Vally Weigl: Biographical OverviewSophie Fetthauer
Vally Weigl was born in Vienna on 11 September 1894 to a bourgeois Jewish family with antecedents in Nordböhmen [today Severní Čechy in the Czech Republic] and Romania. Whereas Vally’s parents, Josef Pick, a lawyer, and Charlotte Pick, née Rubinstein, had grown up in families of observant Jews, they themselves no longer followed traditional practices, and Vally and her sister, Käthe (Katherina) Marianne Pick grew up in a completely assimilated and politically liberal home.
The two sisters, one year apart in age, attended the Mädchenlyzeum für Beamtentöchter in the Josefstadt [girls school for the daughters of civil servants in the Josefstadt Bezirk of Vienna], and both received private music lessons. Although their parents probably did not anticipate that their daughters might pursue professional careers, Käthe earned her PhD in the field of economics, and Vally studied musicology at the University of Vienna (under Guido Adler) as well as psychology, philosophy, and music pedagogy; she also pursued private studies in piano, music theory, and composition with Richard Robert, Leonia Gombrich [the mother of Ernst Gombrich], and Karl Weigl. By the end of World War I, the Pick family circumstances were no longer as secure as they had been. Vally, needing to earn her living and not able to find employment in Vienna, went to Amsterdam in 1920. Here she worked as a translator (in German, English, French, Italian, and Dutch) for Edo Fimmen, the general secretary of the International Transport Workers Union. In 1921 she returned to Vienna and married Karl Weigl. She returned to teaching music and piano and joined her husband in duo piano recitals. There is nothing to suggest that she devoted much time to composing. In 1926 the Weigls’ son Wolfgang Johannes (later John) Weigl was born.
With the Nazi racial laws that went into effect after the “Anschluss” [annexation] of Austria to Germany, Vally and Karl Weigl became officially designated as Jewish. Her husband was reluctant to leave his country, but Vally was determined to emigrate. They acquired the necessary U.S. affidavit through Mrs. Irena Wiley, the wife of the U.S. general consul, and Ira Hirschmann, an American businessman and founder of New Friends of Music in New York. With the additional help of the Quakers, the family managed to escape via Switzerland and England and reached safety in New York in October 1938. A number of family members on both Vally’s and Karl Weigl’s side did not survive “Third Reich” persecution. Vally’s mother committed suicide in 1939, and her sister, after several years’ imprisonment, was murdered in the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück. In exile, Vally Weigl always emphasized that she had had to flee Austria for political reasons; she never acknowledged that her Jewish heritage had played a role. It is conceivable that she rejected all forms of segregation, whether on the basis of origin, age, or gender, and that she therefore refused on principle, even after the fact, to accept an identity imposed on her by her persecutors—particularly when it was an identity not of her own choice or lived experience.
After reaching the United States, the Weigls’ son lived with a series of Quaker families until he finished school. Karl Weigl taught at a number of different institutions in New York, Brooklyn, Boston, and Philadelphia, and Vally Weigl worked as a music and language teacher and translator in New York (Institute for Avocational Music, American Theatre Wing, and Birch Wathen School) and Pennsylvania (Friends’ Westtown School, among others). She was not able to find a permanent full-time position that would have supported her, and this circumstance never changed. In exile she did, however, begin to compose more seriously, and she produced an extensive body of piano, chamber, and vocal works, some of which were published in her lifetime.
Even after he and Vally Weigl were granted U.S. citizenship in 1943, Karl Weigl never stopped feeling a stranger in the United States. Vally Weigl, on the other hand, adjusted to exile fairly quickly. Soon after her husband’s death in 1949, she incurred a serious shoulder injury that for a while made it impossible for her to play the piano and pursue her profession. While undergoing physical therapy, she noticed that the exercises were less painful when carried out to music. She turned this experience into a new profession, that of music therapist. In 1953, upon graduating from Teacher’s College at Columbia University and now almost sixty years old, she took up the career of music therapist at hospitals, research institutions and colleges (including New York Medical College Research Clinic, Mount Sinai Hospital, the New School for Social Research, Roosevelt Cerebral Palsy School in Long Island, and others).
In exile Vally Weigl reoriented not only her professional life but also her political engagement. She remained a lifelong member of the Quaker community, whom she owed her escape, and was involved in the founding of the Society of Friends’ Arts for World Unity Organization. For many years she served as president of this organization, reaching out to politicians and organizing concerts, theater performances, lectures, and exhibits in churches, synagogues, colleges, and cultural centers of all confessions. She believed in the power of music to bring people of all backgrounds together. This was also the foundation of her music making. Clearly she thought works of art to have more lasting effect in this regard than political pamphlets. Very probably her political reorientation was to some extent a response to her sister’s political engagement and tragic death. Before her arrest in 1938 Käthe Leichter had been active in Vienna as Social Democrat and suffragist, and she had always vehemently decried Vally Weigl’s apolitical stance. The childhood recollections of the two sisters—Vally Weigl’s written between 1973 and 1981, Käthe Leichter’s written 1939 while imprisoned—laid bare the strained relationship that had existed between them from early on. In her essay, clearly an answer to the 1973 publication of her sister’s recollections, Vally Weigl wrote of her regret at not having had the opportunity for reconciliation, and of having secretly admired her sister’s early social awareness.
Vally Weigl remained active until the last. She continued to compose, despite having almost completely lost her hearing. Until the last she also continued to devote herself to her husband’s legacy, for which purpose she had established the Karl Weigl Memorial Fund. Vally Weigl died in New York on 25 December 1982 at the age of eighty-eight.
By far the bulk of Vally Weigl’s circa 190 compositions originated during her life in the United States. Only a handful of works are extant from the years preceding exile. Apart from chamber and piano music (above all works written for children) she wrote primarily secular and sacred vocal music. She usually chose to score for small mixed instrumental ensembles and, in line with her desire to take advantage of the largest number of performance possibilities, tended to indicate many alternative and ad-libitum scorings. Her oeuvre does not include large orchestral works, operas, or evening-filling compositions.
Most of Vally Weigl’s works are set polyphonically and in chamber music style. Her works typically open with a characteristic motive, which reappears repeatedly thereafter; likewise characteristic of her musical language is a focus on a single prevailing mood or rhythm, and the avoidance of extreme contrasts. Her compositional model was the music of the late nineteenth century. She remained aloof from Vienna’s musical avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as that of the United States in the 1940s. In this regard she shows the influence of her teacher and husband Karl Weigl, who, though a student of Alexander Zemlinsky and connected with the Schoenberg circle, had nevertheless decisively refused to follow trends in new music. In negotiating between the extremes of the U.S. music scene, between the traditional and the ultra-avant-garde, Vally Weigl found her niche in both the Quaker peace movement and music therapy.
Central in Vally Weigl’s oeuvre were works for voice. Her interest in vocal music, as well as literature and language, was, over the years, variously inspired. Her mother had written poems, and her husband, Karl Weigl, composed a number of song cycles. Moreover, her early training had included the study of foreign languages. In Amsterdam (1920–1921) and later in exile she repeatedly turned to translating work, and she translated many of the texts that she and Karl Weigl had set in their original German. For her own musical settings she chose many texts by Carl Sandburg and poets who were personally known to her, among them Patricia Benton, Frederika Blankner, and Denise Levertov. She also set her own poems, as well as texts by lay authors who took part in her music-therapeutical courses.
Many of Vally Weigl’s works express her strong love of nature. Others are strongly influenced by her engagement with pacifism, which she pursued in the United States. She wrote her “Requiem for Allison” after President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia sparked the student uprising on 4 May 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio that left four students dead and nine injured. In a television program commemorating the victims, Vally Weigl heard a poem by Peter Davies about Allison Krause, one of the students who had been killed. Weigl set Davies’s poem for mezzo-soprano and string quartet, and “Requiem for Allison” was subsequently performed at commemorative programs in New York’s Trinity Church and St. John the Divine. Another politically motivated work of significance is the chamber cantata “The People, Yes!” based on twenty poems from the cycle of that name by Carl Sandburg. Weigl dedicated the work, which was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts prize, to Jimmy Carter.
As of the 1950s Weigl, while continuing to compose, also began to devote herself to music-therapeutical work with physically and mentally handicapped children and seniors. As her writings attest, she was a pioneer in this field in the United States and an important link to earlier developments in Europe. She published the conclusions of her work in various professional journals, including Bulletin of the National Association for Music Therapy, Cerebral Palsy Review, Crippled Child, Finnish Medical Journal, and American Journal of Mental Deficiency.
During her lifetime, Vally Weigl’s music was primarily performed in the United States, particularly in the context of the peace movement and the Quaker community, but also in broader venues. She received a number of prizes and awards, among them from the American Composers Alliance and the Mark Rothko Foundation, as well as a 1976 fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. A number of her works were published and recorded. Yet her music was almost unknown outside of the United States. No doubt in part the result of the rupture caused by exile, Weigl’s lack of resonance can probably also be attributed to her retrospective musical language and her deliberate exclusion of contemporary musical trends. An international symposium in Vienna in May 2001, sponsored in part by the Orpheus Trust, did something to reverse this situation by introducing her music to audiences in her hometown in a series of lectures and concerts. The symposium also addressed her contributions in the field of music therapy in the United States, for which until then Weigl had long been denied recognition.
Ed. note: The original German version of this article first appeared in MUGI, Musik und Gender im Internet (http://mugi.hfmt-hamburg.de/A_lexartikel/lexartikel.php?id=weig1894); this authorized translation by Juliane Brand is reproduced with kind permission of the author.