Walter Würzburger (21 Avril 1914, Frankfurt -
Walter Würzburger is one of a number of musicians of the 20th Century whose
lives have been shaped by exile: in his case, fleeing from Nazi Germany, and
re-establishing himself first in France, then Australia, and finally in
England. His life was dedicated to music: as performer, composer, arranger
and as conductor, he lived through the social and musical changes of the
20th Century, and his life and musical development reveal much about that
By the time of his death in 1995, he had written over 60 completed works,
for a wide variety of ensembles, including 5 string quartets, a piano
concerto, a violin concerto, a number of chamber works, studies and songs
and a sequence of works for solo piano.
The three quartets recorded here represent the complete historical range of
Walter Würzburger’s composing career: from 1944 while serving in the
Australian army; to the serial compositions of his main period of
composition (stretching from the Darmstadt years of the early 1960s through
to the late 1980s); and finally into his late period, where many works took
on a neo-classical edge, with elements on tonality coexisting with remnants
of serial method.
Walter Würzburger was born in Frankfurt on 21 April 1914, the second son of
Siegfried and Gertrude. His parents were both professional music teachers,
and his father was organist (and occasional composer) for the Frankfurt
Synagogue. Walter composed his first piece in 1925 : apparently it was
‘greeted with amusement’ by the family; subsequently, in his teens, he
studied music at Dr. Hoch's Conservatory in Frankfurt and Frankfurt
University, where he was taught by Bernhard Sekles and Mátyás Seiber.
"I find it always hard (and perhaps unnecessary) to say anything in words
about my music. If the music has not said anything then I fear words will
not contribute very much. Words do not explain what lies behind the notes,
namely the entire make up of the composer’s personality, his aspirations,
fear, terrors, but also his joys and happiness. All this will, if he has
succeeded, have been expressed in his music but can only be described by the
music itself." Walter Würzburger, 1989
Walter Würzburger fled from Nazi German in 1933 at the advent of the Nazi
regime and based himself in France as a jazz and classical performer and
arranger. In 1939, on the eve of war, he took a series of engagements in
Singapore and the far east. In 1940, along with other ‘aliens’, he was
interned in Singapore and then Australia, where he served in the Army in a
non-combat role. In 1946, he studied for a music degree at Melbourne
University and later joined the music faculty; in these years in Australia
he had a number of compositions performed.
In 1950, he made a first return to Europe, touring the post-war landscape
with his brother Danny. He visited London in 1951, and ‘forgot to go back’
to Australia. In 1952, he resumed composition studies with Seiber, and
studied clarinet with Frederick Thurston and Bassoon with Richard Newton.
From 1954, he worked as a telephone operator, and played jazz and composed
in his ‘hard-earned spare time’. In the early 1960s, he attended the
Darmstadt Summer school for three consecutive summers. In 1966 he married
Hannah Gibianska and in 1967 his twin daughters Ruth and Madeleine were
Based in the Kingston-upon-Thames area, he taught music at Morley College,
Tiffin Boys School and Kingston Polytechnic. After studying conducting with
Guy Woolfenden, in 1974 he founded the Kingston Philharmonia, a very
adventurous local amateur orchestra, and was its conductor from 1974-1991.
He continued to compose and revise earlier works until the end of his life,
and had a number of his works performed.
String Quartet No 5 (1990)
The last quartet he composed, starts with explicit serial material and
techniques, though with a lyrical quality emerging from the phrases. The
first movement uses one of Walter’s favourite structural devices: a 4/4
crotchet beat metamorphoses into a sprightly 3/8 quaver pulse. The
fast-moving scherzo that follows is chromatic, but rooted in tonality,
perhaps more influenced by Hindemith than serialism. The expansive adagio
starts with a self-consciously archaic classical melodic phrase firmly in a
minor key. If on paper it looks like something close to Bach (a composer
Walter was often drawn to in later works), it sounds lush and Romantic. The
finale returns to the tough angularity of the first movement.
String Quartet No 4 (1987)
This quartet was first performed in July 1989 by the Hanson String Quartet
at a Society for the Promotion of New Music Composer’s forum held in the
Royal Northern College of Music. The composer wrote the following programme
note for its first performance :
‘The two chords built up in the opening bars between them make up a basic
series which is then exploited three more times in various transpositions
before other mirror versions are applied. An interesting contrapuntal
interplay develops, which is extended, reduced and reused. The opening
flourish re-appears three times as a landmark throughout the movement: a
form emerges, be it a sonata (of a sort) or a rondo.
A curiosity is the quotation (only very short) from Beethoven’s Choral
Symphony, from the end of the finale when the choir is bowing out with
‘schöner Gotterfunken’, here transposed a tone down (FDGC). No apologies.
And since we are talking about quotations, a lovely one presented itself
towards the end of the first movement, and would not go away: Shostakovich’s
monogram, here transposed by an augmented fourth. There are of course
quotations, influences and there is plain plagiarism: of the latter crime I
hope I am not guilty, but influences there must be galore. Very often I
cannot put my finger on them, but they hover somewhere in the background.
Berlioz springs to mind somewhere in the first movement, and Stravinsky and
Bartok in the second. But also Shostakovich, and, of all people,
Khachaturian. No denying the influence of Hindemith and of the Schoenberg
school, two opposite poles if there ever were any.
In the second movement you could imagine if anyone wants to imagine anything
all sorts of grotesque nightbirds and insects fluttering about, eventually
organising themselves into an army of sinister creatures. It is only a
thought. The last movement is jolly, energetic and somewhat abrasive.’
String Quartet No 2 (1944)
Walter, in later life wondered whether his early works were worth hearing
but listeners at the first modern performances of this quartet (given by the
Aylwin Ensemble in 2000) were left in no doubt of its interest. It is an
approachable work whose style tells of its time: though it is perhaps
surprisingly ‘English’ in character for a work composed by a German Jew
living for the time being in Australia.
The first movement follows a Beethovenian slow introduction with a fugal 3/8
which ends with some lively passagework for the first violin. The slow
movement, taking its shape if not its tonality again from classical models,
contrasts polyphony with homophony. A quirky menuet and contrastingly
melodic trio follow; then the finale offsets a march-like theme with
intricate interplay between all four players.
Aylwin String Quartet
The Aylwin String Quartet is a distillation of the "Aylwin Ensemble" which
was founded in 1996. These four founder members of the group, Richard Aylwin,
Ruth Hudson, Amanda Denley and Graham Bradshaw, who are all either current
or past members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, were keen to establish an
outlet for their own creative ideas within this more intimate framework.
With a desire to complement the mainstream classical quartet repertoire with
the more unusual, they have always had a strong interest in contemporary
music and still occasionally enlarge the group with guest artists in order
to achieve a more flexible programming. Their repertoire ranges from Purcell
to Stravinsky and beyond.
In 2000 The Aylwin String Quartet gave a concert supported by the Würzburger
Society, performing his 2nd and 5th Quartets, and in 2004 they appeared at
the Bellapais Music Festival in North Cyprus. The Quartet have performed the
Bliss Oboe Quintet with Richard Simpson, principal oboe of the BBC Symphony
Orchestra, and in the summer of 2006 they were invited to play a rarely
heard Mozart Piano Concerto with the pianist Huw Watkins, as arranged in
quintet form by Mozart himself, at Castle Howard as part of the Ryedale
Festival. The Quartet has performed on a yearly basis for the "Music at St
James" season in Manchester since 1994 and Richard Aylwin, having directed
the inaugural concert of the series in 1988, has been commissioned to
compose a work for string quartet, oboe and synthesizer to celebrate their
20th anniversary concert in 2008.
The Quartet members have had an association with the orchestra "Philharmonic
at UH" for several years, acting as soloists, leader and principals, and
have also participated as a quartet in various workshops involving student
composers within the Music Centre of the University of Hertfordshire.
The following notes accompanied the memorial concert for Walter Wurzburger, who founded Kingston Philharmonia in 1974.
Walter was born in Frankfurt in 1914. A pupil of Mátyás Seiber, he
covered the whole musical spectrum, from classical to jazz, as player,
composer, conductor and teacher. He was forced to leave Germany in 1933
going to France, Singapore, Australia and finally Britain.
One enduring achievement has been the Kingston Philharmonia, to which we
bear witness tonight. Twenty one years ago, in the words of Hilton Tims,
Kingston's musical landscape was bleak and spare. Alone and undeterred,
Walter was to change this. With often no more than a string quartet and a
bagful of woodwind, he gestated and gave birth to the infant that tonight
comes into its majority. This he did with rare single-mindedness, energy and,
most important to those of us willingly seduced into his project, endless
optimism and infectious enthusiasm.
At the time of Walter's retirement from the orchestra in 1991, we entered
the complete list of performed works into the computer, pressed the button,
and waited. The computer told us that, since we first began in 1974, we had
given a total of 79 concerts, including two in Southwark Cathedral. The
concert repertoire was well covered, with a total of 168 symphonies, 40
concertos, 8 oratorios and 19 other works by composers ranging from Abel,
Albinoni and Arne to Weber, Weil and Wurzburger.
What the computer did not tell us, but this we already knew, was that
this enormous achievement resulted from the work of one man, and the
affection, love and enthusiasm for that man and his works that he engendered
in those who contributed to his project. In a very real sense, this has been
and will always be "Walter's orchestra".
At the time of his retirement he was already frail and beset by illness.
This did not affect his mind or spirit. He knew how to live, and those of us
fortunate to know him were happy to share in that life and sense of life -
always content, always open and receptive, always concerned with others'
problems and shrugging off his own. He was ready for the latest gossip, to
discuss the fads and follies of the day, with a gaiety and lightness of
spirit that we realise the more keenly now that we can no longer share in
There follows my own personal memories - anybody else with memories to
share, of this or other orchestral history, is welcome to contribute.
Walter Wurzburger was a born teacher and communicator. I first met him in
1974 when at Kingston Poly, and played in the foundling Kingston
Philharmonia. Work took me away, and I later met Walter at a party some
years later. He reminded me that I had missed some 250 rehearsals, and it
would be a pity to miss any more! He also said - and this was characteristic
of the man - "We need you, ... and you need us". The second utterance was
certainly true, and I have remained with the orchestra ever since. Later we
exchanged family histories and, discovering their similarities, became firm
Walter was not an obvious leader, but he did inspire great affection and
loyalty. He was a patient and inspired teacher throughout all his activities.
While others' idea of a Viennese evening might be Strauss, Strauss and
Strauss, he brought together early Berg, Schoenberg with late Mahler - now
that was an illuminating conjunction! Sometimes however his own clarity of
vision did not fully accommodate the failings of other mortals. When I
suggested that our rehearsals of Hindemith's "Mathis der Mahler" might be
enriched by a better understanding of what the music was about, he exclaimed
"Explain? Why, it is self-evident!".
In his later years, although he was no longer so active, he continued to
read, to compose, to think, and to welcome friends to that magic basement in
Worcester Park. After his death, Hannah discovered some notes he had taken,
probably from a radio broadcast. He was not a great note-taker, but these
few jottings seem to summarise the man and his works:
"No false sentimentality. No compromise. Tough. No playing
to the gallery."
Martin Buber wrote: "It is a glorious thing to be old, when we know how
to begin again not by being young, but by becoming old in a young way." This
typifies Walter - he had the wisdom and authority of one who has lived a
long and full life, and the openness and freshness of a child starting out
on a journey.