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Short Stories from the Vienna Woods

Written in his eclectic and vibrant style, HK Gruber's suite from his opera Tales from the Vienna Woods is rich with allusions to popular music and jazz and reflects the humor and humanity of Ödön von Horváth’s portrait of middle-class life in early 1930s Vienna.

Quick Facts

  • Born: January 2, 1943, Vienna, Austria
  • Work completed: 2019
  • First performance: January 6, 2022, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducting (world premiere)
  • Approximate duration: 17 minutes (movements 1, 2, 4, and 7)

HK (Heinz Karl) Gruber was born in Vienna on January 2, 1943, and lives there. His opera Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald (Tales from the Vienna Woods), based on the Ödön von Horváth play of the same name and with a libretto by Michael Sturminger, was premiered at the Bregenz (Austria) Festival in 2014. The composer arranged his half-hour, seven-movement symphonic suite from the opera, Short Stories from the Vienna Woods, in 2019 on a joint commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Music Director, and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Andris Nelsons, Gewandhauskapellmeister, through the generous support of the New Works Fund established by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency. Four movements of the suite—nos. 1, 2, 4, and 7—were to have been premiered in Leipzig by the GHO and Nelsons in March 2020, followed by their American premiere in April; those events were postponed by the onset of the pandemic. The present performances of movements 1, 2, 4, and 7 are the world premiere of music from the suite.

The score of Short Stories from the Vienna Woods calls for 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet), alto saxophone, tenor saxophone (doubling soprano saxophone), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon (doubling bassoon 3), 4 horns, 3 trumpets (1st doubling flugelhorn), 3 trombones (1st doubling tenor horn), tuba, timpani (doubling large whip), percussion (3 players: vibraphone, xylorimba, marimba, tubular bells, glockenspiel, crotales, cymbals, side drum, large bass drum, large Chinese tam-tam, large suspended cymbal, bass drum with attached cymbals, large splash cymbal, large Chinese cymbal, drum kit, bell plates, tenor drum), harp, piano (doubling honky-tonk piano), and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The duration of this four-movement selection is about 17 minutes.

Every moment of HK Gruber’s large and varied output of music is theater, whether or not conceived as a formally staged, narrative work. His concert works, no less than his stage works, contain elements of drama and performance that go well beyond traditional constraints. His joy in using familiar musical styles from the jazz and popular realms enables immediate points of connection for the listener, but the freshness of context for these reference points and the composer’s sonic imagination take his work far beyond pastiche. Gruber has spent a lifetime immersed in the musically saturated city of Vienna, the city of Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms and Schoenberg. As a child, he was a member of the famous Vienna Boys Choir for several years before a mentor suggested, given the size of his hands, that he should also take up the double bass. He studied bass at the Vienna Hochschule für Musik along with composition and theory. His principal composition teachers included Alfred Uhl, the Schoenberg pupil Erwin Ratz, and Gottfried von Einem, and he was strongly drawn to Igor Stravinsky’s music.

Gruber’s professional career as a bassist had begun with the Viennese composer/conductor Frederic Cerha’s new music ensemble die reihe, and he was principal double bass of Vienna’s Tonkünstler Orchester before starting his long tenure in the bass section of the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Forty years as a professional double bassist gave him the financial security to compose without the added complications of seeking and fulfilling commissions beyond those projects that really appealed to him. In 2009 he was made an honorary member of the Wiener Konzerthaus, a distinction he shares with such great predecessors as Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, and Leonard Bernstein.

Like many composers in the 1960s trying to find new avenues outside of the academy and traditional concert hall, in 1967 Gruber, Kurt Schwertsik, and others founded the MOB art & tone ART Group for performing their own work and that of the iconoclastic Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel. Much of its repertoire had strongly irreverent, theatrical leanings under the influence of older German melodrama (via such works as Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire) as well as the performance art of the 1960s-era Fluxus movement and John Cage’s “happenings.” Gruber’s compositional style was indelibly marked by the music of Hanns Eisler and the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht collaborations, especially Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera).

Gruber has said that playing in an orchestra was the best education a composer could ask for: he was free to consult any of his accomplished colleagues about the nuances of their instruments and could hear from within the ensemble the orchestral strategies employed by composers ranging from Haydn to Stravinsky. In recent years Gruber has himself become a sought-after orchestral conductor, leading many of Europe’s important ensembles; in 2009 he was appointed composer/conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. He is a frequent guest of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, and for the 2019-2020 season was the orchestra’s Gewandhauskomponist (the GHO’s resident guest composer).

By the late 1960s Gruber had achieved recognition as both a composer and as a cabaret-style actor and singer, parallel pursuits that led such works as his Frankenstein-Suite (1970) and his “musical spectacle” Gomorra (first version 1976). He rewrote the former in 1978 as the orchestral “Pan-Dämonium” Frankenstein!!, which was premiered by Simon Rattle (just 23 at the time) and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic with the composer himself as “chansonnier.” Suddenly he found himself with an international hit on his hands. Frankenstein!! has been performed hundreds of times all over the world in both orchestral and chamber versions and has also been staged. Most performances, including one by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra led by Gunther Schuller in August 1980, have featured the composer as soloist. In addition to Tales from the Vienna Woods, further dramatic works include the opera Der Herr Nordwind (Lord Northwind, 2005), composed for the Zurich Opera house, and the music theater works Expulsion from Paradise and Gloria, a Pig Tale. His music’s exuberance and theatricality have made him popular for instrumental soloists as well; not surprisingly, concertos dominate his orchestral catalog. These include his trumpet concerto Aerial, written for Håkan Hardenberger; his Cello Concerto, premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and Boston Musica Viva at Tanglewood; his Piano Concerto, composed for Emanuel Ax and the New York Philharmonic, and two percussion concertos, into the open… for Colin Currie, and Rough Music, for Gerald Fromme.

Tales of the Vienna Woods, Opus 325, is one of the most famous waltzes by the Waltz King, Johann Strauss II, one of those pieces that even today, more than 150 years after it was written, epitomizes an optimistic, opulent, comfortable Vienna, the Vienna of social climbing and prosperity. By 1931, in the interwar period in which the Croatia-born Hungarian-Austrian novelist and playwright Ödön von Horváth (1901-1938) wrote his celebrated Tales from the Vienna Woods, he could readily invoke Strauss’s waltz to represent a longed-for past in the face of the dark present and uncertain future the Viennese middle class faced as fascism, economic despair, and intolerance swept through Europe. Although little known in the U.S., Horváth was one of the most important German-language playwrights of interwar Europe, on a par with Bertolt Brecht. (There are at least half a dozen filmed versions of Tales from the Vienna Woods.)

It was the Vienna-born writer and director Michael Sturminger who in 2005 suggested Horváth’s play to HK Gruber as the basis of an opera. The play’s use of sharply drawn, almost caricatured roles, its ambivalent mix of bourgeois and working-class cultural perspectives, and its thematically pertinent references to Strauss’s waltzes and other music had already prepared the ground; as Gruber has said, “For me it is still Horváth who is the composer of the opera because his words are already music for me” (from an interview with Steph Power for Wales Arts Review). The opera was ultimately commissioned by the Bregenz Festival in 2011; Sturminger served as librettist and director, and the work was premiered at Bregenz in July 2014. It has since been staged in Berlin and Vienna.

The opera’s delightfully named suite Short Stories from the Vienna Woods, completed in 2019, was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig as part of the Andris Nelsons-led BSO/GHO Alliance, a partnership that includes musician exchanges, joint concerts and tours, and co-commissions. Although the original commission called for a piece of some fifteen minutes’ length, Gruber overdelivered, creating a half-hour, seven-movement suite from which conductors can choose all or some of the movements. The score stipulates only that a performance must begin with the first, “Introduction and Song from the Wachau,” and end with the last, “Polka infernale.”

The suite’s “Introduction and Song from the Wachau” is taken nearly verbatim from the opera’s opening, in which after an upbeat orchestral prologue the soprano in the central role of Marianne sings the “Song of the Wachau,” the lyrics of which are taken from Horváth’s play. In the suite the soprano melody is played at first by solo trumpet. The movement’s increasingly active second part is from Act II. “Splintered Waltzes” brings together waltz fragments from later in Act I, depicting a picnic in the Vienna Woods to celebrate Marianne’s engagement to the butcher Oskar. In the event, other couplings become more prominent. Story 4, “In a flash,” has music from the end of Act I and the city-evoking opening of Act II, including a moment in which an unseen schoolgirl practices a Strauss waltz, poorly, on an upright piano. A similar musical image triggers the finale, “Polka infernale,” corresponding to a busy “reconciliation” quartet that unsatisfactorily, and misleadingly, suggests stability among the characters’ relationships. The infernal polka’s presto tempo is unrelenting despite abrupt silences and sharp fortissimo chords. The movement’s dense final bars also conclude the opera. While these episodes are directly connected to the opera’s story line, their fundamentally musical character—in particular their elements of dance and song—translate well to the concert stage, free of their original contexts.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the BSO’s Director of Program Publications.