Karl Weigl (1881–1949)
Few Jewish émigré composers can be identified with the spirit of fin-de-siecle Viennese Romanticism in the way that Karl Weigl can. He studied piano as a young man with Alexander Zemlinsky, was taught composition by Robert Fuchs and served as a repetiteur under Gustav Mahler. His early works were regularly performed throughout Europe and broadcast on the radio and were praised by traditionalists and modernists alike. Arnold Schoenberg said:
I always considered him as one of the best composers of this older generation, one who continued the dignified Viennese tradition… he truly preserves this old culture of a musical spirit which is one of the best parts of Viennese culture.
How, then, did such an established torchbearer of Viennese music go from being a household name in Europe to working temporary teaching positions in the United States? Karl Weigl’s story is yet another example of how the Nazis altered the musical canon of early 20th century classical music through their misguided attempts to reshape the ‘racial’ landscapes of Europe.
Karl Weigl was born on 6 February 1881 at a time of renewal for the city of Vienna.
He enjoyed a middle class upbringing on Vienna’s 1st District Gumpoldstrasse. His father Ludwig worked as a bank clerk and his mother Gabrielle Stein-Jeitteles ran the household. Both were avid music-lovers. This love was transferred to Karl, who began composing at age 11, completing three short works for piano in 1892 (Gavotte Op.1, Weinachtenlied (Christmas Song) Op.2, Valse lente Op.3). Four years later, at his mother’s behest, Karl began taking private music lessons with family friend, Alexander Zemlinsky. This relationship was influential in forming Weigl’s compositional aesthetic.
Weigl completed his early education at the K.K. Franz-Joseph Gymnasium in 1899 and went on to enrol at the University of Vienna, where he pursued Musicology under Professor Guido Adler, and the Conservatory for Performing Arts (Koservatorium der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde). At the conservatory, Weigl focused his studies on piano with Anton Door, Music Theory with Hermann Door and composition with Robert Fuchs, whose ex-students included a dazzling array of composers including Gustav Mahler, Franz Schreker, Hugo Wolf, Franz Schmidt and Alexander Zemlinsky, among others. Weigl received his diploma in piano studies in 1901. The following year he completed a diploma in composition and was awarded the silver medal Zusnerlieder Preis for his composition Im Grünen (In the Countryside). In May 1903 Weigl obtained his doctorate after successfully completing his thesis on composer Emanuel Aloys Föster.
Weigl’s talent as a musician was readily apparent and in 1904 he was hired by Gustav Mahler as a repetiteur at the Vienna Court Opera, a position he retained for two years. Weigl was also actively honing his composing skills and joined the short-lived composer group Vereinigung Schaffender Tonkünstler (The Society for Creative Musicians) founded by Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Oskar Posa. Membership in the group provided him with pivotal contacts in the music world. One example of the group’s influence is evident in the premiere of his String Quartet No.1, which was performed by the famed Rosé Quartet at Schoenberg’s recommendation.
Weigel produced numerous compositions in the early stages of his career, with 1910 standing out as a significant year. Weigl received the 1910 Beethoven Prize from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Friends of Music) for his String Quartet No. 3 in A Major, op. 4. In May, the ADMV Tonkunstlerfest held in Zurich premiered his Symphony No. 1 in E Major, op. 5l; the work gained international attention and garnered a 10-year contract with Universal Edition publishers. Also in 1910, Weigl’s professional friendship with modern music interpreter and singer Elsa Pazeller turned romantic and they married in November. The couple had one daughter, Maria, the following year but their marriage was not to last and they divorced in 1913.
At the outbreak of the first world war, Weigl’s career was put on hold while he served out his military conscription. Due to poor eyesight, his duties primarily consisted of office work in Vienna, Karlovac and Zagreb. After the end of the war in 1918, Weigl returned to his career in Vienna. He received an apprenticeship for counterpoint and composition at the New Vienna Conservatory and took on private students. One of these students was the pianist, composer and music therapist Vallerie (Vally) Pick whom Weigl later married in 1921.
Three years later, Weigl’s compositions gained further recognition when he won the City of Vienna’s cultural prize. Other awardees in that year include Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Franz Schmidt, among others. By 1925, Weigl was able to focus primarily on composition and many of his works were now under contract with major European publishing firms including Schott, Universal Edition and Strache and his orchestral works were taken up by prominent conductors such as Franz Schreker, George Szell and Wilhelm Furtwängler. His instrumental chamber works also became increasingly popular and were performed by leading ensembles such as the Busch, Rosé and Havemann quartets. In the midst of these career successes, Vally and Karl welcomed their only child, Johannes Wolfgang, in 1926.
Over the next seven years, Weigl continued on a successful path in composition and academic circles. In 1929 he was given the honorary title of professor by the Austrian government and succeeded composer Hans Gál as professor of theory and composition at the Institut für Musikwissenschaft (Institute for Musicology) at the University of Vienna.
By early 1933, Weigl’s upward trajectory was suddenly disrupted when Adolf Hitler came to power and began passing antisemitic legislation. Performances of his works drastically diminished throughout German and Austria. Publishing houses who had previously championed his work began to let pieces go out of print and ignored new compositions altogether. As a consequence, Weigl was forced to increase his teaching to compensate for the lost income. Within a year, his professorship was terminated and Weigl was forced to rely almost exclusively on his private studio. Despite these struggles, he still managed to have his String Quartet No.5 in G Major, Op.31 published in 1936. However, this would be his final published work in Europe during his lifetime.
The Weigls, like many Jewish families in Austria, appeared to take the view that the effects of increasingly antisemitic policies in Germany were largely avoidable as long as they remained outside that country. However, this false sense of security unravelled after the annexation of Austria by Germany of 12 March 1938. Only two days prior, Weigl’s Pictures and Tales Suite was performed by the Wiener Konzertorchester. This marked the last Austrian performance of any of his works for many years.
With Austria now absorbed into the German Reich, antisemitic laws were codified into Austrian law. Antisemitic harassment also became increasingly common. In May 1938, Wiegl’s sister-in-law, May Leichter, was arrested in one of the frequent Nazi round ups of dissidents. Soon after, the family began the complex and expensive process of emigration. Among the mounds of documentation required for the applications, the Nazi government required a fiscal/tax clearance certificate and an exit permit. Furthermore, many host countries required signed affidavits guaranteeing that someone from the host country would be financially responsible for applicants. The Weigls reached out to every possible foreign contact in order to secure this vital paperwork. One response from the American Frederick Jacobi highlights the difficulties of such a request. In a letter to the Wiegls, he addressed the employment situation in America, advising them that
you must be prepared for considerable difficulty and for a wait of perhaps a considerable lapse of time before you find anything.
Over the summer months of 1938, the Weigls continued their letter-writing campaign in search of anyone who could assist them. Their search led them to several acquaintances who were in the position to help in the emigration process as well as provide financial aid. This group included the economic historian Antonie Stolper, Irene Wiley and her husband John, US Consul to Vienna. Irene had also helped Sigmund Freud in his flight from Vienna. The affidavit itself was signed by someone the Weigls had never met, the American music enthusiast and VP of Bloomingdale’s department store, Mr. Ira Hirschmann. Much later support was provided by the International Quaker Centre in Vienna.
With their paperwork in order, the Weigls began the arduous journey on 15 September 1938 through Switzerland and France to Southampton, England where they boarded the SS Statendam on 1 October. Karl and Vally never again set foot in Europe.
The Weigls’ arrival in New York City on 9 October was bittersweet. While they were warmly received and enjoyed support from various aid organisations, news from Vienna arrived announcing the death of Karl’s mother. Shortly after their arrival, their son Johannes was sent to live with a surrogate Quaker family in Connecticut while the Weigls searched for work. This arrangement eventually became permanent apart from holiday visits. By September 1939, both Karl and Vally had secured part time work as well as private students and were able to lease an apartment in Manhattan near central park. They remained at 55 West 95th Street for the remainder of their lives.
Karl also began composing again. Two of the first works composed in the U.S. – both songs – were aptly titled ‘The Glorious Vagabond’ and ‘The Refugee’. He also composed several instrumental works in this first year, among them a reflection of his home Tänze aus Wien (Dances from Vienna) for orchestra, the String Quartet No.6 in C Major and his Piano Trio for violin, cello, and piano dedicated to Ira Hirschmann.
Over the following ten years, Karl worked a succession of teaching positions, most of them temporary. The first was a part-time position at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1941, he moved onto teaching courses at New York City’s west side YMCA and the following year he gained a part time position as an editorial and research assistant at the New York Public Library. The constant financial struggles made finding time to compose a challenge but in a fortunate turn, both he and Vally were invited for residencies at the MacDowell artist colony in the summer months of 1942 and 1943.
These much-needed reprieves were fleeting and in the autumn of 1943, Karl was again working as a substitute professor, this time at Brooklyn College. He retained this position until 1945. The end of the Second World War brought a chance for the Weigls to take stock of the preceding years. After fleeing their home country, they had managed to find safety in the United States and became citizens in 1944. Unfortunately, Karl’s once-successful career in Europe did not readily transfer to America and the Weigls grappled with years of financial instability and the loss of many family and friends. These factors, along with the continual commuting to and from various teaching positions, began to manifest itself in the form of a litany of health issues for Karl.
These issues were exacerbated when he took the position as head of music theory at the Boston Conservatory of Music in 1945. This required weekly travel between New York City and Boston, putting further strain on Weigl’s already fragile health. As his condition worsened, Weigl left Boston Conservatory and instead took a position at the Philadelphia Academy of Music in 1948. Although his commute to Philadelphia was around half the distance of his excursions to Boston, Weigl’s health continued to decline from late 1948 into 1949 with heart issues and chronic anaemia. Despite his serious health condition, he continued to compose and in May 1949 completed his String Quartet No. 8. Only a few months after the work’s completion, Karl Weigl died aged 68 on 11 August 1949.
Music and Legacy
Although Karl Weigl is recognised first and foremost as a composer, his contributions to education have left an indelible impression on 20th century Western music. Weigl’s students include some of the leading voices of the Western canon, including Erich Korngold, Kurt Roger, Hanns Eisler and Erich Zeisl, among many others, while he served on faculty at many leading universities.
Weigl’s compositional aesthetic is rooted in the Central European tradition and representative of Austro-Germanic fin-de-siècle Romanticism prevalent in early 20th century Vienna. Many of his orchestral works show similarities to the large structural forms of Bruckner. His former teacher Robert Fuchs stands as a musical influence of his Romantic Viennese style which other major contemporaries Zemlinsky, Schreker and Schoenberg jettisoned upon joining the modernist environment of Berlin’s Weimar Republic. Brahms also stands as influence in Weigl’s compositional style. In his own words,
I owe to him purity of compositional technique and seriousness of thematic work, and, not last, a new insight into the masters with whom he himself had studied – Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Bach and older vocal composers.
Many of his works enjoyed performances by premier European orchestras conducted by the likes of Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Leopold Stokowski. In total, Weigl’s output consists of six symphonies, eight string quartets as well as numerous orchestral, chamber and piano works. He was also a prolific composer for voice. Vocal works include his opera Der Rattenfänger von Hameln (The Rat-Catcher of Hamelin) op. 24 (1932), choral compositions and a large collection of lieder, spanning the entirety of his life.
At his compositional height, his works were praised by the likes of Mahler, Schreker, Zemlinsky, Richard Strauss and Schoenberg, who considered Weigl’s style to be a relic of the old Viennese musical culture while equally praising him as one of the best composers of his generation. His important contributions to Western classical music are an essential piece of the larger puzzle of early 20th century music which are now being recognised and reconsidered after decades of neglect.
Juliane Brand, “Karl Weigl : A Biographical Overview,” Karl Weigl Foundation website, Accessed 25 June 2021, URL: www.karlweigl.org
Juliane Brand, “Karl Weigl’s Final Years, 1938-1949: A Story of Perseverance,” Karl Weigl Foundation website, Accessed 25 June 2021, URL: www.karlweigl.org
Juliane Brand, ed. Claudia Maurer Zenck, Peter Petersen, Sophie Fetthauer, “Karl Wiegl” in Lexikon verfolgter Musiker und Musikerinnen der NS-Zeit, Hamburg: Universität Hamburg, 2007, Accessed 25 June 2021, URL: www.lexm.uni-hamburg.de/object/lexm_lexmperson_00002688
Charlotte Erwin, revised by Michael Meckna, “Karl Weigl,” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press. 2001. Accessed 25 June 2021, URL: doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.30029
“Chronological Survey of Karl Weigl’s Life, 1881-1949,” Karl Weigl Foundation website, Accessed 1 July 2021, URL: www.karlweigl.org
Michael Haas, ‘The Jugendstil School of Schoenberg, Schreker, Zemlinsky and Weigl’, in Forbidden Music : The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis, Yale University Press, 2013, pp.80-98.
Walter Frisch, Kevin C. Karnes, “Brahms and the Newer Generation: Personal Reminiscences by Alexander von Zemlinsky and Karl Weigl,” in Brahms and His World (Revised Edition) Princeton University Press, p.425-29, 2009, accessed on 9 July 2021 via JSTOR, URL: www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rxmx.25