I said I wanted to do more “hidden gem” posts, and I’m totally stuck on coming up with a good math series to do (suggestions?). Egon Wellesz was an early twentieth century composer whose music seems to have been totally forgotten. He was also a musicologist, and I think that work survives as quite important (don’t quote me on that, I no nothing of the field).
It is a tragedy no one has heard of him. He was one of many students of the famous Arnold Schoenberg, who was essentially the father of twelve-tone composition. I’ve tried to look stuff up on Wellesz with little success. So bear with me as I expound my theory on why he isn’t better known based on absolutely no evidence or facts.
A lot (though not all) of Wellesz’s earlier works turn away from the atonality of “serious” music of the time. Look at Schoenberg’s students who are household names: Berg, Webern, Cage, …. These people all went on to make names for themselves by pushing the avant-garde envelope further through new compositional techniques involving twelve-tone methods or by moving past the use of 12 notes altogether.
Wellesz on the other hand decided to return to something that might be called neo-classicism. Works such as String Quartet No. 3 (op. 25) and Symphony No. 3 (op. 68) have a very strong sense of melody. These pieces are almost programmatic. The mood and melody are fantastically developed (he does still use the classical sonata form for the first movements, so what do you expect?), so much so that one could almost imagine these works as scores to a movie.
As one might imagine, the academic atmosphere of the time probably didn’t take these compositions very seriously (again, my totally made up theory which is mostly contradicted by the fame of people such as Ralph Vaughan Williams). My guess is that this is why he isn’t as famous as Schoenberg’s other students who continued along the post-tonal path.
I have to be very careful here to not give the impression that he is purely a neo-classicist though. A lot of his later works, such as the sixth and seventh symphonies draw strongly on his atonal roots. Just by listening I can’t tell if it is true serialized twelve-tone composition, but it sounds like it. Somewhat surprisingly, these later symphonies still have that earlier beautiful development. Instead of melodic development it is motivic. Despite their atonal bent, these later symphonies still have a grandiose quality to them. It sounds as if Mahler wrote atonal symphonies. These are well worth checking out (I think I like the sixth the best).
Here’s what I like so much about his music. He walks a fine line to obtain a great balance between popular, easily accessible “instant gratification” music and very academic style music. His music doesn’t sound like Hindemith or Bartok, but I think he probably had a similar philosophy as them. He takes traditional compositional technique such as strict counterpoint, but then expands it into the modern realm. He isn’t afraid to use all sorts of modern, interesting tonality and melody while employing these old techniques.
I think too often you have neo-classicists use these techniques as they were intended and ignore all modern advances in music, but then on the other hand have serialists (or some other post-tonal school) that totally ignores that older technique can be used effectively in this setting. Like I said, Wellesz isn’t the only one to do this, but he does it particularly well in my opinion.
He is also very good at tugging on those heartstrings. I think this is in part due to his great orchestration skills (I already compared him to Mahler), but it is also due to his melodic sensibilities which I think is an under-appreciated skill these days. I hear a lot of Vaughan Williams in his tonal slow movements (they were contemporaries and both British, so it is hard to say who influenced who here).
His melodic sensibilities make for an interesting effect in his less tonal works, because some slow movements are still beautiful and emotional even though none of the traditional harmonic motion is being used to create these effects.
Anyway, hopefully that is enough to get you interested in this less well-known composer. Here’s a sample: