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10 best Austrian composers of all time

Daniel Jaffé explores the lives and works of Austria's greatest ever composers

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Austria’s importance to the history of Western classical music has been widely, if sometimes grudgingly, acknowledged. Arguably much of this is rooted in the joint work of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91), who together developed and promoted the symphony and string quartet and their successors.

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Here is a quick introduction to Haydn and Mozart, and eight great Austrian composers who succeeded them.

Best Austrian composers ever

Joseph Haydn

Born in the rural village of Rohrau in lower Austria, the son of a wheelwright, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was a country boy at heart. This can be heard even in the last and grandest of his symphonies, the ‘London’, the finale of which starts on a rustic drone and a simple scrap of a melody which might have been played in a lively barn dance. Yet Haydn became one of the greatest pioneers and innovators of classical music.

This happened over the three decades he was court composer and musician at the rural Hungarian estate of Esterháza. There, in relative seclusion but with a first-rate team of musicians and an opera house for him to provide music and experiment with, he perfected both the genres of symphony and the string quartet. He eventually returned to Vienna, where he became composition teacher to Beethoven. In Haydn’s later works, one can hear a great deal of urbane sophistication co-mingling with his love of the rustic. The English composer Gustav Holst admired Haydn’s music, in which he could hear ‘a wealth of experience of town and country, deep and controlled emotion, wisdom and humour, all clothed in perfect courtesy and kindliness’.

Recommended work:

London Symphonies: try either Symphony No. 101 in D major, ‘The Clock’; or Symphony No. 103 in E flat major, ‘Drumroll’ (Concertgebouw Orchestra/Colin Davis – Philips)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91), born in Salzburg, was taken by his family on a three-year Europe-wide tour as a wunderkind from the age of seven. It was on his early travels that he wrote some of his earliest compositions, aged eight, when his family had to stop in Chelsea – at that time a village outside London – while his father recovered from an apparently life-threatening illness.

In his maturity Mozart became one of the most versatile and masterful composers of this or any other age, whose music – whether in his symphonies, piano concertos, string quartets or his operas – has charmed and intrigued even the most demanding of musicians. For the English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, Mozart’s genius was how he ‘emancipated music from the bonds of a formal age, while remaining the true voice of the 18th century. His new sentiment or emotion…was an intimacy, a masculine tenderness, unique – something confiding, affectionate.’ Where you start exploring Mozart’s work may depend on which genre you most enjoy, but for most people the surest place is with his piano concertos.

Recommended work:

Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor (András Schiff, Camarata Academia des Mozarteums Salzburg/Sándor Végh – Decca)

Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert (1797-1828), born in Vienna, had an even shorter life than Mozart’s, yet he was almost equally productive, writing hundreds of songs – even in his purely instrumental works, the song-like quality of his melodies is a characteristic of his music. He also wrote eight or nine symphonies, several masterpieces for various chamber ensembles including string quartets, a superb String Quintet in C, and his well-loved Piano Quintet known as ‘The Trout’ (one of its movements being a set of variations on his song of that name).

Yet for listeners trying Schubert for the first time, perhaps the most compelling place to start is the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony in B minor. When composing that work, Schubert was in poor health, fully aware he would never be cured and that he would die prematurely. Hence the brooding and even emotionally fraught character of the first movement; yet, typically of Schubert, even this tragic movement includes an apparently carefree song-like melody, and he then contrasts that movement with the serene beauty of the slow second movement.

Recommended work:

Symphony No. 8, ‘Unfinished’ (Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Günter Wand – RCA)

Anton Bruckner

Born in Ansfelden (now a suburb of Linz), Anton Bruckner (1824-96) was the son of a village schoolmaster and organist in Upper Austria. Devoutly religious, he wrote several very fine choral works choral works – of which his motets and the ecstatic Ave Maria are superb introductions to his music. But it is perhaps above all his symphonies for which he is most widely celebrated. One of the very best is his Ninth Symphony, dedicated to ‘beloved God’. Though this was begun in a final burst of compositional energy in 1887, Bruckner had only started on its fourth and final movement when he died in 1896. It is altogether one of the most forward-looking symphonies of the 19th century, some of its dissonances so extreme that they were toned down on its first publication. The epically proportioned first movement is darkly brooding, yet includes some of Bruckner’s most lyrical string music. Then follows a ferocious Scherzo, whose hammering chords, once heard, are scarcely to be forgotten. Finally, the remarkable Adagio, which Bruckner regarded as his own ‘farewell to life’ – its sustained chords like dazzling streams of light.

Recommended work:

Symphony No. 9 (Lucerne Symphony Orchestra/Claudio Abbado – Deutsche Grammophon)

Johann Strauss II

Johann Strauss II (1825-99), known as ‘the Waltz King’, remains perhaps the most beloved of Viennese composers, admired by virtually all his more highbrow peers including Wagner, Brahms – who once inscribed the opening bars of the ‘Blue Danube’ in an autograph album and wrote by it ‘Unfortunately not by yours truly, Johannes Brahms’ – and Schoenberg. His other great waltz hits include the ‘Emperor Waltz’, ‘Wine, Women and Song’, ‘Roses from the South’ and ‘Tales from the Vienna Woods’, as well as other dances such as the ‘Thunder and Lightning’ polka. He also composed the operetta Die Fledermaus (The Bat), which was so admired by Gustav Mahler that as a conductor he had it staged at the prestigious Hamburg Opera House.

Recommended work:

Waltzes (Carlos Kleiber conducts J Strauss II – Sony)

Gustav Mahler

In his lifetime Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was considered first and foremost an outstandingly gifted conductor of opera and in the concert hall, much admired even by Brahms with whom he became friends. As a composer, though, he was not so highly rated until after the First World War when a generation of composers – notably Benjamin Britten in England, Dmitri Shostakovich in the USSR and Aaron Copland in the US – discovered his symphonies. These works became truly popular when Leonard Bernstein conducted and recorded them in the 1960s.

Mahler as symphonist used to be often spoken in the same breath as Bruckner. But while Bruckner created what are often described as abstract ‘cathedrals of sound’, Mahler wrote symphonies which are not only programmatic, but also often include sung texts. One of his greatest works is Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), which qualifies as a symphony in all but name. Setting six classical Chinese poems, as paraphrased by Hans Bethge from other translations, Mahler presents a sequence that both celebrates and mourns the experience of earthly life.

Recommended work:

Das Lied von der Erde (Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Robert Dean Smith (tenor); Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski – Pentatone)

Alexander Zemlinsky

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Vienna witnessed the emergence of a generation of composers who took inspiration from two very different German composers, blending the rigorous compositional principles of Johannes Brahms with the adventurous harmonies and orchestration of Richard Strauss. Among them was Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942), whose historical importance lies in being the principal teacher (and a little later the father-in-law) of Arnold Schoenberg. Yet Zemlinsky was a superb composer in his own right, and recently his music has been rediscovered, having been long overshadowed by his pupil’s.

Though richly Romantic – inspired as he was by the works of Richard Strauss – Zemlinsky’s music never forsook tonality. An excellent introduction to his music is his symphonic tone poem in three movements, Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid). Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale about a mermaid’s forlorn transformation into a mortal to try to win her prince, Zemlinsky’s work was inspired by his abortive relationship with one of his composition pupils, Alma Schindler. She, having conceived an intense passion for her ‘frightfully ugly’ teacher, then abandoned Zemlinsky for Mahler, already world famous as a conductor, leaving Zemlinsky heartbroken.

Recommended work:

Die Seejungfrau (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko – Onyx)

Arnold Schoenberg

Born in Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) became the leader of the so-called Second Viennese School, his main pupils being Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Schoenberg showed a talent for music from an early age, although neither of his parents were particularly musical. Zemlinsky gave him some lessons in counterpoint (and later became his brother-in-law when the younger composer married Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde). Otherwise, Schoenberg was essentially self-taught, learning his craft by orchestrating operettas and playing cello in various orchestras and chamber ensembles.

Schoenberg was 25 when he composed what is generally considered his first masterpiece, Verklärte Nacht. Zemlinsky inspired in his pupil a love and appreciation for Wagner’s music, and Verklärte Nacht’s richly expressive harmonies are particularly indebted to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Schoenberg would later develop a more dissonant style inspired by expressionism – his most famous piece of that period being the cabaret-like Pierrot lunaire (1912) – and eventually invented a system known as 12-tone serial composition to enable composers to write music no longer ‘trapped’ by the conventions of standard tonality.

Recommended works:

Verklärte Nacht (Quatuor Ebène – Erato)

Pierrot lunaire (Jane Manning; The Nash Ensemble/Simon Rattle – Chandos/Collect)

Anton Webern

Anton Webern (1883-1945) was also born in Vienna, but unlike his teacher Schoenberg remained in Austria, and was killed there only months after the end of World War II. Today he is widely remembered as a leading avant-garde composer, his short, almost aphoristic works much admired by such mid-20th century composers as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.

Yet his earliest works were very much written in the lush, late-Romantic style developed by Richard Wagner. Webern’s Langsamer Satz (‘Slow movement’) for string quartet well exemplifies this, and expresses the love he felt for his cousin, Wilhelmine Mörtl, whom he would eventually marry. More adventurous listeners wanting to try the intense yet fleeting style of Webern’s mature works may find several fine examples among his later pieces for string quartet.

Recommended works:

String Quartets (Artis Quartet – Nimbus)

Alban Berg

Alban Berg (1885-1935), a born and bred Austrian, wrote relatively few works in his fifty years of existence. Yet several of them are among the greatest of the 20th century, most particularly his opera Wozzeck (1922) – about an ordinary soldier is victimised by several authority figures – a remarkable essay in expressionism yet fully rooted in an all-too-recognisable reality. Indeed, Berg drew a great deal from his first-hand experience of serving in the Austrian army during the First World War – his opera might be seen as an aural parallel to such artworks as those by the German Otto Dix. In contrast, his final masterpiece, the Violin Concerto which he dedicated ‘To the memory of an angel’ (meaning Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler by her second husband, Walter Gropius, who had died aged 18), is anguished but unmistakably lyrical – notwithstanding having been composed following Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique – and includes a quotation of Bach’s chorale ‘Es ist genug’.

Recommended work:

Wozzeck (Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic/Christoph von Dohnányi – Decca)

Violin Concerto (Louis Krasner; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Anton Webern – Testament)

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