Walter Wurzburger   1914 — 1995

send us an email
admin login
page updated
  17-09-2021
© Wurzburger/
dcch 2021

Walter Wurzburger’s music – an overview

Matt Kelly
kellymatt99@gmail.com

Introduction

       In 1995 and 1996, soon after Walter Wurzburger’s death, I was invited by his family to sort through his music manuscripts. I did an initial list and organised the manuscripts by genre. Walter had drawn up a list himself of what he thought of as his significant compositions, ascribing opus numbers to over sixty works.

    Over the last 25 years, an informal group, the ‘Friends of Walter Wurzburger’, has organised some concerts and performances and recordings; has had works performed in concerts and recitals and on radio; and has contacted many institutions (particularly in Germany and Australia) to try to get parts and scores of Walter’s compositions added to archives. We have transcribed copies of a number of Walter’s compositions, and have sent them to performers in a range of countries. We have also had an important exchange of ideas and information about Walter’s life and works with Albrecht Dümling, whose excellent book Die verschwundenen Musiker: Jüdische Flüchtlinge in Australien was published in 2011, and appeared in translation in 2016 as The Vanished Musicians: Jewish Refugees in Australia. We have also been helped most recently by Joseph Toltz, whose involvement with the ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’ project has seen more transcriptions and performances in Australia, South Africa and the USA.

   At the end of 2019, members of the Wurzburger family were contacted by Michael Haas, with whom we had been in touch when he worked on the Decca ‘Entartete Musik’ series. This contact has led to the offer from the exil.arte Centre at the University for Music and Performing Arts, Vienna to take the Wurzburger archive and store the music manuscripts, scan them onto computer and help organise publication, performance and research. This is a fantastic opportunity, and we are pleased to say that Walter’s manuscripts were sent to Vienna in May 2021.

   As a result of this offer, I decided to revisit the manuscripts and where possible identify and date more precisely everything in the archive including sketches and unfinished works. I have returned to Walter’s own opus numbers as the starting point for cataloguing; and have attempted to place the whole archive of manuscripts in chronological order. During this process, I was delighted to find manuscripts for a couple of works which were feared lost; and I have discovered final drafts for a few works I had previously thought were only in sketch or incomplete draft form.

   I have also had the opportunity to transcribe more of Walter’s works onto Sibelius software, thus producing performable sheet music for many more of his compositions (pdfs of many of these are now available on the wurzburger.org website) and I have gained a much clearer sense of the development of Walter’s musical language through the different periods of his compositional activity.

   In 1989, Walter wrote a valuable comment on writing about music:

 

‘I find it always hard (and perhaps unnecessary) to say anything in words about my music.  If the music has not said anything then I fear words will not contribute very much.  Words do not explain what lies behind the notes, namely the entire make up of the composer’s personality, his aspirations, fear, terrors, but also his joys and happiness.  All this will, if he has succeeded, have been expressed in his music but can only be described by the music itself.’ 

 

While acknowledging the importance of this note of caution, I hope by writing about and describing his music, I can encourage both practical musicians and listeners to become better acquainted with Walter’s compositions.

Early Years

No compositions survive from Walter’s early years in Germany, nor from the period after leaving Germany in 1933 until the end of the 1930s. We know his father, Siegfried Würzburger, was a music teacher and synagogue organist, and two of his works for organ have survived. Walter’s later pieces for organ can be viewed with greater understanding in the light of these works. We have a tantalising glimpse of  early promise with the family story that Walter’s first composition (in 1925 at the age of 11) was greeted with ‘amusement’. We know that Walter studied in Frankfurt, at Hoch’s Conservatoire, and that his teachers included composers Bernhard Sekles and Mátyás Seiber. Seiber set up one of the first Jazz Studies courses anywhere in the world, and was an important figure in the development of the accordion, an instrument we know Walter also performed on alongside his more usual instruments of clarinet, saxophone (alto and tenor) and bassoon. We can reasonably imagine that Walter did some arrangements for groups he was playing in; and that he developed advanced skills of improvisation as he played in a variety of ensembles. We know that by 1933, he had the ability to make some kind of a living working as a freelance musician based in France after leaving Germany; and that he found regular work across Europe, including in Belgium, Holland, Switzerland and Scandinavia – though in 1938, Walter remembered being stranded in Norway and having his fare back to Paris paid by a Jewish support committee.

Australia

After taking work in Singapore in 1939, Walter was interned in Australia after the start of the war. From 1940 onwards, initially as an internee, Walter started composing, and these are the first works that survive. Although there are only 9 works which Walter later gave opus numbers from 1940-1949, there are in total 33 works surviving from this period, of which most are complete.

      The earliest surviving work, the setting of a Nietzsche poem ‘Vereinsamt’, can be grouped in style with these early chamber works. Using a text suggested by his fellow-internee and life-long friend Uwe Radok (later an esteemed geologist first in Australia and then in the USA), Walter composed a moving and memorable song for voice and piano. He started orchestrating the song (undated sketches exist from the 1940s); but only finally completed that task in 1991, after making minor revisions to the piano setting also. Another song from the 1940s is a setting of the WB Yeats poem ‘For Anne Gregory’ (with versions in two keys, so presumably tried out by a singer).

   There are a number of keyboard exercises and compositions (fugues, passacaglias, sonata movements), which often start with a Bachian subject but which are developed in a more modern musical style. Presumably many of these are exercises completed for Walter’s music degree studies in Melbourne (either from part-time study in 1943/4 or later study to complete the degree 1946-48). There are at least four works from this period which are for organ, and we know that these were written for Uwe Radok.

   As we might expect, a number of works from this period are composed for slightly unusual instrumental ensembles, which reflect available instruments and players both during internment and later. The earliest string work, Opus 2, composed between September 1940 and April 1941 is for the unusual string trio grouping of two violins and cello; Opus 4 is entitled ‘5 informal sketches’ for a quintet of 2 trumpets and 3 tenor saxophones; the trio entitled ‘Divertimento’, Opus 7 from 1948 is for 2 clarinets and bassoon; the Septet Opus 8 from 1949 is a single movement scored for flute, oboe and clarinet plus string quartet. From this period also, there are two String Quartets (Opus 3 and Opus 6); a piece for Clarinet and Piano; and two movements for tenor saxophone and piano. These works are in an approachable style which we might describe as ‘extended tonality’, possibly showing the influence of French and English composers, of Hindemith, and of the late-romantic compositions of Schoenberg, Mahler and others. But these works also show an emerging distinctive voice. The incomplete piece for saxophone and piano is the most chromatic and explicitly ‘modern’ from this period.

   The most substantial work from this period is the wind quintet Opus 5 from 1946 (for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn) in four movements, entitled ‘Little Chamber Music’, which had performances at the time of composition, and also successful concert performances in recent years.

   Also distinctive from this period are orchestral arrangements of Ravel and Debussy piano works for orchestra. Three short pieces for piano entitled ‘For Children’ have also survived, which have some suggestions of Debussy and of Bartok’s ‘Mikrokosmos’ about them. These mark the first examples of many pieces to be used for teaching or with a didactic element.

   Although there are over twenty complete pieces or movements from this period, Walter did not edit and revise all of these pieces for performance. But where he did, his meticulous attention to expression marks is already visible, something which continued throughout his composing life.

    Some of the manuscripts, or copied parts, show evidence of rehearsal and performance from this period.

England: 1950s & 60s

In 1950-51, Walter came to Europe and eventually settled in Britain. The sketches for a technically taxing solo viola piece from 1950 have addresses of London-based musicians and agents jotted in the margin – possibly the work was started in Australia and then developed further (though not completed) in London.

   There are not many works from the early part of this period. We know that Walter established himself as an international telephone operator, and that he played jazz and did some composition and arrangements in what he later described as in his ‘hard-earned spare time’. He studied clarinet with Frederick Thurston, bassoon with Richard Newton, and in composition he re-established his connection with Mátyás Seiber.

   An important moment is marked by two movements for piano from 1955 and early 1956: in a later comment, Walter has written on the manuscript: ‘probably first attempt at serial writing – rejected by MS [Mátyás Seiber], rightly so’. Many of the works from then onwards are serial works, and Walter developed his engagement with serial music further by attending the Darmstadt Summer Course for three years, 1963-65. The piece for Oboe Solo (1963) is marked ‘finished Darmstadt, 24/7/63’.

   The other important aspect of the works from this period is the prominence of music for wind (as well as his excellent knowledge of wind technique, Walter had the opportunity to rehearse and perform with other amateur and semi-professional wind players). The significant completed pieces from the 1960s are the movement for wind Septet Opus 16 (‘Falmouth’), written in the summer of 1960; the Wind Septet Opus 17 (1962); ‘Dialogue Op 15 for Clarinet and Piano (1964); the works for Horn Quartet  (1965); the double wind quintet ‘Sequences’ Opus 26 (1967).  The Double Wind Quintet was performed and recorded (on a private vinyl disc made at BBC studios) together with Quintet 1946 and the two Septets 1960, 1962. There are also two short quartet movements for 4 French horns in a more ‘jazz style’. Another interesting work from 1965, the unfinished piece ‘Chance Music for 4 horns’, is the only example in the surviving works of an exploration of aleatoric techniques.

    One important exception to the wind pieces is the Study for Guitar Op 12 (Walter’s only work for this instrument) from 1965: it is not known whether this was written for a particular player. As far as we know, it was not performed until 1997 at the memorial concert for Walter at Kingston Liberal Synagogue.  

   The period also sees a number of more ambitious scores for larger forces: ‘Mosaic’ (1965) for orchestra (which Walter revisited in the 1970s and 1980s, but never completed); an unfinished Concertino for Tenor Saxophone and wind (1965); and ‘Dallapiccola Variations’ (1966) scored for winds. These are complex and elaborate in their musical style.

   One other aspect of works from this period is the emergence of two occasional pieces: ‘Reveille’ written in different versions for Music Camp and ‘The Plate’, written for domestic performance.

1970s

After 1968, Walter left his telephonist job and started teaching: some French, some peripatetic instrumental teaching and some composition.

   Inspired by the opportunities this gave for performances or run-throughs, Walter wrote a number of works for wind ensembles. There are nine ‘Ensemble studies’ (originally titled ‘Occasional pieces’) for a variety of wind ensembles of two, three or four instruments, written between 1971 and 1979. On the score for an Ensemble Study for a larger group, Opus 27, Walter writes ‘written for the students of Kingston Polytechnic, and actually performed’.  There is also a set of saxophone studies (1971);  a set of recorder pieces (1972); and a sequence of canons (1977). These pieces were primarily written with educational contexts in mind.

   Another important new sequence of compositions was started in 1971, with the first ‘Klavierstück’; four of these were completed in this period; these are compressed single-movement works for piano. Except for the third one, these are serial works. Of Klavierstück III, Walter wrote in a programme note that this piece ‘is not serial at all but comes as near as I ever have to making use of minimalist techniques’. Sally Mays, who gave the first performance of Klavierstück III wrote that it was Bartokian, with ‘insistent rhythmic patterns exploring small thematic cells with great energy and vigour’; and of Klavierstück IV she wrote of its ‘somewhat sedate’ character, with its ‘serialised narrative of ever changing moods and tempi’.

   Another substantial work from this period is the Piece for 2 Pianos Opus 33, which Walter wrote between 1975 and 1978. He comments in the ‘book of works’ (an occasional diary where he reflected on his progress as a composer) that he had hoped for a performance from Libby Crandon and a colleague. Walter had the piece copied by a professional copyist, but the work remains unperformed.

   This period also saw a few pieces published; Klavierstück I; Ensemble study 2; some of the canons and rounds. Walter also began to use professional copyists to make parts for performance for a number of works.

     During the 1970s Walter founded and then ran and conducted a new amateur orchestra, the Kingston Philharmonia, which is still flourishing. This orchestra would become another important performance outlet for new compositions in the 1980s and 90s, and would allow Walter the opportunity, as a conductor preparing scores for performance, to look at orchestral repertoire and orchestration from a new perspective.

1980-1988

In the 1980s, Walter produced a sequence of major works, most of which use serial compositional techniques. Following the completion of Klavierstück IV, Walter worked in 1981 on 10 Clarinet Studies (Opus 35), and then his Saxophone Quartet (Opus 34). This is one of several significant works yet to have had a concert performance, though Walter did gather four amateur players together to record the piece. This work is in an extended tonality, with harmonies and syncopated rhythms exploring the meeting points of classical modernism and jazz. Walter explores contrapuntal textures as well as the ensemble sound of the four saxophones working together.

   In 1981, three of the Clarinet Studies were adapted as concert pieces, in different versions for solo clarinet and solo viola – showing evidence of a new outward-looking attitude towards his compositions.

   There followed a sequence of major works which were often written with specific performers in mind, and many of which received public performances. In 1982, the first of these was completed, with John Crawford inspiring the composition of the single movement Concertino for violin and orchestra (Opus 38), which was given its first performance with Kingston Philharmonia. This piece was later used as the first movement of the Violin Concerto, completed in 1993.

  For the third performance of the Violin Concertino in October 1991 (Walter’s last concert as conductor of Kingston Philharmonia), he wrote a substantial programme note, which particularly offers listeners a route in to the start of the piece.

 

   It should not be too difficult for the listener to find his way through the various main ideas of the work if he orientates himself the prominent (but sometimes not so prominent) landmark which occurs quite frequently and at first in the opening bars. It is, in fact, a display of the basic form of the tone-row on which the work is built. The orchestra has the first 5 notes (c, e flat, b, a and a flat) to which the solo violin replies with the remaining 7 notes of the row, and we notice that the first 3 notes of the residue are d, f and c sharp, a repetition of the opening motive, only a tone higher. We are here in the most august company, for the little 3-note motive becomes a mighty big one in Beethoven’s last piano sonata Op. 111, or, if we move the third note up an octave, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms comes to mind, with Shostakovich looking somewhere in the background. Common property? Let’s use it.

   Personally I have nothing against the building up of motives and larger melodic entities from material contained in the series, nor do I avoid at all costs the (temporary) establishment of a tonal centre. Maybe that is why I am sometimes accused of not using serial technique in the orthodox way. But times have certainly moved on and many composers have discarded serialism altogether. I do not think the time for this has come yet, but perhaps a little more freedom would be welcome.

   Analysed for the key relationship the 2 opening bars would be plain c minor, but in the third bar the entry of the violin takes us via d min to b min. The last note in this bar, G, which is held over into the following bar, is pivotal and propels us into a new field. We find here the retrograde inversions (the basic series turned upside down and played backwards) which begins (harmonically) on the dominant E flat, moves on to A maj, thence to a min in quick succession, the dominant B flat, b min and so forth. It would, of course, be absurd to look for more key relationships. If they occur, they are only incidental and the point I wanted to make is that I do not go out of my way to avoid them.

 

  The Violin Concertino was followed in 1983/4 by another large-scale orchestral work, the Piano Concerto, written for Australian pianist and local teacher Sally Mays, and performed twice by her, in 1984 and again in 1994. Walter wrote a brief programme note for these performances of the Piano Concerto, which again offers useful insights into his thinking:

 

The formal structure follows classical usage as far as is possible in a work practically free from formal constraints. I particularly enjoyed the occasional tonal implications, the use of common chords and quasi-resolutions which were absolutely banned by the early masters of serialism. One may or may not detect in the first movement a disguised sonata form, or in the third, more obviously, the characteristics of the rondo. The middle movement is meant to reflect the cantilena style of the old aria. There is no break between second and third movement.

   I hold no claim for this piece to be either a ‘modern’ or an ‘avant garde’ work, realising that younger composers are doing things differently. Anyhow, the term ‘modern’ or ‘modernist’ seem to be used today as slightly derogatory attribute denoting something ‘passé’, ‘vieux jeu’ or dated, a contradiction in terms. My music certainly does not follow the principles of the Post-Modernist school.

  

   Klavierstück V also dates from this period. It uses serial techniques and combine classical sonata forms and textures with the structural rigours of single-movement form; it opens with an explicit statement of a ‘hexachord’, and the French-overture style introduction returns as recapitulation.

    In 1984, three substantial student pieces (Duos for flute and clarinet, Opus 40a, b and c) were written with the hope of publication, each one in a different pastiche style (baroque – classical – romantic). These were originally written for student players, with the possibility of publication (though this fell through).

   A significant group of chamber music works were composed in this period, and are all serial works: Piece for Viola and Piano Opus 37 (1982) (written for Matthew Kelly); String Quartet No 4 Opus 41 (1987) which was written without specific performers in mind, though offered to the Medici Quartet and finally given workshop performance by the Hanson Quartet at RNCM; the 1988 Violin Sonata (dedicated to Walter’s daughter Madeleine, and first performed by John Crawford) and Quartet ‘Quovnvap’ for Violin, Viola, Oboe and Piano, also from 1988, and written for performance in a recital at the British Music Information Centre.

   We have the luxury of another programme note on String Quartet No 4, written by Walter for its workshop performance in 1989. It is worth quoting that here in full.

 

‘The two chords built up in the opening bars between them make up a basic series which is then exploited three more times in various transpositions before other mirror versions are applied. An interesting contrapuntal interplay develops, which is extended, reduced and reused. The opening flourish re-appears three times as a landmark throughout the movement: a form emerges, be it a sonata (of a sort) or a rondo.

   A curiosity is the quotation (only very short) from Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, from the end of the finale when the choir is bowing out with ‘schöner Gotterfunken’, here transposed a tone down (FDGC). No apologies. And since we are talking about quotations, a lovely one presented itself towards the end of the first movement, and would not go away: Shostakovich’s monogram, here transposed by an augmented fourth. There are of course quotations, influences and there is plain plagiarism: of the latter crime I hope I am not guilty, but influences there must be galore. Very often I cannot put my finger on them, but they hover somewhere in the background. Berlioz springs to mind somewhere in the first movement, and Stravinsky and Bartok in the second. But also Shostakovich, and, of all people, Khachaturian. No denying the influence of Hindemith and of the Schoenberg school, two opposite poles if there ever were any.

   In the second movement you could imagine – if anyone wants to imagine anything – all sorts of grotesque nightbirds and insects fluttering about, eventually organising themselves into an army of sinister creatures.  It is only a thought.  The last movement is jolly, energetic and somewhat abrasive.’

 

   In May 1988, Walter had a heart bypass operation, which was successful, but which unfortunately triggered a stroke. Walter describes the consequences of this: problems with eyesight, handwriting, and motor skills, severe enough to mean he had to stop playing clarinet and bassoon.

1989-1995

In the last few years of Walter’s life, in spite of continuing health problems, he continued to compose and develop his musical language.

   There is a group of chamber works from this period, comprised of the Cello Sonata (1989); String Quartet no 5 Op 49 (1990); and the Quartet for Clarinet and strings (1990). These all use extended tonality, and each work has at least one movement with a strong rooting in tonality and a neo-classical feel.

   The Cello Sonata represents an extended exploration of the idea of the ‘neo-classical’. It addresses a variety of ways of integrating the old with the new, and the names of other 20th Century composers who attempted this in different ways are brought to mind: from Stravinsky, Milhaud and Ravel through to Schoenberg and Bartok. What we hear is distinctly Wurzburger, wittily combining his own musical language with classical structures (for example fugue, scherzo, three-part invention).

   The String Quartet No 5 starts with explicit serial material and techniques, though with an underlying lyrical quality. The first movement uses one of Walter’s favourite structural devices: a 4/4 crotchet beat metamorphoses into a sprightly 3/8 quaver pulse. The fast-moving scherzo that follows is chromatic, but rooted in tonality, perhaps more influenced by Hindemith than serialism. The expansive adagio starts with a self-consciously archaic classical melodic phrase firmly in a minor key. If on paper it looks like something close to Bach (a composer Walter was often drawn to in later works), it sounds lush and Romantic. The finale returns to the tough angularity of the first movement.

   The Quartet for Clarinet and Strings is in four contrasting movements: the first movement uses serial technique, and is also a fugue which explores Bachian implications of the form; the second movement is a lush Schumann-esque romantic andante; the scherzo is in the style of Bartok (or perhaps Seiber) with a pulse in 5 beats to the bar. The finale is a surprisingly English-sounding march.

   In 1990, an Overture for String Orchestra was written for and performed by the strings of Kingston Philharmonia. This is written with angular chromatic motifs (the opening bars provide the material for much of what follows), but also with neo-classical touches, and a resolute ending in A minor.

   Three songs emerged from this period, inspired by the mezzo-soprano Kathryn Harries. The fifty year-old song ‘Vereinsamt’ from 1941 was revised and then orchestrated; ‘The Art of Losing’ was composed for voice and piano then arranged for small chamber ensemble; and ‘Elevation’, a setting of a Franz Werfel poem, was composed with serial technique in 1993 for voice and piano.

    Also revisiting works from the start of his composing life, Walter completed a new Organ Prelude and Fugue for Uwe Radok; the two men had remained in touch throughout Walter’s life.

   Pieces for piano feature importantly in these last few years, with the last six Klavierstücke, and the set of seven shorter ‘Kleine Klavierstücke’. Each of these 7 Little Piano Piece is very brief. In miniature, they reflect the range of styles we find across Walter’s compositions: serial; extended tonal; Bartok-ian; Bachian; neo-classical; pedagogic. No 1 has a Bartok-like ostinato and modal harmonies; No 2 starts with an explicit echo of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K331, and then explores harmonic digressions in many directions; No 3 has more than a hint (by the middle) of a Bach keyboard invention; No 4 is a fugue with a highly chromatic subject (which reveals its Bach-ian origins more and more as it goes on); No 5 has the feeling of a study, with repeated rising arpeggios, in a highly chromatic language; No 6 uses serial techniques though opening with a fugal texture; and in No 7 we return to extended tonality, hints of Bach fugues with a modern edge (but with a touch of 19th  Century Romantic style too). They were followed by another series of miniatures entitled ‘Gar klein Klavierstücke’ – very small piano pieces – of which four are complete.

     The last six Klavierstücke also show a range. Klavierstück VI is a serial work in six movements, and often explores the compositional possibilities of a stripped-down texture of only one or two voices. Apart from sketches for four clarinet studies from the latter part of 1988, this work from late 1988/early 1989 is the first work that Walter composed during his recovery from the stroke in May 1988. He writes in his dedication ‘To Hannah Wurzburger who nursed me so patiently during my long illness’. No 7 has a single-movement form using elements of sonata form and something akin to a more extended fantasy-structure towards the end. No 8 and 10 are four-movement and three-movement ‘neo-classical’ works, following on in style from the Opus 40 duos for Flute and Clarinet. Walter showed some doubt about this style of composition, writing in the sketchbook as he was developing Klavierstück 8: ‘Following 2 months in Aug/Sept [1992] nothing much done after some revision on this doubtful piece (who needs it?)’. By contrast, Klavierstück 9 & Klavierstück 11 are very compressed single-movement works which use an often dissonant harmonic language – though both of them resolve to major keys in their final bars.  They draw on the sound world of the 12-tone serial works, but are written with a hybrid technique, with atonal textures often evolving towards tonality. Both works have a touching reflective feel, with an expressive quality which shows a confidence in musical forms, without foregrounding technique. 

   In 1993, at considerable physical effort, Walter composed a new slow movement and finale to convert the Concertino for violin and orchestra into a three-movement concerto.

   In 1994, Walter turned sketches for an orchestral piece into the six short movements of a Suite for String Orchestra, again written with Kingston Philharmonia strings in mind, but in an austere serial style.

    His last work was a passacaglia using serial technique. This starts out as a keyboard piece, but part-way through Walter writes: ‘must be for string trio’ and shifts to writing for violin, viola and cello. He wasn’t able to revise the first part which remains written for keyboard; but it has proved possible to transcribe the whole work for String Trio.

Conclusion

In his ‘book of tasks’, an occasional musical diary and place for reflection, Walter frequently berates himself for his disorganisation. Yet, he managed to keep and organise his musical manuscripts, sketches and parts from across six decades: very little has been lost. He also considers his output as mostly consisting of incomplete works: but looking at the archive, we can see that so much was completed. Furthermore, despite a lack of confidence in his own abilities, Walter kept on composing and developing his musical language and the range of his compositions. He wrote many letters trying to encourage interest from performers, broadcasters and other institutions. He involved friends, colleagues and students in performances and in run-throughs. He influenced those he knew, those he played with, those he taught and those he was friends with; he established a successful orchestra where one hadn’t existed before; and he left an important legacy of works, many of which deserve wider performance and recognition.