Paul Cooke studies the life of Felix Werder

In 1940, 18-yr-old Felix Bischofswerder arrived in Australia along with his father, having fled Nazi Germany in the mid 1930s for London, where he studied Fine Arts and Architecture. He shortened his surname to Werder and proceeded to play a significant role in the cultural life of his adopted country for most of the next 70 years. As a composer, he was not constrained by genre, writing chamber and electronic music, symphonies, concertos, opera and more. He was also an influential teacher, critic and public intellectual.

In the 1950s, he and fellow composers Margaret Sutherland and Dorian Le Gallienne introduced and established a new music scene in Melbourne. More recently, his experimental ensemble Australia Felix (whose alumni included soprano Merlyn Quaife, saxophonist Peter Clinch and jazz musician Brian Brown)
gave concerts of new Australian music in both Australia and Europe over a period of 20 years. He taught both music and art history at the Melbourne Council of Adult Education from 1956 until the 1990s, and privately taught many generations of Australian composers.

Although not quite a teenager when his family emigrated to England, his German and Jewish musical heritage stayed with him. His father, Boaz Bischofswerder, had been a member of Arnold Schoenberg’s circle, with the composer briefly staying with the Werder family and his nephew Joseph introducing the young Werder to the practices and philosophies of modern art. From thence Werder regarded the Schoenberg family as “the main interest that moulded my future”. Bischofswerder, as cantor and liturgical composer at Berlin’s Brunenstrasse Synagogue, had published musical arrangements of synagogue music as well as his own compositions. Jewish music was a major influence on the development of Werder’s own compositions and, when he visited Berlin in the 1970s, was thrilled to discover that his father’s arrangements were still being used.

With the outbreak of World War II, the family were declared enemy aliens, but were offered the chance to emigrate to Canada to work for the war effort. Somehow, they ended up in Australia on the Dunera and were placed in internment camps, first in Hay and then in Tatura. During this time, Werder, drawing upon his memories of his Berlin childhood and the example of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique of composition, wrote his first symphony. It was to be the beginning of a compositional career that built upon European models rather than attempting to forge a uniquely Australian music. He noted that his role models were “the unconscious creativity of Gesualdo and the indeterminacy of the fragmentation of C.P.E. Bach”.

Werder had been advised that his music was unplayable, unsuitable for performance, too avant-garde. He had to wait until 1955 for the first major performance of one of his compositions, Balletomania, by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Goossens. In 1957, The Australian Jewish News announced the release of a recording of his Quartet (possibly his String Quartet no 4). It noted that it was “one of the few quartets written here that have been recorded”, and that his “reputation has grown very considerably over the years”. His seven operas were well-received, and included Private, commissioned by the ABC for television and broadcast in 1969. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1976, and won numerous awards for his music. A concert to celebrate his 90th birthday in 2012 featured three new compositions: he was never one for going “gently into the night”.