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Who was Joseph Marx?
One of the remaining mysteries of music history is why Joseph Marx, titled "the leading force of Austrian music" by William Furtwaengler in 1952, is no longer counted among the great composers of the 20th century. The Styrian composer received an enormous number of honors and awards over the course of his long life, but he was also held in high esteem as one of the most active music officials, composition teachers and critics of the mid-European late Romantic era. As numerous surviving contemporaries can confirm, he even occupied a key position in the Viennese music scene over several decades. Thus it is not surprising that the Ataturk government called him to Turkey in 1932, where he acted as first advisor on the development of Turkish music and concert life, and where he also helped to build up the Turkish conservatory (later, Hindemith and Bartok stepped in). His surviving students recall that Marx, whose friends were famous contemporaries like Puccini, Szymanowsky and many others, also had extensive knowledge in the areas of literature, art and sciences. His entire student body "adored and admired him like a semi-God". His reputation as Austria's leading musical authority soon spread to all corners of the earth, and young musicians from all over the world made the long journey to Austria, to receive instruction by Marx who had also made a name for himself as the composer of many internationally famous songs. And this is where the origin of the extraordinary career of Joseph Marx lies.
Born in 1882 in Graz as the son of a doctor and a female pianist, Marx was fascinated from an early age with poetry as an art form and also had an intense relationship with nature (throughout his life, he maintained a close affinity with nature). On the musical side, in his younger years he was greatly influenced by Debussy and Scriabin, both of whom he deeply admired. Following the composition of numerous organ and piano pieces and a couple of trio and quartet works that he arranged himself around the turn of the century (to date unpublished but in those days partly performed with great success), Marx concentrated mainly on piano songs which he accompanied himself. He was, incidentally, also a brilliant pianist. Even in the last decade of his life, he was still able to easily perform even the most difficult piano pieces, by heart, and he often demonstrated this skill during his lessons.
At the age of 25, while performing at a Lieder evening, Marx met the singer Anna Hansa (1877-1967) who stemmed from one of the best families of Graz. Anna Hansa had many contacts to musicians and artists. She had opened a café in Graz that introduced a new concept: It acted as a point of cultural exchange among various artists and also as a locale for musical performance evenings. His initial friendship, and later his life-long love for Anna, changed Joseph Marx's life forever. An established singer, she performed the promising young composer's Lieder and thus helped him to make his final breakthrough as the most-performed song composer of Styria.
Joseph Marx's thinking was initially influenced by the epistemologist Alexius von Meinong (1853-1920) and later also by his friendship with Vittorio Benussi (1878-1927, one of von Meinong's famous students), an experimental psychologist with whom he extensively discussed the psychological mysteries of music. Eventually, he became convinced that tonality was a natural law and, as such, an irrevocably unity with the heart and spirit of man. This has been impressively documented in his literary work "Weltsprache Musik" ("Music - A universal language"). A close friendship with the poet Anton Wildgans (1881-1932) and also his own studies in philosophy, art history, German language/culture and archaeology at Graz University finally rounded off Joseph Marx's education as a highly sophisticated man.
His 1909 dissertation "About the function of intervals, harmony and melody in the comprehension of tone complexes" attracted great attention and by 1912, he had already composed 120 songs, some of which had been very successful in Austria. In 1914, he was offered a professorship of music theory at Vienna University's Music Academy, where he taught from then onward. There, Schreker and other famous contemporaries were among his colleagues. In 1922, he succeeded Ferdinand Löwe as director of the Academy and later became director of the Music College. Following his time as advisor to the Turkish government (1932-33), Joseph Marx became a music critic for the Neues Wiener Journal (New Vienna Journal) in the Thirties and later worked in the same field for the Wiener Zeitung. During his time of teaching in Vienna and at Graz University, he taught a total of 1255 students from all over the world. He did not finish teaching until approximately the mid-fifties, when he had already made history, not only as one of the most important representatives of classical music in Austria, but also as the most influential opponent of the New Viennese School. With his oppositional stance, Marx found himself in good company. Aside from his Austrian fellow-opponents (among them Wilhelm Kienzl, Alois Melichar und Franz Schmidt), he also received active support from abroad. Frederick Delius, for instance, one of England's musical counterparts of Marx, called Schoenberg's progressive style an "atonal ugliness". Yet, among those opponents to the modernists, Marx was certainly - leastwise in the middle European parts - the most conspicious and active one. His sharp wit, applied not only in his function as critic and teacher against the Schoenberg circle but also as jury member in several national and international competitions, never spared any of the young atonal-polytonal composers.
Aside from his early outpouring of Lieder, Joseph Marx wrote several popular choral works (among them the orchestral works "Autumn Chorus for Pan" and "Morning Chant"), as well as some exquisite solo piano and chamber music (among them three string and three piano quartets, two violin sonatas, one piano trio, several works for cello and piano and some chamber pieces with voice). Additionally, he left behind a comprehensive orchestral oeuvre, including the Romantic Piano Concerto, completed in 1919, as well as his major work, the Autumn Symphony (1920/21) which could rather be described as a rhapsody of near gigantic proportion. Further, there is the Nature Trilogy including three stunning symphonic poems, a second piano concerto titled Castelli Romani and many more.
Within the international composers' community, Marx was held in high esteem. For instance, the prolific Russian-Canadian composer Sophie Carmen Eckhardt-Grammaté (1902-74) once said about him that his music had "defined the entire era". Also, no less a man than Nikolaj Medtner (1880-1951), one of the most influential members of Moscow's famous circle of composers in the late 19th Century which included masters such as Sergej Tanejew, Alexander Skrjabin und Sergej Rachmaninov, wrote in a letter to Marx on November 41th, 1949: "My meeting with you was an unexpected gift and also a sign showing that everything that is unexpected, fantastic and ETERNALLY romantic does still exist, despite all the efforts of the contemporary 'leaders' of art who strive to eradicate these values."
In view of such evident verification of his skills, we must ask why this widely renowned composer has been so undeservedly neglected. One of the main reasons might well be the mistaken belief that Marx had been an ultraconservative, even a backward composer - a claim that cannot be substantiated by anyone undertaking the detailed study of Marx's full oeuvre, especially when compared to the composers of his time who were more famous but similar in style. In his capacity as a high-ranking music functionary and critic, and without doubt as a traditionalist and one of the great protectors of tonality, Marx was very prominent and successful in setting the Viennese tone of the time. As such, he has never made a secret of his admiration for the founding fathers of music (Mozart, Schumann, Bach, Haydn etc.). In several of his own works - "Old Vienna Serenades" of 1941, for instance - he used variations of their well-known and lesser-known themes and incorporated motifs of Carl Michael Ziehrer, Joseph Haydn and others. One can also examine his string quartets in modo antico and in modo classico, arranged for string orchestra, where Marx paid homage to his role models in a most impressive manner. With his music, Marx certainly also meant to make available an instructive guideline for young composers, and he succeeded. The classicist works from his final creative period, just like his works stemming from his first outpouring of Lieder, have influenced an entire generation of musicians, as is confirmed by numerous letters to Marx and by other important documents. The great cellist Pablo Casals, for instance, once said that Marx was "absolutely indispensable for maintaining the musical culture of the future", and also that the "non-musique of particular famous contemporaries" was "certain to fail".
It should never be forgotten that the essential purpose of music is not to separate people but to give them pleasure. And this is what Joseph Marx unquestionably intented to do. The vast melodiousness and refined harmonies of his scores mirror the versatile, sparkling essence of this composer. A profound lyricist and yearning optimist, he wants to share his bottomless joy of life with others. Thus, as a poet of happiness, Joseph Marx who died at the age of 82 in 1964, occupies a very special place in music history and as such also deserves a corresponding presence in the world's concert programs.
© Berkant Haydin
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