Joseph Beer (German: [ˈbeːɐ̯]; 7 May 1908 – 23 November 1987) was a composer, mainly of operettas, singspiele, and operas.
Beer started composing music as a young man in Vienna in the 1930s. His operettas Der Prinz von Schiras and Polnische Hochzeit premiered at the Zurich Opera House in 1934 and 1937, respectively.
Beer, who was Jewish, fled Austria in 1938 for France while his family remained in Poland and were killed in Nazi extermination camps. He continued composing new works until the end of his life, and left a large number of works for the stage.
Beer was born in 1908 in Chodorów near Lviv, a.k.a. Lwów or Lemberg, the second child of Uri Isidore, a wealthy banker, and Amelie Esther Malka Silver; he had an older brother and a younger sister. Beer started composing in his early teens and attended the Lviv Conservatory during his High School years.
To please his father, he agreed to a contract: a successful year of law studies at Lviv University against musical education. As he succeeded in the final exam (on the question of Lex Salica), he could therefore apply at the Staatsakademie und Hochschule für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna. Not only did he gain admission, he was allowed to skip the first four years and enter directly in the master classes of Joseph Marx. Following this success, his father set Joseph up in a two-bedroom apartment in central Vienna with his own baby-grand piano. In 1930, he graduated with highest honors.
Beer joined a Viennese ballet company as conductor and toured with the company extensively in Austria and throughout the Middle East. While on tour, he played some of his compositions to the librettist Fritz Löhner-Beda who was so impressed that he became very instrumental in Beer's budding career. Their first collaboration, Der Prinz von Schiras, which also included the librettist Ludwig Herzer, premiered on 31 March 1934 at the Zürich Opera House and subsequently toured extensively in Europe and South America.
Joseph Marx wrote a congratulatory letter to his former pupil, enthusiastically stating that in his first work, Beer had displayed a knowledge and mastery that "few established operetta composers possess." Beer was barely 25 years old.
Beer's second work, Die Polnische Hochzeit to a libretto by Fritz Löhner-Beda and Alfred Grünwald, premiered in Zurich in 1937. It saw tremendous success and was performed throughout Europe on some 40 stages (including the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, and the Teatro Fontalba in Madrid) and translated into eight languages in the space of a couple of years.
Following the Anschluss in 1938, Beer had to flee Austria and was granted a visa by the French government and he settled in a hotel room in Paris. He adapted instrumental works for orchestras and received a commission from a conductor at the Zürich Opera House for a work to be performed under the latter's name. He completed this work, including all orchestral and voice parts, in just three weeks, and without the benefit of a piano.
After the German invasion of Paris in 1940, Beer, who was enrolled in the Polish army-in-exile, tried to reach his troops in England. But the last boat from Bordeaux was gone. He then escaped to Nice in the south of France where he stayed until the end of the war.
While continuing to arrange orchestral works, he also composed his third major work, Stradella in Venedig based on Alessandro Stradella's episode in Venice. When the Nazis completed their occupation of France in 1942, Beer had to go into hiding, using the name "Jean Joseph Bérard". During this time, his father, his mother and his sister, who had remained in Lviv, were caught in the Lwów Ghetto. Postcards written under false names from the ghetto to their son Joseph also under a false name as he was in hiding in Nice, may show that they survived the Lviv pogroms of 1941. But the end of any communication in 1942 may show that they had been sent to concentration camps, maybe after the "Great Aktion" (Großaktion) of August 1942 when between 40,000 and 50,000 Jews were deported from the Lemberg Ghetto to Belzec. Beer always thought his parents had been murdered in Auschwitz and his younger sister Suzanne in Buchenwald. His librettist Fritz Löhner-Beda was murdered in Monowitz (Auschwitz III) on 4 December 1942.
Following the events of the war, Beer became increasingly withdrawn and refused performance rights to his previous works. Still, Polnische Hochzeit was performed in Scandinavia without his co-operation or consent —even posthumously up until 2005— often under the title Masurkka. In 1946 his oratorio Ave Maria premiered at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Nice starring Enzo Seri, Tenor and Lotte Schöne, Soprano. Stradella in Venedig, composed during his years in hiding, premiered in 1949 at the Zürich Opera House. The music critic Kurt Pahlen called it "a comic opera of the highest sort" and the member of the Académie Française André Roussin adapted the libretto to the French stage. Beer spent most of his time until his death in 1987 creating two new works: the operas La Polonaise (1975) and Mitternachtssonne (1987.)
After the war years Beer married a young German Jewish refugee, Hanna Königsberg, in 1957. They had two daughters, Suzanne and Béatrice.
In 1966, Beer earned a doctorate in musicology from the Sorbonne University under the direction of renowned musicologist Jacques Chailley and the presidency of the French philosopher and musicologist, Vladimir Jankélévitch. The topic of Beer's thesis was The Evolution of Harmonic Style in the Work of Scriabin for which he received the highest honors (Très honorable avec félicitations du jury).
He died in Nice on November 23, 1987. Beer's family founded the Joseph & Hanna Beer Foundation to perpetuate the memory of the composer and to increase his recognition by a worldwide audience and inclusion in the standard operatic repertoire.
Beer is the Composer-in-Residence In Memoriam of The Atlantic Coast Opera Festival, a Philadelphia-based international summer opera festival.