Walter Braunfels

1882 1954

Walter Braunfels

Composer

Biography

During the Third Reich, between 1933 and 1945, Braunfels refused to leave his home country, despite the fact that his music was banned. Instead, he went into an isolated exile at Lake Constance, where he focused on composition. In 1945, after the Nazis were defeated and the ban on his music lifted, Braunfels was requested in Cologne to rebuild the Hochschule für Musik. He was honoured with the title of professor emeritus in 1950.

In Braunfels’ earliest music especially, the influence of Wagner is palpable. His breakthrough work was his operaPrinzessin Brambilla (1909), which is based on a story by E.T.A Hoffmann and is very representative of the fairy tale operas, post-Wagnerian. Other composers who composed in a similar style at the time include Engelbert Humperdinck, Friedrich Klose and Hans Pfitzner. The opera was premiered successfully in Stuttgart in 1909, under the direction of Max von Schillings.

Beyond Wagner, Braunfels was also greatly inspired by the orchestral works of Berlioz. His appreciation of Hector Berlioz’s music is shown in the orchestral homagePhantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz (‘Fantastic Appearances of a Theme from Hector Berlioz for orchestra’, 1914-17).

By 1920, Braunfels’ original style began to emerge, beginning with his second staged operaDie Vögel (1913-19), based on the comedy by Aristophanes. This work resonated with German audiences, who were still recovering from the tragedies of World War I. The opera is not only romantic in nature, but it also presents a ‘longing for unearthly values’. Conductor Bruno Walter became a proponent of Die Vögel in Munich, leading to its success in many German opera houses in the early 1920s. His operatic success continued with his next operaDon Gil von den grünen Hosen (‘Don Gil from the Green Trousers’, 1921-3), which features through-composed ensemble scenes and references to Spanish folklore. By this point, Braunfels was at the height of his career as an opera composer, ranked alongside Richard Strauss and Franz Schreker.

Walter Braunfels was an early 20th-century German composer who, at the height of his career, experienced popularity on a similar level as Richard Strauss. His music is rarely heard today, as it was condemned during World War II and considered old-fashioned by the time the war had ended. An renewed interest in his works in the 1990s is a result of performances of his operaDie Vögel (‘The Birds’, 1913-19) in both Bremen (1991) and Berlin (1994). Recent recordings of his operas, includingDie Vögel and Verkündigung (‘Tidings’, 1933-5), have been released along with a number of his orchestral works.

Braunfels was born in Frankfurt on Maine on 19 December 1882. His father, Ludwig Braunfels, was a lawyer and also translated theNibelungenlied and Don Quixote. Unfortunately, Ludwig died just three years after Walter’s birth. Walter’s mother, Helene Braunfels (maiden name: Spohr), was the second wife of Ludwig and the great-niece of the great composer Louis Spohr. She was also a talented pianist and friend of Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann.

It was through his mother’s encouragement that Walter Braunfels first fell in love with the piano. He showed great talent for the instrument at a very young age, studying with his mother until the age of 12, when he began lessons with James Kwast at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. Meanwhile, he also pursued the studies of law and economics at the University of Munich until hearing a live performance of Richard Wagner’s operaTristan und Isolde directed by Josef von Mottl. This was a turning point for Braunfels, who was so touched by Wagner’s music that he quit his university studies and moved to Vienna to study piano with the famous pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky in 1902. After just one year of studies with Leschetizky, Braunfels was accomplished enough to begin his career as a concert pianist, which he did for many years.

Braunfels also decided to pursue his interest in composition, returning to Munich to study the subject with Ludwig Thuille. During this time he also had the opportunity to assist Mottl at the Nationaltheatre. In 1925, he was appointed co-director of the newly formed Cologne Hochschule für Musik, together with conductor Hermann Abendroth. He was forced to give up his position in 1933 by the Nazi regime as he was half Jewish (though Christian).

In addition to his triumphs within the opera genre, Braunfels was also experiencing much success with his orchestral works, including thePhantastische Erscheinungen (1914-17) and Don Juan Cariations (1922-4), which had both received performances under Furtwängler’s baton.

A change in stylistic direction is noticeable in the Te Deum (1920-21) and the Grosse Messe(‘Great Mass’, 1923-6), which were both premiered successfully by Abendroth. These works move away from his late-Romantic leanings of his operas and fade instead into an unembellished, solemn neo-Baroque style full of rich Bruckner-like sonorities. This transition in style is even more evident in the works written after being forced to leave Cologne in 1933. While in exile, Braunfels became very intrigued by religious and mystical subjects, leading to works such as his operaVerkündigung (‘Proclamation’, 1933-5), on which he collaborated with poet Paul Claudel. Despite having been completed in the early years of the Nazi Regime,Verkündigung did not receive its premiere until 1948.

Another period in Braunfels’ music can be observed towards the end of World War II, when he composed primarily chamber music. His works from this period, including three string quartets and a string quintet, show the influence of Beethoven and are much more traditionally formal.

Throughout his entire compositional career, Braunfels composed a large number of songs for orchestra including theDrei chinesische Gesänge (‘Three Chinese songs, 1914) for high vocals and orchestra,Romantische Gesänge (‘Romantic songs’, 1918-42) for soprano and orchestra andVon der Liebe süß und bittrer Frucht(‘From the Life of sweet and bitter Fruit‘, 1938-54), a cycle of four Japanese songs for soprano and orchestra.These songs are particularly interesting as they encompass all of his stylistic phases.

After the war, Braunfels returned to Cologne, but was unable to find the success and recognition he had previously enjoyed. His music was no longer fashionable. Instead it was considered outdated and reactionary leading to its disappearance from concert and theatre stages. His final works include the Symphonia brevis(1948) for orchestra, Hebridentänze (‘Hebrides Dance’, 1950/51) for piano and orchestra, the dance balladeDer Zauberlehrling (‘The Magic Apprentice’, 1951/2) for television and lastlyDas Spiel von der Auferstehung des Herrn (‘The Game of the Resurrection of the Lord’, 1938/54) from the Alsfelder Passionspiel.

After performances of Die Vögel that took place in Germany in the early 1990s, Braunfels’ music has experienced a revival, leading to performances of many of his works and a number of recordings, particularly on the BR-Klassik and Oehms Classics labels.

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