Wilhelm Kienzl


Born: January 17, 1857 Died: October 19, 1941
Wilhelm Kienzl was a major figure in the musical and cultural life of Austria from the 1890s until the 1930s. Kienzl was born in the village of Waizenkirchen, in rural Upper Austria, where his father was a successful attorney. The family moved to the city of Graz in 1861, where his father served as mayor from 1873 until 1885. He was introduced to music by the amateur efforts of his father, a flutist and guitarist, and it was in the family home that he first heard performances of excerpts from Wagner's Tannhäuser. He began studying piano and violin at age nine, developed an interest in the operas of Mozart, Weber, and Wagner before his teens, and was composing by age 12.

As a student at Graz University, he studied composition, philosophy, and physics, and also wrote music reviews for a local newspaper. By the time he was 19, Kienzl was traveling as a student, musician, and lecturer; he was in attendance at the first performance of the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 1876. Kienzl became a Wagner devotee as he continued his musical training at the University of Leipzig. He studied with Franz Liszt in Weimar, and then completed his education in Vienna.

He became part of the circle of admirers surrounding Wagner during the latter's final years -- although the composer disapproved of Kienzl's admiration for Schumann. Kienzl continued to attend nearly every Bayreuth Festival. He began writing opera in 1884 with Urvasi, a work influenced heavily by Wagner, but his principal activities for the next 10 years remained teaching and conducting.

In 1894, Kienzl completed what proved to be his most enduring work, Der Evangelimann. His intention had been to write a satirical opera based on the Munchhausen stories, but his discovery of a serious work about a religious devotee sidetracked him into the best libretto of his operatic output -- Der Evangelimann had a simple story, about an evangelist and his relationship with his miscreant brother, and Kienzl responded with a stream of memorable and pleasing music. The opera received its premiere in at the Berlin Royal Opera House in 1895, and within a few years had been performed by every major company in Germany and Austria. It was translated into 13 languages.

Kienzl was left financially independent by the success of Der Evangelimann. His subsequent operas, including Don Quixote and Hassan The Zealot, with their more complex librettos, failed to find similar popularity, and Das Testament, considered one of his very best scores, was never performed outside of Vienna due to its libretto's reliance on an Austrian regional dialect.

In 1918, Kienzl wrote the first anthem for the new Austrian republic. He was increasingly isolated musically, however, for he was unable to embrace atonalism but loathed being regarded as old-fashioned. He wrote operas into the 1920s, after which he gave up large-scale composition. Illness forced him to abandon composition after 1936.

There are 37 Wilhelm Kienzl recordings available.

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