Karl Weigl: A Biographical Overview
Juliane Brand

The Austrian-American composer Karl Weigl, born on 6 February 1881 in Vienna, grew up in a cultured, bourgeois, assimilated Jewish family. He showed early musical talent, and in 1896 his parents arranged for private music lessons with Alexander Zemlinsky, a friend of the family. After graduating from the Gymnasium in 1899 Weigl inscribed at both the University of Vienna and the Conservatorium für Musik und darstellende Kunst der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (which later became the k.k. Akademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst); at the conservatory he studied piano with Anton Door and composition with Robert Fuchs, and when he graduated in July 1902 he carried with him that year’s silver medal for composition. A year later, in May 1903, he completed his doctorate under Guido Adler with a thesis on the Beethoven contemporary Emanuel Aloys Förster.

In May 1904 Adler brought his erstwhile student to the attention of his friend Gustav Mahler, then director of the Vienna Court Opera. Weigl worked under Mahler as solo performance coach until the end of April 1906, and he later wrote, “Even today, I consider the years I worked under Mahler as the most instructive period of my life.” Among Weigl’s works from this early period are String Quartet No. 1 (which Arnold Schoenberg enthusiastically recommended to his brother-in-law, Arnold Rosé), the string sextet (premiered in 1907 upon Mahler’s recommendation by the Rosé-Quartet), String Quartet No. 3 (which received the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Beethoven Prize in 1910), and Symphony No. 1. In February 1910 the prestigious Universal Edition offered him a ten-year general contract, and later that year the enthusiastically received premiere of his symphony at the ADMV Tonkünstler festival of 1910 brought Weigl's name to international attention.

Weigl forged valuable friendships in these early years, among others with Artur Bodanzky, Adolf Busch, and Rudolf Stephan Hoffmann, and he was active in the Vienna new music scene; between 1904 and 1905 he cofounded, with Zemlinsky and Schoenberg, the short-lived Vereinigung schaffender Tonkünstler. One of the most significant musical connections from these years was with the singer Elsa Pazeller, who was making a name for herself as a passionate interpreter of contemporary music and with whom Weigl appeared often in lieder recitals. In 1910 they married; their daughter, Maria, was born the following spring. The marriage ended in October 1913, but his connections to both Pazeller and his daughter remained of lifelong importance.

Because of near-sightedness Weigl’s involvement in World War I was restricted to office duties in Vienna, Karlovac, and Zagreb, but even so he was during those years almost completely disconnected from the world of music. He expressed his ambivalence about war when he dedicated the third movement of his Symphony No. 2, titled “Pro Defunctis,” to the fallen.

In 1918 Weigl was appointed to a position at the Neues Wiener Konservatorium teaching counterpoint and composition. Ten years later, in 1928, he was awarded the honorary title Professor. But already in 1925 he had felt secure enough about his performance royalties and pedagogical reputation to switch to a freelance life, composing and teaching privately. In the early 1930s he again returned to institutional teaching, taking on seminars at the Musicological Institute at the University of Vienna and summer music courses for foreigners in Salzburg. For almost a decade, however, from the mid-1920s to mid-1930s, he was able to make composing his principal occupation, an option not granted to many composers, then as now. Known for his mastery of compositional craft and his distinctive musical language, he gradually also gained a reputation for going his own compositional way undeterred by prevailing musical fashions. His works were published by Universal Edition, Schott, Edition Strache, and others. Prominent conductors―among them Ferdinand Löwe, Franz Nedbal, Franz Schreker, Robert Schulz-Dornburg, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Robert Heger, and George Szell―performed his orchestra works; the Rosé, Kolbe, Gottesmann, Havemann, Busch, and Sedlak-Winkler String Quartets took his chamber works into their repertoires; Ignaz Friedman premiered his Piano Concerto; and luminous singers such as Hanna Schwarz and Elisabeth Schumann sang his Lieder.

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Weigl’s personal life, too, was comfortable. In 1921 he married Valerie (Vally) Pick, a former student; their son, Wolfgang Johannes, named for Mozart and Goethe, was born in 1926. Annual summer vacations, which always included Weigl’s daughter and sometimes students or friends, took the family to the Austrian lake and mountain districts. During the rest of the year there was always time for hiking and skiing in the environs of Vienna, and daily life was enriched by music making and a gregarious circle of friends.

This was Weigl’s life until the mid-1930s. But soon after Hitler took power, Weigl, like all Austrian composers whose livelihood depended on arts organizations and audiences in neighboring Germany, began to be affected by the national-socialist cultural policies gradually being put in place there. Performances, particularly of orchestral music, dwindled, and publishers ignored new works by politically suspect composers. Weigl’s String Quartet No. 5, published in 1936, was the last of his works written in Europe to find a publisher. Increasingly Weigl had to rely on teaching. At the end of 1937 he wrote laconically in his diary, “Zukunft dunkel” (future bleak). Then on 12 March 1938 Hitler annexed Austria, and with this so-called Anschluß tens of thousands of Austrian Jews were forced into exile. The Weigl family owed their successful application for refuge in the United States above all to the international Quaker Center in Vienna, as well as to Irena Wiley, the wife of the U.S. general consul in Vienna, Weigl’s American student Ernst Bacon and friend Antonie Stolper, and Ira Hirschmann, the American businessman and passionate music lover who provided the imperative U.S. affidavit to a number of Jewish refugees.

Weigl felt exile keenly. His last eleven years were difficult even in comparison with what was commonly experienced by European refugees of his generation. Despite recommendations from prominent colleagues and support from a number of refugee organizations Weigl, then almost sixty years old, was initially able to attract only a handful of private students (among these, however, for a brief time, was Roman Totenberg, who later frequently performed Weigl's Violin Sonata No. 2) and find only part-time and occasional work at such institutions as the Philharmonic Society Music Training and Scholarship Program, an offshoot of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Vally Weigl, too, found only part-time teaching opportunities in New York and Pennsylvania. In 1940 Weigl landed his first steady job. This position at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut (fall 1940 to spring 1941) and his later appointment to Brooklyn College (fall 1943 to spring 1945) were in locum tenens for faculty doing military service, and both jobs ended with the respective faculty member’s return to civilian life. During the intervening year 1942 a job was patched together for him at the New York Public Library, where he performed editorial work for Carleton Sprague-Smith. Weigl’s longest employment in exile was at the Boston Conservatory (fall 1945 to spring 1948), but this required weekly commuting between New York and Boston and affected not only the time available for composing but also his health. Occasionally there were signs of public appreciation, including invitations to the MacDowell Colony artists program in the summers of 1942 and 1943 (Vally Weigl, too, was invited twice). But Weigl's last eleven years were shadowed throughout by economic insecurity and―particularly after spring 1945―serious illnesses; he was often in the care of a doctor, and he and Vally often had to turn to others for help. He died on 11 August 1949, just weeks after completing his String Quartet No. 8.

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Exile was a radical reorientation of Weigl’s professional and creative career but also of his personal life. Within days of the family’s arriving in New York, twelve-year-old Wolfi (who in America soon came to be called John) was sent to the care of a Quaker family in Connecticut. After three months there he spent the rest of his primary and middle school years in the care of two further Quaker families in Maryland und Pennsylvania. His parents saw him only rarely, mostly during his summer vacations, and John Weigl grew to maturity in an almost completely American milieu. Weigl’s daughter, Maria, and her husband, Gerhart Piers, had had to wait for more than a year in Switzerland before acquiring U.S. visa, but once they arrived in the United States in 1939 they, too, quickly made successful new lives for themselves in the new country. Despite their greater difficulties adjusting, Karl and Vally Weigl applied for U.S. citizenship within the first months of exile, and they became American citizens five years later, in 1943. Unlike some European exiles it never occurred to them to return to their native country after the end of World War II.

Karl Weigl had a true vocation for teaching, and for most of his professional life young composers as well as performers and academicians sought him out. Among his students were Kurt Adler, Ernst Bacon, Peter Paul Fuchs, Alfred Mann, Czeslaw Marek, Kurt Pahlen, Charles Rosen, W. K. Stanton, Daniel Sternberg, and Frederic Waldman―briefly also Hanns Eisler and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Front and center in his life, however, stood his own composing. And although he was unable in exile to rebuild his former standing as composer and teacher, he never for long lost the creative drive. In his last eleven years he composed a substantial collection of songs, the last three of his eight string quartets and other chamber music, and a number of works for large orchestra, including Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6.

Weigl believed profoundly in the continuity of the Central European musical traditions that had formed him; this defined his pedagogic approach and musical language alike. His lifelong friend Rudolf Stephan Hoffmann once wrote of him as a Nachfahren (descendant) who yet was no Nachtreter (follower). In his strongest works―among them the Piano Trio and String Quartets Nos. 3 and 5, the Five Songs for soprano and string quartet, and the Violin Concerto―lyric inventiveness and sovereign mastery of architectonic form unite with profound expressive powers. The posthumous rediscovery of Karl Weigl’s music can be dated back to the 1968 world premiere of his Symphony No. 5 under Leopold Stokowski.

Ed. note: This text is adapted from the article in the online Lexikon verfolgter Musiker und Musikerinnen der NS-Zeit, http://www.lexm.uni-hamburg.de/object/lexm_lexmperson_00002688;jsessionid=611BCED1064A5CD863A818BC321B9942?wcmsID=0003.


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