Egon Wellesz (1885 - 1974)

Born in Vienna, the composer, musicologist and Byzantinist Egon Wellesz won early academic distinction, teaching music history at the New Vienna Conservatory and writing the first book on Schoenberg, with whom he had studied privately. In 1929 he became professor of musicology at Vienna University and enjoyed, at the same time, considerable success as a composer. Having then been away from Austria at the time of the Anschluss, he did not return home but moved to England with a fellowship at Lincoln College, Oxford. Here he became a lecturer in musicology and subsequently a reader in Byzantine music. His activity as a composer was seriously interrupted by moving from the earlier musical context of his work (the world of Mahler, Schoenberg and Webern) to the very different contemporary cultural climate of England.

Stage Works

Wellesz’s first opera, Die Prinzessin Girnara, in 1918, was followed in 1922/3 by Alkestis, a collaboration with Hofmannsthal after Euripides. He returned to Euripides in 1931 with his Die Bakchantinnen (‘The Bacchantes’), staged in Vienna. His last opera, Incognita, based on a play by Congreve, was first staged in Oxford in 1951. He also wrote music for ballets, including, with a Hofmannsthal scenario, Achilles auf Skyros.

Vocal Music

A convert from Judaism to Catholicism, Wellesz set some liturgical texts and wrote works reflecting his interest in Byzantine music. Other works include settings of poems by Rilke, with later songs on English as well as German texts.

Instrumental Music

Wellesz left nine symphonies, orchestral pieces based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, chamber music including string quartets and trios, and works for piano and for organ.