Werner Egk

Last updated
Werner Egk, 2001 stamp Werner Egk (timbre allemand).jpg
Werner Egk, 2001 stamp

Werner Egk (German pronunciation: [ˈɛk] , 17 May 1901 10 July 1983), born Werner Joseph Mayer, was a German composer.


Early career

He was born in the Swabian town of Auchsesheim, today part of Donauwörth, Germany. His family, of Catholic peasant stock, moved to Augsburg when Egk was six. He studied at a Benedictine Gymnasium (academic high school) and entered the municipal conservatory. Egk demonstrated talents as a composer, graphic artist, and writer, and he moved first to Frankfurt to improve his piano talents and then, in 1921, to Munich. There, working as a theater composer and playing in the pit, he married Elizabeth Karl, a violinist. He derived his pen name "Egk" from his wife's initials: Elisabeth, geborne Karl (Elisabeth, née Karl). [1] His only son, Titus, was born in 1924. [2]

Egk moved to Berlin in 1928, meeting composers Arnold Schoenberg and Hanns Eisler. He intended to become a cinema composer and accompanied silent films. When radio broadcasting became available to the public, Egk immediately realised its importance as a mass medium and developed operas and radio plays. He was introduced to Hans Fleisch, an important radio executive (also Paul Hindemith's brother-in-law and a Jew), by composer Kurt Weill. He received his first commission for broadcasting from Fleisch's company.

He returned to Munich in 1929 to work for the local radio station and settled in Lochham, a suburb. He became associated with musicians Fritz Büchtger, Karl Marx, and especially, Carl Orff, whom he had met in 1921. His music of the period shows a debt to the compositional style of Igor Stravinsky. He also became friends with new-music conductor Hermann Scherchen and the owners of the music publisher, Schott Music in Mainz. His career as a composer took off with the premiere of his radio opera, Columbus, in July 1933 (staged in April 1934).

Nazi era

Any composer working in Germany at the time had to deal with the Nazi regime coming to power in 1933. Michael H. Kater, Professor of German studies at York University labels Egk "The Enigmatic Opportunist" in his portrait of Eight German Composers of the Nazi Era, and by far the most extensive evaluation of the composer's wartime connections in English (Kater, 30). As a German of Catholic heritage, Egk was in no danger of falling into disfavor with the regime's racial policies; rather, the professional hardships for Jewish composers and others created opportunities for him. Egk's contact with Scherchen soon lapsed, and the composer developed a complicated relationship as well as a professional rivalry with Orff, whose works ultimately found more lasting success.

Initially, Munich's cultural administrators had doubts about the compatibility of Egk's Stravinskian style with a Nazi audience, and he encountered difficulty with Munich's representative for Alfred Rosenberg's Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Militant League for German Culture), Paul Ehlers.

In 1935, he premiered his first opera Die Zaubergeige (The Magic Violin) in Frankfurt am Main. The work channeled Bavarian folksong and a diatonic idiom far less modernist than his earlier, more angular Columbus. This opera therefore matched Nazi artistic guidelines prescribing folk elements as being close to the people. Swiss composer Heinrich Sutermeister saw the stylistic change as "opportunistic." The success of the work led to a commission for ballet music related to the 1936 Summer Olympics (for which he received a gold medal in the Art Competition) [3] and his appointment as conductor of the Berlin State Opera – a position he held until 1941. Egk's protector in Berlin was Heinz Tietjen, director of the Prussian state theaters and artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival.

November 1938 saw the première of his opera Peer Gynt based on Henrik Ibsen's play. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary on 1 February 1939: "I am very enthusiastic and so is the Führer. A new discovery for the both of us". Oddly enough, Egk had returned to his more Stravinskian style in the work. More conservative critics found elements in the plot threatening to Nazi ideals of martial grandeur, and they also had difficulties with the reworking of the Nordic plot. One possible interpretation of the event lies in an argument Hitler had with his lieutenant Göring, who had warned Hitler not to go to the opera, "because none of your favorite singers were in it." It has been credibly suggested that Hitler and Goebbels decided to "like" the opera as a "taunt" to Göring for having the audacity to tell Hitler what he could and could not see (Kater 10 and accompanying footnotes, also an oral history from Viennese composer Gottfried von Einem, Vienna, Nov. 30, 1994).

As the thirties wore on, Egk was asked, or perhaps commanded, to make official pronouncements about German music, and he received a large commission (never fulfilled) for a large scale opera on Nazi themes. His next major work was the ballet Joan von Zarissa in 1940. In the following decade, it was common to pair the work with Orff's Carmina Burana . In general, Egk's music found much more success in Berlin, and Orff lost to Egk in the prize surrounding the Olympic games composition. Unlike Egk, who enjoyed regular income from his artistic directorship, Orff was also self-employed and much impoverished. This exposed Egk to attack from Orff's partisans, though Egk and his wife continued to see Orff socially. These rivalries impinged on the credibility of witnesses in Egk's trial after the war. From 1941 to 1945 Egk was the leader of the Composer division ("Leiter der Fachschaft Komponisten") in the State-Approved Society for the Exploitation of Musical Performing Rights (German: Staatlich genehmigte Gesellschaft zur Verwertung musikalischer Aufführungsrechte; STAGMA) which was then under the control of the Nazi Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber).

Egk never joined the Nazi party and was exonerated in denazification tribunals held in 1947, but the trials were fraught with inaccuracies, including accounts of involvement with the Austrian resistance movement that were highly dubious. Among Egk's defenders were Gottfried von Einem and composer Boris Blacher. Initially his Nazi affiliations were held against him, though only briefly. There are various interpretations regarding the extent of his collaboration:

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle (Kater, 22).


His major career began after the war. In Germany, Egk has been dubbed "Komponist des Wiederaufbaus" ("composer of the reconstruction", which followed World War II). Besides being a conductor and composer, he was head of the Berlin Musikhochschule (1950–1952) and important figure of the GEMA since 1950; he was also the first German president of the Confédération Internationale des Sociétés d'Auteurs et Compositeurs (CISAC). In 1954 he became conductor of the Bavarian State Opera with a 20-year contract.

His later years saw a constant string of premieres at major European festivals, beginning with Irische Legende in 1955, conducted by George Szell and featuring Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. His opera Die Verlobung in San Domingo opened the National Theatre Munich in 1963 and features a libretto by Heinrich von Kleist, pleading for racial tolerance. His late works, however, were almost exclusively instrumental. Exceptional among them are works for winds, including the Divertissement for Ten Wind Instruments (1974) and the Five Pieces for Wind Quintet (1975).

Egk died on 10 July 1983 in Inning am Ammersee.

Selected works



Orchestral works

Vocal works

Singspiels (musical plays)

Film music


Related Research Articles

Karl Amadeus Hartmann German composer

Karl Amadeus Hartmann was a German composer. Sometimes described as the greatest German symphonist of the 20th century, he is now largely overlooked, particularly in English-speaking countries.

Carl Orff German composer

Carl Orff was a German composer and music educator, best known for his cantata Carmina Burana (1937). The concepts of his Schulwerk were influential for children's music education.

Hans Pfitzner German composer

Hans Erich Pfitzner was a German composer and self-described anti-modernist. His best known work is the post-Romantic opera Palestrina, loosely based on the life of the sixteenth-century composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

Eugen Jochum German conductor

Eugen Jochum was a German conductor, best known for his interpretations of the music of Anton Bruckner, Carl Orff, and Johannes Brahms, among others.

Hans Werner Henze German composer

Hans Werner Henze was a German composer. His large oeuvre of works is extremely varied in style, having been influenced by serialism, atonality, Stravinsky, Italian music, Arabic music and jazz, as well as traditional schools of German composition. In particular, his stage works reflect "his consistent cultivation of music for the theatre throughout his life".

Emil von Reznicek Austrian late Romantic composer

Emil Nikolaus Joseph, Freiherr von Reznicek (4 May 1860, in Vienna – 2 August 1945, in Berlin) was an Austrian composer of Romanian-Czech ancestry.

Wilhelm Killmayer was a German composer of classical music, a conductor and an academic teacher of composition at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München from 1973 to 1992. He composed symphonies and song cycles on poems by Friedrich Hölderlin, Joseph von Eichendorff, Georg Trakl and Peter Härtling, among others.

Wolfgang Fortner was a German composer, composition teacher and conductor.

Jan Koetsier was a Dutch composer and conductor.

Hans-Jürgen von Bose German composer

Hans-Jürgen von Bose is a German composer.

Tatjana Gsovsky dancer, teacher and choreographer

Tatjana Gsovsky was an internationally known ballet dancer and choreographer who was ballet mistress of the Berlin State Opera, Teatro Colón, Deutsche Oper Berlin and Oper Frankfurt. An influential teacher, she is remembered for first choreographies of works by contemporary composers including Boris Blacher, Werner Egk, Hans Werner Henze, Giselher Klebe, Luigi Nono and Carl Orff.

<i>Die Zaubergeige</i> opera

Die Zaubergeige is a 1935 opera by Werner Egk to a libretto by Ludwig Strecker Jr. after Count Franz Pocci. Egk revised the opera in 1954.

<i>Irische Legende</i> opera

Irische Legende is a 1955 opera by Werner Egk who also wrote the libretto after the 1892/1899 verse drama The Countess Cathleen by W. B. Yeats. It premiered at the Salzburg Festival on 17 August 1955.

Columbus is a 1933 opera by Werner Egk. Originally a radio opera, Egk revised it in 1942 for the stage. The Munich premiere was acclaimed in the press and joined the year's repertoire at the Freiburg Theatre, though some dissented. The lack of melody in the opera brought negative comment from Richard Strauss in comparison to Meyerbeer's grand opera on the life of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama L'Africaine.

<i>Peer Gynt</i> (opera) Opera by Werner Egk

Peer Gynt is a 1938 opera by Werner Egk to a libretto after the play Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen. The premiere took place on 24 November 1938 at the Berliner Staatsoper where Egk was the conductor at the time.

<i>Circe</i> (Egk) opera

Circe is a 1945 opera by Werner Egk after Pedro Calderón de la Barca, premiered 1948. Egk reworked it as an opera semibuffa as 17 Tage und 4 Minuten, 1966.

Nikos Athineos is a Greek conductor, composer and pianist with a long career as conductor in significant theaters and orchestras of Germany, first Artistic Director of Thessaloniki Concert Hall for ten years, director of Athens Conservatory.

<i>Prometheus</i> (Orff) opera by Carl Orff

Prometheus is an opera by Carl Orff. The opera's Greek text is based on the drama by Aeschylus, the only surviving part of his Prometheus trilogy. Since Aeschylus’s text in Ancient Greek has been directly set to music without alterations or cuts, Orff’s score qualifies as one of the most typical examples for the operatic genre of Literaturoper. The premiere took place on March 24, 1968 at Staatstheater Stuttgart under the direction of Ferdinand Leitner in a production by Rudolf Sellner with sets and costumes by Teo Otto.

Fritz Büchtger was a German composer.

Ludwig Strecker Jr., also Ludwig Strecker der Jüngere, was a German music publisher, and an author of opera librettos which he wrote under the pen name Ludwig Anderson. He authored and published by Schott two of the most successful German contemporary operas of the 1930s, Egk's Die Zaubergeige and Reutter's Doktor Johannes Faust.


  1. Werner Egk, Music and the Holocaust
  2. Werner Egk Chronology Archived 2012-09-09 at Archive.today , Schott Music
  3. Werner Egk Archived 2007-03-10 at the Wayback Machine , Olympics database