Egon Joseph Wellesz

Born 21 October 1885. Died 9 November 1974.

Biography

Considered by some the forgotten 'fourth man' of the Second Viennese School, Egon Wellesz was born in Vienna, half-Hungarian and half-Jewish, and would spend nearly half of his life an exile in Oxford. Inspired to become a composer by hearing Mahler conduct Der Freischitz on his 13th birthday, he would go on to study with Schoenberg and Guido Adler; however, for much of his life (and, indeed, posthumously) his reputation would rest on his musicological work and his pioneering research into Byzantine chant.

His earliest mature compositions were mainly songs and piano works, but he began to score notable successes with operas, including Alkestis (1924) to a libretto co-written with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Conservative Vienna finally took notice in 1931 with his Euripides-inspired opera Die Bakchantinnen. The major orchestral work of his Viennese years was Prosperos Beschwšrungen (1934-6), and it was this work that led to his leaving Austria. In Amsterdam in 1938 to hear Bruno Walter conduct it, he was warned by telegram by English friends that Austria was not safe to return to. He went straight from Amsterdam to England.

Internment on the Isle of Wight (until autumn 1940, when Vaughan Williams intervened to secure his release) brought about a creative impasse. However, he continued with his musicological work, becoming a lecturer at Oxford University in 1943. He published two major monographs on Byzantine chant, by which time he had managed to compose the Fifth String Quartet (1943-4) and the Manley Hopkins setting The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo (1944). In 1945 he completed his First Symphony, and this was followed by eight more over the next quarter of a century. They develop from a diatonic style in the first four symphonies to incorporate both tonal and atonal elements in the later works, but only rarely does Wellesz explicitly employ the serial techniques of Schoenberg; his symphonies earned him a reputation as Bruckner's heir - a much-cherished compliment.

A prolific writer, editor and broadcaster, Egon Wellesz's activities were curtailed by a stroke in 1972; he died two years later and was buried in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna.

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