Berlin / Until 1939

Hans Helfritz received private music instruction from Paul Höffer, a student of Franz Schreker, until he was admitted into Berlin’s Hochschule der Künste in 1926. From 1926-29, he studied contrabass, composition and music ethnology there, and also played in the Student 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 Rundfunkversuchsstelle (Broadcasting Experimental Center, 1928-1935). The site of intense collaborations among physicists, radio engineers, and musicians attempting to improve the radio transmissions of voices and musical instruments.

He realized his first successes, among which were the performance of Concertino 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 a choreography by Vera Skoronel (1930, lost).

After this first, intensive creative period, traveling and writing books supplanted his composition work.

Four Pieces for Piano, 1925

Skoronel dance troupe, photo: Suse Byk, Berlin, 1920s

"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."

Hans Helfritz with the music critic Domingo Santacruz and conductor Hermann Scherchen in Santiago

Exile / 1939-1945

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 the loss of the favorable contexts in which music is being created. Santiago de Chile between 1939 and 1959 was not Berlin in the 1920’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.

Aru Amunyas, Nr. 4 Chunchitos, 1943

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 und Orchester and the Konzert für Orgel und Streichorchester (Organ Concert) through his own music publishing house, Ars Viva.

Chile / 1945-1959

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 de Chile from 1954-57. Helfritz composed various organ music scores for Zacher: Fünf Spielstücke für Orgel (Five Play 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. The music of this period was very often inspired by the folk music of the Andes peoples like Aru Amunyas, Musica folklorica de Bolivia (Aru Amunyas, Folkloric Music of Bolivia, 1940) where he used native melodies for his piano composition.

The musical language of Hans Helfritz shows early inspiration from the Group of Six, especially the French composers Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc.

Concerto for tenor saxophone and orchestra, 1st movement, recording of the premiere, Santiago de Chile 1948

Gerd Zacher and Juan Allende-Blin

China laments for voice and piano. Six songs after ancient Chinese poems from the Shi-king and Pe-Lo-Thien: II. We are not ripe, 1947

Hans Helfritz on Ibiza in the 1990s

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 Fantastische Impressionen aus Mittelamerika für Schlagzeug (Four Fantastic Impressions from Central America for Percussion, 1990) was composed in Sant Agustí on Ibiza 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. But there are concert outtakes from Chile and the post-war period in Europe, 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.

Film Composer

Hans Helfritz filmed documentaries, of which six are still in existence, for the Ufa Documentary Film Department (Ufa Kulturfilmabteilung). He also sometimes composed the music for his films. Musical and dancing customs were presented in detail in every film, discussed at length and meticulously highlighted with appropriate music. It was a far cry from the epigonic, pseudo-symphonic music that was typical for many documentary films during the Nazi era. Hans Helfritz created his own musical language by using original music from various native cultures.

Helfritz preferred a clear instrumentation and a small orchestra, as in his film about Mexico. For his film about Guatemala, he collected melodies and rhythms typical to the country. On the ship back from Guatemala, he became acquainted with marimba players, who he then engaged to record his film music in Berlin.

Film music for the Ufa documentary Guatemala, 1938

Example of a recording on wax cylinder by Hans Helfritz, between 1930-33

Music Ethnologist

Hans Helfritz, who had taken courses in Comparative Musicology with Professor Erich von Hornbostel, traveled through Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia in 1930 and returned with photos and audio recordings for the Berlin Phonogram Archive. Among them are herdsmen’s songs, bridal melodies and instrumental music of the Bedouin peoples.

Prof. von Hornbostel inspired a further journey, which would turn out to be the most important of his life. In Hadramaut and in what was then the Kingdom of Yemen, Helfritz recorded Bedouin songs of which no other recordings existed at that time. The music, recorded onto wax rollers, was analyzed by Professor von Hornbostel and Robert Lachmann who published their findings in the 1933 essay Asiatische Parallelen zur Berbermusik (Asian parallels to Berber music). It provides evidence of parallels between the music of South Arabia and that of the Berber in North Africa. These recordings were the most important contribution that Hans Helfritz made to the field of music ethnology.

The music that he collected in Central and South America did not end up serving science, but instead provided the basis for his film music and compositions, like the piano cycle Aru Amunyas.

Hans Helfritz only traveled as a music ethnologist one last time, when he visited Ethiopia in the 1960’s (Harmonia Mundi, HM 1715).

Individual Works

  • Music for dance lessons, 1933
  • Concertino for piano and orchestra, 1940
  • Aru Amunyas, 1943
  • Concerto for tenor saxophone and orchestra, 1948
  • Five pieces for Organ, 1977
  • Four Fantastic Impressions from Central America for percussion, 1993

Music for dance lessons
for piano, 1933 / No. 1, 5, 8, 6, 9

Concertino for piano and orchestra

Aru Amunyas
for piano, 1943 / Nr. 1, 2, 4, 8, 11, 12

Concerto for tenor saxophone and orchestra
1st-3rd movement / premiere, Santiago de Chile 1948

Five pieces for Organ

Four Fantastic Impressions from Central America for percussion
1st-4th movement, 1990 / premiere 1993