Egon Wellesz
(b. Vienna, 21 October 1885; d. Oxford, 9 November 1974)

Vorfrühling ("The Dawn of Spring")
Symphonic Tone Poem for Orchestra, op. 12 (1911)


Egon Wellesz can lay strong claim to being the "fourth man" in the famous triumvirate of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern that made up the Second Viennese School. He was Schoenberg's first pupil of note (from 1905) and bore a lifelong admiration for the music and pedagogical abilities of his teacher, even becoming his first biographer in 1921. His superior intelligence brought him into contact with many Viennese luminaries over three decades, especially Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, who supplied a scenario for his ballet Achilles auf Skyros (1921) and a libretto for his one-act opera Alkestis (1922-3). After taking a doctorate summa cum laude from the University of Vienna in 1908, he did pioneering work in baroque opera and especially in Byzantine chant, a field he dominated until his death. Wellesz deciphered Middle Byzantine notation in 1918 and firmly established the Levantine origins of Gregorian chant, and hence of western art music altogether. Such was his reputation that when he fled from Austria in 1938 he immediately received a position at Oxford University, where he had earlier received an honorary doctorate for his compositions (1932). He was to remain in Oxford for the rest of his career.
Wellesz's scholarly achievements tended, unjustly, to overshadow his creative work. Yet at no time in his long career was he regarded as less than a significant composer. His music was championed by Weingartner and Bruno Walter in the 1930s; his First Symphony, written at the age of sixty, was premièred by the Berlin Philharmonic under no less a musician than Celibidache (1948). Although he moved easily in the atonal and early dodecaphonic universes of his mentor Schoenberg, he held no high opinion of his youthful friend Webern and would have no truck with the Darmstadt School. Although this left him fairly isolated in post-war art music, his operas Alkestis and Die Bakchantinnen (1931), his five-part symphonic poem Prosperos Beschwörungen (1936-8), and his nine symphonies (1945-71) have firmly established his position among the foremost Viennese musicians of his age.
Vorfrühling was composed in 1911 at a time when Wellesz had come under the spell of Debussy. If the short-breathed motivic structure and delicate orchestration owe something to La mer, there can be little doubt that the luxuriant sonorities and quartal harmonies reflect the Schönberg of Pelleas und Melisande (op. 5). The work had to wait almost a decade for its première, which was given by Rudolf Schulz-Dornberg with the Bochum City Orchestra in 1921; later, in 1936, it entered the repertoire of the Vienna Philharmonic through the efforts of Felix Weingartner. In 1923 Vorfrühling was published in full score by Wellesz's principal publisher, Universal Edition in Vienna.

Bradford Robinson, 2005
Performance material: Universal Edition, Wien