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"He who doesn't remain inquisitive ends up failing much
earlier in life, and ends up losing his love for life."

Hans Helfritz


Travel Author
Music Ethnologist
Explorer and Adventurer
Photographer and Cameraman
> to the german version
Biography -- For Hans Helfritz (1902-1995), applying himself to only one field of study started causing problems for him early in life. He grew up in Greifswald and Berlin (the photo shows him with his parents and his sister Marlene). After his school-leaving examinations, and at the urging of his parents, he started vocational training in a bank. "I dreamt only of numbers. It was nearly the death of me," noted Hans Helfritz, 1990, in his autobiography 'Neugier trieb mich um die Welt' ('Curiosity drove me 'round the world'). He ended his training shortly thereafter and was allowed to start studying music in Berlin, which he financed himself with various different jobs. Since his family was not wealthy, Helfritz was forced to support himself with various jobs. From 1926 to 1929 Hans Helfritz studied contrabass and composition at the University for Music in Berlin, taught by Paul Hindemith, among others, and also studied comparative musicology with Professor Erich von Hornbostel. Alongside his music studies, he also developed an active, multifaceted ability - as shown in his later life - to combine personal interests with work. He was an accompanist to silent films at the cinema and also earned his keep by working as an extra at the State Opera. It was his work as a répétiteur at the Vera Skoronel and Berte Trümpy Dance Studio that led to his first commissions to compose, like the music for the 1930 ballet 'Der Kreuzzug der Maschinen' (The Crusade of the Machines), for which the score has been lost. His first success was also in 1930, the premiere of the 'Konzertes für Cembalo (Harpsichord) mit kleinem Orchester' at the music festival in Bad Pyrmont. However, the first, great expedition to the Near East in 1930 provided Helfritz's life the first of its many, completely new leaves. His return from the Near East (1930) did nothing to extinguish Hans Helfritz's new-found passion for travel. He brought back photographs and sound recordings and published his first book. His most important expedition took place in Saudi Arabia. On the suggestion of Professor von Hornbostel, Helfritz found himself on three occasions in Hadramaut and what was then the Kingdom of Yemen (1931-1935), where he was the first person to record the songs of the Bedouin peoples. He also managed to become the first European to set foot in the legendary and heavily guarded city of Shabwa, which brought him a measure of international acclaim. Along with books and photos, he also released two documentary films. Between 1935 and 1939 Hans Helfritz was traveling almost constantly, visiting, among other locations, the Near East and the American continent. He feared being denounced and persecuted in Nazi Germany due to his homosexuality and thus, with the outbreak of war, he found himself in Bolivia where he was researching for a new book. He did not to return to Germany, but instead went into exile in Chile. Exile in Chile meant that Hans Helfritz had to first eke out a living as a postcard photographer. But it was not long before he started getting offers to participate in scientific expeditions as photographer and cameraman. He traveled through Chile, which is over 4,000 km long, into Antarctica and also landed on the far away Easter Island. Several of his books were published in Germany soon after the war. In Santiago, especially during the Second World War, Hans Helfritz met many well-known musicians and conductors, among them the pianist Walter Gieseking and the conductor Hermann Scherchen. This marked the beginning of his second intensive creative period as a composer. But it was not until after he became a citizen of Chile in 1948 that Helfritz could take part in the national music competitions. On his first attempt, he achieved first place with his 'Konzert für Tenorsaxophon und Orchester'. Due to the changing political and economic situation in Chile, Hans Helfritz returned to Europe for good in 1959 and settled down on the Balearic Island of Ibiza. Since he no longer had a strong connection to the German world of music, he put more focus on his traveling, books and lectures. During this time, he only occasionally composed music. The 1960's and 70's were years of intensive traveling, whereby curiosity connected seamlessly with his work. He used his activity as a tour guide, which he began after the war, for book research. Travel guides about Indonesia, Mexico and Ethiopia were published. As he had made several journeys to Africa in the late 1950's and early 60's, he returned with impressive photos and a travelogue (Schwarze Ritter. Zwischen Niger und Tschad (Black Knights. Between Niger and Chad), 1958). Hans Helfritz continued to pursue his various interests into old age. After his autobiography, 'Neugier trieb mich um die Welt (Curiosity Drove Me 'Round the World)' was published in 1990, in which he wrote down his anecdote-rich life story, three documentary films about Hans Helfritz were made. One of these was with the American author and composer Paul Bowles. For the film, Helfritz traveled to Morocco and as a 92-year-old also visited Guatemala, Chile and California. Helfritz was unfortunately unable to attend the 1995 celebration at Berlin's Academy of the Arts, where the Hans Helfritz Archive was inaugurated, as he lay critically ill in a hospital in Duisburg. A mere day later, on October 21, 1995, the 93-year-old Helfritz died. The urn with his ashes was interred in Sant Agustí on Ibiza in February 1996. -- Music -- Until 1939 - Hans Helfritz received private music instruction from Paul Höffer, a student of Franz Schreker, until he was admitted into Berlin's University of Music in 1926. From 1926-29, he studied contrabass, composition and music ethnology there, and also played in the University Orchestra under the direction of Schreker. His instructors, among others, included Curt Sachs, Heinz Tiessen, Egon Petri, Max Butting and Paul Hindemith, with whom he took a course under the auspices of the radio broadcast testing station (Rundfunkversuchsstelle). He realized his first successes, among which were the performance of 'Konzert für Cembalo mit kleinem Orchester' (Concert for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra, 1930) and the ballet music for 'Der Kreuzzug der Maschinen' (The Crusade of the Machines), performed at the Berlin Volksbühne on Bülowplatz to Choreography by Vera Skoronel (1930, lost). After this first, intensive creative period, traveling and writing books supplanted his composition work. Exile I: 1939-1948 - When Helfritz went into Chilean exile in 1939, this started the second and perhaps most creative phase of composition in his life. But the tragedy of German music in exile was because the favorable contexts in which it was created were missing. Santiago de Chile between 1939 and 1959 was not Berlin in the 20's. Continuity to the times in Berlin was hardly possible for Helfritz, as for others. Despite this, the foreign surroundings inspired new, original works from the composers. In South America, he jotted down measures that he would use in later works. He collected pentatonic melodies from native tribes in Bolivia and Peru, with which materials he created a comprehensive 14-piece cycle for piano he published under the title of 'Aru Amunyas'. In Chile Hans Helfritz met many musicians, including the conductor Hermann Scherchen who promoted Helfritz's work, not least by publishing the 'Konzert für Tenorsaxophon' (Concert for Tenor Saxophone) and the 'Orgelkonzert' (Organ Concert) through his music publisher, Ars Viva. "The music scene in Santiago during the war years was not at all provincial. We had important conductors like Victor Tevah, Erich Kleiber and Fritz Busch. Then famous soloists came from overseas; Iturbi, at that time still a pianist, Arthur Rubinstein gave concerts, and later, after the war, Walter Gieseking was one of the first to celebrate great success in Santiago." Exile II: 1948-1959 - In Santiago Helfritz became acquainted with the young Chilean composer Juan Allende-Blin and the German organist Gerd Zacher, who was active in the German church in Santiago from 1954-57. He remained lifelong friends with the both of them. Helfritz composed various organ music scores for Zacher: 'Fünf Spielstücke für Orgel' (Five Playing Pieces for Organ, 1965), 'Fünf Stücke für Orgel' (Five Pieces for Organ, 1977) and 'Tres composiciónes für Orgel' (Three Compositions for Organ, 1985). It was not until after the war when he became a Chilean citizen in 1948 that Hans Helfritz gained contacts to Chile's music scene. The premiere of his 'Concertino für Klavier und Orchester' (Concerto for Piano and Orchestra) in early November, 1947, in Santiago de Chile was a success, but the real breakthrough for him as a composer came with his 'Konzert für Tenorsaxophon und Orchester' (Concert for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra) at its premiere in 1948. At the music festival "Extensión Musical" in Santiago de Chile, he received first prize. Helfritz was inspired by the folk music of the Andes peoples over and over again, but transposed them into his works rather unconsciously, with the exception of 'Aru Amunyas, Musica folklorica de Bolivia' (Aru Amunyas, Folkloric Music of Bolivia, 1940) where he worked Native melodies into music for piano. The musical language of Hans Helfritz shows early inspiration from the Group of Six, especially the French composers Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc, but is still created from a very German point of view. Back in Europe (1959-1995) - As Hans Helfritz was unable to reconnect to the German music scene, he focussed his energies on traveling activities, books and lectures, only composing occasionally. When he did, it was especially for musicians with whom he was friendly, like the Prague Duo, who he had met during a lecture tour and to whom he dedicated 'Balearische Impressionen für Xylophon und Klavier' (Balearic Impressions for Xylophone and Piano, 1979). One of his last compositions is the spirited drum suite 'Vier Phantastische Impressionen aus Mittelamerika für Schlagzeug' (Four Fantastic Impressions from Central America for Percussion, 1990) was composed in Sant Agustí and was filmed/recorded by the West German Broadcasting (WDR) television station. Even in this late work, the composer once again returned to his memories of South and Central American rhythms. The works of Hans Helfritz have never been commercially recorded, with the exception of concert outtakes from Chile and the post-war period in Europe and also excepting the television recordings of German broadcasters and a privately published CD in June of 1995. At the same time, many of his works have never been performed. The scores can be found in the Hans Helfritz Archive at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. -- Books -- Travelogues - After his first publication (Unter der Sonne des Orients - Under the Oriental Sun, 1931), Hans Helfritz recorded his travels in word and picture. Altogether he published 25 books, many of which have been translated into foreign languages. The last book he wrote while still in exile was about Bolivia, Im Quellgebiet des Amazonas (At the Headwaters of the Amazon) that, as planned, was published by Safari Publishing in Berlin in 1942. It was not until 1951 that Helfritz was once again able to be published in Germany. Besides the travelogues and guidebooks, he also wrote a historical work about the Inca, Maya and Aztecs (Amerika, Vienna 1965). Travel Guides - Hans Helfritz always understood how to interconnect his differing activities. Upon his return from exile, he worked as a tour guide, which he used to do research for later books. Along with writing the first art travel guide of a new series for DuMont Publishing in Cologne (Die Götterburgen Mexikos - The Mountains of the Gods, 1968), he also worked on numerous other guidebooks, including ones about Indonesia, Morocco, Mexico and Ethiopia. Autobiography - In 1990 the autobiography of Hans Helfritz was published, Neugier trieb mich um die Welt (Curiosity Drove me 'round the World). The book was transcribed with the assistance of Jean-Claude Kuner, who took notes of discussions over a period of several weeks. One part of the book is dedicated to the many stations of his life. Another consists of amusing anecdotes of unusual events that happened to Hans Helfritz during his many journeys (published by DuMont Publishing, Cologne, 1990; out-of-print). -- Pictures -- Hans Helfritz filmed documentaries during his travels for the Ufa Documentary Film Department (Ufa Kulturfilmabteilung), of which six are still in existence. Helfritz was interested in foreign cultures and it shines through in his films. Without distance, he tried to portray the people with sympathy and warmth. He brought the camera directly into what was happening, which pulled the viewer straight into the goings-on. He was thus able to obtain a special drama and vibrancy, especially with dance scenes. All of his films show Helfritz's strong interest in the music and dance of other cultures. During his two stays in 1937/38 in Central America and the United States, where he gave lectures and filmed for the Ufa, in Mexico he shot the first-ever film recordings of the Voladores Dances (Steinschlangen und Vogelmenschen - Stone Snakes and Bird People). This dance had been forbidden by the Spanish Conquistadores, but had been passed down through the generations in secret and was completely unknown outside of Mexico. At the beginning of 1939, this documentary film was shown in cinemas, but the war ended his work with Ufa. In exile in Chile, he created publicity films and documentary photographs of his expeditions. Hans Helfritz filmed extensive amounts of material for planned documentary films, one about avocado orchards in Chile, Mexico, Guatemala and California. This project never came to fruition, however. Helfritz shot more film in Africa, which he also could not use. Why it is that he did not come into contact with television in the 1960's is not known. A majority of these post-war film materials are still in existence and can be found in the Hans Helfritz Archive of the Rautenstrauch Joest Museum in Cologne. From the start of his traveling activities in the 1920's until his death in 1995, a camera was the constant companion of Hans Helfritz. It was especially his travels to the Near East and through Southern Arabia where he returned with impressive photos. He was able to win the trust of the people who he photographed , which results in an immediacy that can also be seen in his camerawork for film. Everything was photographed: People, foreign customs and conventions, musicians and dancers, cities and landscapes. There are more than 3,000 negatives from these journeys. At the beginning of his exile in Chile, Helfritz eked out a living as a postcard photographer. Then he was hired as photographer on expeditions: Among them, one to study malaria, another organized by the archeological museum in Santiago, and still another to Tierra del Fuego. After the war, he also again took photos for publication and lectures. Over 25,000 photos were taken in South America alone. The first appreciation of Hans Helfritz's photographic works (altogether more than 80,000 photos) took place in spring, 1996 in Cologne as part of the photographic exhibition of the Agfa Photo Historama in the Walraff Richartz Museum. The exhibition included never-before-published photos from the Near East, which, along with his film work, can be found in the Hans Helfritz Archive of the Rautenstrauch Joest Museum in Cologne. Here, presented to the public for the first time on the occasion of what would have been Hans Helfritz's 100th birthday, was a digital photo presentation, which included photos that had been archived at that time. It was only a very small portion of the collection, which includes more than 6,000 photos. -- Travels -- After the war, connections to German publishing houses were restored and Hans Helfritz could again put together travel plans. Safari Publishing ordered a book about countries on the west coast of Africa. In Liberia, Nigeria and Guinea, new and foreign environments, Helfritz was again able to deliver impressive series of photographs. He traveled again to Western Africa in 1961, this time on behalf of Nikolas Nabokov, to find musicians and dancers for a planned UNESCO festival in Brazil, which never took place due to lack of funds. In the sixties Hans Helfritz led travel groups to Ethiopia and wrote an art travel guide about the country.