Julius Bürger – expelled and rediscovered I A Viennese composer returns

Julius Bürger – expelled and rediscovered I A Viennese composer returns

Michaela Preiner

Foto: (Benjamin Pieber – Herzog Media )


August 2023

Life itself writes the most incredible stories. This sentence, often heard or read, is especially true for a special concert.

The RSO, under the direction of Gottfried Rabl, performed works by Julius Bürger (1897-1995) for the Austrian premiere on Aug. 18, 2023, in the large broadcasting hall of the ORF RadioKulturhaus. And it came 18 years after the Jewish composer died in New York at the age of 98.

Portrait Buerger vor Klavier Brian Coats

Julius Bürger (Photo: Brian Coats)

That the pieces were able to be heard at all was thanks to the shrewd actions of Ronald S. Pohl, a New York estate attorney. He had been hired by Bürger in 1989 to administer the estate of his wife Rose, who had died shortly before, and to give most of the money to young, Israeli musicians. Not yet knowing that Julius Bürger had a remarkable compositional oeuvre to his credit, Pohl asked him whether, due to his advanced age, he might not want to tackle his estate in time, which turned out to be a stroke of luck. Bürger, born and raised in Vienna, had moved to Berlin as a young man with fellow students and his composition teacher Franz Schreker, and thereafter commuted between London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna. Hitler’s invasion of Austria, however, alarmed him so much that he was able to emigrate to America with his wife in time. There he received American citizenship, worked at the Metropolitan Opera, but also for radio and television stations as a conductor, arranger and commissioned composer, without, however, completely abandoning his own independent compositional activity. Fortunately, Bürger had found a man of action in Pohl. He pulled out all the stops to fulfill his client’s wish to hear his Cello Concerto from 1932, which was first performed in 1952 and had not been heard since 1991, once again. Pohl’s efforts were successful. After performances in the USA, it was also played in Israel – by those musicians who had received scholarships from Rose Bürger. Only after contact was made with Gerold Gruber, director of the Exilarte Center for banned Music at the mdw, and Julius Bürger’s musical estate was brought to Vienna, was it possible to perform a concert of works by him here as well. If Pohl had not met with the composer, one may assume with great certainty that his works, which were collected in a small piece of furniture, would have been disposed of after his death when the apartment was vacated.

The RSO Vienna plays Julius Bürger.

Photo: Benjamin Pieber – Herzog Media

Adagio for String Orchestra

The range of works heard in Vienna was rich. The opening was an Adagio for string orchestra, from 1978, which was the only work that had ever been performed in Austria. Flowing gently, it darkened briefly every now and then to expose more dramatic material. The bass violins at some points literally push the strings to moments of tension, but they are always overcome by them. They finally manage to leave behind the wild, the evil, the almost unspeakable, which makes itself audible again and again, and let the work end with a tender euphony. A good choice, as far as the solo part of the cello concerto was concerned, which was played afterwards, had been made with Anna Litvinenko. Impressive were not only the technically difficult passages, mastered with bravura, but especially the intimacy and sensitivity of her solo in the last movement. Technique is only one component of a successful performance, but filling the work with soul makes the difference that Litvinenko was able to show the audience. After a quiet introduction, the winds form and release a pulsating rhythm that the orchestra and cello pick up. Soon the musical action becomes lightly dance-like and develops into a slow flow in which the rhythmic pulsations repeat themselves. Again and again, the little theme, spanning barely 3 measures, emerges across the orchestra. Bürger allows the movement to end only with the winds, supported by the cello. The composer subsequently dedicated the 2nd movement to his mother, who had been killed by the Nazis during the march to Auschwitz. A long, dragging march is intoned at the very beginning, and the cello theme is soon taken up by the oboe. The strings enter elegantly and are carried by the solo instrument, which continues the theme. The dragging ductus gradually transforms into a general shimmering and a transition of the theme into a brightened scenario with harp accompaniment. The soothing, lovely attitude does not last long; soon the sound clouds over again. It experiences a sharp agglomeration and comes up with a long wind sequence with disharmonies that wake up the orchestra and animate it to a wild, gloomy event. Now the cello gets a solo that can be described as illusionless. No trace of that calm, life-affirming passage with harp accompaniment is perceptible anymore; rather, it seems as if the cello has surrendered to the voices of wild violence. Logically, this is followed by an ending in which the orchestra, as at the beginning, reproduces the dragging march. Knowing the fate of Bürger’s mother, one can feel what last moment of life he has captured here musically. In the rapid 3rd movement, the cello responds almost chamber-like to the individual instrumental solos. Again and again, soothing passages, often supported by the strings in unison, counter the lively ones heard earlier, which then pick up speed again with the help of the winds in interplay with the cello. The finale is a cello solo with differentiated, beautiful dynamic colorations, which is followed by a furious final wind and timpani event. The orchestra and soloist rightly received prolonged applause for the performance.

Songs with symphonic accompaniment

The following two songs with symphonic accompaniment were interpreted by Matija Meić. “Legend” after a text by Christian Morgenstern and “Silence of the Night” after Gottfried Keller, allowed musical comparisons with Gustav Mahler. Almost every line, every mood, every description of a state of landscape, soul or action receives its own, musical expression in Bürger. Whether Jesus before his walk into the garden of Gethsemane, completely unexpectedly begins to dance with a young woman and these exuberant steps become audible, whether the surf of a sea addressed in Gottfried Keller, triggers musical surges in the body of sound, music and word support each other most artfully. Meić’s baritone sounded full, warm and very mature, without, however, lacking clear enunciation. He managed with ease to leave the broad symphonic support, a challenge for the singer in these works, as such and rather to contribute vocally like a solo instrument. Both pieces can be characterized as small symphonic poems, but endowed with an epic weight using a large instrumentarium, which makes them extraordinarily exciting. One would like to hear more of them.

The RSO Vienna performs Julius Bürger. Pictured here is baritone Matija Meić

Photo: Benjamin Pieber – Herzog Media

“Eastern Symphony”

The concert concluded with the “Eastern Symphony” from 1931.In 3 movements, it opens with a bright theme in the winds that is answered by the strings. Memories of Gershwin, one year older, are evoked, mainly by the strongly accented rhythms, which also change frequently. It is striking, as in the songs before, that Bürger keeps the entire orchestral instrumentarium in almost constant motion. There is hardly a passage in which the musicians are not challenged at the same time, which proves immensely appealing. Cymbals, timpani and drums set the predominant tone, as do the winds, and allow the movement to be experienced as hymn-like and progressive. The 2nd movement begins with the oboe, broadly supported by the orchestra. She is answered by violins and cellos in such a way that a fluidity takes hold of the entire body of sound and a wide, opening landscape can easily be imagined. Again it is the harp that leads to the clarinet, bassoon and strings, as well as the soft wood. It is this instrumental thematic wandering and at the same time the continuation of the same that makes this movement so interesting. The quiet ductus is maintained and the end also sounds accordingly. How could it be otherwise, the final movement begins furiously in the entire orchestra with a wild run. Trumpets and drums set the rapid rhythm, which only calms down with the harp and oboe with the theme sung by the strings above. Now it is the flutes that complete this description of the landscape. As if following a river with small whirlpools of water, the violins, held by the clarinet, spiral on in a lively manner, handing over to the flutes. With a final, massive orchestral entry, the theme, presented once again, ends the beautiful work. The characteristics of Bürger’s music are unambiguous and can be clearly stated. As a composer, he stands aesthetically between the 19th and 20th centuries, from which he borrowed not only the courage to blur sound, but also hitherto unusual rhythms and some new instrumentation. However, his compositional technique is always clearly comprehensible, structures are easily recognizable and – this is what distinguishes Bürger’s symphonic works in particular – he captivates with a musical richness of color par excellance. Austria, especially Vienna, has not made amends with this concerto. There is no such thing. The statement that was made, however, is clear and was more than necessary. Taking care of the estates of expelled composers is an absolute imperative of the hour. The work of the mdw’s Exilarte Center should be brought much more into the public consciousness. A broader awareness of this inglorious chapter in the context of music history can at least help to ensure that the work of the exiles is not consigned to oblivion. We, who are in the fortunate position of being posthumous, can either get actively involved in this event or – and this must not be underestimated – we storm concerts like these and fill the halls to capacity. In doing so, we express our interest and give the music what keeps it alive and what it deserves: our undivided attention.

f.l.t.r Prof. Gerold Gruber, Anna Litvinenko, Ronald S. Pohl, Gottfried Rabl

f.l.t.r Prof. Gerold Gruber, Josipa Bainac Hausknecht, Ronald S. Pohl, Gottfried Rabl (Photo: Ronald Pohl)

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