Egon Wellesz: Sechs Klavierstücke op.26

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Egon Wellesz is one of those great pioneers of 20th century music who perhaps hasn’t yet been given his due either by historians or audiences.

Wellesz’s Sechs Klavierstücke (Six Piano Pieces) op.26 were composed in 1919 but are only now, a century later, appearing in print as a complete work. Perhaps finally their significance within the music to have emerged from Vienna in those decisive early decades of the twentieth century will finally be recognised…

Arnold Schoenberg’s Circle…

Wellesz was born in Vienna in 1885, the son of Hungarian christians with Jewish ancestry; though brought up protestant he later converted to catholicism. Initially trained in law, Wellesz’s musical aspirations came to dominate after a transformational encounter with Weber’s Die Freischütz at the Vienna Court Opera, conducted by Gustav Mahler. He went on to study with Arnold Schoenberg, becoming the latter’s first private pupil.

Wellesz’s music was first publicly performed in 1913, making him the first of Schoenberg’s students to gain independent success. He was also the first to gain a contract with a publisher: Universal Edition signed him before Berg or Webern.

Wellesz’s compositions from this period show the influence (or perhaps cross-fertilisation of interests) of Schoenberg, not least in their dalliance with atonality and linear chromaticism. Ultimately however, Wellesz did not cement himself as a composer of the Second Viennese School, perhaps not least because his academic fascination with Byzantine chant, and his conviction in neo-classicism.

After the Anschluss in 1938, Wellesz was welcomed in Britain, where he settled; he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University and became a Fellow of Lincoln College, where among others he taught Peter Sculthorpe. Wellesz remained in Oxford until his death in 1972, following a stroke.

Six Piano Pieces op.26

The Sechs Klavierstücke op.26 were, according to the autograph manuscript, composed between 7-12 February 1919. They were subsequently first performed in a concert on 17th June 1920 of Schoenberg’s “Verein für Musickalische Privataufführungen in Wein”, of which Wellesz was a member, and in which pianist Ernest Bachrich also performed music by Berg and Satie.

Intriguingly however, just five of the six pieces were included, and ambiguity remains as to the exact content of the Sechs Klavierstücke. Introducing the present edition, Hannes Heher notes that an additional manuscript has been discovered among the composer’s autograph piano music which may belong to the set. This has been included in the edition as an addendum to the six pieces.

As to the music itself, an obvious comparison is with Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke op.19, composed in 1911 and published by Universal Edition in 1913. As Heher notes in his introduction:

“Egon Wellesz’s Six Piano Pieces op.26, six rather short character pieces, are written entirely in the spirit of the atonal works of the Schoenberg School…
The composition is definitely an enrichment of the piano literature of the Viennese School, and through its first publication as a complete work more than 100 years after its creation it will finally find its way to interpreters and audiences.”

I certainly hope it will, as it seems to me that these pieces offer the perfect introduction for the early advanced player to the music of this tradition.

The score, in Universal Edition house style, is pristine. The pieces range in length from one to three pages, the complete collection (including the seventh Klavierstücke) filling 14 pages in total. This is essentially an urtext edition, without any editorial fingering or other encumberments.

Closing thoughts…

These pieces are truly gripping, and provide a superb introduction to a dissonant but deeply expressive school of composition which even a century later many still shy away from. Suitable for players working from around UK Grade 7-8, they introduce a musical language can surely be as beguiling as it is unexpected.

It would be easy indeed to dismiss this publication as one that will be of niche interest at best; I personally hope that it will reach the widest audience, and recommend you take a look!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.