The German composer, pianist, and music educator, Walter Braunfels, studied music first with his mother, the great-niece of the composer Louis Spohr. He continued his piano studies in Frankfurt at the Hoch Conservatory with James Kwast. Braunfels studied law and economics at the university in Munich until a performance of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde decided him on music. He went to Vienna in 1902 to study with the great pianist and teacher Theodor Leschetizky. He then returned to Munich to study composition with Felix Mottl and Ludwig Thuille.
Walter Braunfels performed as a professional pianist for many years. In 1949 he played Beethoven's Diabelli Variations on a radio broadcast. He served as the first director (and founder together with Hermann Abendroth) of the Cologne Academy of Music (Hochschule für Musik Köln) from 1925 to 1933, when he was dismissed for political reasons. (He was half-Jewish.) He retired from public life during the Hitler years but continued to compose. After World War II, he returned to public life and in 1947 again became director of the Cologne Academy of Music until 1950, and further enhanced his reputation as a music educator with high ideals.Walter Braunfels was well known as a composer between the two World Wars but fell into oblivion after his death. There is now something of a renaissance of interest in his works. His opera Die Vögel, based on the play The Birds by Aristophanes, has been successfully revived.
Braunfels's music is in the German classical-romantic tradition. He believed in the artistic and practical value of Wagnerian leading motifs. In his harmonies he was close to Richard Strauss, but he also applied impressionistic devices to Debussy. His Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz is a giant set of variations. "Structurally the work has something in common with Strauss' Don Quixote - on LSD," noted David Hurwitz of ClassicsToday. "The orchestral technique also is quite similar, recognizably German school, with luscious writing for violins and horns, occasional outbursts of extreme virtuosity all around, and a discerning but minimal use of additional percussion."
Braunfels composed music in a number of different genres, not only operas, but also songs, choral works and orchestral, chamber and piano pieces.