Second Austrian period (1933-1952)

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 all music programmes.  Sergei and Elisabeth Bortkiewicz returned to Vienna on 19 December 1933 where they and their black Dachshund Sepperl 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 in 1933-1935 as the moved to Baden, near Vienna, during the yearly summer break. After the summer they returned to Vienna and rented an appartment again 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 permenantly 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 life.

During these years Bortkiewicz suffered serious financial difficulties and was sought to ask for financial help from his friend Hugo van Dalen many times, which the pianist always gave freely. To earn some money Bortkiewicz translated from Russian into German the letters between Pjotr Tchaikovsky and Nadesdja von Meck. These letters were published as Die seltsame Liebe Peter Tschaikowsky’s und der Nadjeschda von Meck (Köhler & Amelang, Leipzig 1938).

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

Van Dalen adapted Bortkiewicz’s book for a Dutch readership and published it as Rondom Tschaikowsky’s vierde symphonie (De Residentiebode 1938).

Bortkiewicz in 1937

Early 1940, Hugo van Dalen informed Bortkiewicz that he had started to compose. Bortkiewicz responded somewhat surprised and wrote to Van Dalen:

“Dear friend, I was very pleased to receive some news from you. So all at once you have become a composer? But you will not yet neglect the piano? – I too have changed my profession. Written a book. It’s called Sawwa Borin (my pseudonym) Erotica. – Four stories. The erotic element is only a “Leitmotiv”, otherwise many serious subjects and thoughts. – Pity I can’t send it to you. During the war printed matter is, of course, not permitted by post. These are stories from the life of a Russian composer, from his love life. Fact and fiction. I’ve finished printing it using the typewriter and am returning now to music. […]”

In years to follow Bortkiewicz repeatedly asked Van Dalen to send his compositions so he could look at it. As far as we know, Van Dalen never responded to this request.

World War II was also a terrible time for Bortkiewicz and his wife. The publication and performance of Russian music was prohibited in 1941, 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 still composed for the piano. During these years he composed his piano sonata no. 2 opus 60, the Fantasiestücke opus 61 and the 3 Mazurka’s 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 the composer’s lifetime the sonata was played otherwise 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. The score, however, was not published during or after Bortkiewicz’s lifetime. In this work 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 war years was intended to be published by Musikverlag Anton J Benjamin in Leipzig, who also owned the publishers Rahter and Simrock. However, this never happened. On 10 November 1938 Musikverlag Benjamin 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 never received such authorization, and was placed in receivership in 1951, which lasted until 1956 (only in 1992 was the company officially dissolved). In 1963 its archive was transferred to the Saxon State Archive. As a result, Bortkiewicz’s Opp 60, 61 and 64 remained unpublished after the composer’s death. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the archive of Anton J Benjamin was formally returned to his 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 archive began to be unlocked, and the proofs of Bortkiewicz’s Opp 60, 61 and 64 were discovered in December 2013.

Bortkiewicz groepsfoto - 2

Sergei en Elisabeth Bortkiewicz (centre) during a holiday around 1942

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

In the Autumn of 1945 Bortkiewicz was appointed Head of an education programme at the Vienna City Conservatory 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 he composed his Six préludes opus 66 of which only two have so far been located. These préludes are dedicated to the Dutch pianist Helene 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 the title of professor. 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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