The Modern Era in Central Europe (Part 3)


Pablo Picasso’s “Nous autres musiciens” depicts subjects from a multitude of viewpoints, which captures an essential element of Modernism in the arts

The Second World War gave rise to a new aesthetic and ethical conundrum for Central European composers, namely, how to grapple with the legacy of the Austro-German musical tradition—and especially its nationalistic implications—in the wake of years of Nazi tyranny and horror.  Some composers took the route of so-called High Modernism, electing to carry on with the dodecaphony of the Second Viennese School, but eschewing the vestiges of Romanticism and Expressionism they perceived in Arnold Schoenberg’s music; instead, they favoured the austerity of Anton Webern’s music as a model, and sought to tease out the more objective, mathematical implications of the 12 tone method.  Another High Modernist turn saw composers adopting indeterminacy and chance as ways to circumscribe the legacy of Germanic art music. 

While catalyzed by the new, progressive music of the early part of the century, much of the European art music of the latter half of the 20th century is characterized by a gradual return to—or at least, a reimagining of—the music of the past, and by a reintroduction of religious or spiritual elements. Ultimately, it can be difficult to make a full stylistic accounting of Central European composers of the mid-century, since a number of composers—many of Jewish descent—fled Nazi-dominated Europe, with many settling in the United States and carrying on working as “American” composers—especially in Hollywood—for many decades.  Moreover, some of these prewar composers did not survive Hitler’s genocidal regime, and perished in the Nazi concentration camps. 

Neither Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) nor Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), German-speaking composers of Jewish ancestry from the Bohemian Crown lands of the Habsburg Monarchy, would live through the war.  The Prague-born Schulhoff, whose father was arrested and died in Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942, was also arrested that same year, not because he was Jewish but a committed communist who he had become a citizen of the Soviet Union in the hope of escaping to Russia from Nazi-controlled Bohemia. Sent to a concentration camp in Bavaria he died there of tuberculosis.  His musical evolution reflects a kaleidoscopic array of styles and influences, from the post-Romantic quartal harmonies of Debussy to the atonal music of the Second Viennese School to the Neue Sachlichkeit synthesis of jazz and classical music to Dada and Socialist Realism.  Viktor Ullmann was born in Teschen, Austrian Silesia, and served as a lieutenant in the Austrian army in the First World War. During the Second World War he arrested and deported to Theresienstadt in 1942, where he continued to add to his already impressive list of compositions until 1944.  When the Teresienstadt camp was liquidated Ullmann was sent to Auschwitz, where he died within days of arrival. Ullmann studied with Arnold Schoenberg, but was drawn to the approach of Schoenberg’s student Alban Berg, especially with respect to the composition of opera: Ullmann was strongly influenced by and sought to further develop Berg’s attempts to synthesize tonality and the 12-tone method.

The Hungarian composer Franz von Vecsey (1893-1935) was best known in his short life (he suffered a pulmonary embolism and died in Rome at the age of 42), as a child prodigy to whom Sibelius had dedicated his Violin Concerto, and later a violin virtuoso with perfect technique. Vecsey was also a successful composer, who wrote a number of works for solo violin and for violin and piano in a conservative, Romantic style, exemplified by his Valse triste.  Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was, like von Vecsey, a celebrated child prodigy—as both a pianist and a composer.  Korngold’s father was the Viennese music critic Julius Korngold, who supported and promoted his son’s obvious gifts: Erich was soon touted in Vienna as “the new Mozart.”  At the age of 11 he undertook composition lessons with Zemlinsky at the suggestion of Mahler, and by the age of 13 was already being recognized in the musical world as a composer with a fully developed, mature and unique voice, composing works that were strongly tonal and richly melodic as exemplified by his famous Violin Concerto. By his early 20s, in addition to his growing body of well received orchestral and chamber works, he appeared to be on the brink of a successful career as an opera composer with his opera Die Tote Stadt.  At the request of the Austrian theater and film director, Max Reinhardt, Korngold moved to the U.S. in 1934 to write music scores for films, in part to escape the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Central Europe. In America, Korngold became a hugely influential film music composer, producing scores for such films as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk, whose compositional technique paved the way for later film composers like John Williams. The Viennese composer Ernst Krenek (1900-1991) is a curious figure in the history of music.  A veteran of the Austrian army who was briefly married to Mahler’s daughter, he was a tremendously prolific composer whose music encompassed a variety of styles and reflects many of the principal musical influences of the 20th century. His early work is in a late-Romantic idiom, showing the influence of his teacher Franz Schreker. Neoromantic works of this period were modelled on music of Franz Schubert, a prime example being Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen. In the 1920s he was also influenced by French neo-classiciam and by jazz before abandoning the neo-Romantic style in the late 1920s to embrace atonality, adopting Schoenberg’s method for his opera Karl V – among the earliest 12-tone operas. Pilloried by the Nazis as a prime exponent of “degenerate music,” Krenek moved to North America in 1938, teaching initially at various U.S. university and, for over a decade in the 1950s and 60s, at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. In 1966 he moved to Palm Springs, California, where he died in 1990. In the 1940s and 50s Krenek combined twelve-tone writing with a number of other techniques, including the modal counterpoint of the Renaissance and serialism. In his later years his compositional style became more relaxed, though he continued to use elements of both twelve-tone and total serial techniques.

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) was a Polish composer, violinist and pianist.  She was well known as a performer but ultimately became one of Poland’s most famous female composers, garnering an international reputation for her prodigious output and for building important stylistic bridges between post-Romanticism and Modernism.  Bacewicz initially studied at the Polish Conservatory, but left Warsaw for Paris in the early 1930s to study with Nadia Boulanger where she was influenced by French neo-Classicism.  After the Second World War, her compositional style continued to develop, as a burgeoning awareness of “new music”—especially the Austrian atonalists—collided with the pressure to conform to the aesthetic strictures of Social Realism in communist Poland.  Her later compositions include experimentation with serial and aleatoric techniques.  Critics heralded Bacewicz as “the first lady of music,” and her compositions for strings—notably, her later string quartets—are regarded as major contributions to 20th century music.  The Czech composer Vítĕzslava Kaprálová (1915-1940), like her counterpart Bacewicz, was prolific female composer of considerable promise and renown.  She studied composition at the Brno Conservatory and then in Prague, before traveling to Paris in 1937 to study with Bohuslav Martinů. Her music is known for its lyrical melodies, but she also incorporated contemporary elements such as polytonality in her work.  Kaprálová’s death was very untimely: she was just 25 when she contracted tuberculosis and died during the evacuation of Paris in 1940. Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) was a highly regarded Polish conductor and a prolific composer, with ten symphonies to his credit, in addition to numerous other orchestral and chamber works.  Like Bacewicz, Panufnik trained at the Conservatory in Warsaw before moving on to Paris and then London for further studies.  He too struggled under Socialist Realism—he did manage to successfully incorporate Polish folk music into some of his compositions, but also faced accusations of “formalism” from Polish authorities—and ultimately fled Poland for England in 1954, where he lived for the remainder of his life, working as both a conductor and composer.  His music eschews contemporary tends, and is instead highly individualistic, characterized by its interplay of tonal and modal elements, clarity and economy of means, and the use of restricted note cells. 

Three of the most important composers of the later 20th century were Polish: Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), Henryk Górecki (1933-2010), and Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020).  While Lutosławski began composing before the Second World War—during which time he formed a piano duo with his friend and fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik—few of his early compositions survived the war.  In the years following the war, Lutosławski’s attraction to modern music would put him in conflict with cultural authorities.  Ultimately, he would strive to create his own modern language and techniques, developing, for instance, a harmonic style predicated on the chromatic scale that used 12-note chords as structural and generative sonorities.  His later style would embrace a kind of controlled indeterminacy—sometimes called aleatoric counterpoint—in which pitch and rhythm are fully composed but the rhythmic coordination between parts is subject to chance operations.  His late period compositions have neo-Baroque elements, are more melodically oriented, and are often self-referential.  Among his most significant innovations was the development of “chain technique,” in which each unit in a sequence of formal elements begins and ends with material that overlaps and interlocks with its neighbours, forming “links” like a chain. Penderekci rocketed to fame as a precocious young composer in the late 1950s, after winning a composition competition in Poland (taking first, second and third prizes).  By the early 1960s, his works were being performed all over Europe, and he was regarded as one of the leading figures of the European avant-garde: his works made use of 12-tone serialism, indeterminacy, extended playing techniques and non-traditional notation.   By the late 1970s, however, Penderecki began moving away from the avant-garde, and his music became less experimental and more lyrical, even hinting back to 19th century composers such as Mahler, Bruckner and Dvořák. He is best remembered for his famous 1960 textural composition Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, in which a large ensemble of stringed instruments invoke the physical and psychological horrors of an atomic explosion through a series of unconventional and aggressive musical gestures and techniques. The large-scale St. Luke Passion (1963–66) brought Penderecki further popular acclaim, not least because it was devoutly religious, yet written in an avant-garde musical language, and composed within Communist Eastern Europe. His late String Quartet No. 3 (2008) is quite representative of his chamber works since the 1990s, and stands in sharp contrast to his earlier avant-garde period.  Górecki considered himself a “recluse”: unlike his contemporaries Lutosławski and Penderecki, he was not particularly cosmopolitan, remaining in Poland for most of his life; and he rarely sought the limelight that came with conducting his own works.  It is ironic, then, that Górecki ended up being one of the most commercially successful composers of the late 20th century, after a 1992 recording of his Symphony no. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)—a work for soprano and orchestra setting Polish prayers and folk songs, which he had composed in 1976—suddenly became a hit on classical and mainstream album charts, selling millions of copies.  While Górecki had been a somewhat obscure member of the Polish avant-garde in the 1960s, drawing from and expanding atonal and serialist techniques, Polish folk music was also a direct influence on the composer, whose music gradually became more modally inflected and more accessible.  While he was excoriated by many of his fellow composers for writing such regressive, decadent and sentimental music Górecki’s aesthetic was part of a larger movement rejecting the increasingly Byzantine complexity and intellectualism of modern music.  Along with composers such as Avro Pärt and John Taverner, Górecki came to be associated with the so-called “New Simplicity,” or the “New Tonal” style. 

The Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923-2003) was born in Transylvania, shortly after that province had been annexed by Romania after World War I.  Ligeti studied composition in Cluj (Kolozsvár/Klausenburg) and then in Budapest; he survived the war and narrowly escaped deportation to a concentration camp—he was Jewish—by being drafted into a labour battalion supporting Axis combat troops.  He continued composition studies in Budapest after the war, but eventually fled Hungary in 1956, finally settling in Vienna in 1959 and becoming an Austrian citizen. Ligeti’s early music was undistinguished, but he gained world-renown when a number of his pieces—including Atmosphères, Lux Aeterna and his Requiem – were featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, and were used to suggests the vastness and desolation of space.  Much of Ligeti’s music may be characterized as atmospheric, eerie, slow moving and texturally dense; however, he is also lauded for his sense of humour, and some of his works evoke the comical and the absurd, displaying a decidedly witty, light-hearted touch.  While Ligeti was closely aligned with other composers in the European avant-garde in the late 1950s and 60s, he also felt hemmed in by the strictures and expectation of his fellow Modernists. This led to a gradual evolution of his style that would combine dazzling complexity and virtuosity with a sort of nostalgic return to Central European folk music traditions.   

Introductory Essay by Professor Alexander Carpenter, Chairman of the Wirth Institute Academic Advisory Board

(N.B.: The composers in this posting are listed in chronological order by date of birth) 

Online Performances

Musical selections curated by our founding director, Professor Franz Szabo with the assistance of Professors Alexander Carpenter, Gregor Kokorz, Guillaume Tardif and Dr. Mikolaj Warszynski

The selections for this posting have been constrained by what is available in live performances on YouTube.  Listeners are encouraged to follow up on the composers mentioned with other, audio-only listings.

Franz (Ferenc) von Vecsey
Born: 23 March 1893, Budapest
Died: 5 April 1935, Rome
Caprice No. 1, "Le Vent"
Marley Erickson, violin
Nozomi Khudyev, piano
Live from Nordstrom Recital Hall, Seattle, Washington, 10 June 2018 

Valse triste
Marcello Villa, violin
Carlo Alberini, piano
Live from the Accademia St. Cecilia, Rome, August 2016 

Erwin Schulhoff
Born: 8 June 1894, Prague
Died: 18 August 1942, Wülzburg concentration camp, Bavaria
Fünf Stücke für Streichquartett
Ruysdael Kwartet
Joris van Rijn and Emi Ohi Resnick, violins;
Gijs Kramers, viola; Jeroen den Herder, cello
Live fromthe Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, Amsterdam, 28 December 2013 

String Sextet
Boris Brovtsyn and Julia-Maria Kretz, violins
Amihai Grosz and Lawrence Power, violas
Jens Peter Maintz and Torleif Thedéen, cellos
Live from de Grote Zaal van TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht, Netherlands, 29 June 2016 

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Born: 29 May 1897, Brno (Brünn), Moravia
Died: 29 November 1957, Los Angeles, California
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35
William Hagen, Violin
Frankfurt Radio Symphony
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Live from the Alte Oper Frankfurt, 29. September 2017 ∙ 

Die Tote Stadt, opera in three acts, Op. 12
James King (Paul), Karan Armstrong (Marietta),
William Murray (Frank / Fritz), Margit Neubauer (Brigitta)
Berlin Opera Orchestra 
Heinrich Hollreiser, conductor
Filmed at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin 1983 

Viktor Ullmann
Born: 1 January 1898, Teschen (Český Těšín), Silesia
Died: 18 October 1944, Auschwitz concentration camp
String Quartet No. 3
Ervin Luka Sešek and Annie Bender, violins
Bradley Parrimore, viola; Benjamin Solomonow, cello
Live from the Colburn Conservatory of Music, Los Angeles, CA, 30 March 2015 

Piano Sonata No. 6, Op. 49
Justin Colwell, piano
Recorded January 2016 on the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University.
With introductory comments by Justin Colwell.  
Sonata starts at 4:40. 

Concerto for Piano, Op. 25
Nathalia Romanenko, piano
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse.
Joseph Swensen, conductor
Live from the Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse, France, 9 March 2012
With an introduction by Marek Halter (in French)
Concert starts at 6:45 

Ernst Krenek (Křenek)
Born: August 23, 1900, Vienna
Died: December 22, 1991, Palm Springs, California
Reisebuch aus den Österreichischen Alpen (1929)
José Manuel Montero, tenor
Orquesta de Cámara del Auditorio de Zaragoza "Grupo Enigma"
Juan José Olives, conductor
Live from the Sala Luis Galve Auditorium of Zaragoza, Spain, 19 January 2015 

Phantasiestück for cello and piano, Op. 153 (1953)
Anssi Karttunen, cello
Nicolas Hodges, piano
Live from the Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 22 May 2019 

String Quartet No. 8, Op. 233 (1980)
Mikhail Pochekin and Antonio Viñuales Pérez, violins
Adam Newman, viola; David Eggert, cello
Live from the Ackermannshof, Basel, Switzerland, 17 April 2015 

Grażyna Bacewicz
Born: 5 February 1909, Łódź, Congress Poland
Died: 17 January 1969, Warsaw
String Quartet No. 4
Szymanowski Quartet
Agata Szymczewska and Grzegorz Kotów, violins;
Volodia Mykytka, viola; and Marcin Sieniawski, cello
Live from the Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts,
Costa Mesa, California, 31 January 2015 

Piano Quintet, No. 2
Bernadette Harvey, piano, Joseph Lin, violin, Axel Strauss, violin,
Nokuthula Ngwenyama, viola, Clive Greensmith, cello
Live from the Leo Rich Theater, Tucson, Arizona, 12 March 2015 

Witold Lutosławski
Born: 25 January 1913, Drozdowo, Poland
Died: 7 February 1994, Warsaw, Poland
Cello Concerto (1970)
Nicolas Altstaedt, violoncello
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Dmitri Slobodeniouk, conductor
Live from the Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland, April 2007 

String Quartet (1964)
Philharmonia Quartett Berlin
Daniel Stabrawa and Christian Stadelmann, violins;
Neithard Resa, viola; DietmarSchwalke, cello
Market Square Presbyterian Church Harrisburg, PA, 10 October 2012 

Symphony No. 3
Finnish Radio TV Symphony Orchestra
Hannu Lintu, conductor
Live from the Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland, 23 October 2015 

Symphony No. 4
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Jacek Kaspszyk, conductor
Live from Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, 27 January 2018 

Andrzej Panufnik
Born: 24 September 1914, Warsaw
Died: 27 October 1991, Twickenham, UK
Concertino for Timpani, Percussion and Strings
Ian Wright , Timpani
Le Yu, Percussion
Shenyang Symphony Orchestra
Live from the Concert Hall of the Shenyang Conservatory, China, 4 June 2016 

Cello Concerto
Jozef Lupták, cello
Elbląg Chamber Orchestra
Paweł Kotla, conductor
Live from the Indian Summer Festival, Levoča, Slovakia, 5 October 2018 

Vítězslava Kaprálová
Born: January 24, 1915, Brno, Moravia
Died: June 16, 1940, Montpellier, France
Partita for String Orchestra and Piano, Op. 20
Emma Johansson, piano
Edsbergs Chamber Orchestra
Matz Zetterqvist, director
Live from the Kulturhuset i Ytterjärna, Sweden, 18 February 2017 

György Ligeti
Born: 28 May 1923, Dicsőszentmárton (Târnăveni), Transylvania
Died: 12 June 2006, Vienna
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
Live from the the Berlin Philharmonie, 4 February 2010 

String Quartet No. 1, “Métamorphoses Nocturnes”
Callisto Quartet
Paul Aguilar and Rachel Stenzel, violins
Eva Kennedy, viola; Hannah Moses, cello
Live from Duncan Recital Hall, Rice University, Houston, Texas, 5 November 2019 

Makeda Monnet, soprano
Victoire Bunel, mezzo-soprano
National Choir of Hungary
Orchestre du Conservatoire de Paris
Ensemble intercontemporain
Ateliers Jean Nouvel, conductor
Live from the Philharmonie de Paris, 7 December 2018 

Henryk Górecki
Born: 6 December 1933, Czernica, Silesia, Poland
Died: 12 November 2010, Katowice, Poland
Concerto for harpsichord (or piano) & orchestra, Op. 40
(piano version)
Adam Kosmieja, piano
Capella Bydgostiensis
Jose Maria Florencio, conductor
Live from National Philharmonic Orchestra Hall, Warsaw, 7 September 2017 

Quasi una Fantasia, String Quartet No. 2, Op. 64
The Playground Ensemble
Sarah Johnson and Anna Morris, violins;
Donald Schumacher, viola; Richard vonFoerster, cello
Live from the King Center Concert Hall,
Metropolitan State University of Denver, 15 February 2012 

Totus Tuus, Op. 60
Warsaw Philharmonic Choir
Henryk Wojnarowski, conductor
Live from Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, 1 April 2016 

Symphony No. 3, Op. 36
(“Symfonia pieśni żałosnych” /  “Symphony of sorrowful songs")
Viktorija Miškūnaité, soprano
Symphonic Youth Orchestra of South Tyrol
Orchestra Senzaspine, Bologna
Stefano Ferrario, Conductor
Live from the Forum Brixen, Brixen, South Tyrol, 2 September 2018 

Krzysztof Penderecki
Born: 23 November 1933, Dębica, Poland
Died: 29 March 2020, Kraków, Poland
Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)
Sinfonia Varsovia
Krzysztof Urbański, conductor
Live from Sinfonia Varsovia Hall, Warsaw, 23 November 2013
Performed at the 80th Birthday Celebration of Krzysztof Penderecki 

String Quartet No. 3 (“Leaves from an Unwritten Diary”)
Shanghai Quartet
Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violins
Honggang Li, viola; Nicholas Tzavaras, cello
Live from Le Petit Trianon Theatre, San Jose, California, 3 October 2010 

St. Luke Passion
(Passio et Mors Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Lucam)
Iwona Hossa, soprano
Thomas Bauer, baritone
Tomasz Konieczny, bass
Krzysztof Gosztyła, narrator
Warsaw Boys’ Choir (Krzysztof Kusiel Moroz, director)
National Philharmonic choir (Henryk Wojnarowski, director)
Choir of the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic in Białystok (Violetta Bielecka, dir.)
National Choir of Ukraine "Dumka" (Eugeniusz Sawczuk, director)
Sinfonia Varsovia
Krzysztof Penderecki, conductor
Live from the Warsaw Philharmoinic Concert Hall, 22 April 2011 

Watch the full collection of performances on our YouTube channel!