In Memory of mdw Professor Gottfried von Einem (1918–1996)

It was one century ago—on 24 January 1918, to be precise—that Gottfried von Einem was born. And to mark his jubilee year, the mdw is dedicating to this great composer and influential teacher a memorial concert that will take place in the Joseph Haydn-Saal on 4 December 2018 at 6.00 p.m.

Gottfried von Einem
©Photography by Peter Schramek / Collections of the Society of Music Lovers in Vienna

At age 20, Einem went to work as an accompanist at the German State Opera in Berlin and as an assistant at the Bayreuth Festival. The 1941–1943 period saw him take composing lessons from Boris Blacher, followed by counterpoint instruction from Johann Nepomuk David in 1945. Einem’s international breakthrough came with the première of his opera Dantons Tod at the Salzburg Festival in 1947, with performances of this work at numerous opera houses being quick to follow.

Further international success for Einem came with the premières of the opera Der Prozeß (after Franz Kafka; Salzburg Festival, 1953), the Ballade für Orchester op. 23 (Cleveland, 1958), the cantata Das Stundenlied (Hamburg, 1959), the literary operas Der Zerrissene (Hamburg, 1964) and Der Besuch der Alten Dame (Vienna, 1971), the cantata An die Nachgeborenen (New York, 1975), and the opera Kabale und Liebe (Vienna, 1976). In the 1976/77 season, Gottfried von Einem was the most frequently performed contemporary composer internationally. He then spent his later years focussing more and more on smaller forms such as chamber music and art songs. At the then-Academy of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (today’s mdw), Gottfried von Einem assumed a composing professorship in 1963, and he occupied this post until 1972. It was only after considerable hesitation that the composer had decided to take on this new responsibility, agreeing to teach only under certain conditions. In a June 1962 letter, under the heading, “Conditions for the assumption of a professorship”, he spelled out these conditions—which were: a trial period for students and no more than six students in his class. As a teacher of musical composition, Einem sought to build on a solid classical basis—above all on the mastery of traditional counterpoint.

Students of Einem who completed their studies at the mdw and made names for themselves in the contemporary music world include Heinz Karl Gruber, Dieter Kaufmann, Brunhilde Sonntag, William Fischer, and Klaus Peter Sattler.

On 30 September 1972, Gottfried von Einem retired from his professorship at his own request—and the mdw eventually recognised him formally for his services with an honorary membership for his 75th birthday in 1993.

In the following, two of his best-known students (both of them now themselves retired mdw professors) share their memories of Gottfried von Einem as a contribution to this year’s memorial observances.


Klaus-Peter Sattler
Thoughts on Gottfried von Einem:

In 1966, Karl Schiske (my professor at the time) received an appointment at the University of California, Riverside. I decided to continue my studies with Gottfried von Einem, since I was fascinated with his musical works—most of all with those for the stage.

Gottfried von Einem was an impressive personality: his outward appearance was fascinating; his statements were always clear and analytically acute without beating around the bush; he had a delightful sense of humour and could recount infinite experiences and anecdotes; and despite all his rationality, he could indeed grow highly emotional and passionate at times—especially about aspects of so-called “contemporary music”.

“What in heaven’s name brings you to me? If it’s contemporary composing techniques you want to learn, then you’ve come to the wrong person!” In fact, it was precisely those that I didn’t want to learn—I wanted to write “applied music”, music that fulfils a very specific function as part of a “composite artwork” such as a film or a theatrical production. Upon learning this, Einem seemed elated: “Thank God! Finally, someone who’s not working on his own monument—which would only be a place for pigeons to do their thing, anyway.”

It was the beginning of a period during which I was able to freely develop my musical intentions—unreservedly, though always subject to strict standards of craftsmanship.

One day, when I came to him with pile of music I’d composed, he just said: “Someone who writes so much definitely doesn’t have any time to talk on phone”. And he continued: “Who’s well acquainted with the film business around here?” I gave him the name of a very competent journalist, with whom he then had “Lottchen” connect him right on the spot. A brief dialogue ensued, after which he placed the receiver in my hand—and a meeting was immediately arranged.

I could always sense a wave of positive support and heartfelt belief in my talent that virtually “carried me forward”. So for me, Gottfried von Einem was the ideal teacher: he led without seeming to lead, and he gave one a feeling of having ultimately “achieved everything from within one’s own self”.


Dieter Kaufmann
From Letters Sent by Gottfried von Einem (1965–1969):

“20 years from now, you’ll know whether or not you’re gifted; posterity will know in a century!”

“The Muses number among those difficult women who, unfortunately, have to be dealt with in accordance with Nietzsche’s advice. So please do be prepared to repeatedly give yourself a good kicking.”

“When you write down notes, you gather together your emotions and doubts; everything can be sublimated and nailed down in the form of notes written in ink.”

“Please keep a diary about your lessons from and with Messiaen.”

“Teachers seldom like what their gifted students make out of their teachings. But no matter!”

“That you may someday have the courage to be ‘lost to the world’, to let yourself go and, abandoning all considerations, write just like you hear it inside you—this is wished you by your C-majorist, Gottfried Einem.”

“Write the opera—don’t look left or right, and trust exclusively in your mind’s ear, ignoring nothing that you hear through it. And what’s more, I advise you to develop an artistic consciousness. If you do justice to both, your works will endure over time—as long as the entire person is involved, including his emotions; the author without a lower body is a specimen for the curio cabinet.”

“But I advise you to get around in the world a bit and refrain from getting tied down too early. The urge to return to one’s cosy home stable is dangerous—especially when that stable is Vienna.”

“Please give credence to my experiences. If you know the (inner and outer) worlds, you can afford to write like you—and not like your sceptical surroundings would have you write—and even in C-major, which I’m now quite deliberately doing with growing pleasure.”

  • Further information as well as the programme of the Gottfried von Einem memorial concert can be found on:

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