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FastNotes

  • Wellesz was born in Vienna and studied composition with Schoenberg. Although Wellesz revered (and emulated) Schoenberg’s teaching, actual tone rows and 12-tone techniques appear sparingly in his own music.
  • He did make dramatic use of angular lines and free atonality, however, particularly for text setting – this is readily apparent in the Sonnets by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a setting of five of Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.
  • The harmonic context, however, is diatonic as often as not and the writing rhapsodic. Wellesz did not find a single musical shape to mirror the structure of the sonnets. Interludes appear when suggested by the content, for example, not the form.

“He was one of the last musicians of a great tradition – a great Austrian and fully aware of this spiritual inheritance, like Rainer Maria Rilke and like his favorite poet, Georg Trakl.” Egon Wellesz wrote those words in 1966 about Anton Webern, but he might have been describing himself, particularly the part about being aware of the spiritual inheritance of the Austrian tradition. (Rilke and Trakl were also among Wellesz’ favored poets – he set texts by both.) He was born in Vienna, and hearing Mahler conduct Weber’s opera Der Freischütz set him on the road to composing. He studied composition with Schoenberg (and wrote the first biography of the composer, in 1920), and then musicology at a high level, specializing in Byzantine chant. He was in Amsterdam (hearing Bruno Walter conduct one of his new works) in March 1938, when Hitler annexed Austria. He left directly for England, where he had traveled previously and had friends; he became an Oxford don, and after a few years of creative silence, resumed composing.

Although Wellesz revered (and emulated) Schoenberg’s teaching, actual tone rows and 12-tone techniques appear sparingly in his own music, and mostly later, after the war. (Wellesz was also much influenced by Bruckner and Debussy.) He did make dramatic use of angular lines and free atonality, however, particularly for text setting.

That is readily apparent in the Sonnets by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, composed in 1934, setting five of Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (in Rilke’s 1908 translation). But the harmonic context is diatonic as often as not and the writing rhapsodic, following the arc of the text and truly Romantic in every sense of the word. Wellesz did not find a single musical shape to mirror the structure of the sonnets. Most of them are framed by the strings, for example, but the voice steps in with determination at the beginning of “Nur Drei jedoch in Gottes ganzem All” (But only three in all God’s universe), and interludes appear when suggested by the content, not the form.

Nor does he indulge in much blatant word painting, despite some obvious temptations. (Several of these poems refer directly to singing and instruments.) Where he does reflect textual imagery, it is with more subtle power, as in the polyphonic twining of “Ich denk an dich”  (I think of thee), catching the suprisingly eerie, almost writhing budding of nature. That has something of the character of a folk ballad, but Wellesz saves his big tune for the radiant finale of “Mir scheint, das Angesicht der Welt verging” (The face of all the world is changed, I think), as the sonnet finds its way from disturbed uncertainty to deep assurance.