launched in Germany in the years 1924 and 1926. In 1932 Hermann Abendroth had scheduled the cantata “Mitte des Lebens”, which was dedicated to Oxford University in recognition of his honorary doctorate “Hoc opus Universitati Oxoniensi d. d." One year later in Germany the renowned composer had been denounced as an ostracized and degenerate artist. In March 1938 Egon Wellesz also suffered this fate in person. For good reason he did not return from the Netherlands to Austria and was able to accept an invitation to London that he received only one week later. Initially, meant for Wellesz the scientist, it led to him earning a position at Oxford University. After his family (his wife Emmy, a prominent art historian, his daughters Magda, together with her husband, and Elisabeth) had followed him into emigration in July 1938 and once he had finally become comfortable in Oxford he started composing again after a 5-year break. Unfortunately, this break in his artistic career was never to be fully overcome again. His stage works were rarely incorporated into programmes and even his instrumental works were still considered too modern by conservatives; the new avant-garde, however, turned them down as being old-fashioned and regarded them as unacceptable. Ironically, this led to the fact that 30 years after his epoch-making act of co-founding the “International Society of Contemporary Music“ his music was not even performed at its festivals anymore.

The deep schism in Wellesz’ course as a composer is also reflected by his choice of form and subject. Until 1938 Wellesz predominantly used timeless and effective subject matters from Ancient Greece for his stage works. By his analysis of these themes he found humanist philosophical messages with great musical impact but soon the dramatic composer fell silent forever (disregarding his opera “Incognita” from 1951). Instead he composed symphonies and chamber music, songs and sacred music, just as if the extrovert stage was replaced by a sanctuary of pure, intimate and highly confidential music. At the same time this change showed a return to the roots of his own musical language and thus to the idiom of the Austrian tradition, which the composer had always adhered to, especially during his time in England. Wellesz, who was born on 21 October 1885 in Vienna, was at first influenced by Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler before he left tonality under the influence of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg and turned towards an expressive language determined by its linguistic character which Schoenberg and Webern had always strictly adhered to (especially considering its semantic aspects). Having concentrated on the problems of opera and its expressiveness academically he yet said it was a question of the “depiction of emotion”, and of the “instincts of sensation” in a most general and comprehensive way. Being convinced by and well-informed of the highly regarded humanist movement at that time he inevitably took up subjects from Ancient Greece for the stage. In this respect the composer followed, amongst others, the course of Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud or Josef Matthias Hauer. Another interesting relationship emerged to the stage works of Richard Strauss because Wellesz, too, set some of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s subjects and texts to music. With “Eklogen“ for piano solo (1911/12) Wellesz entered the Ancient World for the first time, following in 1917 with his ballet “The Miracle of Diana”. Then he conjured up Eastern spheres with his “Persian Ballet” in 1920 and once and for all ventured into Greek mythology with his ballet “Achilles on Skyros” after Hofmannsthal in 1921. In 1922/23 another opera from Hofmannsthal’s textbook, “Alkestis”, after Euripides, followed. He finally forgot about opera after the composition of “The Bacchae” after Euripides in 1929/30, whose text the composer supplied himself.

When Wellesz regained his creativity in England he increasingly followed the European and especially the Austrian history of music according to the tendency of synthesis by the “classical modern age” such as Stravinsky, Hindemith, Milhaud or even Arnold Schoenberg, who also came back to traditional forms of opera, concerto and variation, leaving out only the symphony.

Egon Wellesz, however, devoted himself to this form in particular, because “having grown up in the Austrian tradition” he always considered the symphony “the highest medium of musical language” as he pointed out at the appearance of his first symphony in 1945. For so many years he had not dared “to approach this form because I didn’t have the required distance in order to say something personal. I don’t regard the form of the symphony as something fixed but as something very vivid which grows out of the contents of every new piece and always provides the challenge of new shaping.” So the first symphony became his “spiritual return to my great forefathers“, the fourth contained the loyal name “Austriaca” and until his ninth Wellesz gradually tackled the many facets of the symphonic discipline.

This also applies to the field of chamber music as well as songs, to sacred music as well as choral music. When the composer died in his British exile on 9 November 1974, people knew that one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century had passed away. This had been demonstrated by multiple Austrian and international tributes up until his last years. Nowhere, however, did Egon Wellesz really feel at home, neither in Austria nor in England, neither on the opera stage nor on the concert podium. The years 1933 (or 1938) until 1945 had not been overcome at that time. They have not been overcome today – this is also the case with Egon Wellesz.

Hartmut Krones (translation: Knut Eckhardt)

Egon Wellesz the Musicologist

In September 1904 Egon Wellesz registered at the faculty of law at Vienna University. His musical interests, however, were not to be ignored. As early as his first term, he visited basic lectures by Guido Adler, such as “Seminar Exercises at the Institute of History of Music – explaining and defining works of art”, in addition to lectures on the history of law. In his second term Wellesz changed once and for all to the faculty of philosophy where he attended lectures not only on the history of arts and of theatre but also on history of law and economy until the end of his studies.

He further enrolled at the Institute of Music History for Adler’s exercises and lectures on the Vienna School, romanticism and Beethoven. Wellesz reported on his studies: “There was no strict schedule but once a student had been accepted by Professor Adler he was obliged to visit his lectures and seminar exercises.” Adler advised him to study musicology and the masterpieces from the Middle Ages up to the present time. “The second year the students were to study a specific period of music and consult the professor concerning a subject of their theses, which usually required knowledge also of secondary subjects, such as paleography, archives, history of liturgy, arts and theatre…”

Wellesz went to Adolf Koczirz’ lectures on tablature and Oswald Koller’s lectures on mensural notation, attended Erwin Luntz’ course on basso continuo and Hans Hirsch’s lecture on paleography. In addition to these lectures on musicology Wellesz addressed his multiple interests and fields, which later were to become very important, especially for his own compositions. He visited lectures on the history of Venetian paintings and arts, studied Platon, Aristotle, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Dante, Greek and Roman Literature as well as Attic Drama and Austrian history.

In 1908 Wellesz did his doctorate about the life and works of Guiseppe Bonno, a contemporary of Gluck, which was published in the anthology of the International Music Society (“Sammelbände der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft”). In the summer of the same year Wellesz married, and in the autumn of 1908 he spent some weeks in Venice. After his thesis he used this place to his advantage and studied the Venetian Opera, especially Francesco Cavalli. Due to the fact that Adler objected to an edition of the opera "L'Egisto" by Cavalli in the "Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich" Wellesz published "Costanza e fortezza" by Johann Joseph Fux. His Venetian studies led to his postdoctoral thesis on “Cavalli and the style of the Venetian Opera between 1640 and 1660“ in 1913. The early history of opera in Vienna, however, remained one of Wellesz’ interests. As a lecturer at the Institute of Musicology he was able to pass on his knowledge and the results of his research to his students.

In addition to his teaching at the University of Vienna Wellesz also taught history of music at the New Vienna Conservatory between 1911 and 1915 as well as at the Urania and lectured on the history of opera at the Music Academy in Mannheim. Additionally, he worked as a critic for the newspaper “Der Neue Tag” in 1919/20. In 1909 Guido Adler organized a congress of the International Music Society in Vienna on the 100th anniversary of Haydn’s death, where Wellesz became acquainted with the French music historian Jules Ecorcheville who was editor of the "Revue Musicale S. I. M. At the congress of the International Music Society in London in 1911 Wellesz gave a talk on the realization of the figured bass in the Italian Opera.

At the beginning of World War I he intensively worked on Gregorian Chant. Due to a serious operation, he had been declared unfit for military service and was able to keep his position as university lecturer. In 1915 his first essay on this theme was published, in 1931 his series “Monumenta Musicae Byzantinae” started and in 1932 the Institute of Byzantine Music was founded at the Austrian National Library. At University Wellesz gave multiple seminars on Byzantine music and notation.

Even though Byzantine church music covered most of his interests, Wellesz also worked in many other fields. In 1921, for example, he published the first reliable recognition of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg and in 1928/29 he finished his book “The New Instrumentation”. Together with Béla Bartók he visited the Congrès de Musique Arabe in Kairo in 1932 as an official delegate. In the same year he was awarded an honorary doctorate at Oxford University (the first musician since Haydn) and he was appointed honorary member of the “Musical Association” in London. At Vienna University he became associate professor of musicology in 1929.

Via Amsterdam Wellesz emigrated to England in 1938, where he accepted a position as a collaborator for the "Grove's Dictionary of Music". Then he gave lectures in Cambridge and on 1st January, 1939, he was appointed „Fellow“ at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he worked until he died. Here, the circumstances of teaching musicology were totally different compared to Austria. Wellesz writes: „In Oxford, however, there was no research on the history of music when I arrived. One learned as much history of music as was necessary to become a musician… It was a matter of generosity that the autonomous university of Oxford gave me the opportunity to teach composition and to lecture on my favourite subject, the music of the early Christianity, Byzantine church music and the Gregorian Chant…” Despite his British nationality since 1946, he always supported the music of his home country, as shown in radio programmes about Bruckner’s and Mahler’s music. On the other hand he frequently published articles in the Austrian Magazine “Österreichische Musikzeitschrift”, such as “Music in England” in 1946.

After the war the official Austrian State obviously saw no reason to ask Wellesz back to his former position as a university teacher. Even so, he often returned to his homeland as a visitor. He was presented with the Vienna Prize (1953), the Great Golden Decoration of the Republic of Austria (1959), the Great State Prize of Austria (1961) and finally with the Austrian Honorary Cross of Science and Arts (1971).

Andrea Harrandt

(translation: Knut Eckhardt)

Byzantine, Byzantine Music and Egon Wellesz


When asked about their idea of Byzantine an audience interested in history will spontaneously answer with words like orthodoxy, Christian imperialism (in Roman tradition), Greek manuscripts, art of mosaic and icons as well as cultural phenomenae like iconoclasm. Usually Byzantine is sorted into the time between late antiquity and modern history and is locally associated with Constantinople.

The common understanding of “Byzantine music“ will only partly match these definitions. Even for musically interested people Byzantine music is connected to the idea of church music of the orthodoxy, especially of the solemn liturgical chant of the Eastern Church, i.e. Greece, Russia and Ukraine as well as the orthodox Balkans with its known, often polyphonic form of the 19th and 20th century.

In the understanding of Byzantine music, Egon Wellesz plays a key role: due to the fact that he gradually succeeded in deciphering Byzantine notation from the 9th century on (nearly simultaneously with the Briton H.J.W.Tillyard but independently of each other), he paved the way for scientific research and reconstruction of Byzantine music together with his fellow scholar and the Danish scientist Carsten HØeg. Since then we have been able to see differences more clearly between Byzantine music, sacral and secular Byzantine chant, which in imperial ceremonies used to be accompanied by the organ, and orthodox church chant today, which is only performed by the human voice.

In 1931 the three scientists founded the series “Monumenta Musicae Byzantine” whose exemplary publications show how successful Byzantine musicology has been since then. Another concise and remarkable example is the lately published self-portrayal of Egon Wellesz by Gerda Wolfram, which, in a lecture on Byzantine music, summarizes his Byzantine life’s work from the retrospective of the 1960s. At the same moment it demonstrates how much modern research of Byzantine music is related to Wellesz and his lasting and pioneering discoveries.

As expressed by the title of the exhibition, Egon Wellesz was a music theorist, historian and Byzantinist and, last but not least, a composer. The question may be asked whether there are distinctions between the scientist and the creative artist, in other words, whether he wrote music with direct reference to Byzantine. According to the orthodox lithurgy two late pieces (op.100 and 101) obviously give a positive answer.

The first piece is the “Festliches Praeludium“ for choir and organ on a Byzantine Magnificat (op.100, which doesn’t seem to be sheer coincidence), composed on the occasion of the opening of the 13th International Byzantine Congress in Oxford, 5 September 1966. During his visit to Elisabeth, Wellesz set the Magnificat, which stands in the tradition of the old testament, into music according to the Latin words of the Lucas’ Gospel. In Greek language the Magnificat, as the last hymn of the “Nine-Ode-Canon”, has been a constituent of the Morning Office (Orthros) of the orthodox lithurgy since early Christian times.

The second piece, “Mirabile Mysterium” for soli, choir and orchestra (opus 101) was composed only one year later. It is thematically close to the preceeding work and consists of seven separate songs. The composer based his work on a bilingual text in which the German language dominates and serves as the carrier of the meaning. In contrast the Greek parts (soprano and partly the choir) sound “from a distance” (as the compositional instruction puts it) and underline the strange and solemn atmosphere. With this text Wellesz fell back on literal extracts from the Christmas “Troparium horarum”, which is ascribed to the Patriarch Sophronios of Jerusalem († 638). It entered the orthodox lithurgical book of the Menae for 24 December with slight modification.

As well as their period of origin both choruses are linked by the mistery of God’s humanization, a central theological theme, which Wellesz has tackled as both Byzantine specialist and musicologist for a long time, as the title of his important article ("The Nativity Drama of the Byzantine Church"), issued in 1947, shows. Thus, Wellesz’ interest in Byzantine studies is not to be seen as an isolated oddity or the flamboyance of a genius but is connected with the compositional and theoretical facets of his work and cannot be separated from his personality.

Johannes Koder

(translation: Knut Eckhardt)