Beer had early success in 1930s Vienna and Europe with two operas, Der Prinz von Schiras and Polnische Hochzeit. Beer, who was Jewish, fled Austria in 1938 for France while his family remained in Poland. He continued composing new works until the end of his life and his music was played in Scandinavia until 2000.
Beer was born in 1908 in Chodorów near Lemberg/Lwów, the second child of Usi 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.[N 1] 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 honours.
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 (de), premiered on 31 March 1934 at the Zurich 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 Zurich 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 Lemberg/Lwów were caught in the Lemberg 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. Stradella in Venedig, composed during his years in hiding, premiered in 1949 at the Zurich Opera House. The music critic Kurt Pahlen (de) 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 singspiel La Polonaise (1975) and Mitternachtssonne (1987) and revising Stradella.
After the war years Beer married a young German Jewish refugee, Hanna Königsberg, in 1957. She bore him two daughters, Suzanne and Béatrice. Suzanne is a Paris-based, award-winning artist and philosopher, Béatrice an international soprano based in Philadelphia.
In 1966, Beer earned a doctorate in musicology from the Sorbonne University under the direction of renowned musicologist Jacques Chailley (fr) 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).
Beer's family founded the Joseph Beer Foundation to perpetuate the memory of the composer and to increase his appreciation and recognition by a worldwide audience.
Beer is the Composer-in-Residence In Memoriam of The Atlantic Coast Opera Festival, a Philadelphia-based international summer opera festival.
He died in Nice in 1987.
- Joseph Marx also first had to study law to appease his father.
- The Joseph Beer Foundation
- The Atlantic Coast Opera Festival — Composer-in-Residence (In Memoriam)
- Notes on Beer, and audio: "Weit draußen im Sonnenglanz" from Stradella in Venedig Music of The Holocaust: Highlights from the collection at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Amaury du Closel: Les Voix étouffées du IIIe Reich, 2005 ISBN 978-2-7427-5264-5, Extract (French)
- Primavera Driessen Gruber, Michel Cullin (eds.): Douce France? Musik-Exil in Frankreich/Musiciens en exil en France (German). Böhlau Verlag Wien Köln Weimar 2008, ISBN 978-3-205-77773-1
- Kurt Pahlen: Musikgeschichte der Welt, Orel Füssli Verlag, Zürich, 1947.
- Joseph Beer — biography and works at Klassika (German)
- Die Neue Welt, Vienna, (November? 1934), p. 6, Review of Der Prinz von Schiras at the Theater an der Wien (German)