Leopold Spinner

Leopold Spinner (1906-1980) was a Ukrainian-born composer, musicologist and editor who escaped Nazi persecution in 1938. Spinner settled in England, where he became chief editor at music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. Despite being highly regarded as a second-generation twelve-tone composer, Spinner is relatively unknown today.

Spinner was born in Lviv, Galicia (now Ukraine) to Austrian parents of Jewish origin. He moved to Vienna, Austria, in 1914 where he studied Latin, Philosophy and Musicology at the University of Vienna and composition with Austrian composer Paul Pisk from 1926-30. From 1935 Spinner studied composition with twelve-tone composer Anton Webern, and became one of the first twelve-tone composers to begin his career writing in the style, rather than coming to it later. A number of successful compositions including the String Trio (1932), Symphony for Small Orchestra (1933), Little Quartet (1934) and Passacaglia for 11 Instruments (1934) were heard across Europe at the ICSM (International Society of Contemporary Music) during the 1930s.

When the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, Spinner was forced to take the middle name, “Israel” because of his Jewish heritage and is sometimes misquoted as having been born with this name. Fearing Nazi persecution, he fled Austria for England later that year. Of his pre-war compositions, Spinner only assigned an Opus number to the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1936), which has been interpreted as indicative of Spinner leaving most of his life behind when he fled Vienna.

In England Spinner worked in a locomotive factory before joining Boosey & Hawkes in 1947, where he worked his way up to chief editor, concentrating on Stravinsky’s scores, among others. He also published a well-regarded book, A Short Introduction to the Technique of Twelve-tone Composition (1960). He continued to compose but had trouble establishing himself as a composer in England, particularly after Webern’s death in 1945. Some of his better known works include the Piano Concerto (1947), Ricercata for Orchestra (1965) and Symphony for Chamber Orchestra (1979). With the exception of the Irish folk song settings (1965), all of Spinner’s music uses the twelve-tone technique. He experimented with dramatic dynamic and timbral contrast, polyphonic complexity (including counterpoint), and the cyclic repetition of rhythmic cells. Spinner worked briefly with the Darmstadt school but broke with them after disagreeing on theoretical matters.

By Abaigh McKee


Busch, R. and Goodwin, I. (1988) ‘The Identity of Leopold Spinner’ Tempo No. 165 (24-38)

Drew, D. and Spinner, L. (1972) ‘Twelve Questions for Leopold Spinner’ Tempo No. 99 (14-17)

Graubart, M. (2001) ‘Leopold Spinner,’ The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Vol. 24, 2nd Ed., Stanley Sadie (ed) (US: Macmillan)

Keillor, J.  (n. d.) ‘Leopold Spinner’ AllMusic. Retrieved [ww.allmusic.com] 9/1/2015.