Jaromír Weinberger (1896-1967) was the composer of one of the most successful operas between the wars, the comedy Švanda Dudák (Schwanda the Bagpiper). While unable to duplicate that level of success in his subsequent works, Weinberger was a prolific, productive and highly effective composer for several decades. The disruption of emigration and his inability to retrieve his royalties made his life in the United States somewhat difficult, but he continued to compose in a variety of styles on a broad array of subjects, including such works as the Lincoln Symphony.
Weinberger was born in Prague in January of 1896. He was a prodigy of near-Mozartian proportions, starting piano at the age of five and composing by his tenth year. He studied in Prague with such significant figures as Jaroslav Křička, Václav Talich and Rudolf Karel. Eventually he ended up in the master class of Vítĕzslav Novák, a Dvořák pupil and one of the country's leading creative figures. He continued studying with Karel Hoffmeister and eventually traveled to Leipzig to take lessons with Max Reger, whose rigorous approach to composition, especially counterpoint, is a factor in many of Weinberger's works.
In September of 1922, almost inexplicably, Weinberger moved to the United States where he took up a position as an instructor at Cornell University. While he at first found many wonderful things in the USA, and made much of his cultural affinity to such writers as Whitman, Twain, Longfellow and Bret Harte--also signaling his intention to write an American symphony on the order of Dvořák's New Worldhis first American sojourn was brief and his words bitter upon his return (Americans were too stiff and mechanical, too motivated by profit, etc.).
When he returned to Czechoslovakia he was appointed director of the National Theater in Bratislava, and later received appointments in Eger in Hungary, and Prague. In 1926 Weinberger completed Švanda Dudák (Schwanda the Bagpiper) which became one of the most popular operatic works between the wars, with thousands of performances in hundreds of theaters including the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Although none of his subsequent European works captured audiences as Švanda had, such pieces as the Passacaglia for Orchestra and Organ, Six Bohemian Dances for Violin and Piano, the opera The Outcasts of Poker Flat and a grand oratorio Christmas reveal a versatile composer, making use of the widest variety of materials and approaches.
Several observers, including Hans Heinsheimer at Universal Edition and Renato Mordo, manager of the German theater in Prague noted Weinberger's pessimism and regarded his long discussions about world events to be utterly pessimistic. Whatever one thinks of such things, the 1930's were a time when even the most pessimistic and catastrophic visions fell well short of the mark. With the rise of Nazism, Weinberger's works were gradually denied performances, and the composer eventually fled his homeland for France and England. He arrived in New York in 1939, a place where he was well known, for the success of Švanda at the Metropolitan Opera in 1931 had been considerable.
Shortly after his arrival he was interviewed by Howard Taubman who wrote an article for The New York Times titled Weinberger Seeks Time to Compose. The composer's tone alternates understandably between some level of near despair, with some discussion of how few royalties from Švanda were being sent to him, but also focused on a possibly bright future, which would include such works as a grand Lincoln Symphony. Throughout, though, Weinberger expresses the exile's worry about where his income will be coming from, where he will live, who he is.
He did land on his feet, at least at first. The initial years of his American period were immensely productive featuring such varied works as Ten Characteristic Solos for Drum and Piano (1939), Mississippi Rhapsody (1940), Prelude to the Festival for symphonic band (1941), Prelude and Fugue on a Southern Folk Tune (1940), the Lincoln Symphony (1941) Czech Rhapsody (1941) and several religious compositions, including Ecclesiastes (1946) and Six Religious Preludes (1946).
The late 1930's and 1940's were spent mostly in the picturesque village of Fleishmanns in the Catskills, but after about a decade Weinberger moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. The composer had a history of mental disorder, and was almost certainly bi-polar. During the 1950's and 60s he gradually sank into a deep depression and committed suicide in 1967 in mourning, according to his biographer, for a culture that which no longer existed.
The sources of Weinberger's musical languages are many and varied. His studies in Prague and Leipzig stressed formal control and contrapuntal mastery; his teachers, Křička, Novák and Reger were concerned with a certain professional polish and control, but they were also somewhat playful, and that combination can be found in Weinberger's works. These were aspects of his output that alternately received critical acclaim (when they were regarded as somehow genuine) and also set the composer up for a good deal of criticism (when they were thought to be either too automatic or insufficiently profound). It is fair to say that, with the exception of Švanda, Weinberger frustrated his critics even as he pleased them.
Several of his Czech compositions enjoyed great local renown until the war. Among these, the most conspicuous was his Christmas oratorio, which combined various stories about the holiday with the long, rich tradition of Czech koledy, or Christmas carols. While the composer continued to write works that used Czech sources, from the very beginning he had a broad outlook, perhaps gleaned from Vítĕzslav Novák who also wrote in virtually every available genre. Weinberger's catalogue includes manifestly American works, such as the Lincoln Symphony and the Prelude and Fugue on a Southern Folk Tune, both of which try to combine old world musical sophistication with local elements, echoing Dvořák's work decades earlier. In his later years Weinberger more and more explored musical worlds related to religious mysticism, cultivating a more objective and nuanced style.
Without a doubt though, it was his latter-day export of Czechness to the rest of Europe that was Weinberger's greatest contribution and his greatest success. But this was not an entirely simple matter. As in Bohuslav Martinů's opera The Plays of Mary and Kodály's Háry János (composed within a year of Švanda), Weinberger's nationality comes to the fore precisely because it is set up by an array of cosmopolitan musical languages that stand for the very forces that threaten the simple goodness of the homeland. Thus when Švanda (or Mary or Háry) sings at home, and presents himself to the world, he does so in intonations reminiscent of Smetana and Dvořák. Indeed, his words I am Švanda the Bagpiper ape the opening of Smetana's Má vlast. When, however, he forgets his beloved and moves to the city, we hear modern music of a different stripe. Like Martinů and Kodály (and Mozart, Dvořák, Schubert and Lehar), Weinberger's dazzling mastery of many modern styles simultaneously infuses his music with depth and dimension and marks him as a kind of Hapsburg composer whose true style is a style of styles.
It is somewhat ironic that there is such a degree of nationalist absurdity in the reception of Weinberger's works. While the Czechs tended to find Švanda not quite Czech enough, or too routinely Czech, the rest of Europe clearly felt that Weinberger's origins gave him an authentic Czech composing license, and it was rather his other works which sometimes failed in their estimation for being insufficiently Švanda-esque. The utter confusion in such matters is neatly encapsulated in a fragment from The New York Times, anticipating Švanda's premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1931:
The opera has been heard on almost one hundred stages abroad, although some of the presentations had to be postponed in parts of Germany as a matter of reprisal due to the feeling engendered by certain Czech Nationalists who had protested in their country against the singing of the choral section of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in German. The presentation here will probably be in German.What's this? Švanda postponed because Czech patriots needed their Schiller in Czech? And in the end the opera is presented at the Met in German anyway? This kind of tension has simultaneously helped and hindered works like Švanda and composers such as Weinberger and untold others from this region.
It is customary with composers such as Weinberger to marvel somewhat at the fact that they had only one hit, and to suggest that they somehow fell short of their potential. But the reality is that any composer with an enduring hit like Švanda is the great exception. While Weinberger could never duplicate that opera's success, which came about due to a complex interaction of politics, personal style and audience reception, he remained a productive and thoughtful composer until his final tortured years. Forced to emigrate, losing his sources of income, we should marvel not that he did not live up to Švanda, but that he continued to compose at all.