Symphony No. 3 in A (1949-1951)

By Hartmut Krones

Written for the concert The Uses of History: Reincarnations of Beethoven, performed on March 30, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Egon Wellesz (born in Vienna1885 – died in Oxford 1974) was world renowned not only as a composer, but as a musicologist and scholar of Byzantine culture as well. He studied at the University of Vienna while taking private lessons from Arnold Schoenberg in composition. From 1913, he taught musicology, became professor and made himself a name as a specialist for Baroque and Byzantine music, specifically for his break-through in deciphering the middle Byzantine music notation. In 1932, he was awarded the title of honorary doctor by Oxford University. Aside from this, Wellesz became one of the most performed composers. His operas Alkestis (Alcestis), Die Bacchantinnen (The Female Bacchantes) and ballets Das Wunder der Diana (The Wonder of Diana) and Achilles auf Skyros (Achilles on Skyros) were shown on countless stages until 1933, when they were forbidden in Germany and then 1938 in Austria as well. On the day of Austria’s occupation by German forces (March 13th, 1938), Bruno Walter conducted his symphonic movements Properos Beschwörungen (Prospero’s Oath) in Amsterdam, and from there Wellesz emigrated to England where he taught at Oxford University and also composed mostly symphonies, sacred works and chamber music.

At first predominantly influenced by Bruckner and Mahler, Wellesz abandoned tonality under Schoenberg’s guidance and turned to an expressive, gesticulating musical language without ever adopting the harsh twelve-tone technique. His nine symphonies, written after his emigration, show a deliberate departure from the musical tradition of Austria. The Third Symphony was written between 1949 and 1951, but intrigues foiled its soon-to-be-slated premiere performance, and it was not until April of 2000 when the work finally premiered in the Golden Hall of the Vienna Music Society. And there was unanimous certainty that this was, next to Mahler, one of the most important Austrian symphonies ever heard.

Wellesz’ Third Symphony is reminiscent of Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler in regards to sonority, but remains independent, measure for measure, with its dominant tonality identified by the designation “Symphony in A.” While the four-movement structure follows the late Romantic tradition, the key is marked by contrasts from the first movement on, creating an irritating and disturbing effect. The sonata style is being used in a rather unorthodox way, since the two immediately introduced themes are varied continuously without giving heed to an organization into development, reprise and coda. The main theme, exposed in unison, is made especially poignant with its large intervals, whereas the side movement, which serves as continuation, has a more songlike character with its recurring triplets.

As he wrote the slow second movement, Wellesz states he “was carried along by the ideas of transfiguration in Austrian music,” which led to broad cantilenas and hymn-like brass chorales. With its 6/8 time, the joyous Scherzo presses on and again positions tonal elements against freely expressionistic passages, while the movement’s two trio segments feature melodic contrasts. The slow introduction already anticipates the finale’s dramatic structure by introducing the entire material: the poignant, sharply accentuated main theme as well as dotted eighth figurations which provide impulses for movement. Derived from the opening idea, the main section’s theme leads through a formal sonata structure. The equally hesitant hymn-like ending has the effect of man’s last wrestling with a harsh fate, unable to find lighthearted joy any longer.

(Trans. Gila Fox)