10 May 2012
Felix Werder (1922-2012) - obituary
Champion of the new tweaked conservative noses
Felix Werder, who established himself as a major voice in
Australian musical life in the 1950s after fleeing Nazi Germany
as a boy, has died at St George's Hospital, Kew, on 3 May 2012,
Werder's works covered a wide variety of musical media, including chamber music, orchestral and music theatre. He wrote seven operas, most of which featured historical or political themes, commissioned by organisations such as Deutsche Oper (1967), the ABC (1969), the Australian Opera (1969), the National Theatre (1975), the Victorian State Opera (1976) and the Berlin Festival (1987).
His broad span of published work, starting with the opera Kisses for a Quid in 1961, included four long-playing records and two CDs between 1973 and 2007. Werder also lectured at the Melbourne Centre for Adult Education from 1956 until the mid-1990s, and was the respected music critic for The Age from 1960 to 1977.
He was an ardent champion of the new, and frequently delighted in tweaking the noses of his conservative, middle-class audience. Never one to suffer fools gladly, he brought a sense of forthright aesthetic debate into Australia. To his aesthetic opponents he could be a formidable adversary, but to those he worked with, both musically and educationally, he was unfailingly polite.
From the mid-1970s until the early 1990s, he worked in radio, first with a series made with Keith Humble for the ABC, and later at community radio 3MBS.
For many years Werder taught composition and music philosophy privately, and the list of his students reads as a who's who in Melbourne musical life.
Werder was born into a musical family in Berlin. His father, Boaz Bischofswerder, was a composer and part of Schoenberg's musical circle. From the age of eight, the young Werder had acted as copyist for his father's liturgical compositions - but his parents, Boaz and stepmother Helen, disturbed by events in Germany, fled with him to Britain in 1935.
Young Bischofswerder studied fine arts and architecture in London
before arriving in Australia in 1940 on the HMT Dunera, along
with his father. They were interned as 'enemy aliens' at a camp
in Tatura in Victoria's Goulburn Valley during World War II, and
it was during this time that he produced a number of his early
compositions. Many of Werder's fellow prisoners were musicians,
and a lack of printed music led him to write fragments of the
scores of Mozart and Handel from memory, later progressing to his
In 1943, while still a prisoner in the camp, he wrote his expressionist first symphony, drawing on his knowledge of the new music he had heard in Berlin as a child.
After the war, he anglicised his surname by shortening it to Werder, and worked briefly in Sydney as, among other things, a jazz bassist. In the late 1940s he moved to Melbourne. There, in the early 1950s, together with fellow composers such as Margaret Sutherland and Dorian Le Gallienne, he produced a series of groundbreaking concerts that established musical modernism as a force in the city.
Werder brought a sense of European modernist tradition and an insistence on musical and philosophical literacy. His talk on music was filled with references to the visual arts and literature. A painter himself, a number of friends received canvases as gifts from him. And several of his musical compositions, such as his 1974 electronic masterwork The Tempest (after the painting by Giorgione) were based on visual art models.
His 3rd Symphony and Tower Concerto, among others, were recorded by the ABC and issued on ABC Records. In 1969, his opera for television, Private, was commissioned and broadcast by the ABC, one of the earliest cases of an opera being composed for the medium of television.
In the early 1970s, he worked with electronic music, and a collection of his pieces from this era has been published by Pogus Records, a New York label, as part of their classics of early electronic music series. At that time he also began working with his group, Australia Felix, which experimented with graphic notation, free improvisation and other contemporary techniques, and made several successful tours of Europe from the 1970s through the early 1990s.
Werder's later works featured a very refined, high modernist sensibility, with expressionist textures, chance techniques, performer choice, and an emphasis on the use of the non-sequitur as an essential element in contemporary musical structure.
His long and productive contribution to music life was recognised with a concert organised by the ABC for his 90th birthday in February at Iwaki Hall at Melbourne's Southbank, featuring recent works for piano, and his final composition, The H-Factor, his 19th for string quartet.
A challenging writer, he wrote several books on music, including More than Music (1992), which featured such remarks as 'to understand a piece of music, we must first ask: who paid for it?' and 'a thing of beauty is a bore forever', and 'music is not a soporific for calming the neuroses of a decadent bourgeois society'.
His numerous accolades include being made a member of the Order of Australia for services to music (1976), the Australia Council's Don Banks Award in 1986, the German Stamitz prize in 1988, the Sir Zelman Cowan Medal in 1991, the APRA Classical Music Award for long-term contribution to the advancement of Australian music in 2004, and an honorary doctorate from Melbourne University in 2002.
In August 1976, Werder married Vera Philipp (nee Rees), whose family had also fled Berlin in the 1930s, and whose first husband, Werner, had been on the Dunera with him.
Werder is survived by his wife, Vera, and their extended family.
'Champion of the new tweaked conservative
noses' - obituary on The Age, 9 May 2012.
Listen to Felix Werder's Requiem in its entirety (ABC Classic FM - classic/amp)
2-part oral history interview with Felix Werder - interviewed by Ruth Lee Martin in 2001 (National Library of Australia, Oral History collection)
© Australian Music Centre (2012) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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