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Paul Csonka

Paul Csonka

Austrian composer and conductor
Paul Csonka
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Austrian composer and conductor
Was Musician Conductor Composer
From Austria
Type Music
Gender male
Birth 24 October 1905
Death 24 November 1995 (aged 90 years)
The details


Paul Csonka (born Paul Augustus Csonka on October 24, 1905, died on November 24, 1995), was an Austrian composer and opera conductor.
In 1973, he was awarded the highest artistic honor the Austrian Government grants: the Cross of honor. The following year(1974), Maestro Csonka received the highest Award granted by the Austrian Republic: the Austrian Order of Merit Award for Arts & Sciences. Rumored to be the illegitimate son of Kaiser Franz Joseph, Paul Csonka was born the third child of Austria-Hungary's largest oil importer and Rothschild Banking partner, [Arpad Csonka]. He was also the brother of Sigmund Freud's renowned patient, Baroness Margarethe von Trautenegg.


The son of a business mogul, Csonka spent most of his youth avoiding his studies at the University of Vienna and secretly conducting orchestras at the Vienna Ice Rink, local symphonies, and opera companies. It was during this period that he first befriended Herbert von Karajan, Sol Huroc, Marcel Praawy, and Sir Rudolf Bing.

Forced to get a university education to prepare him for the world of business, Csonka was a numeric genius and exceptionally charismatic man, who charmed his way through school.

Summers were spent in Brioni, Semmering, or Mattsee, enjoying the good life with the famous Austrian families of the era, including the Wittgensteins, the von Sturgkhs, and the von Ruesslers. Despite enjoying the spoils of wealth, Csonka felt compelled to work in opera and simultaneously pushed by his father (much like the Wittgenstein brothers) to enter the family business. At first, Csonka did work for the family companies in Vienna, Budapest and Amsterdam. It was only in his thirties that he chose to leave the world of finance and pursue his one love: music.

In 1934 Csonka founded the Salzburg Opera Guild under the supervision of Sol Hurok and with the support of Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, Stefan Zweig, Albert Schweizer, and Ernst Krenek. The company’s manifesto was, "Our company was born out of rebellion and dissatisfaction, in the summer of 1934. Our rebellion was against conventional opera, conventionally produced and enslaved by the star system. Our hope was to introduce the arts of the theatre into opera from which they have been divorced, these many years, all over the world."

The Salzburg Opera Guild performed only baroque or 20th-century compositions. The guild was considered a platform of anti-fascism and anti-racism, as it consisted of performers from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.

When Csonka had free time, he delved into composing classical music and reconstructing lost or unfinished operas such as Mozart’s The Goose of Cairo. He also found composing in the 20th century to be very testing. He recognized that he could easily create music which sounded baroque or romantic, but in the post-Schoenberg era, he often wondered what he might compose that could be beautiful, popular and different in a world which craved either the new and over-intellectualized product or the classics of days gone by.

The Salzburg Opera Guild performed all over Europe and the Americas. It was during a tour of the United States, with Csonka’s second wife, Herta Glatz, as one of the headliners, that the Anschluss occurred. Baptized and reared as Catholics, the Csonkas had one Jewish ancestor, a brother who was active in the French Resistance, and they were fearful of returnig to Nazi-occupied Austria. Additionally, the American government Csonka accused of being a spy, so the company sought refuge in neutral countries. Csonka was able to settle in Havana, Cuba, like many other refugees of the era.

Arriving in Cuba with no funds transferable from his family in Austria and only his personality and musical knowledge to sell, Csonka used his charisma and dynamism to start building an opera company. The Opera Nacional de Havana existed before Csonka’s arrival, but it was Csonka who built it up to a level rivaling the European houses. As well as guest-directing the Symphonic Orchestra of Havana and the Cuba National Symphony. Csonka became a celebrity in Cuba, with his own radio broadcast and television show. Among the many performers he brought to Cuba were Plácido Domingo, Jussi Björling, Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Giuseppe Campora, Clemens Krauss and Viorica Ursuleac. Csonka also helped his friends the von Trapp family escape to America by contracting them to perform in Cuba.

In Cuba, Csonka planned and built a place for himself and his siblings. He and his third wife, soprano Margarethe "Greta" Menzel, settled in Havana, where they had two children: Margarita, who is co-principal harpist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and a Curtis Institute teacher, and Paul Jr., a bassoonist in the Holland National Symphony.

During this period of Csonka’s life, he wrote the Concierto de Navidad, the Violin Concerto, and the Cuban Symphony, among others. He also wrote film and television music, some of which is still used by various series (although his more famous film accompaniments such as the music accompanying many Charlie Chaplin films dates from an earlier time).

In 1958, when the revolution started in Cuba, the division and occupation of Europe was fresh in Csonka’s head and he had no interest in dealing with political upheaval again. As a national celebrity, Csonka had already dealt with false accusations of his being both a Jewish immigrant and a former Nazi.

After being approached by Fidel Castro in 1962 to become National Director of Music, Csonka was quoted, "To work under communism is terrible, but to work with communists is impossible". Csonka immediately informed Castro that he had been invited to conduct a concert in Miami for a weekend and would be returning shortly. When then asked to conduct a performance for Castro before leaving, Csonka contemplated concealing a pistol under his tuxedo, but, with no knowledge of guns, decided a botched assassination attempt would help no one and a successful one might do no better. He took a small weekend suitcase and a briefcase and again left a life of wealth, with only his music and his personality, to flee again to a foreign country, penniless at the age of 58.

This time the United States was helpful and offered Csonka political shelter. Csonka had already spent several semesters as a professor of music at Louisiana State University and had also taught in New York. He had built up enough of an international network that upon arriving in Miami, he was offered the role of choral and assistant director of the Miami Opera. Before long, he was conducting the Miami Grand Opera, working as a professor of music at Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University, and giving private singing lessons. His name was beginning to be recognized in Florida, and he was soon honored with an honorary Doctorate of Musicology from New York University.

Marcel Prawy said "Paul Csonka could be set down on the moon, and within months they would have an opera company." Indeed, within months of his arrival in Miami, he was approached to start an opera company in Palm Beach. There, in a surprisingly provincial environment with a bare-bones budget, Csonka managed to build a world-class opera company. As one of the many fundraising ventures, he went on the '$100,000 Question' TV show, and won. In the early 1970s, he also orchestrated songs for the folk singer, Cat Stevens.

Csonka hired locals as chorus members and rented costumes from Stivanello. He used his charm and connections to bring in top artists such as Beverly Sills, Gian Carlo Menotti, Domingo, Mary Costa, Luciano Pavarotti, Robert Merrill, Anna Moffo, Licia Albanese, Roberta Peters, Barry Morell, Jean Fenn, and Giuseppe Campora.

It was during this period that Csonka married his fifth wife, young soprano and journalist Ariane Theslof (author of "The Young Person's Guide to the Opera"), and fathered two more children: Ariana Csonka Kaleta (editor of "The Young Person's Guide to the Opera" and writer of "The Young Person's Guide to the Ballet"), who is the founder and artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre of London and son, Johannes, who is a computer business entrepreneur.

Csonka mentored other composers, mostly notably Richard Danielpoor, and worked with Carlisle Floyd. After almost 30 years of service, at the age of 80 Csonka was retired by the Palm Beach Opera and within months had founded Csonka Classics, a small company which gave private performances throughout south Florida. However, after a few years, he was unable to continue developing Csonka Classics, due to the onset of senile dementia. Today, his legacy continues with the growth in popularity of his works (particularly the Concerto de Navidad) and the annual Csonka Scholarship given by the Palm Beach Opera.


  • Concierto de Navidad, composed in 1958 (multiple recordings available)
  • Concerto Cubano, composed c. 1950
  • Violin Concerto Number 1 (as recorded by Henrik Sjeryng)
  • Cantata de Semana Santa
  • Rose Sonata Song Cycle
  • French Suite
  • Serenata for 'Cello and Orchestra
  • Santa Lucia Variation, composed in 1955
  • The Lannan Suite Ballet, composed in 1978
  • The Little Prince Suite, composed 1975

Opera Translation with Ariane Theslof Csonka (Published by Kalmus)

  • The Bartered Bride, by Smetana (E.F. Kalmus 1968)
  • Fidelio, by Beethoven (Continuum Intl Publishing)
  • Damnation of Faust, by Berlioz
  • Die Fledermaus, by Strauss,
  • St. John’s Passion, by Bach
  • La Cenerentola, by Rossini
  • Bastien und Bastienne, by Mozart
  • Abduction from the Seraglio, by Mozart
  • Eugene Oneigin, by Tchaikovsky
  • The Elixir of Love, by Donizetti
  • The Daughter of the Regiment, by Donizetti
  • Falstaff, by Verdi
  • Otello, by Verdi
  • Merry Wives of Windsor, by Nicolai
  • Goose of Cairo, by Mozart
  • The Empressario, by Mozart
  • Manon, by Massenet
  • La Forza del Destino, by Verdi


The Goose of Cairo, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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