Second Austrian period (1933-1952)

Leaving Berlin in 1933 – fear for the Nazis

In 1933 Bortkiewicz was forced to leave Germany again. Being a Russian he was now facing persecution from the Nazi’s and saw his name being deleted from music programmes. Sergei and Elisabeth Bortkiewicz returned to Vienna on 19 December 1933. Together with their black Dachshund Sepperl they established residence at the Wiedener Hauptstrasse (nr 40 app 30), the same building where they lived before they moved to Berlin in 1928. In Vienna they regularly changed appartments between 1933-1937 as the moved yearly to Baden, near Vienna, for their summer break. After the summer they returned to Vienna again and rented a new appartment on various locations, e.g. Wiederner Haupstrasse [nr 40 app 30] and Starkenburggasse [nr 7 app 11 and nr 39 app 20] before they moved on 4 October 1935 to the Blechturmgasse (nr. 1 app 5). There they lived in sublease at Frau Maria Cernas, who looked after them with touching, untiring friendliness. The couple lived here the rest of their lives.

Financial difficulties

During the years 1930-1935 Bortkiewicz suffered serious financial difficulties and asked his Dutch friend, pianist Hugo van Dalen, many times to support him financially, which the pianist always did. To earn more money Bortkiewicz decided to translate the letters between Pjotr Tchaikovsky and Nadesdja von Meck from Russian into German. These letters were published as Die seltsame Liebe Peter Tschaikowsky’s und der Nadjeschda von Meck (Köhler & Amelang, Leipzig 1938). The book was a huge success. Hugo Van Dalen adapted Bortkiewicz’s book for a Dutch readership and published it as Rondom Tschaikowsky’s vierde symphonie (De Residentiebode 1938).


Sergei Bortkiewicz – Die seltsame Liebe Peter Tschaikowsky’s und der Nadjeschda von Meck (1938)

60th Birthday – First performance of Akrobaten

On the occasion of Bortkiewicz’s 60th birthday in 1937, the first performance of the highlights of his opera Akrobaten was given on Vienna Radio on 3 February 1937 by the Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Bortkiewicz himself. Soloists were Maria Winkler-Fialko (soprano), Gerda Redlich (alto), Albert Feller (tenor) and Otto Staeren (bass).

Visit to The Netherlands – meeting with Mengelberg and Flipse

On 22 February 1938 Bortkiewicz visited Hugo van Dalen in The Hague in connection with a piano recital he was asked to give on Dutch AVRO-radio in Amsterdam on 1 March 1938. On his birthday, 28 February 1938, Bortkiewicz met Dutch pianist Hélène Mulholland in The Hague, with whom he had regular correspondence between 1946-1951. Mulholland regularly sent food to Bortkiewicz during that period. In gratitude Bortkiewicz dedicated his 6 preludes opus 66 (1946) to her. Prior to the piano recital on AVRO-radio on 1 March 1938 Bortkiewicz met conductor Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) in Amsterdam to discuss a performance of his Symphony no. 1 opus 52 by the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1939. After the piano recital he was invited by Dutch conductor Eduard Flipse (1896-1973) for a dinner at his mothers’ home.

Travelling to Yugoslavia in 1939 for half a year

In July 1939 Sergei and Elisabeth Bortkiewicz left Vienna for a half year stay in (former) Yugoslavia. First they went to Rogaska Slatina where Sergei Bortkiewicz had to undergo treatment for his stomach ailment. Subsequently they visited various cities and relatives of his wife, who were living in Belgrade. They stayed in Belgrade from August 9, 1939 until December 27, 1939 and lived at the house of Count Grigori Grabe. In the autumn of 1939 Bortkiewicz played his first piano concerto, conducted his first Symphony and gave a piano recital on radio Zagreb and radio Belgrade. Although Sergei and Elisabeth Bortkiewicz seriously considered to stay permanently in Yugoslavia, they finally decided to return to Vienna again in December 1939. During his stay in Yugoslavia, Bortkiewicz wrote his Yugoslavia Suite opus 59, 6 pieces for piano, which he later arranged for orchestra. The piano score was never published during or after Bortkiewicz’s life, although Bortkiewicz received printed proofs in 1941.

Second World War – piano sonata no. 2

World War II was also a terrible time for Sergei and Elisabeth Bortkiewicz. There were little possibilities for Bortkiewicz to give concerts and most of Bortkiewicz’s printed compositions, which were held by his German publishers, were destroyed in the bombing of Leipzig on 4 December 1943, meaning he lost the income from the sale of his music. Despite the hardship of the war Bortkiewicz composed a series of highly personal compositions, such as his Piano sonate no. 2 opus 60, the Fantasiestückeopus 61 and Drie Mazurkas opus 64.


The Piano Sonata No 2, Op 60 (1942, dedicated to Hans Ankwicz-Kleehoven), was premiered by Bortkiewicz in the Brahms-Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna on 29 November 1942, during a Bortkiewicz Sonatenabend, in which Jaro Schmied (violin) and Paul Grümmer (cello) also participated. During the composer’s lifetime the piano sonata was played only by Hugo van Dalen, for the first time on 8 February 1944 in Amsterdam, and Felicitas Karrer in Vienna. It was a great success with both audience and critics. Max Rote wrote on 2 December 1942 in Das kleine Volksblatt:

“Der Komponist Serge Bortkiewicz, der seit etlichen Jahren in Wien ansässig ist, verbündete sich mit dem Äusgeseichneten Violincellovirtuosen Paul Grümmer und dem erfolgreichen Geiger Jaro Schmied, um in einem Konzert im Brahms-Saal Sonaten eigener Komposition für Violine, beziehungsweise Cello mit Klavierbegleitung und für Klavier allein zum Vortrag zu bringen. Bortkiewicz, von dem schon öfter Werke zu hören waren und Erfolg had entrugen, zeigte sich auch hier wieder als ein sicherer Beherrscher von Form und Satz. Seine blühenden Tonphantasien sind in der romantischen Welt beheimatet. Jedes Stück ist von einer erlesenen Kultur und von vornehmem Geschmack. Da die Ausführung durch das ausgezeichnete Künstlerdreiblatt keinerlei Wünsche offen liest, wurde es ein schöner Erfolg. Der reiche Beifall wurde durch Zugaben des Komponisten bedankt.”

The score, however, was never published during or after Bortkiewicz’s lifetime. In the piano sonata Bortkiewicz seems to summarize his life in musical language: love for his homeland Russia, adversity, hope and perseverance. The themes are varied and Bortkiewicz writing is grandiloquent with rich textures and strong personality. The Sonata’s first movement opens with an impassioned theme that sets the stage for a melancholy second theme, marked molto espressivo. The second movement is a capricious march. A Polonaise-like central section provides contrast after which the opening march returns. The focal point of the Sonata is the third movement, Andante misericordioso (‘merciful’), which initially offers a grim series of solemn chords, as if resigned to inevitable doom, after which blossoms a beautiful nocturnal melody so characteristic for Bortkiewicz. A series of soft chords marked religioso, reminiscent of a Russian Orthodox Church hymn, briefly interrupts this nocturne. To close the movement, Bortkiewicz repeats the solemn chords of the opening. The Sonata’s finale is a short Agitato, briefly offset by a dance-like interlude. The sudden major-key modulation recalls the impassioned theme of the first movement, and is like a triumphant burst of willpower in the face of life’s difficulties.

Chihiro Ishioka plays Bortkiewicz’s Piano Sonata no. 2 opus 60


Bortkiewicz piano music composed during the Second World War was intended to be published by Musikverlag Benjamin/Rahter/Simrock in Leipzig. However, this never materialized, despite the fact that Bortkiewicz received printed proofs in 1948. What was the case? On 10 November 1938 Musikverlag Benjamin/Rahter/Simrock was expropriated by the Nazis, the owners being forced to sell their company to Hans C Sikorski. After World War II Leipzig belonged to the Soviet Occupation Zone, and from 1949 to East Germany, and publishers required authorization to issue music scores. The publishing house of Sikorski-Benjamin/Rahter/Simrock never received such authorization, and was placed in receivership in 1951, which lasted until 1956 (only in 1992 the company was officially dissolved). In 1963 its archive was transferred to the Saxon State Archive. As a result, Bortkiewicz’s Opp 58, 60, 61 and 64 (Drie Mazurkas) remained unpublished after the composer’s death. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the archive of Benjamin/Rahter/Simrock was formally returned to its heirs, and after the restitution was completely resolved in 2012 it was donated to the Saxon State Archive; the following year the treasures in the Sikorski-Benjamin/Rahter/Simrock archive began to be unlocked, and the 1948-printed proofs of Bortkiewicz’s Opp 58, 60, 61 and 64 were discovered in December 2013. In 2018 Boosey & Hawkes, legal successor of Benjamin/Rahter/Simrock, published the Fantasiestücke opus 61.

Bortkiewicz groepsfoto - 2

Sergei en Elisabeth Bortkiewicz (centre) during a holiday around 1940

Escape from death …
At the end of WWII Bortkiewicz narrowly escaped death three times, as he recalls in a letter of June 3, 1946 to Hugo van Dalen:

“In order to tell you what we experienced and what we have suffered, I must write a book. Not one – three wonders have saved our lives. On February 8, 1945 an American bomb ripped out an 80 kilo granite stone from a wall. It made a huge hole in my dining room, a second hole in the music room, tore into the wall of the bedroom and fell on the grand piano! And nothing happened to it! It didn’t even go out of tune. The stone is still lying in our house. We blocked the holes very crudely and lived on like this. Even today there are no repairs, and no one knows when there will be. You can imagine how we froze in winter. We lived till the middle of January only in the bathroom, and it is a miracle that we didn’t die because of the cold. After February 8, 1945 we went daily on foot with thousands of people to the city center. We hoped that the city center would not be bombed. At the house of my dear friend Dr. Rochlitzer, near the Opera, we waited for the air raid siren to fled into a bomb shelter. Fortunately, one day I fell ill and could not leave my house. On March 12, 1945 I phoned my friend; 10 minutes later a bomb destroyed his house completely. His charred corpse was found inside. When the Russians came we were already living for 5 days and nights in our cellar. The damned Nazis were fighting in our court yard. I heard Russian military orders, picked up courage, sprang amongst the bullets up the stairs out of the cellar, and in Russian, called the soldiers to me. This way I perhaps saved my life and the lives of 27 people. Otherwise the bombs and grenades that the Russians wanted to throw, would have suffocated us. Then our large house burnt the whole day and we had to extinguish the fire with buckets of water! Only a fifth of the house remained, where we now live. Then the months’ long fight to survive: no water, no light etc. – a hell, an animal existence. And all this we have stuck out. Both of us have become so thin that you will not recognize us at first glance. How many times we have regretted that a bomb did not kill us in a second. And how slowly, how frightfully slowly small improvements came into our miserable condition! […] Even today we are in a desperate condition. We still lack the most basic things. Food is scarce and bad and very often we feel like prisoners limited to bread and water. And there is not even enough bread. For years we could not buy clothes, shoes, socks. How will we look in a short time if this continues? And no tobacco, or very little. A terrible torment for someone who has smoked for over half a century. You understand I could and can hardly compose under such circumstances. What I wrote and sold meanwhile (piano sonata and other pieces), when will it be published? […]”

Bortkiewicz and his wife were physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the war  when their friend, the chief physician Dr. Walter Zdrahal, admitted the couple to the Franz Joseph Hospital in Vienna in order to treat them.

Sergei Bortkiewicz in 1947


Life after World War Two

In the Autumn of 1945 Bortkiewicz was appointed Head of an education programme at the City Conservartory in Vienna which helped the composer some of the financial security he so sought. On 18 september 1945 Bortkiewicz gave his first concert after the end of WWII. During a feast concert of “Collegium Musicum Wien” Bortkiewicz performed as composer, pianist and conductor. He conducted his Austrian Suite opus 51, Symphony no. 6 opus 74 (Pathétique) of Tchaikovsky and played his own Piano concerto no. 1 opus 16 under the batton of the Austrian composer and conductor Joseph Julius Laska (1886-1964). On 10 november 1945 pianist Rudolf Horn, who lost his right arm during WWI, performed in a concert Bortkiewicz’s etude opus 29 no. 5 (Le Poète, for the left hand only), the Romanze (for the left hand only) and the solo part of Bortkiewicz’s piano concerto no. 2 opus 28 (for the left hand only). The orchestral part was played on a second piano by pianist Rudolf Sommerfeld-Klier.

In 1946 Bortkiewicz composed his Six préludes opus 66 of which only two have so far been located. These préludes are dedicated to the Dutch pianist Hélène Mulholland (1912-2000), who helped him, together with Hugo van Dalen, after the war by sending much needed food and clothes. After his retirement in 1947 the community of Vienna awarded him an honorary pension. On February 24, 1948 the Austrian federal government awarded him a professorship.

Bortkiewicz and the 1948 Summer Olympic Art Competition in London
Art competitions were held as part of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. Medals were awarded in five art categories (architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture), for works inspired by sport-related themes.
In September 1947 the Austrian Olympic Committee invited Austrian composers to compose a piece of music that triggered or accompanied sports or gymnastic movements. The winning composition would be Austria’s entry to the 1948 Summer Olympic Art Competition in London. The members of the Austrian jury were Joseph Marx (1882-1964), Alois Melichar (1896-1976), Egon Kornauth (1891-1959), Josef Krips (1902-1974), Franz Salmhofer (1900-1975) und Frank Fox (1902-1965). 34 compositions were submitted to the jury. Bortkiewicz took part in this contest and composed and submitted his “Olympisches Scherzo”. In April 1948 the Austrian jury awarded Bortkiewicz first prize for his composition. Prizes were also awarded to the following submissions: „Rondo ostinato” by Theodor Berger, „Olympischer Frühling“ by Viktor Hruby and „Olympische Matchmusik“ by Max Schönherr.
The 1948 Summer Olympic Art Competition in London attracted 36 entries from various countries, of which the “Olympisches Scherzo” by Sergei Bortkiewicz was one of them. Unfortunately his composition was not awarded.  In the category “Choral and orchestral” the Polish composer Zbigniew Turski won the gold medal with his “Olympic Symphony”. The Finnish composer Kalervo Tuukkanen won the silver medal with his composition “Karhunpyynti”  and the Danish composer Erling Brene won the bronze medal with “Vigeur”.

In the years after 1949 and primarily as a result of the war years, Bortkiewicz’s wife was diagnosed as suffering from manic depression which caused great concern for the composer.

Bortkiewicz in the Austrian mountains (1947)

Sergei Bortkiewicz walking in the Austrian landscape around 1942

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