At the age of fourteen he has his epiphany: the performances of Beethoven’s Ninth and Weber’s Freischütz under the direction of Gustav Mahler, who he admired, impressed him so much that – as he wrote – “the following day I began to compose [...] So much did it urge me to become a musician that I began to learn the basics of the musical craft without help or instruction”.
Under the spell of Mahler and Schoenberg
At his parents’ request, he initially began studying law, but soon switched to musicology and also became one of Arnold Schoenberg’s first students. Professionally, he followed two paths: as a scholar, he taught at the conservatory and at the university, he became a specialist in Baroque opera and deciphered the medieval, Byzantine musical notation. As a composer, his works, especially his stage works, the Persisches Ballett and the operas Prinzessin Girnara, Alkestis and Die Bakchantinnen, based on oriental and Greek subjects, made him one of the most frequently performed composers of the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1938, the National Socialists annexed Austria. Egon Wellesz, who came from a Jewish family and would therefore be banned from working in Vienna, was on a trip to the Netherlands at the time. Instead of returning to his homeland, he emigrated to England, where he began teaching at Lincoln College, Oxford.
New start in England
This radical break with his previous life initially silenced him as a composer. Five years passed before he began to work creatively again. Egon Wellesz was then 60 years old. Until his death in 1974, he wrote a large number of chamber music and piano works, as well as songs and church music, and above all – nine symphonies, a genre he had previously avoided: “It signifies a new phase in my creative work, the spiritual return to my great ancestors. Growing up in the Austrian musical tradition, the symphony had always seemed to me to be the highest medium of musical expression.”