Introduction to Karl Weigl

When Leopold Stokowski led the posthumous premiere of Karl Weigl’s Symphony No. 5 in Carnegie Hall in 1968, Winthrop Sargeant wrote in the New Yorker, “It is not often that one is privileged to be present at the world première of a really important symphony.” Stokowski called the work “extraordinary” and declared that it “is in the same high class of American compositions as the Fourth Symphony of Ives.“

Weigl (1881–1949) came to maturity in the rich musical culture of turn-of-the-century Vienna. At the peak of his career he was able to live from royalties and teaching—a fairly rare achievement, then as now—and in the 1920s and early 1930s his works were being performed by such conductors and musicians as Wilhelm Furtwängler, George Szell, Ignaz Friedman, Hanna Schwarz, Elisabeth Schumann, and the Rosé and Busch Quartets. After the Nazi invasion and annexation of Austria in March 1938 forced him and his family into exile, Weigl spent his last eleven years in the United States. He experienced great difficulties in making a living, and though his creativity never flagged for long he was not able publicly to reestablish himself as a composer on anything approaching the level of recognition he had enjoyed in Europe.

The eclipse of Weigl's name that began in his lifetime with the systematic persecution of Jewish composers under Nazi cultural policies only deepened after his death during the ideological postwar years when serialism reigned supreme and it was thought that twentieth-century music must chart a single trajectory. In today’s more sophisticated understanding, early twentieth-century Austro-German musical culture is recognized as having encompassed a vibrant simultaneity of compositional languages. With this context restored we can again differentiate between what constitutes a composer's idiosyncratic creative personality and what reflects shared cultural sensibilities.

Weigl’s oeuvre includes more than one hundred songs (some gathered into sets and cycles, and several with string quartet or orchestra accompaniment), numerous choral works, eight string quartets, a trio and other chamber works, concerti for orchestra and piano, violin, and cello, respectively, and six large symphonies. A number of major Weigl works are now available on CD, but some have never been performed, and a number of others have not been performed since his death. The complete works list available here should allow musicians of today and tomorrow to make discoveries as exhilarating as that about which Winthrop Sargeant wrote in 1968.