Georg Tintner: Life as an Ellipse

The Conductor and Composer Has Recieved Virtually no Recognition from Musicians or Scholars in His Native Austria

The tragic death of conductor Georg Tintner (1917 – 1999) triggered a documentary oral-history interview for the Orpheus Trust and a subsequent extensive biographical and compositional analysis, intermittently supported through small grants, that have documented for the first time the range and character of his work as a composer .

Through a series of conversations with the conductor’s wife, Tanya Tintner, the composer’s life story, here recounted briefly, became exemplary of many of the émigré musicians. It also serves as a case study of the lack of interest Austria has shown in dealing with its Nazi past. The end of the Orpheus Trust seemed simply another witness to this lack of interest, mirroring the events of the composer’s life.

Born into a Viennese Jewish family, Georg Tintner was regarded as a Wunderkind, having begun his studies at the Musikakademie in Vienna at the age of 13. He was a member of the Vienna Boys Choir before he joined the composition class of Joseph Marx and studied conducting with Felix von Weingartner.

The prospering musical career of the young man ended abruptly with Austria’s Anschluss to the Third Reich in March 1938. Tintner was dismissed on racial grounds from the Volksoper in April 1938, and he fled via Yugoslavia and England to New Zealand where he finally arrived in 1940. After years of personal hardship, he built a career mainly in Australia as an opera conductor, before moving to Canada in the 1980s.

However, in all that time, he received no professional recognition from Austria. He never had a chance to work in his homeland again, and like so many others, never was asked to return after the war.

Towards the end of his life, Tintner received late recognition, recording all symphonies of Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896) for Naxos Records. Some of those recordings count among the finest of this composer’s catalogue. Georg Tintner took his own life in October 1999 in Canada.

I met Tanya Tintner for the first time two months after his death. We spoke about his life, and the difficulty in reconstructing the details of his biography. The problem that researchers encounter when investigating émigré musicians is that the documentary evidence is difficult to trace. As in Tintner’s case, many documents have been destroyed or have simply been lost in the process of the emigration.

When we met again in April this year, she spoke of the final edit of her late husband’s biography, a project she has been working on ever since his death.

“What struck me was how little I actually knew about Georg,” she said, still puzzled at the realisation. “He did not really talk much about himself, only about odd incidents here and there. He had a very much unrecorded life: He did not keep diaries, he did not keep any letters, no appointment books, almost nothing.”

My fascination for Tintner’s personality was reinforced by the fact that he also was a composer, and at his death only a handful of works had been found in his estate. Today this catalogue has since grown to about 50 compositions, mainly chamber music. However, some of the compositions are only known by references, as the manuscripts themselves are missing.

Tintner’s highest ambition was to be a composer, and the catalogue of works today shows a significant regular output through the late 1950s. He had started composing early, writing a number of choral pieces and a Missa Brevis (small mass) for treble voices, one of his choral works was performed by the Vienna Boys Choir on their tours in the 1930s.

His wife stressed the importance of Tintner’s musical training with the Vienna Boys Choir (1927 – 1930/31). Franz Schalk (b. 1863), a former pupil of Anton Bruckner, was Music Director of the Vienna State Opera in the 1920s and also led performances of the weekly Sunday service at the Hofburgkapelle (Imperial Chapel); particularly the performances of Bruckner masses were deeply inspiring to the young boy in which he sang along.

Georg Tintner’s musical upbringing in Vienna is considered the key to understanding his musical personality, yet Austria still withdrew all recognition once he had left. In reference to one of his most characteristic compositions, entitled The Ellipse (1950s), written for string quartet and soprano, he compared his own life to the geometrical figure:

“What is left out of it is as important as what is in it,” Tintner said. “So, instead of a circle, it is just an ellipse with pieces missing.”

As with this music, and these lives, the work of the Orpheus Trust too is an ellipse that leaves many gaps. The question remains whether Austria will realise what it has lost.

See also: Austrian Archive ‘Exiled’ in Berlin, Composer Recorded (At Last!), The City of Music’s Forgotten 20th Century, ‘Die Letzte Blaue’ Returns Home

Related events and reviews (selection): Austria on TrialFinding ‘Vienna’s Lost Daughters’, Innocents AbroadThe Klüger Campaign, Vienna’s Conscience (April 2008), Vienna’s Conscience (March 2009)

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