Walter Braunfels


Born: December 19, 1882 Died: March 19, 1954
Walter Braunfels was one of those all-too-ubiquitous figures in the German musical world of the 1920s and early '30s, who -- through no fault of his, and even less of his music -- managed to go from the center of the musical world to near-complete-obscurity as a composer. And that obscurity lingered for decades after his death in 1954, until the end of the twentieth century, when he was belatedly rediscovered. He was born in Frankfurt in 1882, to a wealthy and artistically prominent family, and his mother, a great-niece of Louis Spohr, was his first music teacher. He later studied at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, although music had to compete with law and economics -- which he studied in Munich -- during his late teen years. It was a performance of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Felix Mottl, that pushed him to cast his career lot with music. He studied piano with Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna, and composition in Munich with Mottl and Ludwig Thuille. The strongest influence on his work, among major established composers, was Berlioz, whose concert and stage works he saw performed, mostly courtesy of Mottl. In terms of the practical life of a musician, Braunfels' piano skills were more than sufficient to keep him as fully employed as he wished or needed, from the teens onward, but he was active in other areas of music, as well. As a composer, Braunfels achieved some considerable prominence in Germany in the immediate post-World War I era, where his music -- boldly experimental in key respects, yet melodic and accessible enough to hold the listeners of the prior generation -- attracted critical acclaim and an enthusiastic audience. His greatest success was his opera Die Vögel (1920), based on Aristophanes' The Birds, which Alfred Einstein compared, following its Munich premiere (conducted by Bruno Walter) to Pfitzner's Palestrina and Wagner's Meistersinger. His second opera, Don Gil von der grunen hosen, dating from 1924, was also a success and saw numerous productions in the German-speaking world of the 1920s following its premiere under Hans Knappertsbusch. And his Te Deum, presented in Cologne, inspired the invitation of the city's mayor, Konrad Adenauer, the establish the Academy of Music in that city in collaboration with Hermann Abendroth.

But the very attributes that made his work so alluring in Weimar Germany, coupled with decisions he was forced to make in the early '20s, brought an end to his public music activities in the decade that followed. Although he was descended from Jewish ancestors on one side of his family, Braunfels regarded himself -- and, indeed, was -- a devout Catholic. And on that basis alone, he had a built-in abhorence for the National Socialist (Nazi) Party and was a political opponent, within the musical world, of those he found to be party members. Additionally, as one of Germany's most promising new composers of the era, he had been asked in the early 1920s to compose an anthem for the Nazi Party, which he declined to do, apparently with excessive vehemence. These matters put him permanently on the wrong side of the National Socialists, and in 1933 his music -- which had not disqualified him from being a recipient of their request in the 1920s -- was banned from public performance. Braunfels gave up his Cologne post but remained in Germany, not imprisoned but effectively in internal exile for the duration of the Hitler years. His disappearance from musical life in Germany during the Nazi regime scarcely affected him personally or artistically, as Braunfels never ceased composing; after the fall of Hitler at the outset of the reconstruction of Germany, he was one of the nation's few remaining resident major musical figures untouched by association with events of the preceding 12 years. He found himself regarded by the new Democratic German government as an essential figure in the restoration of the nation's cultural life. He resumed his formal musical activities at the Cologne Academy of Music in the fall of 1945, at the urging of the government, eventually becoming its president. His compositions, however, were not of interest to audiences in 1950s Germany, and at the time of his death in 1954, Braunfels had been out of the spotlight for decades as a creative musician. Upon his death, this obscurity was, if anything, exacerbated. It was only in the late '80s, as Germany began a concerted examination of its lost cultural past, exhuming and seeing performances of works branded as "degenerate" by the Nazis and subsequently forgotten, that his reputation as a composer was restored. Die Vögel, in particular, was returned to the opera houses of the world, and received a full recording in 1996, some 76 years after its premiere.
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