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Julius Bittner.  Photograph, c.1916.  The Brendan G Carroll Collection.

Julius Bittner. Photograph, c.1916. The Brendan G Carroll Collection.

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BITTNER, Julius : DAS HÖLLISCH GOLD (Ein deutsches Singspiel in einem Aufzug) (1916)

 

The Austrian composer Julius Bittner (1874-1939) is possibly the most forgotten of all the late romantic composers that flourished in Mahler's Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.  Even today his music is hardly ever performed and, apart from a few songs, there are no modern commercial recordings available of any of his works.  Yet in the years between the wars he was a highly regarded and frequently performed composer in his native Austria and throughout Germany, with many of the leading conductors and musicians of that era interpreting his colourful operas, orchestral works and lieder.

This month marks the centenary of the world premiere of his most successful work, the opera Das höllisch Gold (The Hellish Gold) which took place on 15 October 1916 at Darmstadt.

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Vocal score. Vienna, 1916.

Julius Bittner was born in Vienna on 9 April 1874, the same year as Franz Schmidt and Arnold Schoenberg.  His father was a distinguished judge and initially Bittner followed his father into the legal profession, eventually serving as a senior member of the judiciary throughout Lower Austria until 1920 and subsequently becoming an important member of the Department of Justice, until ill health forced him to retire.

However, it was music that he considered his true calling.  Largely self taught (apart from a few lessons with the celebrated blind composer, Josef Labor),  he had mastered harmony and orchestration by the time he was 20 and as well as being proficient on both violin and organ, he was an excellent pianist.  Like many of his contemporaries he had fallen under the spell of Richard Wagner, following a performance of Parsifal he attended at the age of 13.

By his mid-twenties he had begun to compose and there are a number of unpublished works, including at least three operas, listed by his first biographer Richard Specht, dating well before 1891.

By 1900 he felt confident enough to show some of these works to his friend Bruno Walter, by then beginning his celebrated career as a conductor at the Vienna Hofoperntheater.  It was through Walter that Bittner met Gustav Mahler and this was to prove decisive for his career.

Mahler was impressed by Bittner's first mature opera Der Rote Gred and apparently made many helpful suggestions.  After its successful world premiere in Frankfurt in 1907 it was performed in Vienna the following year at the invitation of Mahler's successor at the Vienna Opera, Felix Weingartner (with Bruno Walter conducting) and was a considerable success.

Bittner, like his contemporary Franz Schreker, preferred to write his own libretti and these were often based on either Austrian-alpine themes or on his own fanciful fairy tales.  Das höllisch Gold falls into the latter category.

Bittner's next opera Der Musikant  received its world premiere in Vienna in 1910 (also conducted by Walter) and was an even bigger success, quickly followed  by Der Bergsee the following year.  It was around this time that Bittner turned his attention seriously to composing art songs, many written for his wife Emilie Werner, a noted mezzo soprano of the time, whom he married in 1908.  He published over fifty lieder, and again most were settings of his own poetic texts.

Bruno Walter, who became his chief advocate, left a touching memoir of Bittner in his autobiography Theme and Variations,  published in 1947, in which he wrote :-

  1. "His personality could not fail to move one deeply. He was a typical Viennese, a tall, ponderous blond man with a reddish face, loud voice and roaring laugh. His profound religious faith helped him to overcome a painful illness and  the eventual amputation of both legs. He remained cheerful and patient to the end...."

The opera Das höllisch Gold was begun in 1914.  Constructed in a single continuous act of about 80 minutes, it was Bittner's most successful work.  It received its first Vienna performance at the Volksoper on 17 April 1917 with Emilie Bittner as the Frau and remained popular in Vienna well into the 1930s.  A complete broadcast of a studio production was made in Berlin in 1932 conducted by the great Erich Kleiber, from which a rare surviving fragment can be played at the bottom of this page.

Flyer for the performance at the Vienna Volksoper, 26 April 1917.  The first night of this production which featured Bittner's wife Die Frau was on 17 April.

The rather far-fetched story of the opera is as follows :-

The curtain rises upon a country crossroads, sometime during the Middle Ages, with a roadside shrine depicting a miraculous image, while to the right and left are two small cottages. To the left lives a young couple while to the right lives an evil old woman. The young couple are in serious debt to a Jewish money lender, and are about to lose their house when there suddenly appears a young man, Ephraim, apparently the son of this supposedly evil money lender, who turns out to be their saviour, offering them help. The reason is that, in contrast to most other local people who have been violently anti-Semitic and even thrown stones at him, the young woman has always been polite and friendly whenever she met him. He now wants to thank her and give her his gold (the 'hellish' gold of the title).

At this point in the story, a Devil suddenly appears, who has been sent to Earth to recruit souls. He immediately finds a willing ally in the evil old woman!  Encouraged by the Devil, she makes mischief between the young couple. She has overheard the conversation between the young woman and Ephraim, and tells the jealous young husband. He wrongly believes that his wife is cheating on him, having been seduced by the 'hellish' gold and the promise of becoming rich and pulls out his knife... but suddenly "as a vast darkness falls with a thunderclap, a bright light comes from above and the arid bush behind the miraculous holy picture in the roadside shrine begins to glow. A beautiful young man stands there with a halo covered with flowers and bids the husband to lay down his knife and kneel in prayer." There follows a happy ending for the young couple, and, having failed in her mission, the evil old woman is taken down to Hell by the Devil.
 

The opera has an atmosphere of intense fantasy and is lavishly orchestrated throughout, with colourful and demanding vocal writing for the principals. None of the characters have names, apart from Ephraim.  The famous singers who interpreted the opera include Rosette Anday, Margarete Klose, Charles Kullmann and Josef Manowarda and it received a lavish production at the Vienna Staatsoper in December 1925.

Bittner became increasingly prolific from 1916 onwards and among his works are a further eight operas, a substantial sonata for cello and piano, two string quartets, the symphonic poem Vaterland, numerous choral works, two symphonies, a set of Austrian dances for two pianos with orchestra, as well as six operettas, three ballets and incidental scores for plays by Shakespeare, Schiller, Nestroy and others.

He remained influential in Viennese public life and knew practically everybody worth knowing, so much so that he was able to arrange for Schoenberg's fortunate release from active military service during WW1.

For a time he was Editor of the influential music journal Der Merker and was the recipient of the first Mahler Prize, awarded after the composer's death.  Bittner had even assessed Mahler's estate for probate at his widow Alma's request.

Among his closest friends was Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and when Bittner was unable to play the piano for the first performance of his song cycle Sechzehn Lieder von Liebe, Treue und Ehe  because both of his legs had, by then, been amputated due to his diabetic condition, Korngold replaced him, the only time he ever performed a premiere of contemporary music other than his own.

In 1929, when Korngold was creating his operetta Walzer aus Wien (based on the lives of the Strauss family) he included Bittner's name on the score, even though he had virtually no involvement in the project.  This was in order to give Bittner (who was by then struggling financially) a regular income, and it was to prove providential.  Walzer aus Wien (later known as The Great Waltz) was the most successful Strauss-based operetta of all time and ensured Bittner was able to live comfortably in his last years.

In 1926, Bittner, a devout Roman Catholic, composed what he considered to be his magnum opus, the Grand Mass and Te Deum for large orchestra, organ, choir and mixed soloists.  Like his friend Franz Schmidt's oratorio Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln, it became a cornerstone of the Austrian choral repertory before WW2, although, like all of Bittner's music it is completely forgotten today.

Though seriously ill, Bittner still managed to enjoy one final operatic premiere in 1934, when his last completed opera Das Veilchen  was given successfully in a lavish production (designed by Alfred Roller, Mahler's great collaborator at the Vienna State Opera) under the baton of Clemens Krauss.  The all-star cast included Luise Helletsgruber, Charles Kullmann, Karl Hammes, Richard Mayr and Adele Kern.  It marked a fitting and triumphant end to his career.

Bittner died on January 9th 1939 and is buried in a grave of honour in Vienna's Zentralfriedhof Cemetery. His wife survived him until 1963.

 

Brendan G Carroll © 2016