“Walter Burle Marx, born in 1902, was the oldest child. He began to play the piano with his mother at about age 4. A “crystalizing moment” occurred at age 7 when the boy attended an opera and knew then that he wanted to be a musician. Once he began to be serious about music, he was not permitted to play ball or other sport for fear he might injure his hands. Being the first-born son and sharing the passion for music with his mother with whom he began to study more seriously, nothing was spared to support his musical development. Schooling was carried out for Walter and his siblings through a governess and tutors, typical in affluent Brazilian families at the time. After the family moved to Rio in 1914, he studied piano with Enrique Oswold and practiced many hours each day. He was launched as a “wunderkind” giving concerts throughout Europe and South America by age 12. In 1921, he went to Berlin where he studied with the “greats” of that era: piano with James Kwast, conducting with Weingartner and composition with Rezniceck.
The family invested much time, money and energy in helping Walter succeed. They provided appropriate instruction, exposed him to various musicians, gave him opportunities to attend concerts, took him on his concert tours and sent him to study in Europe. In return, Walter was serious and studious, committing himself to the increasingly longer hours of practice needed for perfecting his craft. However, although his parents wanted him to be a pianist, he pursued his own interests in conducting and composition, choosing to engage in these areas rather than piano after reaching adulthood.
He founded the Orquestra Filarmonica do Rio de Janeiro in 1931, serving as its music director for three years. In this position, he premiered over 60 works in Brazil including Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, organized youth concerts, and taught conducting at the National School of Music. In 1939, he was made music director for the Brazilian Pavillion for the World’s Fair in New York, premiering many Brazilian works in the United States, particularly the music of his good friend, Heitor Villa Lobos. In that period, he also also guest conducted the New York Philharmonic, and the Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington symphony orchestras. He was described by Olin Downes, music critic of the New York Times, as a virtuoso conductor. His rising star status in the music world appeared assured. However, he fell in love with an American and remained in the United States, giving up his career as conductor for music composition, with the exception of the period between 1946-1950 when he returned to Brazil to be artistic director for the Opera Rio de Janiero.
He composed dozens of rich and varied works, including four symphonies, numerous compositions for chamber groups, religious music, many choral works, a music play and pieces for solo guitar and solo cello. His music was often inspired by Brazilian folk sources and he was particularly fascinated by “Macumba”, a Afro-Brazilian religion. During his extensive stay in America he became fascinated with U.S. history which he wove into a cycle of American holiday songs and commemorative pieces. As a composer in the United States, he left the world of fame he had attained as a young man in Brazil, living out the last fifty years of his life almost unknown. To provide for his family, he taught piano, theory, and composition at Settlement Music School in Philadelphia beginning in 1952, but his passion was composing.
He was a very disciplined man, typically beginning his day before 6:00 AM and composing two hours before breakfast and at least three more hours before leaving to teach. Even though he rarely had a hearing of his works, he persisted in writing music. Encouragement of friends was important, as was support from his wife and faith in his own ability, probably brought about by his early successes. Only in the last five years of Walter’s life were more of his compositions given audience and his gifts as a composer recognized, in part through the establishment of the Burle Marx Musical Society by friends and admirers. In 1989, he was honored by the City of Philadelphia with a day proclaimed for him at a concert at the Academy of Music. A memorial concert was held in 1991 to celebrate his life and musical contributions following his death in December, 1990.”
Walter Burle Marx
Born in São Paulo, Brazil, Walter Burle Marx began his career as a pianist, studying with Enrique Oswald in Rio de Janeiro, Tobias Mattay in London and James Kwast in Berlin. Although he concertized widely throughout Brazil and Europe in the 1920’s, He also studied composition with Emil von Resnicek and conducting with Felix Weingartner during this period. In 1931 he founded the Rio de Janeiro Philharmonic and conducted numerous premieres with this orchestra, among them, the first South American performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Soloists with the orchestra included Arthur Rubinstein, Mieczislav Horszowski and Margaret Long. He was also the first to organize youth concerts in Brazil.
During the decade following his return to Brazil in 1931, Burle Marx continued to conduct in both Europe and the United States. Among the most notable orchestras that he guest conducted were the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Detroit and the National Symphony Orchestras. He served as Music Director of the Brazilian Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City where he conducted the New York Philharmonic in several premieres of works by now-notable Brazilian composers such as Heitor Villa Lobos and Camargo Guarnieri. He also introduced some of his own compositions. One of these, Fantastic Episodes, prompted N.Y. Times critic Olin Downes to remark, “It was a score of astonishing workmanship. Very few young men of his generation could write with such a proficiency that it conceals knowledge and seizes the public.”
In 1947 Burle Marx was appointed Artistic Director of the Rio de Janeiro Opera. In 1949 he left Brazil in order to become a permanent U.S. resident and devote himself entirely to composition. From 1952 until his retirement in 1977, he taught piano, theory and composition at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia . He continued to compose until his death in December of 1990.
The Burle Marx Music Society was founded early in 1987 to promote the music and work of W. Burle Marx and other Brazilian and Pan-American composers and musicians. The Society produces musical events, and distributes scores and recordings to performing ensembles and organizations. Associates in both the United States and Latin America are working with the Society to achieve these goals.
Among Burle Marx’s richly varied works are 4 symphonies, several pieces for solo guitar, 2 concertinos for piano and orchestra, a cello concerto, 2 string quartets, a quartet for ancient instruments, a quintet for flute and strings and a song cycle entitled The Great Occasions, featuring songs for American holidays as well as others celebrated around the world. His Halloween song provided the inspiration for a musical play with orchestra, chorus and soloists written for UNICEF entitled The Witchkids.
Madalena Burle Marx, “W. Burle Marx Symphony #3″, Program Notes (Akron Symphony Orchestra.)