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Prerauer, Kurt (Curt) (1901–1967)

by Warren A. Bebbington and John Carmody

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Kurt (Curt) Prerauer (1901-1967), pianist, conductor and music critic, was born on 1 April 1901 at Landeshut (Kamienna Góra), Silesia, Germany (Poland), elder son of Felix Prerauer, shoe manufacturer, and his Viennese-born wife Gertrud, née Hammerschlag. Kurt attended the local realgymnasium. From a very early age he learned to play the piano and the violin; later he took up the organ. In 1921 he graduated in music from the University of Breslau (Wroclaw), where one of his professors was Max Schneider. He studied law (on his parents' insistence) and music (under Adolf Sandberger) at the University of Munich in 1921-23, and music at the Bavarian (State) Academy of Music. Subsequently, he was a private composition student of Professor Hugo Leichtentritt in Berlin.

After appointments as solorépétiteur (vocal coach) at the opera houses at Oldenburg (1923-24) and Essen (1924-25), Prerauer joined the staff of the Staatsoper (State Opera), Berlin, in 1925 as solorépétiteur and organist. From 1926 he was personal assistant to the principal conductor Leo Blech. Eventually he was appointed director of studies. He worked with such conductors as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, and, notably, Erich Kleiber for the world première in 1925 of Berg's Wozzeck, and also took part in the symphony concerts of the Staatsoper. In 1932 he was soloist in the world première of Weinberger's Passacaglia for organ and orchestra.

Prerauer's coaching engagement at the Festival Theatre, Bayreuth, was cancelled in 1933 on the insistence of Winifred Wagner and on 30 June that year his Berlin appointment was terminated under Hitler's anti-Jewish laws. Colleagues provided him with glowing references. By the end of that year he was in Britain, after accompanying Florence Austral on a recital tour of the Netherlands. He was contracted to the British Broadcasting Corporation as coach for (Sir) Adrian Boult's concert première of Wozzeck in London in March 1934; its music department 'unanimously agreed that much of the success of the singers' was due to his coaching.

Sir Benjamin Fuller engaged him to assemble his ambitious Royal Grand Opera Company and to be one of its three conductors. Prerauer arrived in Melbourne in August 1934 and, after Sydney and Melbourne seasons, received permission to remain in Australia. He settled in Sydney, spelt his name Curt and was to be naturalized in 1938. The series of operas that he organized for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1935-36 was a stimulating mix, including Boris Godunov, Fidelio, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, The Rhinegold and Hansel and Gretel, many of which he had to cut due to the exigencies of broadcasting schedules. He wrote for the earliest issues of the A.B.C. Weekly.

Prerauer developed a reputation as a composer, music critic, and teacher at the Alfred Hill Academy of Music. In May 1938 he was appointed conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Society of Sydney. He proceeded to 'jolt that royal and ancient body out of its conservative ways' with Sydney's first attempt at an 'authentic' Messiah, and a Mass by Lassus—the 'masons among the members were outraged by this piece of popery'. The 'stormy season' ended with Prerauer's much-publicized resignation in February 1939 amid accusations of his 'dictatorship'. Enlisting in the Militia on 8 January 1942, he initially joined the 13th Garrison Battalion. From October that year he served at Port Kembla in the 2nd Employment Company until he was discharged from the army as medically unfit in December 1943.

At St Clement's Anglican Church, Mosman, on 7 December 1942 Prerauer had married Marea Victusya Wolkowsky. One of his pupils, she was a formidably talented soprano, twenty years his junior. In 1950 he returned to Europe as her accompanist and manager. He also presented illustrated lectures on Australian music. She had successes, including a London season (1953) at Covent Garden in Wozzeck, under Kleiber. The Prerauers' work in East Berlin ended when they had to flee hurriedly after Kleiber resigned (1955) from the Staatsoper in protest against political interference. 'It was', Prerauer later recalled, 'my second flight from there'. Following ten years in Europe, Curt and Marea returned to Sydney where, in 1960, he became music critic for the magazine Nation. He also worked as critic for the Sun newspaper, wrote for numerous overseas journals, including Music Survey (England), Melos (Germany) and the Österreichische Musikzeitschrift (Austria), and reported for Swiss radio and almost every important radio network in Germany.

Curt and 'Maria' Prerauer produced Zeitgenossiche Australische Lyrik (Contemporary Australian Poetry) (München, 1961), with English and German texts on facing pages. They also translated into German Riders in the Chariot (at Patrick White's request) and numerous plays (among them Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll which had many performances in Germany and Austria).

As a critic, Prerauer drew on deep knowledge and experience, and insisted on the highest standards. His 'critical absolutism and his rigorous division of the elect and non-elect' often elicited hostility, which was occasionally warranted as he did not always avoid partiality. Intolerant of the insincere and the insubstantial, he dismissed many eminent British composers as 'mediocrities and bad imitators', and told one correspondent that he had 'founded the A.C.C.C.C.—the Australian Composers' Copy-cat Club'.

People often found Prerauer intimidating and arrogant, though some felt that his manner was a 'protective front'. In correspondence (1963-64) with Peter Sculthorpe he mixed detailed technical advice on Sculthorpe's compositions with philosophical encouragement. Referring the young Tasmanian to the qualities of John Antill's Corroboree, he stressed that he should discover his Australian voice. He also reflected on 'what the ''Australian idiom"—if it were ever to arise in music—ought to look like: great loneliness, the cruelty of the bush, the ''horizontal grandeur" of Australia—comparable with the ''vertical grandeur" of the European Alps'. He responded to diverse music: he admired Dene Barnett's approach to Bach, described Richard Meale's Las Alborados as 'a truly great work', and delighted in the iconoclastic creations of David Ahern.

Prerauer's commitment to Australia never wavered. He died of subarachnoid haemorrhage on 29 November 1967 in Royal North Shore Hospital and was cremated with Jewish rites. His wife survived him and, as 'Maria Prerauer', became a well-known novelist, journalist, editor and music critic.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Gyger, Opera for the Antipodes (Syd, 1990)
  • P. Sametz, Play On (Syd, 1992)
  • ABC Weekly, 2 Dec 1939
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Apr, 13 June, 16 Nov 1935, 6 June 1936, 16 Jan, 1 May 1937, 22, 25, 27, 28 Feb, 1, 4 Mar, 2 Aug 1939, 15 July 1940, 29 Apr 1944, 26 Oct 1946, 6 July, 25 Nov 1957, 12 Feb 1958, 10 Nov 1962, 26 Sept 1966, 27 Feb, 12 Sept 1967
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 27 Dec 1959
  • Nation (Sydney), 16 Dec 1967
  • James Murdoch papers (National Library of Australia)
  • residence and naturalisation files, B13, item 1934/17409, A446/169, item 1958/44648 and SP368/1, item 7/44/14 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Warren A. Bebbington and John Carmody, 'Prerauer, Kurt (Curt) (1901–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/prerauer-kurt-curt-11455/text20419, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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