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Joseph Beer
(1908-1987)

Life Story

The Early Years
Vienna: Fast Rise to Fame
In Hiding: The Wars Years
The Aftermath of the War
Nice: The Mature Years
Posthumous Success
Compositional Style
Reviews

List of Publications
Short Biographical Essay
Essai Biographique
Critiques

The Early Years

The son of a wealthy banker and a doting "Jewish mother," Joseph Beer was born in Chodorów (Galicia, Poland) in 1908 and spent a pampered childhood in the Habsburg Austrian city then known as Lemberg (later Lwow, Poland; presently Lviv, Ukraine). He had two siblings, Joachim, one year older and a baby sister, Suzanne four years younger.


Joseph in Lwow at age  5 with his older brother Joachim (left)

While his father was a strict disciplinarian who showed his love through the high standards he set for the children's education, his mother was gentle and soft-hearted, secretly spoiling her children. Joseph was absolutely devoted to her, and she was for him a constant source of moral support and inspiration.

Having tried to come up with his own musical notation system at age seven, not aware that one already existed, Joseph Beer, by the time he was thirteen, was already spending most of his nights composing, the beginning of a lifelong habit. While in high school, he also attended classes at the Lwow Conservatory.


Joseph in middle school, at age
15.

Upon graduating from high school, despite his father's insistence that he become a lawyer, he was determined to be a composer. After completing a year in law school to please his father, he persuaded his family to allow him to go to Vienna (then the music capital of the world) and to audition at the Hochschule für Musik.


Joseph ca. 1927

On arriving at the train station in Vienna, he happened to meet one of his best friends from back home, a gifted young violinist who was returning to Lwow following an unsuccessful audition at the Hochschule für Musik. Being admitted to an exclusive Austrian school which enforced quotas for both Poles and Jews was no mean accomplishment. Not only was Joseph admitted, but he was allowed to skip the first four years and enter directly into the Master Classes of the renowned composition teacher and composer, Joseph Marx. At this point, his father was completely won over. He set Joseph up in a two-bedroom apartment in central Vienna with his own baby-grand! Joseph had won the right to pursue his dream of musical composition.  Little did he realize then that he had also escaped his hometown with his life. Joseph's violinist friend, along with but a handful of the 110,000 Jews of Lwow were murdered during the Holocaust.

Vienna: Fast Rise to Fame

At the Hochschule für Musik, Joseph attracted the attention and support of Professor Marx and was graduated from the school with highest honors in 1930.


Joseph as a student at the Hochschule für Musik

He soon joined an established Viennese ballet company Rainer Simons as chorus coach and conductor and toured with the company extensively in Austria and throughout the Middle East, garnering enthusiastic reviews.


Joseph Beer as a young conductor approx. age 17 (ca. 1925)

It was the Middle East tour which set the stage for his connecting with a man who would become one of his closest associates, Dr. Fritz Löhner-Beda, perhaps the most acclaimed Viennese operetta librettist of his time. While touring Palestine, Joseph was persuaded by a local composer to take some the fellow's compositions back to Austria to play for Löhner-Beda. Back in Vienna a few months later, Joseph fulfilled his promise. But performing the music at the piano for Löhner-Beda, he detected a lack of interest on "Beda"'s part.  Simultaneously, he noticed through the glass panel of the door that one of his old conservatory buddies was listening. He was mortified to think that his friend might take this to be his own music. So when Löhner-Beda signaled the end of the audition, Joseph boldly asked if he might play a sample of his own music. . .


Dr. Fritz Löhner-Beda
(ca. 1930)

The famed librettist was delighted with what he heard, and thus began a  fertile collaboration between composer and lyricist. Beda acted not only as librettist for young Joseph, but also as his agent, introducing him to some of the most influential people in the business.

In 1934, the first of the two operas they would collaborate on, Der Prinz Von Schiras, exotically set in Persia, to a libretto by Friz Löhner-Beda and Ludwig Herzer, premiered at the Zurich Opera House with international radio broadcast. It received extensive critical acclaim.


Joseph Beer, as a young "star composer" at age 25

Following an extremely successful debut, the opera was taken throughout Europe to the major stages of Vienna (Theatre an der Wien), Salzburg, Warsaw (Teatr Wielki), Madrid (Teatro Fontalba) and Stockholm among others. It received extensive radio broadcast, was often recorded and taken on a tour of South America by the Luis Calvo Co.


Der Prinz Von Schiras plays at the famed Theatre an der Wien

Josef Marx wrote a congratulatory letter to his former pupil, enthusiastically stating that in his first work, Joseph Beer had displayed a knowledge and mastery that "few established operetta composers possess." Joseph Beer was 25 years old.


An entire page is dedicated to Prinz von Schiras in the very popular magazine "Sie und Ehr", April 7, 1934

All the while, Joseph had been keeping his family back home in Poland abreast of each and every one of his early successes. Even while signing a contract, he later revealed that he would be mentally composing the contents of a telegram home to communicate the good news. The entire family came to Vienna to attend performances of the opera at the famed Theatre an der Wien. And when the premiere of Prinz von Schiras was broadcast in Lwow over the short-wave radio, the family and all their relatives gathered at the Beer's home. His father timed the duration  of the thundering applause given the tenor's aria, "Du Warst Der Selige Traum": it had lasted 17 minutes.


Joseph Beer with his parents and two siblings in Lwow, Poland


Joseph Beer as an upcoming young star composer in Vienna, ca. 1936

Three years later, in 1937, came the second of the two Beer/Beda operas, Polnishe Hochzeit, composed in but a few weeks. With a libretto co-authored by the established lyricist Alfred Grünwald, it was set during the Polish war for independence from Russian occupation in the early 1800's. it too premiered at the Zurich Opera House. A huge success, it was subsequently performed on some 40 stages and translated into 8 languages.


World Premiere of Joseph Beer's second opera, Polnische Hochzeit at the Zurich Opera - 1937

With the attendant acclaim and publicity, the young composer's star was on the rise. Colleagues and critics alike agreed that he was among the foremost composers of his generation. He was popular with opera singers who appreciated his deft writing which showcased the voice to its best advantage. The public thronged to fill the theaters with unabated enthusiasm to hear Joseph Beer's music.

Polnishe Hochzeit was now being scheduled world-wide, in venues such as the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, starring the famed tenor-soprano couple Jan Kiepura and Marta Eggerth.


Announcement of the upcoming Théâtre du Chatelet premiere of Polnische Hochzeit

There were plans for productions of the opera in Rome and New York City among others, while back in Vienna, superstar tenor Richard Tauber was slated to appear. A few years out of conservatory, Joseph could already lay claim to quite a bright future.

In Hiding: The Wars Years

But in 1938, a Nazi government rose to power in Austria. With the advent of the Anschluss, a year only after the premiere of Polnische Hochzeit, Joseph Beer's name was taken off the roster of the Theatre an der Wien. Soon the operas of the ''Jew Beer" were banned from performance. Joseph had to flee the country in order to save his life. Backed by a recommendation from the director of the Théâtre du Châtelet, Joseph was granted a visa by the French government. Carrying only two suitcases, he left Vienna, the city of his brilliant success. His meteoric rise in the world of opera with its early taste of musical renown had just abruptly ended.


Joseph Beer during World War II

In Paris, now a refugee living in a hotel room, he survived by adapting instrumental works for orchestra. He accepted a commission from a Zurich Opera conductor to write an opera which would be performed in Zurich under the latter's name. Joseph closeted himself in his hotel room and emerged three weeks later with a fully finished opera, including all vocal and orchestral parts. The musical score had been written entirely without benefit of a piano. The first time he actually heard his work was during its radio broadcast from the Zurich Opera House. He then commented that aside from a couple of things here and there, he was basically pleased with his work!


Joseph Beer in hiding at the Regina Hotel in Nice ca. 1943

After the Germans invaded Paris two years later in 1940, Joseph traveled to join his brother in Nice, which was as yet free of Nazi control. He was to remain there for the duration of the war. His livelihood still consisted in composing, much of the time without a piano, arranging pieces for local orchestras and writing music for others to claim as their own. It is also during that time that he composed his third major work, Stradella in Venedig, a "commedia dell' arte opera" inspired from the tragic life of the well-known seventeenth-century composer and set in Venice during that time period. Far removed from the composer's own threatened circumstances in its inspiration, it is quite different stylistically from his first two works.


Joseph Beer in hiding at the Regina Hotel in Nice ca. 1943

After the Nazis completed their conquest of France in mid-1942, Beer had to go in hiding. Until 1942, he had been trying to stay in touch with his mother, father and young sister who were trapped in Lwow. He had used virtually all of his meager earnings to send them money and care packages, desperately trying to be of assistance. Apparently, very little if anything ever reached them. The few letters he received from them were heartrending. The family had been forced out of their home and herded into the ghetto of Lwow, where they had to look for food scraps in the garbage cans and life conditions were dreadful.

One of the last messages Joseph received was from his father. It was a postcard bearing the Hitler stamp in which his father wrote, "Du bist mein selige Traum", you are my beautiful dream, alluding to the celebrated aria from his son's very first opera. Sadly, the father implored his "friend" not to compromise him, "please do not send any more packages or letters, they endanger me..."


Uri Beer's postcard to his son from the Ghetto of Lwow ca. 1943

And finally, there was nothing. Joseph thought of his family day and night. But he was powerless, unable to do anything for them... Once in the middle of the night, while deep asleep, he had a vivid dream in which he suddenly heard his mother's voice calling out his name three times in agony. He awoke in alarm, the sound of her voice still ringing clearly in his ear. Joseph, who was prone to premonitions, feared the worst. Later, after the war, he learned that he had heard his mother's voice that night at the approximate time of her death in the concentration camp in Poland.

So it was that his father, Uri Isidore, mother Amalie Esther Malka and his young sister Suzanne all perished at Auschwitz.

   
Joseph Beer's father, Uri Isidore      Joseph Beer's mother, Amalie Esther Malka      Joseph Beer's sister, Suzanne

 The Aftermath of the War

After the war, profoundly affected by the deaths of his loved ones, Joseph Beer recoiled from success. Many of his former associates had been killed, such as the celebrated librettist Löhner-Beda who died at Auschwitz. Others had been Nazi collaborators or, at best, passive bystanders with whom Joseph now adamantly refused to do business. In the decade following the war, there were several occasions when opera directors and agents came all the way to Nice to sign an agreement to produce his operas. Somehow he always found a way not to make a deal. A man who had been by all accounts before the war a witty, charming, dazzling man, was now becoming increasingly withdrawn and difficult, unwilling or unable to accept success any longer.

Despite his recalcitrance, some works were produced. Polnische Hochzeit continued to be performed in Scandinavia until 1982 without his cooperation or consent, or even posthumously until 2002, often under the alternative title of Masurkka.


Polnische Hochzeit plays in the Scandinavian countries under the alternative title of Masurkka


Production Pictures of Masurkka (Polnische Hochzeit) ca.1980 (Finland)


Production Pictures of Masurkka (Polnische Hochzeit) ca.1980 (Sweden)
 

In 1946, an oratorio work, Ave Maria, a cantata for soloists, mixed choir and organ, premiered at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Nice, France, staring famed Austrian soprano Lotte Schöne and renowned tenor Enso Seri.

Stradella in Venedig, the opera composed in hiding during the war, premiered at the Zurich Opera House in 1949. It received widespread acclaim and critics such as Kurt Pahlen wrote in his World Music History (Opern der Welt), "... a comic opera of the highest sort", while the libretto was adapted to the French stage by renowned French playwright and Académie Française member André Roussin. But Beer did little to encourage its performance after the initial run. He later confided that his mother, with her staunch faith and support for him, had been the secret behind his brilliant success as a young composer in Vienna. With her tragic death, he had become indifferent to professional distinction. He had survived her physically, but not emotionally.

                                                                                                                World Premiere of Joseph Beer's Opera Stradella at the Zurich Opera Theatre (1949)


Nice: The Mature Years

From that time on, Joseph Beer composed in solitude. He toiled relentlessly, seldom taking a day off, typically working well into the night. He constantly refined his craft, tirelessly polishing and reworking each piece, always seeking higher standards of musical expression. The results are a tribute to his dedicated efforts. We are left with a greatly original body of work of tremendous power and beauty -- truly the work of a master.

In these labors, Joseph was assisted only by wife Hanna, a young Jewish refugee from Munich whom he met in Nice after the war, and who, in later years, bore him two daughters, Suzanne Beer, an award-winning artist and philosopher based in Paris, France, and Béatrice Beer, an internationally-acclaimed opera singer based in Philadelphia, PA (USA).


Joseph Beer with his young wife to be, Hanna Königsberg, in Nice, ca. 1950

For the next forty years, Hanna would serve as his sole collaborator, critic... and often overworked typist!

Beer rarely took a single day off from composing or went on vacation with his family. He did make time however for scholarly research. In 1966, he earned a Doctorate in Musicology from the Sorbonne University at the direction of the eminent French philosopher and musicologist, Vladimir Jankélévitch. His thesis topic: The Evolution of Harmonic Style in the Work of Scriabin. He received the highest honors for it (Mention Très Honorable et Félicitations du Jury) and Jankélévitch offered to get the work published with a foreword authored by him. But Beer declined. He had but one passion: composition.


Joseph Beer ca. 1960

Through the years, proposals to adapt his operas to the French stage came from prominent French librettists, including one of Ravel's lyricists Léopold Marchand, Arthur Honegger's librettist, Albert Willemetz, and one of Franz Lehar's librettist, Albert Gilbert. All were enthusiastic supporters of the composer. On one occasion, Gilbert wrote to him, "Joseph, you are the greatest composing genius of our century. This may sound simplistic to you, but I say as I feel."

Beer, however, remained a confirmed loner. He continued to compose daily till his passing on November 23, 1987.

He leaves behind a large body of work which he ceaselessly revised and polished till the end.

The Beer legacy includes among others two operas, La Polonaise, a comic opera with a historic subject set in Russia-occupied Poland during the Napoleonic era, and Mitternachtssonne, a supernatural romance populated with lumberjacks and elf-like creatures called Nissen set in rural Norway of the 1930's.

Both operas feature a wealth of profoundly beautiful, intensely felt arias where sublime levels of inspiration are clearly felt, set to highly innovative, intricate, sophisticated harmonies -- the culmination of a life time of composing.

Posthumous Success

In 2006, Joseph Beer's family started the internationally run Joseph & Hanna Beer Foundation. It is headquartered in Nice, France, with satellite offices in Paris, France, and Philadelphia (USA). The Foundation's mission is to propagate the works of this brilliant composer world-wide and to earn him the global recognition he deserves.

Additionally, Joseph Beer's youngest daughter Béatrice Beer, an internationally-acclaimed emerging opera singer, has been performing her father's music in specially crafted concerts internationally, among others in Austria, Germany, in Washington, D.C., New York City, and throughout the United States, at times in duo with internationally acclaimed Dramatic Baritone Robert McFarland.

In  2008, Robert McFarland acts as Joseph Beer’s agent and actively promotes him to his colleagues at the top echelon of the classical music world.

Joseph Beer is currently Composer-in-Residence In Memoriam with The Atlantic Coast Opera Festival, a Philadelphia based international summer opera Festival which is planning to premiere one of the composer's opera in the near future. For more information, please visit http://www.atlanticcoastoperafestival.org/about.htm

Joseph Beer’s music started to experience the start of a major renaissance when, among others, it was included in a sold out concert at the Théâtre du Châtelet in January 2010 featuring the famed Orchestre Pasdeloup under the baton of Maestro David Charles Abell (who has since recorded a CD with Diana Damrau among others.) The event was broadcasted by France's major classical radio channel France Musique mid-March.

Joseph Beer’s music was also featured in a special In Memoriam performance during the French Festival Musiques Interdites at the Opéra de Marseille in July 2010.

In December 2010, the prestigious Viennese publishing house Doblinger Musikverlag signed up Joseph Beer. Its well connected CEO Peter Pany is presently starting with the promoting of Beer’s outstanding pre-war youth success, Polnische Hochzeit -- “a great and timeless work,” wrote Herr Pany – as well as Stradella in Venedig, Beer’s last publicly performed opera.

In July 2012, Polnische Hochzeit sees a Viennese Revival Premiere by the Wiener Operettensommer under the baton of Maestro Charles Prince, son of the legendary producer Harold Prince who is also getting involved.

April 2013 saw a German premiere of Polnische Hochzeit in Eggenfelden also led by Maestro Prince.

In
2013-2015, major members of the international classical music scene start to show interest and to get involved, among others, Roberto Alagna, Maestro Łukasz Borowicz, Maestro Alain Altinoglu, and stage director Harold Prince, while major premieres are in the works as well as recordings.

November 2015 saw the world-renowned Munich Radio Orchestra (Münchner Rundfunkorchester) performing and recording Joseph Beer’s pre-war “blockbuster” Polnische Hochzeit under the baton of its chief conductor, Leipzig Opera Director Maestro Ulf Schirmer with Chorus from the famed Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz-- with live broadcast by the Bayerischer Rundfunk, Germany national classical radio.
Soprano Martina Rüping, Jadja -- Tenor Nikolai Schukoff, Boleslav -- Bariton Michael Kupfer-Radecky, Staschek -- Mezzo-Soprano Susanne Bernhard, Suza -- Lyric Baritone Mathias Hausmann, Casimir.

Ø  October 2016: Release by the exclusive German classic label CPO of the German premiere/live CD recording -- Munich Radio Orchestra and soloists, chorus from the renowned Gärtnerplatz Theatre, Ulf Schirmer conducting!!

     Winter 2017 will see the publication of Beer’s Sorbonne doctoral thesis L’Évolution du style harmonique dans l’œuvre de Scriàbine (The Evolution of Harmonic Style in Scriabin’s Works) by France’s premiere musicology publisher Aedam Musicae -- based on a letter by famed musicologist Vladimir Jankélévitch praising the work as the best, most in-depth study of its kind on the topic.

May 2017: Based on Maestro John Mauceri’s recommendation, the London based label Toccata Classics sponsors an all Joseph Beer CD spanning the entire Beer oeuvre, featuring among others International Dramatic Baritone Robert McFarland and the composer’s daughter, noted Soprano Béatrice Beer. Target Launch Date: May 2017.

For more information, please visit us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/JosephBeerComposer.


Portrait of Joseph Beer (China ink) - by Artist Suzanne Beer

Compositional Style
Overview

Joseph Beer’s inspiration can be can be said to be tri-fold in nature: Slavic (Russian/Polish) with Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Scriabin among others, the Viennese School/German (mainly Brahms and Beethoven but also Mendelssohn and Mahler) and Italian (mainly Puccini.)

Despite his living in France for more than half of his life, the only French composers whose influence can be heard are Ravel mainly, and also Bizet at times.

Traces of jazz and Klezmer and sundry folk influences can also be detected in Beer’s oeuvre, as the composer believed, along with some of his predecessors such as Brahms, Mahler etc., that in order to be a bona fide classical composer, a musician must first be thoroughly acquainted with the popular level of his musical roots and heritage.

Periods

Three periods of compositional inspiration, style and technique emerge from Beer’s works:

1- Youth/Viennese Period: influenced by the Viennese operetta genre in some sense, yet, as Beer’s composition teacher and mentor Josef Marx himself wrote, going far beyond it through the complexity, depth and wealth of compositional genius and technique.

Works are churned out in a few weeks by an overly gifted, carefree youth who has been composing since age 7 (starting off by attempting to invent his own musical notation system!!) and to whom the art form comes as easy as reading a newspaper!

  • Main works of this period are Der Prinz von Schiras and Polnische Hochzeit.

2- War/in Hiding Period: A total shift of inspiration and technique, with further depthening of the intricacy and sophistication of the compositional style and technique.

  • Main work: Stradella in Venedig, entitled “Komische Oper” by the composer himself (and reviewed as a “Comic Opera of the highest sort” by the noted Swiss musicologist Kurt Pahlen among others.)

3- Post-War Maturity Period: Another total overhauling of compositional technique where the great composer is in full mastery of his art and puts forth timeless melodies set to lush, idiosyncratic harmonies, and totally innovative and masterful orchestration.

  • Main works: La Polonaise and Mitternachtssonne -- composed and finetuned over decades and entitled “Singspiel Oper” by the composer -- unpublished.

Conclusion

Beer’s operas are characterized by exquisite, gorgeous and unique arias which remain in the ear -- albeit always surprising the listener -- set to lush and innovative harmony. They include pieces which are effervescently rhythmical, at times, even jazzy.

Altogether, while stemming from the grand romantic tradition, Beer’s style reflects decidedly modernistic influences as well, while being utterly idiosyncratic and bearing its own griffe.

In sum, the oeuvre reveals a level of inspired craftsmanship which is truly innovative and unique. It can be easily recognized and set apart from all others, revealing the brilliant work of one of the leading composing masters of the 20th Century.

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An Orchestral Score Sample Page Excerpted from Joseph Beer's Singspiel Opera Mitternachtssonne

 

 

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