Jaromír Weinberger (January 8, 1896 – August 8, 1967) was a Czech-American composer of one of the most successful operas between the wars, the comedy Švanda Dudák (Schwanda the Bagpiper). Weinberger was born with his twin sister Božena at the Prague suburb of Královské Vinohrady in the Bohemian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the Czech Republic, on January 8, 1896, to a family of Jewish origin. A prodigy of near-Mozartian proportions, he heard Czech folksongs from time spent at his grandparents’ farm as a youth, started to play the piano at age five, and was composing and conducting by age ten. He began musical studies with Jaroslav Křička. Later teachers included Václav Talich and Rudolf Karel. He became a student at the Prague Conservatory at age fourteen, as a second-year student. There, he studied composition with Vítězslav Novák, a Dvořák pupil and one of the country’s leading creative figures, and Karel Hoffmeister. Later, at Leipzig, he studied with Max Reger and assumed into his own technique Reger’s immense grasp of counterpoint.
The short, fair, slight young man was spared from serving in the military during World War I thanks to the influence of an artistically inclined protector. Weinberger wrote incidental music for productions of Prague’s Czech National and Municipal Theaters. In September 1922, he moved to the United States where he took up a position as an instructor at Cornell University, where between 1922 and 1926 he was professor of composition at the Ithaca Conservatory (currently Music School of Ithaca College), New York. At first he 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, he signaled his intention to write an American symphony on the order of Dvořák’s “New World.” However, his first American sojourn was brief and his words bitter upon his return with complaints that Americans were too stiff and mechanical and too motivated by profit.
When Weinberger returned to his new homeland, Czechoslovakia which had been established after World War I, he was appointed director of the National Theater in Bratislava, and later received appointments at Eger in Hungary, and at Prague. In 1926 with the librettist Miloš Kareš, 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 City. The opera deals with Švanda the legendary bagpipe player from the southern Bohemian town of Strakonice, where still today an international bagpipe festival takes place. In 1931, Hans Knappertsbusch conducted the premiere of Weinberger’s next opera, Milovaný hlas (“The Beloved Voice”
Weinbereger’s operetta Frühlingsstürme was first performed at the Theatre im Admiralspalast in Berlin on January 19, 1933, with Jarmila Novotna and Richard Tauber in the leading roles. Mary Losseff took over from Novotna in February, but the show was closed down by the Nazis in March. Although none of his subsequent European works captured audiences as Švanda Dudák 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 for large orchestra and organ (1929), which combined various stories about the holiday with the long, rich tradition of Czech “koledy,” or Christmas carols, reveal a versatile composer, making use of the widest variety of materials and approaches. In 1938 Weinberger’s Wallenstein was staged as Valdštejn in Olomouc, but then democratic Czechoslovakia, too, was eliminated by the Germans.
With the rise of Nazism, Weinberger’s works were gradually denied performances, and the composer eventually left his homeland for France and England. I n 1939, after extensive travels to the United States, Bratislava, and Vienna, Weinberger fled his native country to escape the Nazis and settled in New York State, a place where he was well known, for the success of Švanda at the Metropolitan Opera in 1931 had been considerable, teaching there 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 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).
Weinberger and his wife spent the late 1930’s and 1940’s mostly in the picturesque village of Fleishmanns in the Catskills where he wrote a number of works on commission from American orchestras and became an American citizen in 1948. Later, he learned that his mother and his sister Beda, who was four years his senior, had been murdered by the Nazis. During the 1950s, Weinberger moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. 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 Aus Tirol, Folkdance and Fugue (1959) and A Waltz Overture (1960). In later life, he developed cancer of the brain. This, together with money worries and the neglect of his music, brought about depression, and he ultimately ceased composing. He died At the age of 71 from a lethal drug overdose on August 8, 1967, in St Petersburg. His wife, Hansi Lemberger Weinberger (also known as Jane), survived him until her death on July 31, 1968. In 2004 Jaromír and Jane Weinberger found their last resting place on Kibbutz Gezer between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem
While unable to duplicate Schwanda’s level of success in his subsequent works, Weinberger was a prolific, productive, and highly effective composer for several decades. He composed over 100 works, including operas, operettas, choral works, and works for orchestra. However, the only one which is still remembered is the opera Schwanda the Bagpiper (Švanda dudák), a worldwide success after its première in 1927. The opera is still performed occasionally, and the Polka and Fugue from it is often heard in a concert version. Weinberger used a varied musical language. 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. With the exception of Švanda Dudák, Weinberger frustrated his critics even as he pleased them.
My collection includes the following work by Jaromir Weinberger:
Schwanda the Bagpiper: Polka and Fugue.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources