Jaromír Weinberger

08/01/1896 Prague, 08/08/1967 St. Petersburg (Florida)  

He was born at the “Royal Vineyards” quarter in Prague on 8 January 1896. As to who discovered his musical talent or when, we do not know. It is likely that his mother was the musician in the family, with the father running a furniture business. But we know for certain that, already as a child, Jaromír was a person of great talent, as demonstrated by a newspaper article written by the teacher, writer and translator Ludmila Grossmannová Brodská in 1906: “Here in Bohemia, namely in Prague, we have an accomplished composer in Jaromír Weinberger, a boy of almost nine, attending the fourth grade at the Vinohrady elementary school. It may be hard to believe but the Vinohrady Hlahol chorus performed two pieces composed by Jaromír Weinberger quite independently at a public production at the National House. Spectators were enthralled, seeing the young composer play the piano himself accompanying the singers. The skinny boy also personally conducted two songs – one for a single voice, the other for three – quite precisely. His talent can be hardly underestimated, as he is so reminiscent of the childhood years of Mozart.”

Biography

The talented boy first started studying music under the young Jaroslav Křička (1882–1969). He also received many a valuable piece of advice from the conductor, composer and teacher František Kaňka (1880–1962), composer and conductor Rudolf Karela (1880–1945) and the conductor Václav Talich (1883–1961). He finished his composition lessons at Vítězslav Novák’s (1870–1949) masterclass at the Prague Conservatory, followed by studying under the “master of counterpoint” Max Reger (1873–1916) in Leipzig. It is Reger’s extremely precise approach to polyphony that may be heard in many compositions by Weinberger. 

Early years
Weinberger had the luck of not being drafted to fight in the First World War, but he had to undergo an equally dramatic internal battle to find his own identity as an artist. In addition to music for the theatre, he composed a pantomime The Abduction of Evelyne to the libretto by František Langer (1888–1965) (based upon Langer’s short story The Abduction of Evelyne Mayer written in 1910). The pantomime was presented by the Vinohrady Theatre starring Václav Vydra and Eduard Kohout. He also collaborated with the Czech Philharmonic but reviews were lukewarm in that respect. “Mr. Weinberger’s music lacks any original character […] Neither the veneer of modern music, nor the pathetic sound stretching the capacities of modern orchestra to the limit, can disguise the bombastic, yet empty, themes and fake emotionality,” reviewers wrote. 

That might have been the reason behind Weinberger’s decision to move to USA in 1922 to teach composition at the Ithaca College School of Music. He was not the first Czech artist there. The famous violin virtuoso Otakar Ševčík (1852–1934) taught there from 1901 to 1902. In spite of his genuine interest in American literature (e.g. Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry Longfellow or Francis Bret Harte) and a seriously meant effort to compose a new American symphony like Dvořák did with his From the New World, Weinberger’s stay in the United States did not last for long. As early as autumn of 1923, Weinberger was back in Prague with his Union Rhapsody still waiting to be performed. Thus, his American episode earned him only three compositions for violin and piano titled To Nelly Gray, Cowboy's Christmas and Banjos.

Even after returning from the United States, Weinberger remained always on the move. He shortly worked as a dramaturge for the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava and taught music in Cheb. While still being mercilessly “lynched” by reviewers in Bohemia (for example, Boleslav Vomáčka wrote: “It is no secret in our art circles that Mr. Weinberger has been an outsider when it comes to music life here and neither his works, nor his nature as a person has done much to persuade us that he might play any significant role in the development of Czech music.”), Weinberger experienced his first successes in Slovakia. March 1925 saw the premiere of song-and-dance comedy Kocúrkovo alebo Len aby sme v hanbe nezostali by Ján Chalupka (1791–1871) accompanied by Jaromír Weinberger’s music. The piece was conducted by Oskar Nedbal (1874–1930). In the same year, also conducted by Oskar Nedbal, an excerpt of the play was performed in Vienna under the title of Overture to an ancient Slovak comedy. The piece was praised by both Slovak and Viennese critics. This was one of the first occasions, when the Viennese music reviewers noticed Weinberger at all, writing about “joyful composition based upon graceful interplay of national tunes”. Weinberger’s star was on the rise and the greatest success of his life was just around the corner. 

Schwanda the Bagpiper, Weinberger’s fairy-tale opera composed in 1927 took the world by storm, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Covent Garden in London.

Schwanda the Bagpiper
Schwanda the Bagpiper, an opera by Weinberger and the librettist Miloš Kareš (1891–1944) based upon the popular fable The Bagpiper of Strakonice by Josef Kajetán Tyl (1808–1856), was first performed at the National Theatre on 27 April 1927 conducted by Otakar Ostrčil (1879–1935). The reviews were positive, but it was performed only fourteen times, vanishing from the repertoire. Everything was to change, however, when Max Brod (1884–1968) translated the libretto into German. In 1928, the German version was presented by the Municipal Theatre in Wroclaw, followed by the New German Theatre in Prague one year later. In the very same year, Schwanda the Bagpiper was performed in Basel, Ljubljana, Leipzig and Berlin. At Unter den Linden in Berlin, the opera was conducted by the legendary Erich Kleiber (1890–1956) with Theodor Scheidl and Maria Müller in the title roles. Then came Budapest, Vienna, Helsinki and Sofia. In 1931, Schwanda was presented to audiences at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and it took three more years for it to be performed at the Royal Opera House in London. Finally, in 1935, the Czech bagpiper made it from Strakonice all the way to Buenos Aires. This successful campaign was unfortunately cut short by the Nuremberg Laws. Weinberger’s music suddenly became “unwanted”.

But there is much more to Jaromír Weinberger than Schwanda the Bagpiper – even though none of his other works managed to win the fame of that one extremely well-composed opera. In 1929, he finished his 6 Czech Songs and Dances for violin and piano (also instrumented for violin and orchestra), the impressive Passacaglia for orchestra and organ two years later and his Chant hébraïque symphony in 1936. The 30s saw also the completion of his Beloved Voice (Die geliebte Stimme, 1930), The Outcasts of Poker Flat from 1932 (with Miloš Kareš returning to write the libretto) and Wallenstein from 1937 ordered by Clemens Krauss (1893–1954) for the Vienna Opera (today’s Vienna State Opera). In 1933, Weinberger signed a contract to compose music for a film adaptation of the novel Venus from the Ghetto by Eduard Rada (born Rudolf Ekštein, 1879–1968). Unfortunately, the film was never made. Weinberger also undertook a creative excursion in the realm of operetta. Spring Storms (premiered on 20 January 1933 in Berlin with Jarmila Novotná and Richard Tauber in the lead roles) were followed by three operettas composed in collaboration with the librettists Bohumír Polách (1899–1979) and František Kožík (1909–1997): A Bed of Roses (1933), By the Way, What Is Andula Doing? (1934) and The Emperor Lord of Cherries (1936), all premiered in Brno. A film adaptation of A Bed of Roses was made in 1934 starring Marie Tauberová, Lída Baarová, Antonie Nedošínská, Jindřich Plachta and Ladislav Pešek. Weinberger was also a prolific literary author, writing feuilletons for the National Newspaper on topics ranging from Antonín Dvořák to jazz or atonal music. 

The impressive Passacaglia for orchestra and organ is one of Weinberger’s extraordinary works composed in the 30s, specifically in 1931.

Emigration
Like a tidal wave, the pressure spreading from Nazi Germany to the entire Europe forced even Jaromír Weinberger to emigrate. In autumn of 1938, he and his wife Hansi moved to the United States, even though he had mentioned in a letter to his Czech friend in Buenos Aires that he had considered emigrating to the Soviet Union. 

Shortly after his arrival in New York, The New York Times published an interview with him titled “Weinberger Seeks Time to Compose”. Indeed – Weinberger experienced a surge of extreme creativity during his early years in America. To mention just one of his successes on the American soil, his Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree, variations and fugue for piano and orchestra based upon an old English song of the same name, was premiered on 15 May 1939, performed by the New York Philharmonic conducted by John Barbirolli (1899–1970). In the same year, he also finished his 10 Characteristic Solos for snare drum with piano and the Mississippi Rhapsody one year later. Also 1941 was an eventful year with the Lincoln Symphony premiered on 15 October in Cincinnati, the Czech Rhapsody performed by the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington D.C., on 5 November and the Saratoga ballet – Weinberger’s last stage work – by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo on 5 December.

Unfortunately, the war had a devastating effect on the composer’s family. Both his mother and sister Bedřiška died in a concentration camp; his twin sister Boženka survived the war (she died in Prague in 1982). Weinberger’s bouts of melancholy and depression first appearing in the early thirties grew stronger. At the same time, his interest in music waned. During his last years spent in St. Petersburg, Florida, he composed very little, focusing mostly on religious music. On 8 August 1967, he decided to leave this world of his own free will. His extraordinary life and legacy of an artist can be poignantly summarized by the words of a composer, violoncellist and musicologist Paul Rudbardt (1892–1971): “What joy to finally feel the primordial power of music and to find in Jaromír Weinberger a composer, who takes little heed of fashionable “problems” and keeps just “doing music” guided by his warm musician’s heart!”

The Czech Rhapsody citing T. G. Masaryk’s favorite folk song Ach synku, synku was composed by Jaromír Weinberger already in his American exile. An impressive recording of performance by the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington D.C., from 1942.

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