An American Composer in Vienna

The life and compositions of Eugene Hartzell, celebrated on the 80th anniversary of his birth

Top Stories | Cynthia Peck | May 2012

When I first came to Vienna, I couldn’t speak German: For weeks the only person I could understand was Eugene Hartzell, the voice of Blue Danube Radio, the erstwhile English-language public radio station. His name represented home, a far-away place that I was too poor to call by expensive long-distance telephone, when Internet and Skype had still not been imagined.

But Eugene Hartzell (1932-2000) was more than a radio voice. He was also a composer. Like hundreds of musicians before and after him, Vienna was a musical magnet that became home. Born in Ohio, Hartzell studied composition, piano and singing at Yale and came to Vienna on a scholarship in 1956. He had originally planned to study singing, but, as he described it, "composition took the upper hand." He began to study with Hans Erich Apostel, who had been the pupil of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.

Hartzell soon became part of the musical legacy of the "Second Viennese School", the group of composers who had clustered around Schoenberg, following his creative example and, to varying degrees, adopting his serial twelve-tone technique. Hartzell subsequently made his home in Vienna, living here until he passed away in 2000.

Exceptionally, Hartzell held both U.S. and Austrian citizenship. Double nationality is rarely granted here: One requirement is a unanimous decision by various branches of the Austrian government, in recognition for an "extraordinary contribution to the Austrian Republic". In Hartzell’s case, this was prompted largely by his services to Austrian music. He was also conferred the Music Prize of the City of Vienna, the highest distinction in the field that this city has to give.

Unfortunately for us all, Blue Danube Radio is now history, but the voice of Hartzell is being celebrated here this year on the 80th anniversary of his birth. After two smaller concerts in February and March, May will bring a festival concert, with the FOS Trio playing four Hartzell pieces. The concert will also include works by Apostel and Brahms. This represents a direct stream of Viennese composers; it is indeed possible to consider all three still spiritually linked to the Viennese classical school.

While the reaction of some music listeners is still, "Twelve-tone – not for me!", Hartzell’s music, despite its truly serious European form, is rich in moments of American charm.  While his teacher Apostel was strictly counting the rows of twelve tones, Hartzell was imagining ways to make little Abstecher here and there, little detours. As he described his (perhaps irreverent) thoughts: "Maybe it’s time to think differently… how can I draw on my American years: a hint of jazz… blues-like things… torch songs…?"

A Legacy of Innovation

Hartzell’s oeuvre counts more than 100 works. The majority are pieces for chamber ensemble, small groups of two, three, four musicians, or for voice. A significant group of pieces is his Monologue series, 21 solo works for nearly every instrument of the orchestra. They were composed over a period of four decades and so are perhaps ideal for the academicians who enjoy examining the "growth" or "development" of a composer. I simply find them captivating as they let the listener sink into the very individual, characteristic sound of instruments like the double bass or bassoon.

The programme of the May concert includes two Monologues, one for violin and the other for horn. It will continue with the Episodes for Violin and Piano (1982), described by the composer as "[lying] along that regrettable boundary between ‘serious’ and ‘light’." Whether this is really regrettable is perhaps for the audience to decide. This will be followed by his Horn Trio (1995). Titled by the composer himself as "A Little Light Music", it is twelve-tone jazz, with a boogie bass and a ragtime theme.

Hartzell’s dodecaphony splashes out of the sometimes rigidly monotone world of the tone row. In the heritage of the Second Viennese School, its colour and wit give it a special place. And happily, Hartzell’s unique voice continues to be with us.

CD: "An American in Vienna",

Ensemble Wiener Collage

(VMS 175, distributed by Extraplatte)

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