By Robert Gilchrist

The Austrian composer, Heinrich von Herzogenberg, was the son of a Viennese civil servant. Born in 1843, he turned away from the law to study composition under Felix Dessoff, a professor at the Vienna Conservatory. It was at Dessoff’s house that Heinrich first encountered Johannes Brahms. The two soon formed a lifelong friendship, with Herzogenberg devoting himself to the promotion of Brahms’ music. Although he seems to have valued Herzogenberg’s criticism of his own work, Brahms never took Herzogenberg seriously as a composer.

Heinrich von Herzogenberg / Alamy

In 1868, Herzogenberg married Elisabeth von Stockhausen, the daughter of a Hanoverian Court diplomat. She was a pianist and composer in her own right and shared a close friendship with Brahms. He seems to have valued her insights even more than those of Heinrich! It was through the family’s interactions with Brahms that the Herzogenbergs came into contact with some of the most notable figures in German music at that time, including Robert and Clara Schuman.

For nearly four years, the Herzogenbergs lived in Graz, where Heinrich worked as a freelance composer. Then, in 1874, they moved to Leipzig where, with Philipp Spitta and several others, Heinrich founded the Bach Society. He became Director of the group in 1875, a position he held for the next ten years.

Herzogenberg’s compositions show a great divergence in style and influence. His output is vast and takes in every musical genre, apart from opera. He wrote many concert works with sacred texts, three oratorios, a mass, a requiem and even two symphonies. Oddly enough, despite being a lifelong Catholic, he also wrote many short liturgical works for the Protestant liturgy.

Unsurprisingly, several of Herzogenberg’s works show the influence of Brahms. His piano works in particular, which were initially influenced by Schumann, as well as the chamber music, are clearly modelled on the music of Brahms, but they also show the hand of a master composer in his own right. The young Herzogenberg was especially impressed by the music of J.S. Bach. His interest in early music, encouraged by Spitta, shows up in Herzogenberg’s church music, especially in the composer’s later years.

While Herzogenberg has tended to be characterised as a mere epigone of Brahms, many of his compositions show little or no overt Brahmsian influence. For example, his two string trios Opus 27 nos 1 & 2, pre-date his acquaintance with Brahms, but still have features in common with those of the older composer. His early Theme and Variations, Opus 13, for two pianos is a notable work in its genre. Other important choral works showing his unique style include the cantata Todtenfeier, from 1893, written in memory of his wife and his Mass in E minor, written in memory of his mentor, Spitta.

Elisabeth’s death, in 1892, was undoubtedly a heavy blow for Heinrich, who subsequently devoted himself to his work. Later that year, he returned to his position at the Hochschule after a period of absence due to ill heath, no doubt compounded by his grief over the death of his wife. Herzogenberg continued teaching until his deteriorating health forced him to retire in 1900. He died shortly afterwards.

The Life of a Composer, featuring Heinrich von Herzogenberg, was broadcast on 2MBS Fine Music Sydney on May 18th at 8pm. Featuring many of his finest works, this program can be heard by clicking below.