Heinz Unger | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Heinz Unger

Heinz (Heinrich) Unger, conductor (born 14 Dec 1895 in Berlin, Germany; died 25 February 1965 in Toronto, ON)

Heinz (Heinrich) Unger, conductor (born 14 Dec 1895 in Berlin, Germany; died 25 February 1965 in Toronto, ON); D JURIS (Greifswald) 1917, State Music Teacher's Diploma of Prussia. His music teachers in Berlin included Wilhelm Klatte and Theodor Schoenberger (theory) and Eduard Moerike and Fritz Stiedry (a few conducting lessons). While a law student he heard Bruno Walter conduct Mahler's The Song of the Earth in Munich in 1915 and decided on the spot to become a conductor and a champion of Mahler. Soon afterward he had his first conducting experience with a Berlin amateur orchestra, in part of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. In 1919-20 he made his professional debut, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in several Mahler concerts, including the Symphony No. 1 and The Song of the Earth. He conducted some of the Konzerte des Anbruch series 1920-2, led the Berlin SO and Berlin Philharmonic combined in Mahler's Symphony No. 8 in 1923, and for nine seasons, 1924-33, directed the concerts (usually six per season) of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, engaging the Berlin Philharmonic. In 1921 he became the founder and conductor of the Caecilienchor of Berlin. He appeared as guest conductor in other German cities, in Vienna, and in Oslo, and at the suggestion of Artur Schnabel in 1924 he undertook the first of 13 trips to the former Soviet Union. On these visits he led concert and radio orchestras in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and other cities, and in the mid-1930s he was under contract with the Leningrad Radio Orchestra for annual six-month seasons. Unger's enthusiasm for the musicianship of Russian and Ukrainian orchestras and the responsiveness of their audiences was dampened eventually by his experiences with Soviet bureaucracy, and he wrote a book of memoirs (Hammer, Sickle and Baton, London 1939) describing his enticement and disenchantment.

In 1933 Unger settled in London. He conducted the Northern Philharmonia 1933-47 and was a guest with the major British orchestras including the London Philharmonic, with which he made over 100 wartime appearances throughout Great Britain. In the 1930s he conducted in other countries, notably Spain, made his North American debut with the TSO 9 Nov 1937, and returned by invitation in 1938. Having enjoyed his visits to Toronto, Unger settled there in 1948. During the next few years he often was a guest conductor with the Promenade Symphony Concerts and built up an amateur orchestra. He filled a total of 24 engagements 1952-64 with the CBC Symphony Orchestra and, as a guest, conducted CBC orchestras in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Montreal ('L'Heure du concert' on TV, etc), building a high reputation with audiences and critics alike. To provide a concert outlet for his talents, his supporters formed the York Concert Society, which organized annual series of four spring concerts, using a classical-size orchestra of top players from the TSO and the CBC SO. Most concerts were held at Eaton Auditorium, but works demanding a larger orchestra were performed at Massey Hall. The York Concert Society made its debut in a Beethoven concert 23 Apr 1953 and maintained a high standard in the ensuing 12 years of its existence, providing a welcome complement to the TSO series. Its guest artists included Betty-Jean Hagen, Lubka Kolessa, Anton Kuerti, Moura Lympany, Lois Marshall, James Milligan, Mary Simmons, and others. Because of financial difficulties there was no 1961 season, and in 1963, when Unger was ill, the first guest conductor, the expatriate Canadian Harry Newstone, was engaged for one concert. After Unger's death Hans Bauer led the remaining concerts of the society's final season, the last on 29 Apr 1965.

After World War II Unger renewed his travels as a conductor, appearing particularly in Spain, but also in Latin America, Switzerland, and Germany and as a guest on the BBC. An invitation by Furtwängler led to two concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1956, Unger's first return to his native city since 1933.

Primarily a guest conductor, Unger programmed only works of whose merit he was convinced. His repertoire, though focused on the Austro-German masters from Bach to Richard Strauss and the young Schoenberg, was large. Among contemporary composers he favoured conservative works. He gave the Canadian premiere of Nielsen's Symphony No. 4 and featured Canadian scores by Brott, Freedman, Karam, Mercure, Morawetz, Somers, and Willan, introducing some to foreign audiences. Besides the Viennese classics and Bruckner his great love was the music of Gustav Mahler, which he championed with the fervour of an apostle. He introduced some of Mahler's works to Spain, Latin America and the former Soviet Union, and gave the London premiere of the Symphony No. 5. In Canada he introduced three of the symphonies - No. 2 in 1958, No. 5 in 1959, and No. 9 in 1963 - as well as other works.

In Unger's preparation of a score for performance, no detail was left to chance. He exploited the potential of each phrase for articulation and dynamic shading. He tended at times to overconduct, but he always succeeded in bringing the music to life and conveying its emotions to the audience.

In 1958 Unger was named an honorary director of the Gustav Mahler Society of America, in 1959 he was awarded the Mahler medal of the Bruckner Society of the USA, and in 1961 he was elected an honorary member of the Vienna Gustav-Mahler-Gesellschaft. In 1965, his 50th anniversary as a conductor, he was awarded the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. A few weeks later, after recording the first three movements of Mahler's Symphony No. 6 for its Canadian premiere on CBC radio, he died of a heart attack. A Heinz Unger scholarship, administered by the OAC, was set up to assist promising young conductors (see Awards). Unger's widow donated his extensive score library and his papers and tapes to the National Library of Canada.


'Music,' Playtime in Russia, ed Hubert Griffith (London 1935)

Hammer, Sickle and Baton (London 1939)

'Has the Canada Council hit a wrong note?' Globe Magazine, 22 Jul 1961

Further Reading