What? A female composer?
by Erich Hermann and Christine Piswanger-Richter
Johanna Müller-Hermann, composer and composition teacher
Do you know the composer Johanna Müller-Hermann? No? This is not very surprising at present, but during her lifetime it was different, and this article is intended to arouse curiosity about her music.
On 19 March 1930, the daily newspaper “Wiener Journal” announced that a work by “Johann Fr. Müller-Hermann” would be premiered that evening at the fourth regular social concert of the “Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde”. A first indication that female composers were a bit suspect.
Concert announcement in the “Wiener Journal” of 19 March 1930, © Erich Hermann
The first two pages of the very detailed programme booklet of this concert evening look like this:
Programme for the concert on 19 March 1930, © Erich Hermann. This very text refers throughout to a male composer.
One can imagine the surprise of the unprejudiced concertgoers when, at the end of the very successful premiere, a woman composer took the podium to thank them for the rapturous applause.
It was possibly the first time that the work of a woman, and a full-length cantata for solos, choir and large orchestra was performed in a “proper society concert” of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde – a truly elite setting.
The organisers had jumped over their shadows. However, they almost ran out of steam in the last few metres. Perhaps the concern was too great that the audience might stay away or that there might be disruptive actions if they pre-announced a women’s composition. The full truth was only to be revealed to the audience afterwards.
The performance – what efforts it took to achieve this goal will follow later – was not only a triumph for Johanna Müller-Hermann, but also another small step towards the recognition of women as composers. In the “Neues Wiener Tagblatt” of 25 March 1930, a review of the concert by Heinrich Kralik reads thus:
“It is an old experience that in the distribution of musical-creative talents among the sexes, women have fared very little favourably. Missis Musica, a true woman, ‚a woman with a woman’s mind‘  keeps resolutely with the men, and it may be considered a rare exception if she once gets seriously involved with one of her gender mates. Female composers have a doubly hard time, and so it must be doubly difficult when a creative female musician succeeds in convincing her audience. This applies to Johanna Müller-Hermann and her impressive “Song of Remembrance” to the fullest extent. There really is something to it in every respect.”
So much for the appreciation of women composers not quite a hundred years ago.
Die Geschwister Hermann: Albert, Tona und Johanna, 1888, © Erich Hermann
Johanna’s life story
Johanna Hermann was born on 15 January 1868, by which time music had long since entered the family. She was baptised in Vienna’s city centre in the church Am Hof “Zu den neun Chören der Engel” (a good omen?) Johanna Josefine Friederike.
When her father Alois Hermann was born in 1823 in a village which belonged to the Duchy of Austrian Silesia (now Poland), music was not yet an issue for him. He was half-orphaned at the age of three when his father died in an accident at work. The widow had little money, but the ambition not only to provide for her six children, but to give them a higher education. To this end, she moved her residence to the to the nearest large town oder to the largest town next to her, which was Teschen (now Cieszyn),: There was a German secondary school. Alois had grown up with a mixture of Polish and German as his colloquial language, the so-called “Water Polish”[Wasserpolakischen]. When he entered the German Hauptschule, he was therefore put back one school year because of poor German skills, but he quickly made up for the shortfall and managed to transfer to the Gymnasium after two years.
It was essential that he contributed to the family’s upkeep, so he gave private tuition from the age of 14. After graduating from high school, he went to Vienna, initially studied philosophy, but soon switched to law. Here, too, he worked as a private tutor on the side, even acquired the qualification to teach privately at the grammar school’s “grammatical classes” and was thus able to finance his studies as a working student.
“When will music finally come into his life?” you will ask. Patience, there it is, in the person of Johann Vesque von Püttlingen. The state councillor and later section head in the Foreign Ministry had made some fortune through marriage and now lived as an “artist and diplomat, poet and man of the world”. He also composed and published several operas and many songs under the pseudonym J. Hoven. He organised house concerts in his Viennese salon and made his house a cultural centre of Vienna, which brought him contacts with renowned musical personalities. Among them whereas Robert and Clara Schumann, Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Carl Loewe, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Otto Nicolai, to name only the most famous. But Vesque von Püttlingen was also the father of no less than ten children and engaged Alois Hermann as “Hofmeister” (court master), whose main task was to teach the flock of children. Participating in life in this musical house must have left a lasting impression on Alois.
After completing his studies in 1847, he began a career as a civil servant in his native Silesia and eventually ended up in the Ministry for Cultus and Education in the “Department for the Elementary School System”. It was in this department that his brilliant career began.
Johanna’s mother, Antonia von der Decken-Himmelreich, also grew up as a half-orphan from the age of six after the early death of her father – a remarkable parallel in the lives of Johanna’s parents. Although Antonia’s mother was not wealthy, she was able to provide her four children with a solid education and a good musical education in Prague. She died when Antonia was 18 years old. The legal guardian Johann Maresch, a clergyman, was a „Schulrat“. This roughly corresponds to the rank and activity of a provincial school inspector. He had good contacts with the Ministry of Education in Vienna, also knew Alois Hermann and tried to interest him in his eldest ward, the then already 26-year-old Albertine. A visit by Alois to Prague was prepared. The plan turned out differently than Maresch had thought: Alois only had eyes for the younger sister Antonia. For about a year the two wrote each other letters almost daily and in May 1863 they were married in Prague.
The couple moved into a modest flat in Vienna. In August 1864 their first child, son Albert, was born, who was to have a great influence on the family’s musical activities in the following decades. Around three and a half years after Albert, Johanna Hermann saw the light of day, she was followed by Antonia, called “Tona” three years later.
Mother Antonia took singing lessons where which the children were allowed to listen. This was an important early musical impression for the childrenmusical point of contact for the children. Early on, the parents realised that all three children were exceptionally musical. Albert received his first piano lessons at the age of seven. No expense was spared for the thorough musical education of all three; if a teacher did not meet the high expectations, a better one was sought.
Johanna wrote in her “Memories” of her big brother:
“We were our three, a merry shamrockf. He was the eldest, our leader in play and seriousness, the role model we aspired to. Seldom did we fail to obey him most joyfully.”
When Albert was 13 years old, the composer Wilhelm Westmeyer came to visit the Hermann family rather by chance. The children listened to him enthusiastically as he fantasised on the piano; this awakened in Albert an urgent desire to become a composer himself. In the meantime, the family lived in a large flat in the Schottenhof and owned two pianos. There it was possible to make music in a larger circle: Albert founded the “Musikverein Hermann”. Naturally, his sisters were the first members – Tona was only five years old at the time, Johanna eight – and other cousins and friends strengthened the ensemble. Mother Antonia was appointed “protector”, so the resourceful Albert secured support for the practical implementation of his musical plans. After all, the association existed for almost two years and organised a few house concerts. These concerts should not be imagined as a nice, intra-family pastime, there was even seriously worked out a programme. Albert appeared as choirmaster, pianist and composer, Johanna played the piano and Tona sang. There were even printed programme notes – not as easy to produce in 1877 as they are today.
When the children had to spend more time at school, they could no longer continue the association, but they did not wantto disappear without a trace. A farewell concert was held on 30 March 1878, which Johanna remembered as “the most glorious celebration of our childhood”.
A concert hall, an artist’s room, a cloakroom, a special place for the “prize jury” were set up, even an “artist’s box” had to be built. The flat was turned upside down. Ten-year-old Johanna took part in the singing competition, already with a melodrama she had composed herself.
So for Johanna, from childhood onwards, it was something natural not only to reproduce music but also to produce it,:She even set her own poetry to music
Allof the children would have liked to pursue an artistic career, but their father insisted on professional qualifications according to middle-class- careers. In spite of his own brilliant career Although he had had a brilliant career, he did not possess any significant wealth that would have enabled his children to lead a carefree life after his retirement without a profession of their own. At the ministry, he had a cautionary tale in mind: every day he came into contact with highly qualified musicians and composers who were happy to hold a civil service post alongside their art. So Albert had to study at the law school with little enthusiasm and the two girls graduated from the „Staatslehrerinnenbildungsanstalt“, which was a college for female teachers.
Alois Hermann – the elementary school department was already under his management at that time – was an intimate connoisseur of elementary education, teacher training and especially girls’ education and knew that this school, which he himself had actively helped to found, provided the optimum of education possible for girls at that time. There were excellent teachers here. The music lessons, for example, were in the hands of Rudolf Weinwurm, Anton Bruckner’s close friend, who directed several Viennese choirs and was an outstanding teacher. Beeing qualified as elematary school teachers, Johanna and Tona where perfectly prepared to her later activities as composers and singing teachers.
Music continued to be an important part of Johanna and Tona’s lives even during their time as primary school teachers. Important suggestions came from Albert. One of his closest friends and a frequent guest in the family was the musicologist Guido Adler, who involved Albert in many of his projects. From 1886 Albert also headed the music department of the daily newspaper “Vaterland”. Johanna reports that he often took her to concerts or opera performances. In this way she and Tona grew into the social circle that determined musical life in Vienna.
Johanna practised teaching – as was customary at the time – until she married Otto Müller Martini Female teachers were forbidden to marry – or reciprocally – were not allowed to work in their profession after their marriage.
Otto Müller-Martini, was born in Innsbruck, had completed his law studies in Vienna and, like the Hermann family, lived in Vienna’s Schottenhof. Thus the wedding of Johanna and Otto took place on 19 October 1893 in the Schottenkirche.
Otto Müller-Martini came from a recognised legal family and made a career as a civil servant in the general management of the Austrian State Railways.
Johanna would have had enough time to devote herself to her true vocation, composing, after her marriage and the end of her school career. This did not happen for the time being. In 1895, her brother Albert died suddenly, a stroke of fate that shook the whole family. All life plans were thrown into confusion.
It was probably not until 1898 that Johanna began to study composition with Karl Nawratil; at the same time she attended lectures in musicology with Guido Adler, who had become a full professor at the University of Vienna that year as the successor to Eduard Hanslick. She names Josef Labor and Alexander von Zemlinsky as further composition teachers. She probably did not begin her lessons with Labor before 1904.
Zemlinsky then entered the scene in 1907: when Johanna saw difficulties in the composition of her string quartet, her friend Alma Mahler had recommended her to switch from Labor to Zemlinsky. During this time Johanna also had contact with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. She studied their works in and familiarised herself with their musical views. In her own short biography from 1940 we read:
“The deep insight into the aims of the last modernism, the closer acquaintance with Arnold Schoenberg’s ideas and those of his pupils contributed much to the inner consolidation of the composer, who was striving towards completely different goals. However, she was not granted the happy development and longed-for confirmation of her own character until later, when she studied instrumentation with Jos. B. Förster.”
Johanna increasingly felt the desire to write not only chamber music and songs, but also large-scale symphonic orchestral works. She was looking for a teacher to support her in this.
In 1909, the New Vienna Conservatory began its activities. The subject “music theory”, which included composition, was assigned to Josef Bohuslav Förster. He was Czech, about ten years older than Johanna and an immensely productive composer and music writer. He was married to the prominent soprano Berta Lauterer, who was engaged at the opera in Hamburg under the direction of Gustav Mahler. After Mahler moved to the Vienna Court Opera in 1897, Berta Lauterer was appointed to this house in 1901, and Josef B. Förster followed her to Vienna.
By the time he began teaching at the New Vienna Conservatory, he had already published more than 80 compositions. Despite a partial approach to more modern musical styles, he never denied his romantic musical ideal, which was influenced above all by Dvorák. For Johanna, lessons with Förster were the perfect choice. Her goal was to write sonorous modern music without transgressing the framework of tonality. She was able to realise this under his guidance.
The years from about 1910 to 1918, during working which Förster, were by far her most fruitful creative period, despite the difficulties brought on by the First World War. The intensive collaboration with Franz Schreker and the Philharmonic Choir he founded, as well as with the new publishing house Universal-Edition, where Förster and Johanna published their compositions, had a favourable influence on this. This special constellation – a composer hungry for success, a publisher interested in new music and an ensemble ready to perform – increased the incentive to create new works, since there was a legitimate prospect that the compositions would not disappear in a drawer but could also be performed. We also find Johanna in these years on the association committee of the Philharmonic Choir.
From 1907, Universal-Edition rose to become one of the most important publishers of contemporary European music. The managing director who set the new direction was Emil Hertzka; his wife Yella Hertzka played a significant role in its development. She campaigned for the advancement of women in music, was co-founder of the Neuer Wiener Frauenclub (New Vienna Women’s Club) and president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 1921-38. It was probably on her initiative that Johanna was commissioned to create a festive composition for the opening event of the annual congress of this league, which took place in Vienna in 1921, the Ode, which premiered on 11 July 1921.
After the collapse of the monarchy, Josef B. Förster was offered a professorship at the conservatory in Prague and he left Vienna. How much he valued Johanna is shown by the fact that he proposed her as his successor at the New Vienna Conservatory. She accepted the post, becoming the first female professor of composition in the German-speaking world. This appointment, which took up a great deal of Johanna’s time, was accompanied by a restriction of her compositional activity. After the Ode in 1921, there was not a single premiere for almost ten years. But the desire to compose did not diminish: Johanna worked intensively for years on her main work, the lyric cantata “Lied der Erinnerung”.
After the brilliant premiere of the Cantata on 19 March 1930, we find new works in Johanna’s oeuvre that point to the influence of Franz Schmidt, whom she herself counted among her teachers. Again, for Johanna it was probably more a search for male support and confirmation, for what else was a composer who had produced a giant work like the cantata Lied der Erinnerung supposed to “learn”?
In the 1930s, Johanna again devoted herself increasingly to smaller forms; practical reasons certainly played a role. The Philharmonic Choir no longer existed, and performing large works became too expensive; this was especially true of compositions that the programmers no longer considered contemporary; they did not want to take any risks. Probably at the suggestion of Franz Schmidt, she composed a piano quintet “for the left hand”, which she offered in vain to the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein for performance. Composing organ music was new territory for her, and Franz Schmidt may also have inspired her to do so.
At one point she set about writing a large work: Von Minnelob und Glaubenstreu, Symphonische Variationen für vier Solostimmen, Chor, Orchester und Orgel (symphonic variations for four solo voices, choir, orchestra and organ). It has not been performed to this day.
After the “Anschluss” of Austria, on 11 June 1938, by decree of the Reich Ministry of Propaganda, “all musicians in the country of Austria” were obliged to become members of the Reich Chamber of Music. Thus, Johanna also automatically became a member. Anyone who could not provide proof of Aryan status by 30.9.1938 lost his membership, which in practice meant a ban on performing. Johanna did not have this problem; she wanted to continue performing and therefore remained a member. How “posterity” dealt with this fact will be reported on.
Johanna Müller-Hermann died completely unexpectedly on 14 April 1941 at the age of 73. Her widower Otto Müller-Martini remarried shortly afterwards, but only survived Johanna by a good year. His widow fell out with the family. The personal estate remained with her; the artistic estate went to the Austrian National Library. This is one reason why relatively few of Johanna’s personal records – apart from her compositional work – have survived.
Johanna, the composer
Johanna composed for a wide variety of musical genres and almost everything was performed during her lifetime. The various lists diverge slightly in the opus numbers (between 37 and 39). Overall, the opus numbers correspond to the chronological order of composition.
Johanna composed songs throughout her life, sometimes with piano accompaniment, sometimes with a small instrumental ensemble or with a large orchestra. A total of around fifty were printed and published. Writing songs was a family tradition. Albert, as Johanna reports in her “Memories”, never visited his Henriette during the bridal season without bringing a new song. There are a number of songs by Tona – also published by Universal-Edition.
Johannas op. 1, published in 1903 by the Hofmusikverlag Gutmann, is a collection of seven songs. Whether some of these were written before she began composition lessons with Nawratil is a matter of speculation. It is possible. It is worth mentioning that four of them were written on Johanna’s own poems. Soon after, another five songs appeared as op. 2, two of them again on her own poems, the other three on texts by Ricarda Huch. Johanna must have known her personally; she stayed in Vienna for several months in 1897/98. We encounter her poems more often, for example in the three songs op. 19 and especially in the “Symphony”.
That Johanna first composed songs is quite normal. Composing, as we already know, was a man’s job. At that time, women were not considered to have any great creative power in the musical field. Therefore, it was very common for gifted women to try their hand at songs first.
A very practical reason for Johanna to turn to song production again and again was, moreover, that Tona could use her in the numerous recitals of her pupils.
But already with op. 3 we encounter a new genre. She published five piano pieces and, even before Zemlinsky became current in her life, a beautiful violin sonata. Then in 1907 she tried her hand at a string quartet and got into trouble. She discussed the matter with Alma Mahler. She recommended to show the work to Alexander Zemlinsky and also introduced the two of them. Zemlinsky had given Alma lessons ten years earlier. He looked at Johanna’s string quartet and gave her some advice, whereupon she dedicated the finished work to him.
She must have taken great pleasure in composing for strings, for next she wrote her String Quintet in A minor. The first fruit of her studies with Förster were two three-part women’s choruses with orchestra, op. 10, which Franz Schreker and the Philharmonic Choir premiered in December 1911. On the same evening, Schönberg’s choral work Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth), completed several years earlier, was also presented, which is why the concert received great attention in the daily press. Alban Berg listened to the concert. Johanna’s compositions received very favourable reviews. One of her two choruses was called Weihe der Nacht on a poem by Friedrich Hebbel. Josef B. Förster’s catalogue of works contains two women’s choruses from the same period as op. 87, one of which, Posvěcení noci, is based on the same poem. A comparison of the teacher’s composition with that of the pupil would be interesting.
In the following years, the (only) Cello Sonata op.17 and several songs, some with orchestra, appeared. An example of a song with piano accompaniment is Wie eine Vollmondnacht op. 20,4, written in 1912.
The First World War and the initial enthusiasm for war inspired Johanna’s composition for male choir and orchestra Deutscher Schwur. The momentous error that this work triggered a hundred years later is still reported. The only two “purely” orchestral works, the Heroic Overture and the Symphonic Fantasy ‘Brand’, which refers to a drama by Ibsen, as well as a work for soloists, choir and orchestra, The Dying Swan, were also written during this fertile period.
The wartime enthusiasm faded very quickly; the ardent wish for peace fulfilled the ‘Symphony’, which enjoyed great success at its premiere in April 1919. The four-movement work, the first movement of which is purely instrumental, while the other three are joined by two vocal soloists and the choir, adapts poems by Ricarda Huch.
Cover of the piano reduction of J. Müller-Hermann’s only symphony, © Erich Hermann.
Apart from the great changes that the fall of the monarchy brought for the whole world, Förster’s departure for Prague and her appointment as his successor at the New Vienna Conservatory led to a completely new situation for Johanna. She had to put composing on hold for the time being and prepare for her new task – a considerable amount of time given her thoroughness. She still wrote the Ode op. 29 as a commissioned work, which introduced the opening event of the Women’s Congress on 10 July 1921 with great success, after which there were no new publications for the time being. She produced a second version of the Ode for male choir, presumably as late as 1931, which was performed as a “premiere” by the “Wiener Schubertbund”.
Johanna did not give up composing, however. On the contrary, she worked for years on a large, full-length work, the cantata Lied der Erinnerung. The new work was to employ four vocal soloists, a large choir and a large orchestra. The text was based on a poem To the Memory of President Lincoln by the American Walt Whitman. The music quotes various motifs from “Indian” songs and the Star-spangled banner, the American national anthem. It was Johanna’s intention to find American interested parties in order to achieve a performance in the USA; on the other hand, she also emphasised the supranational character of the work. “Müller-Hermann’s cantata was thus a singing beyond national borders on a grand scale, at once Austrian, American and universal” (Jennifer Ronyak).
As early as 1926, she had prepared a piano sketch of essential parts of the composition, more than 30 pages long, which she sent to Josef B. Förster in Prague for review. Furtwängler, too, saw the score of the first part during the creative process and initially expressed a distanced opinion; later, when the complete work was available, he recommended its performance to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. The composition was completed in 1928. It took another two years to be performed.
The Secretary General of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Section Head Dr. Friedrich Dlabač, Guido Adler’s “best friend”, a friend of Johanna and Tona for many years, an accomplished violin partner at house music evenings – and familiar with all the tricks of the “networks” in Vienna’s musical life, played a major role in making this happen. The performance was a roaring success. All the critics acknowledged the extraordinary quality of the composition, describing it as “a summit achievement of her considerable life’s work” and assuring that this work would “remain in the memory”. (Neue Freie Presse, 31.3.1930)
Of the compositions written in the 1930s, the Piano Quintet deserves special mention. Franz Schmidt, like several other composers, had composed some works “for the left hand” for the one-armed Paul Wittgenstein. Johanna wrote a piano quintet “for the left hand” and presented it to Wittgenstein. The latter refused to perform Johanna’s composition, so she rewrote the work “for two hands” and had great success with this version. One of the consistently very positive reviews counted it “among the clearest, most coherent and richest in content pieces of the genre” (Musikleben, quoted without date in “Pressestimmen”, private collection JMH). The Ensemble Louise Farrenc recently performed this work and also the String Quintet op. 7 in the small concert hall of the “Pforte” in Feldkirch.
Two richly orchestrated, particularly sonorous orchestral songs in the op. 33 cycle were a tribute to Johanna’s sister Tona. The texts were written by her.
Another song cycle, “Fünf Zwiegesänge op. 36 – ‘Beatrix und der Sänger’” met with enthusiastic approval. The critics attested to the “high creative power of the composer, who occupies a dominant position not only among the creative women of Austria, but among Austrian musicians in general.” (Neues Wiener Journal, 21.11.1936). It is regrettable that this song cycle, instrumentally scored only with string quintet and harp, has so far been ignored in the “revival attempts” of recent years.
Speaking of revivals, the English High Barnet Chamber Music Festival undertook a very interesting experiment in 2021. Joshua Ballance arranged five songs with piano accompaniment from op. 11 and op. 32 by Johanna for a small instrumental ensemble.
With the increasing dominance of the “Zweite Wiener Schule” and twelve-tone music, the music of Johanna Müller-Hermann receded into the background. After her death, Tona campaigned vehemently for the preservation of her sister’s work, setting up an “Association of Friends and Supporters of Johanna Müller-Hermann’s Art” and collecting statements of approval from prominent personalities. The success of the campaign was moderate. There were still song recitals, composition evenings and house music. During the Second World War and in the years after, people mostly had other worries.
Errors around Johanna Müller-Hermann
Time and again, incorrect data and errors are found on various websites and in other publications. The most persistent and consequential are:
– The year of birth is given as 1878 instead of 1868.
– The Songs op. 1 were not published in 1895 but only in 1903.
– There are not two cello sonatas but only one. It has the opus number 17. The opus number 16 is not occupied in the catalogue and is therefore superfluous.
– A certain picture of Alma Mahler is erroneously described as a representation of Johanna. To help clarify matters: this is Alma Mahler:
Alma Mahler, née Schindler, © Austrian National Library.
Johanna Müller-Hermann, © Erich Hermann
… and the one next to it, wearing a hat, Johanna Müller-Hermann.
They don’t look that much alike!
– Johanna never sympathised with the Nazis. The suspicions are easy to refute. This is discussed in the following conversation with Erich Hermann.
– Occasionally it is claimed that Johanna “only” taught music theory at the conservatoire, but not composition. This is also incorrect. She was the first composition teacher at a German-language conservatoire.
What more could be said. A conversation with Erich Hermann
Johanna Müller-Hermann, like her sister Tona, left no descendants. But her brother Albert left two sons – Wilhelm and Walter – and Walter Hermann is the father of Dr. Erich Hermann, who has been studying the biography and artistic work of his great-aunt for some time. He provided very extensive research material for this article. The following interview was conducted with him:
Did you know Johanna Müller-Hermann personally?
When Johanna died in 1941, I was only two years old. I have no memory of her, of course. She probably still saw me, she was in regular contact with my father Walter Hermann, her nephew, he studied composition with her and became heir to the copyrights together with Johanna’s sister Tona. I remember Tona well, she outlived her sister by more than a quarter of a century and died in 1969 at the age of 97.
Johanna Müller-Hermann was performed very often during her lifetime. Who promoted her?
Again and again I am surprised at how many of the “networks” that are generally so important for the advancement of any artist and his or her prominence in the public eye were already present in Johanna’s case in her youth. On the one hand, this is thanks to her brother Albert, who exerted a strong attraction on important personalities such as the musicologist Guido Adler, the choral conductor Rudolf Weinwurm or the court music publisher Albert Gutmann, who were among the family’s permanent guests. On the other hand, Guido Adler, who was not only a scientist but also a gifted organiser of large musical projects – I only mention the century-long work of the “Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich” (Monuments of Musical Art in Austria) and the “Internationale Ausstellung für Musik und Theaterwesen” (International Exhibition of Music and Theatre) in 1892 – knew how to bring the right people together at the right time. I believe that Tona in particular copied a lot from him in terms of public relations. This also benefited Johanna, who was probably less proactive. Tona would probably be called a “PR genius” today. She did a great deal for her composing sister, not least by performing her works as a singer and later also having her singing students perform Johanna’s compositions.
Johanna’s marriage is often interpreted as meaning that it finally gave her the opportunity to devote herself to composition. What influence did her marriage actually have on Johanna’s artistic development?
On the surface, her marriage meant that she had to give up her job as an elementary school teacher, because there was a marriage ban for female teachers in Vienna’s elementary schools. So it is probably true that she could have used the time gained by ending her professional activity for composing. However: her first musical publication, the seven songs op. 1, appeared in print in 1903, i.e. only after ten years of marriage! The following year, the first concert with songs from this collection took place; significantly, it was a recital by Tona. Only after that did other works follow at shorter intervals.
Do you have an explanation for the fact that Johanna did not appear as a composer until the ripe old age of 35?
The sources I have access to are not very helpful. I can only assume that the sudden death of her brother Albert in November 1895 had something to do with it. It was a real shock for the whole family, but especially for Johanna. They all had to get over it first. Albert, as the older brother, had been an idol for her since her earliest youth. He felt the need to pass on to his sisters everything new he had learned and everything he thought about music. His creativity probably influenced Johanna more than any music lessons, no matter how solid. With Johanna as the older sister, he also had a very close human relationship. She describes this very impressively in her memoirs. – On the other hand, I can imagine that it was Albert’s views on his own compositions that initially kept her from seriously pursuing composing herself: Albert had written numerous choral works and also orchestral works and had performed them successfully, yet, self-critically, “as long as there is a Brahms”, he did not want to think seriously about a career as a composer. This basic attitude could have triggered self-doubt in Johanna.
How did Johanna finally get over this crisis?
The booklet “Erinnerungen an Albert von Hermann” (Memories of Albert von Hermann), which Johanna had printed in 1896 at the Hölder publishing house, was classic mourning work. With this touching work, which was also impressive from a literary point of view, she got the pain off her chest. It was a stroke of luck that Guido Adler, who had been teaching at the University of Prague for some time, was appointed as Eduard Hanslick’s successor as full professor of musicology at the University of Vienna in 1898. A prerequisite for studying at his institute was knowledge of harmony and counterpoint. This may have favoured her decision to study composition regularly.
Can a development be determined on the basis of the works published during her first creative period?
Composing songs was soon too little of a challenge for Johanna. She tried piano and chamber music. When she ran into difficulties with this, she sought advice. Her particular thoroughness did not allow for a “ride across Lake Constance”; conversely, this resulted in insecurity, which is why she sought help from male colleagues while she was still maturing. When she presented her string quartet to Zemlinsky, she was certainly already close to perfection in terms of craftsmanship. I don’t think she took composition lessons from him in the strict sense either; it was more like a master class that probably didn’t last very long at all. Looking back, she wrote about it in 1940: “Having outgrown school, [I] found in Alexander von Zemlinsky a spiritual guide on paths of my own choosing.” Somewhat casually, I would say that under his guidance “the button came undone” for her. She dedicated the String Quartet to Zemlinsky and was grateful to him throughout her life. It was not until around 1910 that she wanted to take the big step to larger dimensions, to orchestral music with choir and soloists, and sought support again for this.
Looking at the performance dates of the following years, one gets the impression that with the increased composition of orchestral works with choir and vocal soloists, she achieved an important personal goal and virtually experienced a creative frenzy.
Yes, that must have been how it was. But again she did not take this step alone, but entrusted herself once more to a teacher. At the age of 40+, she returned to the classroom and began training in orchestral studies and instrumentation with Josef B. Förster at the New Vienna Conservatory, which had only just opened. This was the prerequisite for the magnificent works that came out in the period from 1910 to 1921, but especially for her masterpiece, the cantata “Lied der Erinnerung”.
After the successfully fought battle of the premiere on 19 March 1930, Johanna invited to a small celebration at home, which was also attended by section leader Dlabač, jokingly called “Schrifterl” in the circle of friends. Tona recited a poem:
“Now wake up!”, the Schrifterl called out to the lands,
where everything sleeps and dreams and hums and falters.
He called it loud and beautiful, tenor, „concealing a dagger“
and the magic of the voice lured them on.
they raised their heads, the Heger, Schalken, Wängler,
They couldn’t stand it any longer – he was a real hustler,
Half he pulled them, half they sank into his arms’ snares.
and so Vienna stayed in its place, that was the only way to succeed!
Heart-ka, ma heart – sa heart he did touch
And kidnapped a lot of money. . .
There they all are, on whom the realisation of this project depended: the conductor of the evening, Robert Heger, since 1925 concert director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Franz Schalk, until 1929 director of the State Opera, co-founder and member of the management of the Salzburg Festival, Wilhelm Furtwängler, until 1927 concert director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, and the publishing couple Emil and Yella Hertzka, both of whom were in charge of the Universal-Edition.
What is there to the suspicions that Johanna sympathised with the Nazis?
I have investigated very carefully. There are only two “suspicions” that are addressed: One is the fact that Johanna was a member of the Reich Chamber of Music and that this is specifically mentioned on her party card. I have found two different suspicious moments from Johanna in private documents. One is in the name of “Johanna Müller-Martini” and contains no reference. The second bears the artist’s name “Johanna Müller v. Hermann” and the addition “Composer. Member of the Reich Chamber of Music and the Composers’ Professional Association”. It is evident that this second party was intended for fellow musicians in the broadest sense and was intended to document that she was not subject to a professional ban. It should be noted in the margin that it is not usually the deceased himself who writes the text of his party.
The second “suspicion” is almost infamous because it was circulated without the slightest verification: Johanna composed the choral work Deutscher Schwur at the outbreak of the First World War. Based on the poem of the same name by R. A. Schröder from 1914, Johanna’s work was published and printed by Universal-Edition in 1915. It was dedicated to her nephews Wilhelm and Walter Hermann, who were soldiers at the front at the time. Soon twenty years later, this poem found its way into the songbook of the Hitler Youth and was popular with the SA and SS, reason enough for the spreaders of the rumour to accuse the composer of National Socialist sentiments.
What must happen so that works by Johanna Müller-Hermann can once again be heard live in concert halls?
I think the forgetting of Johanna’s work has only marginally to do with the fact that she was a woman. In the second half of the 20th century, the musical style she cultivated was simply “out”. This also affected composers such as Alexander von Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Walter Braunfels or Josef B. Förster; even Mahler needed interpreters of the calibre of Leonard Bernstein and Raphael Kubelik to bring him back into the limelight.
More and more, interest is growing in works composed “tonally” in the fin de siècle and in the following decades. I also see it as positive that music today is disseminated to a large extent by the media; this applies not only to performances but also to sheet music. For the performers, the acquisition of sheet music is hardly a problem anymore, unlike in the past. They track down forgotten works and produce videos and sound recordings with relatively little effort. Increasingly, composers are getting a chance for whom no major concert promoter would initially find. The increasing number of publications, e.g. on Youtube, confirms this. For the dissemination of Johanna’s music, it was a particular stroke of luck that the great BBC Radio 3 recently made her “Composer Of The Week” and produced a series of new recordings for her, including orchestral works. I hear that the BBC also wants to take further initiatives. In Vienna, they are currently still keeping with the tradition that Tona meant when she spoke of the country in her whimsical poem, “…where everything sleeps and dreams and hums and falters.”
Sources and footnotes
Erdèlyi, Ann-Kathrin: Johanna Müller-Hermann – Leben und Werk einer Wiener Komponistin, Diploma Thesis, Vienna (1995).
Müller, Johanna: Memories of Albert von Hermann, Vienna (1896)
Family archive of the Hermann family
1 Johanna Müller, née von Hermann, “Erinnerungen an Albert von Hermann”, Vienna 1896, Hölder.
3 Since this is a quotation from The Magic Flute, I consulted the English version of the libretto.