Harald NeuwirthBorn: February 2nd, 1939, Vienna (Austria)
In Ried, young Harald did very well at school, but also excelled in other ways: sports and music. At fourteen, he obtained a second place in Upper Austria’s U18 championships, whilst, as a concert pianist, he was considered a childhood prodigy. “Well, my two brothers and I were taught how to study carefully”, Neuwirth comments. “My mother did not know much about music, but the piano teacher in Ried told her exactly which exercises I had to do at home – and she simply checked it, always. I began studying the piano when I was six years old. My brothers learned to play the violin and viola instead. Being taught to play a classical instrument was part of a traditional middle-class education in those days. After a while, I was allowed into the amateur symphony orchestra in Ried, a hobby project of the local doctor who was our conductor. As one of the apparently more talented students in the orchestra, I was chosen to play the piano in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 for a concert at the local parish hall in 1951. Since our doctor-conductor happened to have good contacts with the Mozarteum, the conservatoire in Salzburg, I was introduced to Walter Neumüller, who was in charge of the piano class in the conservatoire. I was given a scholarship by Upper Austria’s Governor, upon which I studied for two years with Professor Neumüller (1951-’53, ed.).
In 1953, the family moved to Graz, where Neuwirth’s father took up working as a judge. In Styria, young Harald continued his piano studies at the Grazer Konservatorium, where he stayed until graduating from secondary school in ’57. “It crossed my mind to pursue a conservatory diploma”, Neuwirth explains, “but the prospect of failing to make it as a concert pianist and then having to work as a piano teacher abhorred me to such an extent, that I agreed with my parents’ choice. They wanted me to study law. After having allowed my older brother Gösta to choose musicology, they preferred what they considered a ‘real’ career for their second son. Having taken Latin, Greek, and all the other secondary school subjects of a proper humanistic education, my mind was properly trained to learn things by heart very rapidly, which served me well as a law student. This allowed me to devote as much time to tennis and music as I liked.”
In 1962, Harald Neuwirth graduated from Graz’s Karl Franzens University with a Ph.D. degree in law. In December ’60, he had already begun working as an assistant judge. Meanwhile, more and more of Neuwirth’s energy, however, was diverted to music – jazz music, to be more specific. Neuwirth: “During my student days, my interest in classical music gradually dwindled. Via someone I knew, I accidentally became the owner of a Magnetophon recorder, including a tape with recordings by Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, and other jazz pianists from America. I had been too young to discover jazz in the immediate aftermath of the war. This tape recorder allowed me to first listen to this genre of music. I must have been eighteen or nineteen years of age back then. I listened to it over and over. With my classical background, I was able to write out the music… and after a while, I could play all these pieces myself. Shortly after, I formed a trio with two friends. Our initial problem was harmony… how to create order in the chaos? I had never been taught anything but classical harmony. Bit by bit, I understood how Brubeck and others did it. It had to do with bass lines. I discovered there was no knowledge to speak of on this subject in the German-speaking part of Europe. After a year or so, simply by listening endlessly to American recordings, I felt I got the hang of it.”
The trio Neuwirth refers to was called We Three and, apart from Neuwirth himself (piano), consisted of Adelhardt Reudinger (bass), and Erich Bachträgl (drums). Not taking into account his short involvement as a pianist with the Fritz Körner Big Band in Graz, We Three was Neuwirth’s first attempt at performing jazz music – and it proved to be quite successful. In 1963, We Three came second in Austria’s amateur jazz contest in Vienna. “This festival was a real opportunity. After the Austrian State Treaty in ’55, all Austrian jazz musicians of any importance, such as Carl Drewo and Joe Zawinul, had left Vienna to pursue a career in West Germany or America. Now that the American troops had gone, there was no longer any money in playing jazz in Austria. This generation of professional jazz musicians was replaced by amateurs… guys like me who simply started to play. In the early 60s, in which an urge to renew culture and music in particular was felt, there were ample opportunities for us. This nationwide amateur jazz festival was one example. In Graz alone, there were no fewer than twelve groups competing in the Styria pre-selection. Anyone with the slightest ability to play wanted to take part. In the ’62 nationwide final in Vienna, we were beaten into second place by the Rudi Josel Trio, also from Graz, only to come back and win first prize in the 1965 and 1965 editions. These were events which did not go unnoticed, as radio and television were there to cover it. By ’65, though, we had grown into a quartet with bass player Anton Bärnthaler, Manfred Josel on drums, and Heinz Hönig playing the saxophone.”
Though public interest in Graz itself for the jazz boom, with so many local young performers giving proof of their talent, remained low, it was Fritz Körner, one of the founding fathers of Graz’s jazz scene, who had a vision for something unheard of in Europe at that time: a jazz school. After lobbying extensively with local authorities, he managed to get the go ahead sign in 1965 to create a Jazz Institute at the Graz Music Academy. From the outset, Harald Neuwirth was involved in Körner’s project. “Körner was a clever man”, Neuwirth comments. “In those years, ‘jazz’ was the word expressed most often in connection to the cultural liberation which politicians were so eager to bring about. It was funny that the first jazz school in Europe was created in Graz, with its history of conservatism and even Austrofascism… but Körner acted at exactly the right time. Later onwards, we would never have been able to bring it about. Most of the musicians who had been in We Three or the Rudi Josel Trio were involved in the start of the Jazz Institute. We started in 1965 by holding a jazz festival in Graz, the Internationale Jazztage, for which the Jože Privšek Big Band and the Radio Ljubljana Big Band from Slovenia were invited. When my father heard I was going to give up my permanent job as a candidate judge, he was beside himself! Nobody knew what the Jazz Institute’s fate would be… it was a gamble, but one worth taking from my perspective.”
Thus, Harald Neuwirth became the co-founder of the Graz Conservatoire’s Jazz Institute, which was renamed the Jazz Institute of the Music and Performing Arts Academy (Hochschule für Musik und Darstellung) in 1970. From the outset in ’65, he did not only teach the piano, but improvisation, harmony, and other music theory subjects as well. Why did he choose to be a music teacher after having wanted to avoid becoming one at all cost when embarking on his law studies? “Well, these were two different concepts”, Neuwirth comments. “As an eighteen year old, I did not like the prospect of teaching classical piano, but here now was the opportunity to start from scratch and achieve something new: a school programme of jazz music. I relished to that prospect. In Europe, some disparate attempts had been made here and there to create music education for jazz music, but there was no all-comprising pedagogic approach yet. Our only example was the Berklee College of Music in Boston, America. I was eager to bring about a fusion of the European-style classical music education, focusing on technique, and the Anglo-American jazz approach with its heavy emphasis on functional harmony and rhythm. I have always stood firm to the belief that studying jazz music without taking classical music into account is just as stupid as ignoring contemporary genres as a classical student. After World War II, Germans and Austrians found they had destroyed the connection to the Jewish folk tradition, which was music of the heart and mind. What was left after the Holocaust, was an arid classical education without any links to wider popular music culture. Listening comprehension is a subject which has been ignored in classical music education as well. I wanted at least to attempt bringing back a little of this much-needed connection. Therefore, our students, whichever instrument they chose, had to study classical subjects as well as jazz music. That way, they were imbued with the best of both worlds.”
His teaching activities at the fledgling jazz academy in Graz did not impede Harald Neuwirth from performing on stage. Between 1966 and 1968, along with the likes of Hans Salomon and his old friend Erich Bachträgl, he joined the main jazz group in Austria at that time: the sextet of trombonist Erich Kleinschuster, which performed in a lot of ORF radio broadcasts from Vienna. “But that was too much”, Neuwirth recalls. “All week, I was in the car to Vienna and back again. After two years, in which the mutual mistrust between Graz and Vienna was taking its toll on me, I just could not take any more. Originally, Kleinschuster was part of the nucleus of musicians involved in forming the Jazz Institute in Graz, but Erich had had a conflict with Fritz Körner and dropped out. Thereupon, he formed his sextet and did well in radio. Being one of his best friends, I was happy to be in his group. Later onwards, Erich became a producer at ORF, whereas I decided to stay in Graz. After having left the Kleinschuster Sextet, I wanted to continue playing. That is why I created the Harald Neuwirth Quartet in 1970. Using it as a vehicle, I could invite friends from the jazz scene and talented students to perform in Austria and abroad whenever we found the time. Initially, we worked as a quartet. When the later renowned guitarist Harry Pepl joined in 1972, the group was renamed Harald Neuwirth Consort to allow extending the band to five or even more elements. Over the years, dozens of different people played in the consort, some for just a couple of gigs, others for a longer time.”
With his consort, Harald Neuwirth made his debut at the 1970 edition of the Grazer Jazzmesse, presenting a set of new compositions, including a jazz mass for choir and a twelve-piece band. Over the years, the Harald Neuwirth Consort performed on stages all over the world, even in as far away countries as Guatemala, Indonesia, and Malaysia. On many occasions in the 1970s and 1980s, the quintet was present at the annual International Jazz Fair in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. “Working as a teacher”, Neuwirth explains, “I regularly needed the outlet of getting away from the classroom and play. Over the years, I invited many internationally renowned artists to Graz to do gigs with them… Lee Konitz, Ack van Rooyen, Phil Wilson, Allan Botschinsky, Miroslav Vitouš, and Bob Mover, and many more. The real spirit of jazz is not playing concerts at big venues, but meeting up in a club with some musicians for a couple of days to work on a project… to practice and to play. Whereas the classical repertoire does not change, jazz is vibrant, it is alive! I was always keen to turn theory into practice and to working with different people to gain as much new experiences as possible.”
Apart from composing for his consort, Neuwirth also worked as a freelance composer and arranger on a wide variety of projects over the years, including writing the music to radio plays broadcasted by Austrian national broadcaster ORF. Moreover, he penned the soundtracks to several TV films. In 1970, Neuwirth was the pianist, arranger, and band leader of ‘Talente ’70’, a talent show broadcast by nationwide radio involving concerts in all states of Austria. Artists emerging from ‘Talente ’70’ included Marianne Mendt, Wilfried, and Christina Simon. In 1974, teaming up with co-arrangers Christian Kolonovits and Richard Oesterreicher, Neuwirth orchestrated pop artist Heinrich Walcher’s second LP, ‘Regenbogen’. In the world of theatre, between 1970 and 1987, he composed the musical accompaniment to some twenty-five productions staged at the Graz Theatre, including, ‘Die Reiter’, ‘Faust I’ and ‘Faust II’. His theatre compositions were also heard in Vienna’s Volkstheater and Theater in der Josefstadt. For one of his closest friends, playwright Wolfgang Bauer, Neuwirth worked on the piece ‘Memory Hotel’, composing and arranging the accompanying music, which was played entirely live on stage by the Grazer Jazz Academy’s Big Band.
Meanwhile, in Graz, Fritz Körner had created a separate Institute for Jazz Theory in 1971, while the conservatoire’s Jazz Institute – the original academy – was placed under a new managing director: Dieter Glawischnig. In ’74, students of the academy rebelled against what they felt was a much too theoretical, Berklee oriented approach of the institute. Thereupon, in 1975, Glawischnig was replaced by Harald Neuwirth, who immediately set about modernizing the academy. He included listening practice and rhythm training into the curriculum, whilst jazz chamber music and jazz big band became obligatory elements for every student. Moreover, at Neuwirth’s instigation, the institute appointed the first-ever professorate in Europe for the subject of improvisation. Under Neuwirth’s leadership, the Jazz Institute in Graz developed into Europe’s first complete and independent jazz education including all possible levels of graduation.
“When I took over the directorship, it was obvious that more music practice had to be brought into the curriculum”, Neuwirth comments. “To expand on what was done in the academy itself, I attempted to found a jazz club in Graz to allow students to perform regularly. Over the years, we had several places, amongst which the Münzl Club, but, unfortunately, none of them lasted very long. In ’78, by creating the Bigband Seminars at the Deutschlandsberg Castle, we were more successful. Led by Peter Herbolzheimer, students practiced their skills at playing in a big band, in which they played along with guest performers such as Ack van Rooyen. After days of preparation at Deutschlandsberg, we had several concerts in Graz and other towns across Styria. These were expensive projects, and we could only go ahead thanks to the sponsorship of the Styrian government. The concerts, however, received much media attention from Austria and abroad, and put our institute in the limelight again as the example of what a jazz academy should be like. In all, we organized five Big Band Seminars, the last one in 1982.”
Under Neuwirth’s directorship, the Graz Music Academy at long last agreed to appointing professors for all instrumental subjects in 1981, including Harald Neuwirth himself at the subject of piano. When the ORF Big Band was disbanded in that same year, Neuwirth invited several of its members, including leader and trombonist Erich Kleinschuster and percussionist Erich Bachträgl, to come back to Graz and become professors in their respective subjects. In 1982, all academy professors were invited for a special performance at the Science Ministry in Vienna for the much-respected Minister Hertha Firnberg. Feeling hemmed in by the board of the classical part of the academy, which time and again tried to block his initiatives, Harald Neuwirth withdrew as the Jazz Institute’s managing director in 1983. In the following nineteen years, he stayed on at the institute as the professor ordinarius at the subject of jazz piano. Simultaneously, he worked as a teacher of piano and music theory at the Kärntner Landeskonservatorium (Carinthia State Conservatoire) in Klagenfurt for several years from 1987 onwards, exporting the curriculum from Graz to the newly founded jazz department.
At the request of the Graz Jazz Academy, however, Neuwirth returned as the institute’s managing director in 2002. His second spell at the helm of the institute saw the music academy renamed into Kunstuniversität Graz (KUG), or in English: Graz University of Music and Performing Arts. Moreover, under Neuwirth’s supervision, a new reform of the study programme was accomplished, brushing away some of the last elements of inequality between the academy’s classical and jazz departments. He was also responsible for attracting several new teachers to the academy, including Ed Partyka for the subjects of jazz composition and arranging, Dina DeRose for singing, and Howard Curtis for percussion. Finally, Neuwirth retired as the institute’s director and piano professor at sixty-eight years of age in December 2007, having worked at the Graz Jazz Academy for forty-two consecutive years.
As a performer, between the late 1980s and the early 2010s, Neuwirth regularly teamed up again with Erich Kleinschuster, who, upon his return to Graz, reformed his jazz sextet. Together, the two old friends played at many festivals, including the Jazzherbst in Salzburg, the Jazzfest in Wiesen, the Vienna Jazz Festival, and the Upper Austrian Jazz Festival in Braunau am Inn as well as the annual Graz Jazz Sommer Festival, which was thought out and organized by Kleinschuster himself. Neuwirth: “Unfortunately, in recent years, Erich has become too ill to perform any longer, so we have had to give that up. I continue to be a member of the Supervisory Board at the Kunstuniversität. Though we accomplished a lot of our ideals in the music academy over the years, I cannot help being slightly pessimistic about the future. The jazz academy will survive, but with a smaller number of students than before. Moreover, the educational system in Austria is too much oriented towards having fun – and fun does not make good musicians… Practicing does. Austria still has the reputation of a nation of musicians, but the best students at any Austrian music academy today are from the Far East and the Balkans. How to reverse this tendency in the coming years is beyond me.”
Emeritus O. Univ. Prof. Dr. (iur.) Harald Neuwirth lives in Schwanberg, Styria. One of his children, Olga Neuwirth, studied music in San Francisco and Vienna and became a composer in her own right, specializing in avant-garde repertoire.
Harald Neuwirth in the Eurovision Song Contest
In 1988, Austrian broadcaster ORF chose Wilfried for the Eurovision Song Contest without a televised selection programme. Subsequently, the singer and his band came up with ‘Lisa Mona Lisa’, which Wilfried co-wrote with his guitarist Klaus Kofler and lyricist Ronnie Herbolzheimer, one of Neuwirth’s former students. The choice for Harald Neuwirth as the musical director for this Austrian entry may have come as a surprise to outsiders, as all Austrian songs in the ten previous Eurovision editions had been conducted by Richard Oesterreicher. “After ‘Talente ’70’, I had always stayed in touch with Wilfried”, Neuwirth explains. “Early in 1988, he called me, telling me he had been selected to represent Austria and that he wanted me to write the arrangement to the song and conduct the Eurovision orchestra. For him, I must have been the natural choice, given we had worked together so extensively over the years. Other artists representing Austria previously did not have such a strong connection to an arranger – and, therefore, ORF could make its own choice, Oesterreicher… and why not, because Richard Oesterreicher was more than able to do the job. When Wilfried asked me, I immediately agreed. Why hesitate? Commercial music is full of people who do not have the slightest idea what they are doing, so I did not doubt for a minute that I could do the job. Of course, the Eurovision Song Contest was not my world, but it would be interesting to get to know a corner of the business I had never been involved in before. Moreover, I wanted to help Wilfried like I had done in the seventies when I wrote ‘Ziwui ziwui for him. I wondered if I could make a difference for him by writing an original arrangement – something which stood out, perhaps.”
Talking of Wilfried and the Eurovision Song Contest inevitably amounts to tracing the reasons for the ‘nul points’ and the abysmal twenty-first position he came away with in Dublin. Neuwirth feels there are several different reasons, the first one being the song, ‘Lisa Mona Lisa’. “I do not feel Wilfried should have left Eurovision alone”, he comments. “With the right song – folk pop in the style of ‘Wie a glockn’ by Marianne Mendt – he could have made a good impression. His problem was that he often wanted to do things he was not able to. Wilfried is a Natursänger, someone who sings instinctively without bothering too much about technique. He could have been a better singer, if he had taken lessons – but he never felt the motivation to do so after his first successes in the business. His ambition always was to sing the blues, but, to my mind, he is not the right performer for that genre. The same is true for ‘Lisa Mona Lisa’, which was what I would call a Heldenlied, an exalted type of romanticizing ballad. It was the sort of music for which he had to pretend to be someone else than he really was. He has never been a singer for concert halls with an orchestra or big band. With folk-pop, he would have been all right. I cannot help feeling that by choosing this song for the contest, Wilfried took himself too seriously. That was the Urfehler, the initial mistake, he made.”
“Just as ‘Lisa Mona Lisa’ did not offer Wilfried any possibilities on stage”, Neuwirth continues, “it left me with little opportunities to come up with a striking arrangement. I felt there was just one way to write it. As the Eurovision orchestra included string and brass, I wrote parts for both sections – that was obligatory (!). I tried to create some sort of build-up by enlarging the orchestral backing as the song goes on. The rhythm elements were pre-recorded on a click track. In Dublin, I had two short orchestral rehearsals, which were more than enough to get the orchestra to play the way I wanted them to. Acoustically, there were no problems. As for conducting, I had never taken any lessons in that. It was not my main interest in music. I had led student big bands before – Eurovision was the first and only time I conducted an orchestra including a string and a brass section… but then, there was a click-track, which made a conductor more or less redundant. In front of the orchestra in Ireland, I kept a low profile by indicating the correct rhythm in the simplest way possible, just as Peter Herbolzheimer always did when he led a big band. Anything more than that would have been superfluous and, moreover, could have created confusion with the orchestra musicians.”
Apart from Wilfried – “It was obvious to me that he was not feeling comfortable during rehearsals, but nobody could have predicted he would sing as badly as he did in the live broadcast” – the Austrian Eurovision delegation was having a relaxed week in Ireland. Neuwirth: “Representing the ORF, there were producer Peter Hofbauer and speaker Ernst Grissemann. Grissemann was not really a friend of mine. Jazz was not his genre of music and, as a result, I was not a part of his musical scope. Wilfried’s band was having a good time, and so was I. I liked being in Ireland again. I am a fan of this country, which I had extensively roamed on previous holidays. Music is part of the soul of the Irish. In every pub, there is someone at the piano singing beautifully. It has always fascinated me how sharp the contrast is with Austria, because we do not seem to be able to come up with anything else but dreadful song lyrics and hopeless piano accompaniment by classically trained musicians without any connection to pop…”
In the television concert, Harald Neuwirth wore a striking red and white jacket. Laughingly, he recalls: “I once bought it in a second-hand shop in America long before there was any talk of the Eurovision Song Contest. I have never been the kind of person to feel any pride about representing one’s country, but now that I would be doing just that, this jacked in the colours of the Austrian flag seemed like a more appropriate choice than just another black suit with a tie. With this Austrian ‘red, white, and red’, I was hoping to be a little helpful to all of us.”
Anyone watching the Eurovision Song Contest that evening could notice that the singer representing Austria was extremely nervous. Wilfried’s vocal performance was plainly terrible. “He had been tense all week”, Neuwirth comments, “but when the big night was there and he saw this giant arena filled to the last seat, his nerves must have turned into outright fear. Wilfried has always been someone for a small stage, where he can charm the audience by his presentation. This large, commercial event was simply too much for him. When he started singing, of course he noticed it was not good… and then he started thinking – which, given his lack of singing technique, was not the best idea, as he then lost the last bit of his natural charm and, while forgetting to breathe, sang even worse. He added insult to injury by trying to look relaxed, leaning against the piano. He tried to act a singer. Even in this song, he could have put in more of his soul by leaving alone the rhythmical, typically German approach, replacing it with parlando, something he was really good at. I can safely say that was the worst performance in Wilfried’s career. Already during the song, I noticed it was not good. I had one of the ears of the headphones off, so I could listen to him while conducting the orchestra. I really felt for Wilfried. After the broadcast was over, I went with the rest of the band to a bar in Dublin, but, as you can imagine, the atmosphere was killed.
Apart from the choice of song and Wilfried’s below-par vocal performance, Neuwirth feels there is one more reason for the ‘zero’ in Dublin. “When we left Ireland, I bought a local newspaper at the airport. In it, there was a headline: ‘Austria gets no points’, implying that, in the aftermath of the Waldheim Affair (In the run-up to the 1986 Austrian presidential elections, it had come about that conservative politician Kurt Waldheim had played a less than favourable role in Yugoslavia and Greece during World War II. The revelations led to an international scandal, even more so when the Austrian voters duly elected him. In the following years, more and more details about Waldheim’s war record surfaced, though he was exonerated of most allegations in the course of 1988, ed.), Austria deserved to be punished for creating the Waldheim monster. I am convinced the rest of Europe felt the urge to take revenge on Austria in all sorts of ways. Wilfried and the rest of us had to pay dearly for this. True, ‘Lisa Mona Lisa’ was not a brilliant song, but it was certainly not the worst entry in the contest. There were songs taking part which were much more naïve. As the Eurovision Song Contest is first and foremost a competition of composers rather than performers, Wilfried deserved more than these nil points.”
It took many years and the intervention of Wilfried himself to convince Harald Neuwirth to do an interview for this website. “It is the first time I am being interviewed about the contest”, Neuwirth admits. “Of course, it is not something I am looking back on fondly. I more or less deleted it from my system. Believe it or not, I had never watched the performance until you showed it to me on You-Tube, just now. It has brought back lots of memories. What I feel about there being no longer an orchestra in Eurovision? Well, it was a logical development given the ever growing amount of technical additions to modern popular music. Moreover, music has become bureaucratized. There is no room for an orchestra in such a set-up. When Conchita Wurst won it (in 2014, red.), I was positively surprised. I knew of her, as she had studied fashion design in Graz. Of course, her management did a good job at selling her story, but, regardless of everything surrounding her performance, did you notice how well she sang? I wonder who taught her that. Being able to deliver such a fantastic vocal performance on that huge stage was no mean achievement!”
Other artists on Harald Neuwirth
Former student at the Graz Jazz Academy and co-author of ‘Lisa Mona Lisa’, Ronnie Herbolzheimer: “He was one of the best teachers I ever had – one who, like any good teacher, attempts at making himself redundant by sharing with his students the knowledge needed to walk the road alone. The subject of harmony, which many experts like to turn into a secret science of endless complexness, simply to keep their lectures running and hold onto their academic position as long as possible… well, whoever was taught by Neuwirth, mastered it quickly and really got to the core of it. “Have you understood?”, he would say. “Well, now, you need to practice, and listen – listen – listen – listen analytically!” In the days in which ideologists were in power, Neuwirth opened the ears of his students to the artistic and practical aspects of jazz.” (2004)