‘Our’ Cultural Émigrés Returning the Favor

Three Contemporary American Composers Made Vienna Their Home, Presented in Concert at the offTheater

The annals of music history are thick with Viennese composers who fled Europe in the 1930s to escape Nazi persecution and sought refuge in the United States.

Names like Arnold Schönberg, Ernst Krenek, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner carried Viennese musical traditions to America and making an indelible mark on American music.

Little is known, however, of a cultural emigration of American composers to Europe in the latter part of the 20th century. Three of these reverse émigrés — Eugene Hartzell, Nancy Van de Vate and Martha Southwick – settled in Vienna in the late 1970s or 1980s and were presented Jun. 28 at a concert at the offTheater in Vienna’s 7th District.

Presented by the Eugene Hartzell Foundation with the support of the US Embassy in Vienna, the evening proved a worthwhile discovery of Viennese contemporary music often unnoticed in the city’s musical life.

The offTheater (formerly the Stadtinitiative) located in an office building, not a particularly prepossessing space for a concert. The short corridor leads to a flight of stairs, and finally to a small foyer, where people were gathered around a table of CDs and books while newcomers bought their tickets. The language of the evening was English and almost all voices American – not many Viennese have taken the opportunity.

Nearby, composer Nancy Van de Vate was deep in lively conversation with friends and colleagues. The program was imaginative, a series of songs complemented with poetry by the English poet Jehane Markham, who had come especially to Vienna for the reading. American Mezzo-Soprano Sulie Giradi performed works of all three composers, accompanied on the piano by David Aronson, rehearsal pianist and conductor at the Wiener Staatsoper and joined by Johannes Fiedler, principal viola player of the Vienna Symphony.

The small hall, a modern room with a raked seating for some 100 people was about half-full when stage lights went up at 19:30.

“This was not just a one-way street from Europe to America,” organizer and host John Nicholson told the audience, “American composers have also made their contributions to European musical culture.”

The most prominent of the three composers was Eugene Hartzell (1932 – 2000), who had come to Vienna to study with Hans Erich Apostel. Having worked as a freelance journalist and composer since the 1970s, he was co-founder of the Ensemble Wiener Collage in 1987, with violinist René Staar.

His songs, set to poems of Jehane Markham, filled the first half of the concert, combining the strict twelve-tone-technique with jazz elements, particularly effective in the sensuality of the fourth poem, entitled, ‘Gently, Gently,’ which opens with a blue-note-tune in the viola, passed on to the sung melody.

Johannes Fiedler, the only Viennese performing on the program captured the warmth and lightness of the music, the piano providing a modest rhythmical companion voice to the narratives of the other two parts.

The poems set a light-hearted tone to this part of the program, forming a convincing contrast to the expressive music and reflecting calmness of the spoken word.

Jehane Markham had never met Eugene Hartzell in person, she said over a glass of wine at the interval, but maintained a correspondence with him.

“I came to Vienna in the late 1970s for some readings and brought these poems that had just been published with me. Eugene Hartzell must have picked them up then.” she said. She is shy in person, and self effacing, sound perhaps still a little surprised at how this had come about.

Hartzell completed the songs in 1980. The poems were not originally conceived as a cycle, but the composer skillfully connected them thematically.

“Musically I am more into Rock,” she said, “so these poem settings were something very different for me. I appreciated tonight’s performance immensely.”

The second half opened with Nancy Van de Vate’s ‘Four Somber Songs,’ composed in the United States in 1970. This cycle, with poems by Georg Trakl, Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake and Paul Verlaine, set the musical contrast of the evening.

Nancy Van de Vate (b. 1930) settled in Vienna in 1985 and has since become an Austrian citizen. She has an international reputation for her orchestral and operatic works, including perhaps her best known All Quiet on the Western Front, that premiered at the New York City Opera in 2003.

Set for the same instrumentation as the Hartzell cycle, the mood of these songs was dark and heavy, with an operatic quality to the highly expressive setting. These songs were evidently best suited to the vocal quality of Giradi, a wide vocal range and contrasting colors, a dark, rich low range for the feelings of sorrow in the Poe and Blake poems, as well as shining outbursts, almost a cry of despair and horror of the war atrocities in Trakl’s text.

The piano accompaniment was perhaps too heavy at times, the virtuosic orchestral writing attaching too much weight to the somber mood that felt oppressive. The singer said she had, in fact, suggested an instrumental arrangement of the songs to Van de Vate, not possible for this event. However, in 1992 the orchestral version of the ‘Four Somber Songs’ was recoded  by Vienna Modern Masters.

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