Obituary: Gottfried von Einem

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The Independent Online
Against the background of cultural uncertainty that inevitably followed the total destruction of Austria at the end of the Second World War, the organisers of the Salzburg Festival took the unusually bold step of featuring an entirely new opera by a virtually unknown composer for their 1947 Festival. The opera in question was Dantons Tod ("Danton's Death") by the 29-year-old Austrian Gottfried von Einem, and its overwhelming success served to launch von Einem almost immediately into the forefront of post-war musical activity in Central Europe.

The son of the Austrian military attache in Switzerland, von Einem was educated in Germany and England, and at the age of 20 was appointed repetiteur at the Berlin Staatsoper. From 1941 to 1943 he studied privately with Boris Blacher, a composer whose music had recently been proscribed by the Nazis. Von Einem was also to experience conflict with the Nazi regime, suffering temporary arrest and interrogation by the Gestapo (an episode that would later be recalled rather chillingly in his second opera Der Prozess, based on Franz Kafka's The Trial) and encountering official opposition for the jazz-influenced Concerto for Orchestra. Yet despite these setbacks, von Einem made his first real breakthrough with the ballet Prinzessin Turandot, first performed in Dresden in 1944.

The failed assassination attempt upon Hitler during the same year provided the initial inspiration for Dantons Tod, which von Einem adapted, together with Blacher, from Buchner's drama about the French Revolution. When it was first performed, the historical relevance of such material was not lost upon post-war audiences beginning to come to terms with the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. But von Einem's score also impressed for its virtuosic handling of the chorus in the Tribunal Scene of Act II, and for its expressionist but tonally-based idiom.

Expressionism also influenced the composition of Der Prozess, similarly premiered in Salzburg in 1954. This time, however, critical opinion was more mixed, and it was questionable whether von Einem had successfully encapsulated the ambiguities of Kafka's text within his bitingly rhythmic Stravinskian idiom. In any case, by the mid-1950s von Einem's brand of accessible modernism was already deemed old- fashioned in the context of the post-serialist orthodoxy of the Darmstadt school.

While von Einem was no longer occupying the position of international eminence that followed Dantons Tod, his music would still be championed by prominent interpreters. Ferenc Fricsay and Herbert von Karajan regularly performed his orchestral works, while substantial chamber pieces were later commissioned by the Vienna String Trio and the Alban Berg Quartet. Von Einem's new operas also enjoyed glittering premieres in the major Austrian and German theatres. Hamburg hosted the first performance of his third opera Der Zerissene ("The Disunited") in 1964, while 12 years later Kabale und Liebe ("Cabal and Love", after Schiller) was given in Vienna under Christoph von Dohnanyi. Between these two works came Der Besuch der alten Dame ("The Visit of the Old Lady") - a setting of the play by Friedrich Durrenmatt about the corruption engendered by the lust for money. The opera made such a positive impression at its Viennese premiere that it was soon staged elsewhere, securing performances at Glyndebourne during 1973 and 1974.

Von Einem wrote two more operas, neither of which have yet been heard in this country. The premiere in 1980 of the first of these works, Jesu Hochzeit ("Jesus's Wedding"), occasioned a national scandal on account of its text, by von Einem's second wife Lotte Ingrisch, which offended the Catholic Church for portraying an erotic encounter between Jesus, and for representing Life and Love, and a female Death. Like much of von Einem's later work, the music is more austere, in a manner that sometimes recalls the late style of Mahler.

In Austria, von Einem enjoyed a distinguished career as an administrator, serving on the boards of the Salzburg Festival, Wiener Konzerthausgesellschaft and the Vienna Festival. He was also a Professor of Composition at the Vienna Hochschule fur Musik. Although he was honoured in his own country as a composer of outstanding gifts, his music, save for Dantons Tod, remains unaccountably neglected elsewhere. His death, however, may well encourage an overall reappraisal of his achievement, particularly in a climate which has become especially in- terested in those composers whose early careers were dedicated to the overthrow of Fascism.

Erik Levi

Gottfried von Einem, composer: born Berne, Switzerland 24 January 1918; married 1946 Lianne von Bismarck (one son), secondly Lotte Ingrisch; died Obernduernbach, Austria 12 July 1996.