For Julius Bürger, tonight’s performance, “A World Apart,” is aptly named. Yes, he emigrated to this country during World War II, but he also would have remained a world apart from recognition had he not been discovered in 1990, at the age of 93.
Bürger had enjoyed a prominent career as a conductor and arranger with the world’s most venerable companies, but acknowledgement for his own compositions had eluded him. Lushly orchestrated, his German Romantic style was passé in an era of atonal sensibilities. So he had laid his scores aside and concentrated on building his career, which had begun at the Berlin Opera after studies with Humperdinck and Franz Schreker in Berlin and Vienna. In 1924, at Bruno Walter’s urging, he moved to the Metropolitan Opera as assistant conductor. Twenty years later he would return to the Met to great acclaim, but first he refined his craft back in Europe with Otto Klemperer at the Berlin Staatsoper, moving to the Berlin Broadcasting Company, then to the BBC in London.
By then it was 1938 and Bürger was growing anxious about the ominous political climate back home. In February, he and his wife decided to make a train trip to Vienna to vote against the election of the Third Reich. During a station stop in Paris, he spotted a newspaper headline that read “Austrian Chancellor Meets with Hitler,” and he instinctively grabbed his wife and left the train. Their luggage was lost but their lives were saved. Five of his seven brothers were killed in concentration camps in the next few years, and his mother was shot on her way to Auschwitz. Knowing how she had always loved the velvet tones of the cello, he subsequently dedicated the Adagio movement of his Cello Concerto to her.
Composed in 1932, the piece displays Bürger’s virtuosity with varied orchestrations and timbral delicacies. Its spare orchestral accompaniment highlights the solo cello’s richly colored line, and the Adagio, in sharp contrast to its flanking, technically demanding Allegro movements, aches with lyrical expression.
In 1939 Bürger emigrated to the United States, returning to New York to work for CBS with Kostelanetz and Fiedler, then to Broadway to conduct the debut of the Balanchine-choreographed Song of Norway. Nine months later he rejoined the Metropolitan Opera as assistant conductor. In 1954 he uncovered some forgotten Verdi ballet music, combined it with fragments of a dozen of the master’s other compositions and presented his arrangement as the score for the ballet Vittorio. It premiered with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting his Met debut, and the critics lavished praise on the arranger whose score was “brilliant” (Women’s Wear Daily) and “admirable” (The New York Times). Two years later, Bürger triumphed again with an adaptation of Offenbach’s operetta, La Perichole, with Rudolph Bing raving that he had “out-Offenbached Offenbach.”
Yet while renown for his work with others’ music grew, renown for his own was sparse. Two songs written early on in Vienna had been recorded by Joseph Schmidt and become popular in Europe. But of his complex compositions, only the Cello Concerto, performed in New York’s Town Hall in 1952 with Bürger playing piano accompaniment to Latvia’s Ingus Naruns, had been heard. Then, in 1984, his Variations on a Theme by Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach won Indiana State University’s annual Contemporary Music Festival Composition Competition. Bürger heard it played by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra thirty-nine years after it was written.
Then, for seven more years, there was silence. Bürger was old, his wife had died, his scores languished in a dusty trunk in his Queens apartment. Then one day, he recounted his life’s story to his young estates attorney, Ronald S. Pohl, and the lawyer resolved to get the music heard. Within months, he convinced experts to appraise the mostly hand-lettered works. Cellist Maya Beiser read the Cello Concerto score and joined Pohl in crusading for its performance. In June of 1991, with Paul Lustig Dunkel conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, it was featured in a concert devoted to Bürger’s works at Alice Tully Hall, with the composer in attendance. He was ninety-four.
Since then, Bürger’s pieces have been heard in concert halls from Israel to Texas to Los Angeles. Tonight, his music returns home.