Julius BURGER (1897–1995)

Julius Burger

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Julius Burger

by Malcolm MacDonald

The composer, conductor, pianist and arranger Julius Burger was born in Vienna on 11 March 1897 and died in New York on 12 June 1995, at the advanced age of 98. To those even faintly acquainted with the musical history of the twentieth century, those dates and places are already enough to suggest some kind of trajectory for this musician who in a single lifetime experienced an entire century of staggering musical and political upheavals. One might anticipate, on those details alone, to hear that Burger was one of the many distinguished artists whose lives were dislocated by the rise of the Nazi tyranny, who were forced to leave their native lands and find such new homes and employment as they could in the relative freedom that prevailed on the other side of the Atlantic; with sometimes catastrophic effect on their careers.

He was indeed of that company, and in the sixty or so years he spent in the USA his reputation, such as it was, was that of a conductor and arranger. As an original composer – which seems to have been at least an equal ambition while he remained in Europe – he was almost entirely unknown. The works on this disc began emerging and receiving performance in the very last years of Burger’s life. Although it is too early to attempt any overall assessment of Burger the composer, it is at least clear that his works must be included, and with respect, among the ever-expanding discoveries of ‘entartete Musik’ either deliberately suppressed by the Nazis, or denied a hearing in their own time because of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Born three weeks before the death of Brahms, Julius Bürger, one of eight brothers, became a student at the Vienna Academy of Music, where his teachers included Franz Schreker. In the winter of 1919–20 he was a member of Engelbert Humperdinck’s composition class in Berlin, and then returned to Vienna, but not for long. During 1920 Schreker was appointed Director of the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, and in the autumn of that year a group of his Vienna pupils accompanied him there in order to continue their studies of composition. They included Alois Hába, Jascha Horenstein, Ernst Křenek, Karol Rathaus – and Julius Bürger: a glittering collection of talent. For testimony of Bürger’s capabilities at this period we have the witness of the Vice-Director of the Musikhochschule, Georg Schünemann. Writing in a special issue of the Universal Edition periodical Anbruch dedicated to Schreker and his work,[1] Schünemann recalled the impression which these first Schreker students made upon the examination committee. Bürger is one of those he mentions by name before commenting:

It was amazing what these young Schreker students could do. We gave them contrapuntal problems to solve, examined their strict and free styles, heard one fugue after another (both vocal and instrumental), gave them themes for modulation and improvisation, examined their musicality and ear training – these students were skilled in everything. As many exams as I have witnessed since, I have never again encountered such an artistic level.

Bürger remained in Schreker’s class until he graduated in July 1922, and at the same time, from October 1920 to July 1921, he studied conducting at the Hochschule. It is clear that he was innately talented as a conductor, and his precarious financial position forced him to take every opportunity he could for musical employment. For a time, while still a student, he was accompanist to the celebrated tenor Leo Slezak.

From 1922 to 1923 he was a repetiteur for the opera house in Karlsruhe. In 1924, at the urging of Bruno Walter, Burger went to the USA for the first time as assistant to Artur Bodanzky at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York – the institution which would dominate his later conducting career. This first sojourn at the Metropolitan lasted until 1926, when he returned to Europe to tour as the accompanist for the singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Afterwards he moved to Berlin as an assistant to Otto Klemperer at the Kroll Opera; he also, from 1929, conducted for Berlin Radio. In 1933, following Hitler’s edict against Jews in the arts, Bürger realised he could no longer remain in Germany and returned to Vienna, where he seems to have largely devoted himself to composition. But he also worked in London for the BBC as an arranger and orchestrator – for example, of the musical Carnival by Kenneth Leslie Smith, and the operetta A Life of Offenbach, set to a pot-pourri of Offenbach’s works arranged by Bürger and Gregor Kulka (both these productions were broadcast in 1935). He was also involved in a series of hour-long programmes entitled Music of the British Empire.

In February 1938, anxious about the ominous political climate in Austria, Bürger and his wife decided to make a train trip to Vienna to vote in the Anschluss election against the country’s incorporation into Hitler’s Third Reich. During a station stop in Paris, he spotted a newspaper headline proclaiming ‘Austrian Chancellor Meets Hitler’, and instinctively grabbed his wife and got off the train, abandoning their luggage. This action probably saved their lives – although in the ensuing World War Burger lost five of his brothers in Auschwitz, and his mother was shot out of hand while being marched there.

In 1939 Bürger emigrated to the United States – where he finally dropped the umlaut from his name, just as Arnold Schönberg became Schoenberg when he settled in the USA. As Julius Burger, he returned to New York to work for CBS with André Kostelanetz and Arthur Fiedler, then to Broadway to conduct the debut of the Balanchine-choreographed Song of Norway. In 1949 he rejoined the Metropolitan Opera as assistant conductor. During the 1950s, in addition to conducting, accompanying and work in the prompt box he put his arranging skills at the service of the Met. In 1954 he created the full-length ballet Vittorio, based upon the ballets from some of Verdi’s operas (which had generally been omitted from Met productions), and principally upon the music for Un giorno di Regno, for the choreographer Zachary Solov. The performances of Vittorio were Dmitri Mitropoulos’ conducting debut at the Met. And in 1956 the Met staged Offenbach’s operetta La Périchole, also conducted by Mitropoulos, in a new version by Burger. Both productions were deemed a success, but the critics were divided about the Met’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, directed by Peter Brook, which opened in October 1957. For this Mitropoulos had requested Burger to compose entr’actes based upon material from the opera, but in his own orchestration, which he duly did. The innovation was not warmly received, and the entr’actes were dropped when the production was revived under Thomas Schippers in 1963.

By this time Burger seems to have long since given up original composition, presumably because he was having no luck in securing performances for the works he had written in the previous decades. These included three string quartets, piano and choral music and orchestral works. True, two songs that he wrote very early in his career, Launisches Gluck and Zigeunerlied, had been taken up and recorded by the tenor Joseph Schmidt in the 1920s and enjoyed a spell of popularity, but no wider interest had followed. One must speculate that this neglect was partly due to the powerful post-war bias in new music circles against contemporary composers with a broadly traditional, post-romantic, clearly tonal appeal as against the rising orthodoxies of Darmstadt and Princetonian serialism. In 1952 Burger, with the cellist Ingus Naruns, was able to put on a performance of his Cello Concerto – the work by which he seems to have set most store – at New York Town Hall, but only in the form of a reduction for cello and piano. And in 1984, 39 years after he composed it, Burger entered his Variations on a Theme by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach for a Competition sponsored by the Contemporary Music Festival of Indiana State University; it won first prize, and at the age of 87 he heard it premiered by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Six years later, after two near-fatal strokes and the death of his wife, Burger began planning for what should happen on his own death. Wishing to turn his estate into scholarships for young Israeli musicians, he enlisted the aid of a Manhattan probate lawyer, Ronald Pohl. Though not himself a musician, Pohl became fascinated by Burger’s story and was shown his many manuscript compositions in his Queens apartment. As a result he became an enthusiast for the idea that Burger’s music should have a chance to be properly performed and recorded, preferably while its composer was still alive to hear it. Only those who have attempted a similar feat of persuading professional musicians to give their time to totally unknown music can fully appreciate Pohl’s achievement in getting the world-famous Orchestra of St Luke’s to present an all-Julius Burger concert at Lincoln Center, New York, on 3 June 1991 – a concert, attended by Burger, that included the world premiere of the Cello Concerto in its full-orchestral dress, with the young Israeli cellist Maya Beiser as soloist.[2] In spite of precarious health, the composer was also able to be present at the recording sessions for this CD – in the Berlin where he had been a student 72 years earlier. He died only nine months later.

Burger’s musical language is grounded in that of the great Austro-German masters of the early twentieth century, and yet he finds a personal tone within that overall idiom. Much more harmonically advanced than that of his teacher Humperdinck, his music owes little or nothing to the totally chromatic and later serial idioms of the Schoenberg school but aligns itself with its more tonal contemporaries such as Franz Schreker, Franz Schmidt, Joseph Marx, Zemlinsky and Korngold. Schreker was famously non-prescriptive in his teaching, discouraging imitation of his own lush idiom, but his influence can be detected especially in Burger’s symphonic songs. Schreker’s openness to French impressionism, especially Debussy, seems to find its echo also in Burger. In addition there is a pure, sometimes whimsical, diatonic strain which to British ears sounds rather ‘English’. This strain – which might also be considered presciently akin to some of Burger’s American composer-contemporaries – is a feature he shares with Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

[1] ‘Franz Schreker als Lehrer’, Musikbläter des Anbruch Vol. X, No. 3/4, 1928, issue ‘Franz Schreker zum 50. Geburtstag’, p. 109.

[2] Burger and Pohl were featured jointly as ‘Person of the Week’ on World News Tonight of ABC News on 12 March 1993.