Wilhelm Kienzl (1857-1941)

  • Profession: Composer, pianist, conductor
  • Relation to Mahler: see 1899 Concert Vienna 19-02-1899 and Restaurant Meissl und Schaden
  • Correspondence with Mahler: Yes
    • 08-10-1897 Letter to Gustav Mahler
    • 11-10-1897 letter from gm
    • 15-10-1897 Letter to Gustav Mahler
    • 18-10-1897 letter from gm
  • Born: 17-01-1857 Waizenkirchen, Austria
  • Died: 19-10-1941 Vienna, Austria. Aged 84. (03-10-1941?)
  • Buried: 00-00-0000 Central cemetery, Vienna, Austria. Grave 32C-20.

Kienzl was born in the small, picturesque Upper Austrian town of Waizenkirchen. His family moved to the Styrian capital of Graz in 1860, where he studied the violin under Ignaz Uhl, piano under Johann Buwa, and composition from 1872 under the Chopin scholar Louis Stanislaus Mortier de Fontaine. From 1874, he studied composition under Wilhelm Mayer (also known as W.A. Rémy), music aesthetics under Eduard Hanslick and music history under Friedrich von Hausegger. He was subsequently sent to the music conservatorium at Prague University to study under Josef Krejci, the director of the conservatorium. After that he went to Leipzig Conservatory in 1877, then to Weimar to study under Liszt, before completing doctoral studies at the University of Vienna.

While Kienzl was at Prague, Krejci took him to Bayreuth to hear the first performance of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It made a lasting impression on Kienzl, so much so that he founded the “Graz Richard Wagner Association” (now the “Austrian Richard Wagner Company, Graz Office”) with Hausegger and with Friedrich Hofmann. Although he subsequently fell out with “The Wagnerites”, he never lost his love for Wagner’s music.

In 1879 Kienzl departed on a tour of Europe as a pianist and conductor. He became the Director of the Deutsche Oper in Amsterdam during 1883, but he soon returned to Graz, where in 1886, he took over the leadership of the Steiermärkischen Musikvereins und Aufgaben am Konservatorium. He was engaged by the manager Bernhard Pollini as Kapellmeister at the Hamburg Stadttheater for the 1890-1891 season, but was dismissed in mid-January 1891 because of the hostile reviews he received (his successor was Gustav Mahler). Later he conducted in Munich.

In 1894, he wrote his third and most famous opera, Der Evangelimann, but was unable to match its success with Don Quixote (1897). Only Der Kuhreigen (1911) reached a similar level of popularity, and that very briefly. In 1917, Kienzl moved to Vienna, where his first wife, the Wagnerian soprano Lili Hoke, died in 1919, and he married Henny Bauer, the librettist of his three most recent operas, in 1921.

Wilhelm Kienzl (1857-1941), signature.

After World War I, he composed the melody to a poem written by Karl Renner, Deutschösterreich, du herrliches Land (German Austria, you wonderful country), which became the unofficial national anthem of the first Austrian Republic until 1929. Aware of changes in the dynamics of modern music, he ceased to write large works after 1926, and abandoned composition altogether in 1936 due to bad health. As of 1933, Kienzl openly supported Hitler’s regime.

Kienzl’s first love was opera, then vocal music, and it was in these two genres that he made his name. For a while he was considered, along with Hugo Wolf, one of the finest composers of Lieder (art songs) since Schubert. His most famous work, Der Evangelimann, best known for its aria Selig sind, die Verfolgung leiden (Blessed are the persecuted), continues to be revived occasionally. It is a folk opera which has been compared to Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and contains elements of verismo. After Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) and Siegfried Wagner (1869-1930), the composers of fairy-tale operas, Kienzl is the most important opera composer of the romantic post-Wagner era. However, Kienzl’s strengths actually lie in the depiction of everyday scenes. In his last years, his ample corpus of songs achieved prominence, though it has largely been neglected since then.

Despite the fact that opera came first in his life, Kienzl by no means ignored instrumental music. He wrote three string quartets and a piano trio.

Kienzl was an outspoken Nazi supporter. He praised Hitler before Austria’s Anschluss in 1938 as an “imposing” and “impressive” character who is “entitled to command the peoples of the world”.

Kienzl died in Vienna and is buried in a grave of honor at the Vienna Central Cemetery. His death during the Nazi period explains his grave of honour, yet the honour has not been mediated since, in more than 70 years of democracy in Austria. Far from it, in 2007 the Republic of Austria issued a commemorative stamp in Kienzl’s honour on the occasion of the 150th birtday.


Initially influenced by Wagner, he was one of the first musicians outside of Italy to make use of the “verismo” stage tradition, with its greater naturalism. This is evident in his magnum opus, the opera “Der Evangelimann” (“The Evangelist”, 1895). He was also an important creator of Lieder (German art songs). One of them, “Deutschösterreich, du herrliches Land” (“German Austria, You Wonderful Country”), served as Austria’s unofficial national anthem from 1920 to 1929.

Kienzl was born in Waizenkirchen, Austria. He had an extensive musical education, studying in Prague, Leipzig, in Weimar under Franz Liszt, and in Vienna before embarking on a rather bumpy career as a conductor and pianist. In 1891 he was dismissed as director of the Hamburg Opera halfway through his debut season because of poor reviews; Gustav Mahler replaced him. The success of “The Evangelist” prompted him to write full-time, but of his nine other operas only “Der Kuhreigen” (“The Melodies”, 1911) won comparable favor.

His one substantial orchestral work, the “Symphonic Variations” (1912), was based on an aria from “Der Kuhreigen”. The rest of his output includes three string quartets, a piano trio, a good deal of secular choral music, and about 150 songs. After World War I Kienzl gradually withdrew from composing because he was out of sympathy with new musical trends

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