Book Review: Out of Time. The Vexed Life of Georg Tintner, by Tanya Buchdahl Tintner
Raised in the musical melting pot of Vienna in the 1930s, the Austrian composer fled to New Zealand where his eccentricity took new shape
Tintner conducting Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, May 1980 | Photo: The Press, Christchurch
Georg Tintner’s passport, issued on 2 Sept. 1938, marked with a ‘J’ for Jew | Photo: Tanya Tintner
When a Composer Conducts his Life
“Today I am 25 years old. I have achieved almost nothing. How time flies,” wrote Georg Tintner in an autobiographical note on his birthday in 1942. World War II was at its height, and the young Austrian composer and conductor was far away, living in Auckland, New Zealand, where he and his first wife had fled in September 1938. It was hard to fight the sense of gloom and self-doubt.
“I know I must improve my piano playing,” the entry continues. “I sacrifice quite a lot of my time; I need it for everything else.” Nevertheless he felt he knew there was “something exceptional” in him. And he wondered about how he could “make the most of this mercy of living in peace.”
Thanks to the family of a former student, Richard Hoffmann (a few years later secretary to the late Arnold Schoenberg) Tintner had been sponsored to emigrate to the remotest parts of the world, where he would stay for almost 15 years of his life.
The New Zealand émigrés
“Eccentric” was the word native New Zealanders used to describe this handsome yet outspoken Viennese musician at that time. There couldn’t have been a greater contrast in life style, indeed a culture shock for the gifted young musician from the capital of classical music. He was thrown into a society dominated by the British reserve, where high culture in the Viennese sense simply did not exist.
In order to make a living, Tintner and his British-born first wife Sue (née Rosa Muriel Norman) ran a poultry farm in the hills near Auckland. It was out of the way and “out of time”, the phrase his last wife, Tanya Buchdahl Tintner, chose for the biography: Out of Time. The Vexed Life of Georg Tintner, published by University of Western Australia Press. It is a compelling account of man and his milieu, and one of the few comprehensive publications of Australia and New Zealand’s music history.
As peaceful as New Zealand was during wartime, its musical life was as remote as the country, and the shock for the young flamboyant bohemian must have been severe. At that time, there was no opera house in Auckland, no professional orchestra, nor, in fact, a Music Conservatory. There was only the radio for inspiration.
Over the years, Tintner came a long way: from conducting church choirs and giving piano lessons to spoilt children – his first not particularly satisfying musical endeavours in the early 1940s – to directing the Auckland String Players and the Auckland Choral Society, before moving to Australia in 1954.
Yet, regular meetings with the great German poet Karl Wolfskehl (1869 – 1948) in the early 1940s, who also had sought refuge in Auckland, evidently stimulated Tintner.
The common mother tongue sustained their friendship for some time, especially their love for the Burgtheaterdeutsch that Tintner loved, and the poetry Wolfskehl was able to recite.
“They spent hours discussing the language and culture they both loved,” Tanya Tintner wrote, vividly describing how despite his near blindness, the aging poet made his way on foot to the Tintner house six kilometres away.
“Unlike many refugees who chose never to speak German again, Georg adored and used it whenever he could – it was an important part of his identity.”
Musical upbringing in Vienna
The name Georg Tintner is unknown to most Austrian musicians today, except to those with a special interest for the works of Anton Bruckner. Tintner’s recordings of the complete symphonies for Naxos are a particularly moving set and noteworthy addition to the classical catalogue.
These I had come across by the time I met Tanya Tintner, two months after her husband’s death in December 1999. I learnt of her desire to compile all the threads and facts into an extensive book early on, and to which I was able to contribute with some of the details of Tintner’s years in Vienna. Fascinated by his life and works, I did my Masters thesis on Georg Tintner’s compositions a few years later.
Born in 1917 into a Jewish family and growing up as a Lutheran, Georg Tintner was regarded as a Wunderkind, who learnt to play the piano at the age of six and whose first compositions followed soon after.
At the age of nine, he was admitted to the Vienna Boys Choir, newly re-constituted in 1924 by the Rector Josef Schnitt of the Imperial Chapel of the Hofburg, to revive the long musical tradition of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.
It was this musical training that Tintner always remembered, in spite of the anti-Semitism of Rector Schnitt: “I felt like a hunted animal,” Georg Tintner once said.
“They destroyed the innocence of a child.” So, “in all the surviving photographs of Georg as a choirboy,” Tanya Tintner observed, “he appears unsmiling and anxious.”
The masses by Anton Bruckner, conducted by the composer’s former student Franz Schalk, left a lasting impression on the young boy. “Bruckner was the salvation of a boy chronically under siege who had nobody to turn to,” Tanya Tintner wrote, but the conclusion remained that “in a world he found increasingly discouraging, increasingly chaotic, music was his one certainty. He understood it intimately; it was the rock on which he could depend.”
For any avid music connoisseur, Tanya Tintner’s captivating character study of an eminent 20th-century musician opens a new world.
At the same time, one senses the author’s search for a person. Despite 23 years of marriage, she wrote, “I realised that I hadn’t known him nearly as well as I thought.” And she set out to find him. This book is not just a discovery of a true musician, but also a fascinating yet detailed cultural history of a century.
“Georg Tintner was not like everybody else; he was not like anyone else,” Australian conductor Richard Gill characterised the eccentric Viennese musician in the book’s foreword: He was “a musical Diogenes […]. He was his own man, his own musician and his own master.”