Wrested from Oblivion

Die Presse (02/25/04)

Daniela Tomasovsky

Hans Gál and Egon Wellesz, two masters from the era of the Wiener Moderne were exhibited in the Jewish Museum in Vienna from February 25 to May 02.

Modernist music had it hard in Vienna after 1945. Nonetheless, following the international debate on Vienna’s composers during this time, masters such as Mahler, Schönberg or Berg were considered established since the 70s. The era between the wars was, however, much more musically diverse than today’s performances tend to reflect.

Before the Nazi takeover, Hans Gál and Egon Wellesz, both native Viennese, were among the most well known contemporary composers. The Jewish Museum of Vienna dedicated an exhibit to them with the motto, Music of the Breakup. On exhibit were musical scores, scripts, personal documents and photographs of historical performances. With an audioguide, one could listen to samples of music and interviews. The curators hoped that through this exhibit, more recognitionwould be allotted to the lesser-known Viennese composers. Particularly from a musical standpoint, Gál and Wellesz, after initial resistance to their music, were officially honored for their compositions. Unfortunately, however, their music sank into oblivion. The exhibit’s finale was jolting: one entered the last exhibit room which was completely empty except for a national award.

During the era between the wars, the works of Wellesz and Gál were performed by the most famous directors of that time – Clemens Krauss, Fritz Busch, Georg Szell, Josef Krips, Wilhelm Furtwängler. Both of them were also teaching at the Institut für Musikwissenschaft (Institute of Musicology) at the University of Vienna.

The exhibit revealed the biographical similarities of the two composers. Both musicians fled in 1938 to Great Britain. However, whereas Wellesz, through his appointment at Oxford University wasable to survive exile without great financial problems, Gál, along with his family, had to eke out a living as a caretaker or through small concerts, despite energetic support of his friends. “He is a person and musician that speaks to our hearts” – with these words, Fritz Busch begged his English acquaintance, Sir Donald Tovey, to support his friend. Tovey invited Gál to work at the University of Edinburgh. It was only after the war, however, that he became professor there.

Another painful episode joined the lives of Wellesz and Gál. Both composers were detained at the beginning of the war as “hostile foreigners” in Great Britain. The detention camp was decreed by Churchill. He feared that Nazi agents, disguised as refugees, could sneak their way into the crowds.

The two musicians dealt with encampment in different ways. As Gál’s diary revealed, he wasinitially shocked by the arbitrariness and narrow-mindedness of the camp’s guards. Soon, however, his creativity returned and Gál composed the Huyton Suite for the only musical instruments available in the camp. “I am happy with this piece; it looks like the air, the light and the sun’s dust particles. Never have I been so grateful for my talent as I am today.”

Before his release, Gál directed his revue, What a Life, before some 1,000 people: musical scenes which parodied life in the camp. Wellesz’s creative talent, however, lay fallow. He held merely a few lectures on music.

Neither musician returned to Vienna after the war. Gál turned down an attractive position offered him. Wellesz would have gladly taken up his position again as professor in Vienna. It was occupied, however, by a former Nazi, Erich Schenk.

For those interested in knowing more, see: www.jmw.at under exhibitions, “Continental Britons. A New Era of Music: Hans Gál and Egon Wellesz.”

* This article was originally written on the day of the opening of the exhibit. Since that time, the exhibit has closed; therefore, we have used the past tense in this translation.