Walter Jurmann came of age in a Vienna that, despite the transformative effects of World War I, held fast to age-old traditions and culture. Born on 12 October 1903 into a solidly middle-class family, Jurmann showed early signs of musical talent and by his teens was an accomplished singer and pianist. Both his gift for improvisation and a high-spirited personality made him a natural performer. After graduating from the Gymnasium in 1921 he would have liked nothing better than to spend his life with music. Instead, complying with the wishes of his parents, he began to study medicine at the Vienna University. Evenings, however, continued to be spent at the Opera, or making music with friends.
Jurmann's life took a crucial turn when a bout of pleurisy sent him to convalesce in the mountain resort town of Semmering, about 100 kilometers south of Vienna. At the Panhans Hotel, the social center of town, Jurmann began to sit in for the bar pianist. In no time at all word went around that there was music at the hotel worth listening to. When the management offered him a job, Jurmann did not hesitate. Abandoning his medical studies, he began to do professionally what he had previously done simply for the fun of it.
Soon after he met the up-and-coming young Viennese lyricist Fritz Rotter, who had already made a name for himself as the author of a number of popular songs. Rotter was not just a gifted lyricist; he also had a sixth sense for talent. He suggested that Jurmann move to Berlin and that they work together.
Berlin during the interwar years, apart from being the most important cultural center of the German-speaking world, was also the hub of a burgeoning popular music industry. There were formidable hurdles for the many aspiring young artists flocking to the city. But thanks to his talent and Viennese charm Jurmann soon landed the prestigious job of pianist at the Eden Hotel, later immortalized in the film Grand Hotel. Everyone who was anyone came to the Eden Bar, the hottest place in town. The famous operetta composer Emmerich Kálmán heard Jurmann perform there, as did Franz Léhar and Richard Strauss.
Jurmann enjoyed his new life. A photograph of him from these years shows a nattily dressed, debonair young man swinging a cane as he strides down a Berlin boulevard—a man on top of the world. His first collaboration with Rotter, the Schlager Was weißt denn du, wie ich verliebt bin, became an instant hit when Richard Tauber took it up and recorded it in 1928. The newly founded recording company Ultraphon put Jurmann under contract as composer and chanson singer. And then came hit after hit—lighthearted, cheeky, cynical, tender songs that reflected the emotional currencies of the times. A host of famous orchestras and artists—including Jan Kiepura, Jussi Björling, Hans Albers, Willy Fritsch, Dajos Béla, and Theo Mackeben—captivated audiences with their renditions of Jurmann tunes.
As with all creative teams, collaboration between Jurmann and Rotter could take many forms. One of their biggest hits began as a bit of skylarking, when Jurmann improvised a tune to an impromptu chant of Rotter’s while the two of them were waiting for a meeting to begin. The resulting song Veronika, der Lenz ist da became wildly popular overnight. The Comedian Harmonists, probably the best-known a cappella groups of the time, who performed Schlager in top hats and tails, adopted it as their signature tune. The song is still one of the greenest of evergreen hits of that era.
With the advent of “talkies” in 1929, a new era began. Jurmann was well situated in the film capital Berlin to be among the pioneers of film music. Five catchy songs he wrote for a 1930 production (released simultaneously in German, French, and English versions) helped make the film—Ihre Majestät die Liebe, Son altesse l’amour, and Her Majesty, Love—a box office success and Jurmann’s a name to be reckoned with. He found himself inundated with commissions. But arranging and orchestrating music for film was tedious work and took time away from composing. It was an inspired stroke when Rotter introduced him to the Polish composer Bronislaw Kaper. The two composers complemented each other superbly. For the next decade Jurmann wrote the “numbers” while Kaper handled the background music and arrangements.
Jurmann had been in Berlin only a few years and was already at the top of his profession. Street musicians, that ultimate gauge of popular success, advertised new Jurmann tunes within hours of the release of a new film or recording. As the contemporary radio host Helmuth M. Backhaus commented, “Jurmann has the extraordinary gift of being able to compose for all—for intellectuals as for the common man. . . . His melodies . . . practically sing themselves.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—the ominous political developments in Germany, 1933 saw a further series of popular films with lighthearted Jurmann melodies. March saw the release of the film Heut’ kommt´s drauf an, in which Hans Albers, featuring the jaunty Schlager Mein Gorilla hat 'ne Villa im Zoo, sings the ambiguous passage “He knows nothing of politics, and his greatest joy is to give his spouse a tickle.” One month later the French-German Jan Kiepura film Ein Lied für dich catapulted Jurmann’s song Ninon into worldwide popularity. The French version of that film, Tout pour l´amour, led to an offer to work in Paris. That same year Jurmann and Kaper, like many other endangered artists and intellectuals, moved to France.
During the next one and a half years Jurmann composed chanson melodies, as well as numbers for five French films, including Les nuits moscovites. He was so successful in adapting his style to the French chanson genre that such songs as Le bistro du port and Rêves d'amour, which he wrote under the pseudonym Pierre Candel, are still popular in France today. In August 1934 Jurmann married Anni Wassermann, but the couple divorced not long after.
When Louis B. Mayer visited Paris in 1934 he made a special effort to seek out Jurmann and Kaper and offer them a lucrative seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). By the end of October the two composers were in the United States. The Hollywood Reporter announced their arrival with the headline “Famous Musical Duo Arrives at Studio!”
MGM recognized Jurmann’s genius for capturing a wide range of styles and moods, but at first the studio tried to pigeon-hole the team in films with European or “foreign” themes. As a result they made their Hollywood debut in the comedy Escapade, starring another new arrival to the United States, Luise Rainer. For this film Jurmann wrote a melody in which he masterfully evoked the film’s Austrian background; the sentimental You’re All I Need remained number one on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade for the next nine weeks. For the film Mutiny on the Bounty he conjured up a quintessentially tropical atmosphere in Love Song of Tahiti. And shortly after, for the Marx Brothers’ film A Night at the Opera, he created an Italianate moment with Cosi Cosa.
But Jurmann knew that he could compose “American” songs just as brilliantly, and he got his first chance to prove it with the title song for the eagerly anticipated film San Francisco, starring Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy, and Clark Gable. It remains, probably, the song for which Jurmann is best known. Two years after the film was released he was named an honorary citizen of the city of San Francisco, and in 1984 the city voted to make Jurmann’s song the official city song. It is not hard to understand the song’s lasting popularity, for it is a musical tour de force: the melody, at once exhilarating and joyous, gives focused expression to the film’s dramatic climax yet can stand on its own, and at the same time it provides virtually all of the musical background material, carrying the entire film.
After the San Francisco success Jurmann was loaned to Universal Studios to compose for Henry Koster’s film musical Three Smart Girls. The Jurmann songs My Heart is Singing and Someone to Care for Me helped the sixteen-year-old Deanna Durbin achieve first serious notice. Then it was back to MGM for the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races, in which Allan Jones sings Tomorrow Is Another Day, Everybody Sing, with the young Judy Garland (singing Melody Farm and Swing, Mister Mendelssohn), and many others.
As with the German film Schlager, a number of Jurmann’s American film songs enjoyed a long life after their initial film debut. All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm, from A Day at the Races, a stunning achievement in capturing elements of black spiritual and jazz, was taken up by Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Nat Gonella, Jimmy Dorsey, Art Tatum, and many others. Mario Lanza became practically synonymous with Cosi Cosa, from the film A Night at the Opera. Over the decades almost one hundred different recordings appeared of San Francisco, and Judy Garland included the song in her legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall farewell concert.
By the late 1930s fundamental changes to the film industry in Hollywood began particularly to affect the composers of film music. Films began increasingly to focus on action-driven plots, necessitating film-spanning background scores rather than discrete, individual numbers. This kind of composing unavoidably lessened a composer’s autonomy and required compromise at every creative stage of production. When his contract with MGM came up for renewal in the fall of 1941, Jurmann chose instead to return to the life of an independent composer.
The political situation may also have played a role in this decision. When the United States entered World War II he enlisted—he had become an American citizen in April that year—and after his medical discharge in May 1942 he participated in USO entertainment of wounded soldiers.
In the years following his return to civilian life Jurmann had his pick of choice films. He worked with producers and directors such as Joe Pasternak, Frank Borzage, and Norman Taurog and popular stars such as Judy Garland, Kathryn Grayson, and Marta Eggerth. Films with Jurmann music from this time include Seven Sweethearts, His Butler’s Sister, Presenting Lily Mars, Thousands Cheer, and Three Letters in the Mailbox—films that still today repay watching. Deanna Durbin sang Thank You, America, the Jurmann song from the film Nice Girl? at the White House when Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated for his third term as president.
From the time he came to the United States Jurmann had been interested in that most American of institutions, the musical. Over the years he considered collaborating on a number of different projects, but none came to fruition. Then in the mid-1940s he came across a subject that seemed promising. Collaboration on the resulting musical Windy City with the librettist Philip Yordan and the lyricist Paul Francis Webster, Jurmann’s longtime collaborator, went through many convoluted stages. Yet Jurmann considered the music he wrote for the work to be among his best. Critics at the premier performances in 1946 unanimously agreed. “The best of its music blows smoke in your ears and may sting your eyes a little, too,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. However, as Sidney J. Harris of the Chicago Daily News lamented, “Walter Jurmann’s poignant and memorable music (by far the richest in melodic invention that Chicago playgoers have heard this year) never got the chance to soar that it deserved. . . . If the composer had found a librettist of comparable ability, Windy City might easily have turned into an urban Oklahoma!” Windy City closed after brief runs in New Haven, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago.
Disappointment over Windy City contributed to Jurmann's eventual decision to retire from the music business. Yet he never ceased composing. Throughout his life, first by instinct and then by training, he was expert at expressing profound human emotions in music. Now, in retirement, he produced a new output of songs that gave voice to hopes and belief, memories of Vienna, gratitude to his adopted country, and love for friends and family. Based not on the words of others but on his own texts, these songs—especially the tender love songs for his wife, the fashion designer Yvonne Jellinek, whom he married in 1953—have a spontaneous, personal quality that sets them apart from earlier work.
San Antonio is a good example of this quality of immediacy. Written during a visit to the Texas town, the song is warmed by genuine feeling. At the 1967 San Antonio Symphony Orchestra premiere the audience gave the piece a standing ovation and demanded a second playing; in 1985 the City Council unanimously named it the official city song. Similar immediacy is in Jurmann’s musical response to his first postwar visit to the rubble-filled city of Vienna, the song Mein schönes Wien (My beloved Vienna). In one of his last songs, A Better World to Live In, he expressed his unshakable belief in humanity, his hopes for world peace, and the reminder that we need “to keep this great big world a place we can believe in.“
Jurmann’s later years were serene. In spring 1971, during an annual visit to Europe, he and Yvonne were heartened by the signs of recovery in Vienna. They then traveled on to Budapest, Yvonne’s hometown. There, on 17 June, Jurmann, aged sixty-seven, died suddenly of a heart attack.
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Walter Jurmann was a musician through and through. He expressed his love of life through music, and he composed so that his music would bring joy to others. He was not interested in fame or personal glory, but he believed that his music would survive him. His belief has been amply borne out. Today, thirty-eight years after his death, new recordings and concerts with star performers keep Jurmann’s songs alive around the world. Young artists, both classical and pop, are rediscovering the music for themselves and finding, as had earlier generations, that Jurmann’s music transcends cultural and stylistic divides because it speaks to essential human emotions.