The Kennedy Center

Egon Wellesz


Egon Wellesz was an Austrian composer, conductor, teacher and musicologist whose importance as a composer rests on his stage works and symphonies.  His specialty as a musicologist was in Byzantine music and Gregorian chant, about which he wrote several books.
He was born in Vienna on October 21, 1885 into comfortable circumstances.  His parents sent him for piano lessons but expected him to enter the family textile business.  On his 13th birthday, however, he heard Mahler conduct Der Freischutz and his decision to become a composer was galvanized.  In 1905 he began studying harmony and counterpoint under Schoenberg. His training was rigorous, grounded in Viennese tonality. Wellesz was enthusiastic about Schoenberg, writing the first Schoenberg biography in 1921.  He next studied with Guido Adler at the University of Vienna where he specialized in Baroque opera. In 1908 he earned his degree summa cum laude. By 1913, he was appointed lecturer in music history at the university where he taught until 1938.
After graduation, his scholarly interests became focused on the common elements in Eastern and Western chant.  There was, however, the problem of deciphering Byzantine notation. He began tackling Byzantine rhythm in 1913, and by 1918 had made his solution public. This pioneering work culminated in Wellesz establishing the Byzantine Research Institute at the Austrian National Library in 1932.
As a composer he had begun chiefly with songs and piano music. He wrote five operas and four ballets in Vienna, which enjoyed great success in Weimar Germany and Austria -- until the arrival of the Nazis.  Even though Wellesz was raised as a Protestant, his family was part Jewish, and therefore his music was forbidden to be played.  While he was on a trip to Amsterdam in March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria. English friends warned him not to return to Vienna, and he went immediately to England. A decade would pass before he set foot in Austria again.
With help from his English friends he settled into university life in Oxford, where he became a fellow of Lincoln College, a university lecturer and Reader in Byzantine Music.  He was a revered teacher.  Unfortunately, for several years this abrupt change in circumstances affected Wellesz's ability to compose, but by 1943 he was producing music again. His English output included nine symphonies, several quartets and a violin concerto. He did not stop composing until he suffered a stroke in 1972. He died on November 9, 1974 in Oxford and was buried in Vienna.
Sources: Oxford Music Online, Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford Companion to Music
Egon Wellesz


  • Five Sonnets for Soprano and String Quartet