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Egon Wellesz

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Compositions for: Violin

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Sonata for Violin Solo, Op.36String Quartet No.1, Op.14String Quartet No.2, Op.20String Quartet No.4, Op.28
Egon Joseph Wellesz (21 October 1885 – 9 November 1974) was an Austrian, later British composer, teacher and musicologist, notable particularly in the field of Byzantine music.
Wellesz was born in Vienna. Although both of his parents were Hungarian Christians, they also had Jewish ancestry. He received a Protestant upbringing, but later converted to Catholicism. Wellesz originally studied law in accordance with his father's wishes, but devoted himself entirely to music after attending a performance of Der Freischütz staged by Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Court Opera. He studied in Vienna under Arnold Schoenberg – purportedly his first private pupil – as well as Guido Adler, who founded the musicological institute in Vienna and was a leading editor of the Austrian Denkmäler. These dual influences shaped much of his musical and scholarly thought. In 1913 Wellesz embarked upon what would become a lifelong interest in the musical achievements of Byzantium.
1913 was also the first year one of his compositions was publicly performed. The five movement String Quartet No 1, op 14 received its premiere on 31 October, showing the clear influence of Mahler and Schoenberg. Wellesz was the first pupil of Schoenberg to gain independent success as a composer, receiving a contract from Universal Edition before Berg or Webern. Three further string quartets followed during the war years, establishing his preference for linear chromaticism, and some of them explicitly categorised as atonal. However, it was with dramatic music that Wellesz really made his mark, starting with the ballet Das Wunder der Diana in 1914. In the following 12 years he completed five operas and three ballets, many of the libretti and ballet scenarios written by the important literary figures Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Jakob Wassermann. Operas such as Alkestis (1924) and Die Bakchantinnen (1931) take their subject matter from ancient mythology and, in contrast to the Wagnerian tradition, use techniques such as dance pantomime and coloratura singing derived from Claudio Monteverdi and Christoph Willibald Gluck.
In 1922 Wellesz, along with Rudolph Reti and others, founded the Internationale Gesellschaft für Neue Musik (IGNM) following the Internationale Kammermusikaufführungen Salzburg, a festival of modern chamber music held as part of the Salzburg Festival. This soon evolved into the International Society for Contemporary Music, founded in 1923 with its headquarters in London. The Cambridge academic Edward J. Dent, whom Wellesz had met on his first trip to London in 1906, was elected as its president.
His links to England turned out to be fortunate in 1938 when Wellesz was forced to leave Austria in the wake of the Anschluss. By good fortune he was in Amsterdam on 12 March 1938 to hear his orchestral suite Prosperos Beschwörungen ("Prospero's Invocation", after The Tempest) conducted by Bruno Walter. Once in England he worked for a time on Grove's Dictionary of Music, but in 1940 he was interned as an enemy alien, ultimately in Hutchinson Camp in the Isle of Man. He gained his release in 1943 thanks to intercessions by Ralph Vaughan Williams and H. C. Colles, the long-standing chief music critic of The Times. Following his internment in 1940 Wellesz found himself unable to compose, a creative block eventually broken by the composition of the String Quartet No 5 (1943–44), the first important work of his English period.
Despite his composing, Wellesz remains best known as an academic and teacher, and for his extensive scholarly contributions to the study of Byzantine music and opera in the 17th century. These contributions brought for him an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1932 and later a Fellowship at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he remained until his death. His pupils there included Herbert Chappell, Martin Cooper, Kunihiko Hashimoto, Spike Hughes, Frederick May, Wilfrid Mellers, Nigel Osborne and Peter Sculthorpe.
A portrait was made of Wellesz by Jean Cooke, who had been commissioned for the work by Lincoln College. (There is also an early portrait, painted in 1911 by Oskar Kokoschka). Wellesz continued composing until he suffered a stroke in 1972. He died two years later and was buried in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna. His widow Emmy Stross, whom he married in 1908, returned to live in Vienna until her own death in 1987.
Wellesz composed at least 112 works with opus numbers as well as some 20 without numbers. His large scale dramatic works (including six operas) were mostly completed during his Vienna period (the main exception being the comic opera Incognita, written with the Oxford poet Elizabeth Mackenzie and first staged there in 1952). Robert Layton regarded Alkestis as "probably his most remarkable achievement for the stage. Its invention is marvellously sustained and organically conceived". It was successfully revived in the 1950s and 1960s.
Altogether he wrote nine symphonies and an equal number of string quartets, the former starting, in 1945, and the latter series of works spread throughout his life. Several of his symphonies have titles, including the second (the English), fourth (the Austriaca) and seventh (Contra torrentum). They were generally well received in Austria, Germany and England, but even so the Third Symphony (1950–1) was only published posthumously and only received its world premiere in Vienna in 2000. Other compositions included the Octet (using Schubert's combination); piano and violin concertos (one of each); choral works such as the Mass in F minor; and a number of vocal works with orchestral or chamber accompaniment.
Stylistically his earliest music, somewhat like that of Ernst Krenek, is in a harsh but recognisably tonal style; there is a definite second period of sorts around the time of the first two symphonies (1940s) in which his music has a somewhat Brucknerian sound – in the symphonies sometimes an equal breadth, though still with something of a 20th-century feel and harmonies – but after the Fourth Symphony his music became more tonally vague in character, with serial techniques used, though still with hints of tonality, as in the Eighth Quartet.
Rather than follow his teacher Schoenberg's Expressionist style, Wellesz found inspiration in music from the pre-modern era (with the exception of Mahler), becoming a forerunner to the anti-Romantic currents of the twenties. As well as the dramatic works, the chamber and orchestral pieces with voice often use these "baroque" elements. An example is the cantata Amor Timido (1933), a favourite of Wilfrid Mellers. Elsewhere, the neo-classical spirit of Hindemith is evident, as in the Piano Concerto (1931) and Divertimento (1969).
He wrote:
In place of the infinite melody, the finite must return, in the place of dissolved, amorphous structures, clear, clearly outlined forms. The opera of the future must tie in with the traditions of Baroque opera. This is the natural form, the innermost essence of opera.
A complete recording of his nine symphonies by Radio Symphonieorchester Wien conducted by Gottfried Rabl is available, and there are recordings of three of the quartets, choral works including the Mass, the violin and piano concertos, and other orchestral works including Prosperos Beschwörungen, Vorfrühling and the Symphonic Epilogue.