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date: 27 March 2023

Felber, Erwinfree

Felber, Erwinfree

  • Jeremy Leong

Updated in this version

bibliography updated

(b Vienna, March 9, 1885; d Vienna, May 27, 1964). Austrian Jewish music historian, educator, and critic. In 1912 he graduated from Vienna’s Imperial Academy of Science with a doctoral dissertation entitled Die indische Musik der vedischen und der klassischen Zeit (‘The Indian Music of the Vedic and the Classical Period’) under the supervision of Leopold Shröder. Felber’s dissertation remains an authoritative source for modern scholars interested in the recitation techniques and ethos of early South Asian music. Prior to his arrival in China, he was active in the Indian community in Vienna and had given lectures on Indian music at the Indian Club. Furthermore, he felt privileged to have met the legendary Nobel laureate Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore who was also a noted musician. During their meeting, Tagore shared his views on the aesthetics of European music and Indian classical music with him. After the Anschluss (March 12, 1938) and Kristallnacht (November 9–10, 1938), Felber, together with close to 18,000 European Jews, became a refugee in China. During World War II, Shanghai was under the rule of Japan, an ally of Nazi Germany. Cultural life in Shanghai under Japanese occupation consisted of a mix of local genres that included Chinese operas and popular music, and European performances which also included those organized by the Shanghai Russian-Jewish Club. This cultural organization promoted many music events such as Russian operas and ballets. For the Austro-German Jewish refugees, they cultivated theatre and chamber music, as well as popular entertainments such as cabaret and comedy. In Shanghai, Felber served as artistic director for the European Jewish Artists Society and taught Western music history and theory at Hujiang University, as well as Japanese music at the Asia Seminar, an advanced institute that offered a comprehensive education for adult Jews. As a regular contributor to the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle, a German-language newspaper despite its name, he wrote about the musical development in the Jewish community and reviewed concerts by Jewish musicians, Asian theatres, and performances by the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra, a highly-regarded ensemble with Austro-German Jewish refugees counted among its members. During Japanese occupation, heavy censorship on the arts and press was enforced. Felber’s covert, yet critical reviews of the music events in Shanghai highlighted the precarious situation but also brought hope to the Jewish community. Very little information can be found on Felber’s life after the war and apparently nothing is written about the music activity he had undertaken. In 1949, just like many Jewish survivors still in Shanghai, he applied to the Emigration Department of the Joint Distribution Committee in Vienna to be resettled in the USA. However, his request was unsuccessful. With the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Shanghai Office), Felber finally left Shanghai in 1950 but based on archival record, his destination remained unknown as it was simply listed as ‘different countries’. He was buried in the same plot as his parents in Vienna Central Cemetery which indicates that at some point after Shanghai, he managed to return home. Even though we know very little about Felber’s life after Shanghai, his contributions to past and present music scholarship are still highly commendable. In 1948 his dissertation was translated into English and he had also published with The Musical Quarterly.


  • Die indische Musik der vedischen und der klassischen Zeit [The Indian music of the Vedic and the Classical period], Sitzungsberichte der Philosophisch-Historischen Klasse der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna, 1913), 1–189
  • ‘New Approaches to Primitive Music’, MQ, 19/3 (1933), 288–302
  • ‘Begegnung mit Tagore’, Shanghai Jewish Chronicle (Aug 15, 1943)
  • ‘Der kulturelle Aufbau im Distrikt’, Shanghai Jewish Chronicle (Aug 28, 1943)
  • ‘Japanisches Theater’, Shanghai Jewish Chronicle (Nov 14, 1943)
  • ‘Philharmonisches Konzert’, Shanghai Jewish Chronicle (Dec 1, 1943)
  • ‘Konzert Sabine Rapp’, Shanghai Jewish Chronicle (March 21, 1944)
  • with G.H. Ranade: ‘The Indian Music of the Vedic and the Classical Period’, The Journal of the Music Academy, Madras, 19 (1948): 71ff


  • H. Margolinski: ‘Musical Characters in Shanghai Commissions’, Shanghai Almanac 1946–47 (Shanghai), 68
  • D. Kranzler: Japanese, Nazis & Jews: the Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai, 1938–1945 (New York, 1976)
  • R. Berg-Pan: ‘Shanghai Chronicle: Nazi Refugees in China’, The Muses Flee Hitler, ed. J. Jackman and C. Borden (Washington, DC, 1983), 283–9
  • M. Ristaino: Port of Last Resort (Stanford, CA, 2001)
  • M. Edelman: Discovering Jewish Music (Philadelphia, 2003)
  • M.A. Ehrlich: Jews and Judaism in Modern China (New York, 2010)
  • J. Leong: ‘Musical Irony and Identity Politics: Austro-German Jewish Refugees in Republican China’, This Is the Sound of Irony: Music, Politics, and Popular Culture, ed. K.L. Turner (Aldershot, 2015), 59–72
  • J. Leong: ‘An Unsung Austrian Doyen: Erwin Felber and the Transference of Cultural and Musical Knowledge in Wartime Shanghai’, Cultural Translation and Knowledge Transfer on Alternative Routes of Escape from Nazi Terror: Mediations through Migration, ed. Susanne Korbel and Philipp Strobl, Studies for the International Society for Cultural History (New York, 2021), 217–33
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Musical Quarterly