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Theodor Berger

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Biography

Viennese composer Theodor Berger was at one time in an auspicious and enviable position within the pantheon of modern European composers. A student of Franz Schmidt, his early style was reportedly post-romantic, utilizing a highly expanded level of chromaticism. Berger's music found an advocate in legendary German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler and his Rondino giocoso (1941) was given in Berlin's Philharmonie Hall not long before bombing brought the building down. In the postwar period, Berger came to considerable prominence as Furtwängler continued to premiere his works, and other high profile conductors such as Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan, rallied to Berger's side, the latter presenting Berger's Homeric Symphony in 1948 and his Symphonia parabolica (1957) at the Salzburg Festival. In the postwar years, Berger modified his post-romantic idiom, keeping its harmonic and orchestral sound world intact, but divesting it of a distinct key and using onomatopoeic ideas -- such as skiing, diving, racing -- as a kind of structural organizing principle. Right around 1965, Berger dropped out of the running among Europe's contemporary composers; although his music continued to be published, performances of it and recordings dwindled and Berger's name was no longer mentioned in the dialogue about contemporary music. Just what may have happened is unclear: perhaps his music simply never caught on -- and given the high profile names that supported it for so long, that would be a little surprising if it were the only reason -- or that it was clear that his particular brand of formalized music was not going to make it, or perhaps even some complicity in National Socialism on his part was uncovered that would tend to dog him, much as happened to his contemporary Henk Badings in the Netherlands. Berger did continue to compose and had many years ahead of him, but his death in 1992 went practically without mention or notice. Theodor Berger is unquestionably a forgotten figure in modern music, and it appears that not very many aware of his music would argue that he is unjustly so.
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