Johann Nepomuk David (1895–1977)

Johann Nepomuk David was born in Eferding, Upper Austria, on 30 November 1895, the same year as Hindemith and Orff - composer colleagues he does not equal in celebrity, but certainly in importance.

He grew up as the fourth of 13 children in a music-loving family which often gathered together to sing. At the age of ten, David became a chorister at the Augustinian monastery of St. Florian, where Anton Bruckner had studied and taught. The solemnity of the religious services, the organ masses and the a cappella works he heard made lasting impressions on the boy. In addition, symphonies by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were also occasionally performed at the monastery. David took piano and violin lessons and became proficient on both instruments as well as, later, on the organ. After his voice broke, David went to Kremsmünster where, in addition to his schooling, he also had the opportunity to play chamber music. It was there that he taught himself the flute and the cello.

Mainly for financial considerations David was destined to become a teacher. So the Episcopal Teacher's College in Linz became the next station on his path to higher learning. This was where he began his intensive study of the works of Bach, which was later to exert a strong influence on his own compositional oeuvre and on his thorough and subtle analyses of Bach's inventions and sinfonias. During his years of teaching in remote rural areas (Peterskirchen then Waizenkirchen from 1915 to 1924), David experienced almost unbearable loneliness and became totally self-reliant. His search for an authentic manner of expression, however, was not yet over. He spent a year of study (1921/22) in Vienna, where he eagerly absorbed the intellectual and musical currents of the time (the music of Reger, Debussy, Scryabin and Ravel, in particular). Although David also occunied himself with Schoenberg, he realized that this path was not his. He turned instead to the sources of Occidental music and, above all, to the works of Josquin Desprez, which he found exemplary in their combination of carefully composed structure and lush, beautiful sound. After Josquin, Bach and Reger, polyphony's resources had not yet been exhausted. It was to be his mission to restore polyphony to prominence in the music of the 20th century.

In December 1923 David married Berta Eybl, the musically gifted daughter of a merchant, and formed a congenial partnership with her. David then obtained a teaching post in the district capital of Wels. Although he himself was a Catholic, he became the organist and choir-master of the Evangelical Christ Church (Christuskirche) there. That was when he began to show an intense interest in the Evangelical church hymn, which was to occupy a substantial place in his oeuvre. He founded the Bach Choir in Wels, giving attention-getting concerts with his highly innovative and original programs, which gained great recognition. His sons Thomas Christian and Lukas were born in 1925 and 1934 respectively.

What Karl Straube was to Max Reger, David Friedrich Högner was to Johann Nepomuk David. Högner was such an enthusiastic admirer of David's organ works that he spread David's name far beyond the borders of the composer's native region. So finally, in 1934 David could give up his elementary school post for a position as teacher of theory, composition and choral conducting at the Leipzig State Conservatory (Landeskonservatorium, later Musikhochschule), as well as director of this institution's choral ensembles. Here, it was above all as a choral conductor that David accomplished his most pace-setting work. Little by little, however, his importance as a composer also began to emerge, first in his church music, and later in his chamber music and works for large orchestra as well. In Leipzig, he also began his relationship with the publishing house Breitkopf & Härtel, which was to remain very cordial for the rest of his life.

Like so many other artists who lived through the Nazi era, David also experienced the tension between his rejection of the system and his need to work. His nomination to a professorship was delayed for several years because he was considered politically unreliable. Among his students and colleagues, his personal and artistic integrity were never doubted. David was appointed acting head of the Musikhochschule in 1942. Among the personal experiences that marked him during these dark years were the tragic deaths of his most talented students and the bombing of his Leipzig home, during which all of his manuscripts were destroyed. His "Symphonic Variations on a Theme by Heinrich Schütz" can be understood as an expression of his feelings about the events of his day. The psalm text of the theme which he arranged reads: "Es steh' Gott auf, daß seine Feind' plötzlich zerstreuet werden" (May God arise and suddenly disperse his enemies).

After a short interlude (1945-1947) as head of the Mozarteum in Salzburg, David returned to Germany and took on a professorship for theory and composition at the Stuttgart Musikhochschule. But here, too, he did not restrict himself to merely teaching theory and composition. David introduced the students of his Hochschule chamber orchestra with fervor and passion to the works of Bartok, Fortner, Krenek, Stravinsky and others, and devoted time and study to the works of his contemporaries. David, who was extremely modest when it came to his own works, became animated and inspired enthusiasm when working with the music of others. Among his many honors and awards was an honorary doctorate from the Evangelical-Theological Faculty of the Johannes-Gutenberg University in Mainz. Johann Nepomuk David died in Stuttgart on December 22, 1977.

(Elisabeth Biener; Translated by Roger Clément)