Ryan Hugh Ross
'A Journey in Exile : The Lieder of Julius Burger'
2019 record album programme notes
Julius Bürger was born 11 March 1897 in Vienna, Austria. He was one of nine children to Joseph Bürger, a tailor, and Clara, a homemaker. He attended school at the K. K. Erzherzog Rainer Gymnasium from 1908 until 1912 and entered the Maximilian Gymnasium until completion in 1916. Burger’s passion for music was evident from an early age and, as he lived in one of the major cultural centres of Western classical music of the period, he would have had exposure to a wide variety of genres and styles. He decided on pursuing this passion as a career and enrolled at the Philosophischen Fakultät der Universität Wien (Faculty of Arts-University of Vienna) from the winter of 1916 until the summer of 1917. This represented Burger’s first encounter with formal training, and he attended lectures by Moravian musicologist Guido Adler and Austrian (later British) composer and musicologist Egon Wellesz. The following year he began his studies in composition under famed Austrian opera composer Franz Schreker at the Universität für Musik und Darstellend Kunst, Wien (University for Music and Performing Arts, Vienna).
Burger’s study under Schreker proved to be a defining moment in his development as an artist and provided him with a mould in which to create his own musical idiom. In 1920, Schreker moved to Berlin as director of the Hochschule für Musik. Later that year, he was joined by a talented array of students including Burger, Ernst Krenek (composer of jazz opera Jonny Spielt Auf), composer Karol Rathaus, conductor Jascha Horenstein, composer Alois Hába (known for compositional experiments in micro-tonality), among many others.
From October 1920 to July 1921, Burger trained in conducting at the Hochschule, a skill that would serve him well in future endeavours. He graduated in July 1922 but financial difficulties meant he needed to supplement his income. Burger capitalized on his newly honed talents, gaining employment as accompanist to Moravian tenor Leo Slezak (1920-22). Burger, who possessed a wonderful tenor voice himself, relished this partnership and it is likely that here he garnered his affinity for composing for tenor and higher tessitura.
From 1922-23, Burger took up a repetiteur post for Karlsruhe Staatstheater and in the following year found himself on the move to New York City where he worked as assistant to conductor Artur Bodansky at the Metropolitan Opera. He obtained this sought-after apprenticeship through a recommendation by German-born conductor, pianist and composer Bruno Walter. In 1925, while honing his skills at the Metropolitan, Burger took the opportunity to supplement his income as a pianist for the American Piano Company (Ampico), recording several piano rolls for their line of reproducing pianos.
Burger stayed on at the Metropolitan for over two years, returning to Europe in 1927, where he accompanied Contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink on a European tour. Shortly after the conclusion of this tour, Burger began work as assistant to renowned German conductor Otto Klemperer at the Kroll Opera. From 1929, he also conducted for Berlin Radio (Funkstunde Berlin) where he became friendly with Austro-Hungarian/ Romanian tenor Joseph Schmidt. Burger's only two commercial successes stem from this period including the gypsy inspired piece Zigeunerlied and classic Launisches Glück (based on themes by Johann Strauss). The latter was also incorporated into the German film Ein Lied Geht um die Welt (1933), which starred Schmidt.
Burger continued to work for Berlin Radio until he forced to resign in 1933 upon the ascension of Hitler to the position of Chancellor. The subsequent passage of anti-Semitic legislation effectively barred citizens of Jewish lineage from their former occupations in Germany. Seeing no future in Germany, Burger returned to Vienna.
Burger’s sudden departure from Germany left him without employment. Fortunately, after several months, he was given a commission by the BBC as an arranger in 1934. While employed with the company, he pioneered a new radio genre which he named the “Radio Potpourri”. These were popular programmes consisting of large orchestral arrangements of various pieces around a central theme. Some nine Grand Potpourri were created during his five year employment. Several examples include Holiday in Europe (1934), The Life of Offenbach (1935), Festival of Folk Music (1936) and God Save the King for the coronation of George VI.
Many Radio Potpourri themes were centred on traditional British music, as well as settings from the colonial territories. These were later utilized for propaganda purposes throughout the Second World War. Some examples of these included his ode to the British Empire in The Empire Sings (1939), Themes of London (1937) and the Victory Rhapsody (1945), featuring the national anthems of 33 Allied countries and territories. It should be noted that while Burger was employed as an arranger for the BBC, he was only given temporary visa status to visit on occasion and subsequently, did the majority of his work from Vienna, and later, in exile from Paris. After the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in 1938 and, after two unsuccessful attempts to seek asylum in Britain, Burger sensed it was no longer safe to remain in Europe and managed to gain US visas for himself and his wife, Rosa (Blaustein) Burger. They sailed from Southampton to New York City aboard the RMS Aquitania in late March 1939. The manifest from this voyage lists their nationality as “Stateless”.
While Burger found the sudden departure from Europe a shock, his professional contacts helped him to find employment with Columbia Broadcasting (CBS), arranging music for conductors Arthur Fiedler and Andre Kostelanetz. During this period, Burger became a US citizen (23 May 1944) and dropped the umlaut from his surname. He continued to arrange for the next five years while simultaneously seeking out further opportunities. One such contract included his Broadway debut - conducting the acclaimed debut run of the show - Songs of Norway. The show boasted more than 500 performances and was made into a feature film in 1970.
Over two decades after concluding his apprenticeship at the Metropolitan Opera, Burger now returned to the company, in 1949, as an assistant conductor and repetiteur. Throughout the 1950s, his skills as a musician were put to use in conducting, accompanying and repetiteur work, providing vocal coaching for many of the great stars of the period. While he excelled in many areas, he soon returned to a skill perfected during his precarious years with the BBC: arranging. His first commission with the company included a full length ballet, created in partnership with dancer and choreographer Zachary Solov. The result was the performance piece Vittorio, based on ballet music from several Verdi operas including a large portion of material from Verdi’s Un Giorno di Regno. The production also represented conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos’s MET debut (15 December 1954). After the overwhelming success of Vittorio, Burger’s arranging services would again be called on to create an adaptation of Offenbach’s La Perichole (1956) which also ran in several printings by publisher Boosey & Hawkes. The following year saw him commissioned to compose several entr’actes for a Peter Brook production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.
A Second Chance
In 1969, after twenty years of service, Burger retired from the Metropolitan Opera and took up original composition again in a burst of creativity, having composed few serious original works since his 1934. After years of struggling to find time to compose, he could now dedicate his days to his own compositions. Over the next two decades, he composed at his leisure and travelled with his constant companion and wife, Rosa.
In 1990 Rosa died, having been married to Julius for 57 years. Now 93, Burger met with probate attorney Ronald Pohl, Esq. This was at the recommendation of a mutual friend in order to arrange his and his late wife’s estates. Burger’s affable and humorous nature and resemblance to Pohl’s late grandfather led to a life-changing friendship. After some discussion, Burger expressed his wish to hear some of his own compositions before his death and shared with Pohl the stacks of handwritten scores collecting dust in his Queens apartment. With growing interest in the music and the elderly man’s plight, Pohl arranged (with the assistance of the American Israel Cultural Foundation) for a young Israeli cellist Maya Beiser to come to Burger’s apartment to play his Cello Concerto, with Burger accompanying on piano. The piece had been dedicated posthumously to his mother after he had received confirmation of her murder at the hands of Nazi soldiers. She was shot on route to death camp Auschwitz on 28 September 1942. The emotional magnitude of the piece moved Pohl to get Burger’s works publically performed and recorded.
Pohl sums up their relationship in a letter from 1996:
“In June of 1990, a 93 year old gentleman contacted me to assist him in his estate plan. At that time, he revealed a lifelong quest to hear his music performed before he died. What followed was a most moving experience for me and my dear friend as he had his dreams fulfilled beyond his and my expectations.”
Within a short period, a concert was arranged which consisted of exclusively Burger's compositions. This took place in Alice Tully Hall at New York City’s Lincoln Center with the renowned Orchestra of Saint Luke’s. This historic concert, which included the world premiere of the Burger Cello Concerto, was realised on June 3, 1991. Other concerts followed including US performances with the Austin Symphony (3rd & 4th December 1994) and internationally in Israel (August 1993) and Berlin (September 1994). The amazing story garnered media attention and both men were featured in the New York Times (19 February 1993), Parade Magazine (5 September 1993) as well as ABC’s Person of the Week segment with the late Peter Jennings (12 March 1993).
The concerts and publicity around Burger’s story also gained interest from then record producer and creator of the Exil.Arte label, Dr. Benjamin Michael Haas (now Senior Researcher at Exil.Arte Zentrum Archiv-Wien). With Burger present, recordings were made in 1994 and included selections of Burger’s orchestral music performed by the Radio Symphonie Orchester-Berlin with conductor Simone Young and soloists Michael Kraus (baritone) and Maya Beiser (cello). These were later released by Ronald Pohl on the Toccata Classics label.
Sixty-two years after setting down his baton in Berlin, Julius Burger passed away on 12 June 1995, age 98, having largely achieved his dream to hear his music come alive and performed publicly.
For More Information on Julius Burger,
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Zigeunerlied by Julius Burger circa 1930
on the Parlophon label
One of two commercial successes
before his exile in 1938
Photo of Julius Burger
Courtesy of the Burger Estate,
Exil.Arte Centrum Archive - Vienna, Austria
Burger with Concert Poster
for the 1991 Lincoln Centre Concert
New York City
Photo Courtesy of the Burger Estate
Exil.Arte Centrum Archive - Vienna, Austria
1991 Lincoln Centre Concert
prior to the house opening
Courtesy of the Burger Estate
Exil.Arte Centrum Archive - Vienna, Austria