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1. The Life (1863-1942)
To a greater extent than any other of this century's outstanding conductors Felix Weingartner eludes the facile label. The commonplace dassifications such as "a conductor of the great romantic era" or its opposite, the "dassical" master, "the last of a tradition" or "the founder of the Viennese tradition", or again "a transitional figure between two eras"-all these tags bestowed upon him by one or another critic are liable to mislead. But beyond dispute, with the possible exception of Toscanini no conductor exerted a greater influence upon his successors or played a more significant role in moulding the taste of the public. The authority of his performances latterly was accepted without argument; others might bring different and even, in the passing moment, more overtly striking qualities, but his exposition of the classics was a touchstone.
The talents of his baton and pen through which Weingartner is still remembered were formidable indeed. But, as his career so amply demonstrates, the sovereign position he held throughout the last four decades of his life was not attained without great labour and the frequent assertion of a fierce independence of outlook.
(Paul) Felix von Weingartner was born on 2 June I863 in Zara (now Zadar in Yugoslavia) of Austrian parents. His great-grandfather, as head of the mint in Vienna, was accorded a patent of hereditary nobility; but while properly aware of his lineage, Weingartner never used the prefix "von" in connection with his professional work. His aristocratic descent did not bring with it comfortable circumstances: particularly after his father's death in 1868, when the family moved to Graz, his early memories were more of hunger and cold than childhood delights. Mixed with these, however, were his earliest musical impressions, foremost among them Don Giovanni which moved him (at the age of seven!) with the desire to direct it himself; and upon discovery of musical gifts serious tuition commenced with the best local teacher, Dr Wilhelm Mayer-Remy. His advance was sure, and after commendation by Hanslick for his first compositions he won a scholarship to the Leipzig Conservatorium in 1881. Ironically this was halved in value by the authorities since the indigent youth's work was considered of too high a quality for the mere talented beginner for whom the scholarship was designed.
Weingartner's grounding in composition, counterpoint and the piano were thorough but almost from the moment of entry his eyes were fixed upon the goal of conducting. Composition was then and remained throughout his life a "sacred task", but conducting, he realised, was to be his living. And it was in his reactions to other conductors that his characteristic independence of judgment first manifested itself. The fact that Carl Reinecke, conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, was also one of his teachers did not deter him from the conclusion that his performances were frequently pedantic, metronomic and lifeless; but his comments were equally adverse upon the reigning god amongst contemporary conductors, Hans von Bulow, who visited Leipzig with his Meiningen orchestra in I882. While admiring his control, Weingartner abstained from the adulation which greeted his "elaborately contrived performance" of a Beethoven symphony since "his arbitrariness in matters of phrasing and tempo variations offended my musical susceptibilities". It was Weingartner's lifelong aim to avoid both these extremes.
His first appointment came in I884 as conductor and chorus director at the Municipal Theatre in Konigsberg. There followed a broadening of his repertoire as second conductor at the opera in Danzig in I885-I887 and two seasons as second conductor in Hamburg during I887-I888. Here he clashed directly with von Bulow. The latter conducted the first performance there of Carmen in a manner which horrified the young deputy by its "tricks", "pauses" and "positively ridiculous procrastination"; and so, with typical self-confidence Weingartner reverted in his own peformances to the "natural" tempi thereby earning for himself von Bulow's eternal displeasure. Of happier memory were hours spent in the company of Tchaikovsky, who visited Hamburg to conduct his own works.
His appointment as first court conductor at Mannheim in I889 was important both for giving Weingartner an opera house of his own in congenial surroundings and for the opportunities afforded for orchestral concerts with the Academy. These, the first regular concerts of his career, saw his first public performances of some of Beethoven's symphonies. Mannheim also stood out in his memory for the many hours spent alone with Hugo Wolf in the discussion and performance of his lieder and orchestral scores; of the former the composer would accept no criticism, but he took Weingartner's advice on orchestration with "almost child-like gratitude".
As it proved, Mannheim was a stepping-stone to a third conductorship;
but this was in the foremost opera house in the land, the Berlin
Royal Opera. Weingartner's arrival there at the age of twenty-seven
in April I891 signalled the wider recognition of his talents,
which were made the more manifest by the age and incompetence
of his seniors. But his satisfaction was not to last. The constant
intrigues of the opera house; his refusal either to pander to
critics or to compromise his artistic ideals with those in authority;
the preference, in consequence, given to Karl Muck (appointed
second conductor in 1892) all this and much more led eventually
to the edge of nervous breakdown. He resigned the post early in
His concert work was a different story. Weingartner was given sole charge of the symphony concerts of the Royal Orchestra (that is, the opera orchestra) and the sixteen years up to 1907 in which he polished its execution to a degree hitherto unheard in Berlin were the basis of his enormous reputation as a concert conductor. Invitations from abroad flowed in: first to Paris and then to Brussels and London in 1898, where the Musical Times pronounced him "great, of that there can be no doubt". He was "bent on reproducing the great masters' ipsissima verba", inflicting "no far fetched 'new readings"'; no "tempo rubato faddist" yet possessing a rhythmic sense of "wonderful elasticity, combined with absolute clearness and perfection of detail". Evidently his mature style had already crystallised. Complete cycles of Beethoven symphonies in Mainz, Paris and London marked his recognition as the interpreter par excellence of that composer. The first cycle, indeed, stimulated Romain Rolland to write his Vie de Beethoven. By 1902 the London T'imes was moved in unprecedented fashion to devote a leading article to this now dominant figure with his "colossal mastery over the orchestra". And in 1905 the Berlin correspondent of the American Musical Courier reported that `'we are constantly hearing the world's two greatest conductors, Nikisch and Weingartner. Weingartner conducts with wonderful elan, and with remarkable perfection of detail . . . he calculates his effects with unerring certainty; he is the harder worker and the greater drillmaster. Nikisch [with the Berlin Philharmonic] is more poetic, more impulsive".
This period also saw Weingartner's establishment as pedagogue and polemicist, two roles which in his pamphlets On Conducting (1895) and Bayreuth (1897) were combined in harsh attacks upon aberrations in contemporary musical and dramatic performance with incisive analyses of what he saw as the stylistically proper approach to these problems. His reputation in this field was consolidated with his treatise On the Performance of Beethoven's Symphonies (1906), perhaps the most influential of all his writings.
With an immense reputation throughout Europe-and the USA too which he had visited several times-it came as no surprise when Weingartoer was appointed in January 1908 to succeed Mahler as Director of the Vienna Hofoper. But his experiences there were scarcely happier than those of his last operatic post in Berlin. The complaints of his critics were directed not against his conducting as such, but to contentious matters such as the restoration of cuts in the Ring, which Mahler had eliminated, and alterations to Mahler's production of Fidelio, regarded by many as sacred. To all his detractors he replied with his ready and biting pen in the Vienna press. But his hand was stilled when, as his powerful and venomous critic Julius Korngold delicately hinted, even the scenery felt impelled to rise up against him; it collapsed under him during a rehearsal of Die Meistersinger and caused severe injury. His resignation a year later occasioned regret but as little surprise as his arrival three years before.
Weingartner's relations with the opera orchestra showed a similar parallel with Berlin. He was elected director of the Vienna Philharmonic's concerts for three years shortly after his arrival at the Hofoper. His re-election in I911 was unprecedented in the orchestra's recent history, and he went on to lead it for no less than nineteen seasons. This intimate and renowned association remained quite unclouded until 1922. In that year he led the orchestra on a triumphal tour in South America; the tour was repeated in I923-but with his bitter rival Strauss in his place. The relationship with it never fully recovered. Weingartner absented himself longer and more frequently on foreign tours, and there were complaints of neglect and under-rehearsal. It was an open secret that Strauss coveted his post; but since the majority of the orchestra continued to favour the incumbent ("the other fellow" as Strauss called him), he never succeeded in his aim. And when the time came for Weingartner to retire it was at a moment of his own choosing, in May I927 soon after directing three Beethoven concerts including the first in the Philharmonic's centenary celebrations of the composer.
Throughout this period Weingartner held simultaneously other posts of importance: chief guest conductor of the Boston Opera in 1911-19I4, a happy association remembered particularly for his Tristan, preferred by the critics to those of Mahler and Toscanini at the Metropolitan; director at Darmstadt in 19I4-19I8, a period when in addition much time was spent in composition while living in Switzerland; director of the Vienna VoIksoper from 19I9 until 1994; and director of the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest during 1926. Guest tours occupied much of his time: in Russia frequently before 19I4, and again in I926 when in Moscow and Leningrad he conducted concerts before blue-bloused workers and attended many post-revolution theatre productions; in South America and in virtually every centre in Europe, east and west; and above all in Britain where in I923 he commenced his seventeen year association with the London-based Columbia company.
His retirement from Vienna to take over the directorship of the Basle Conservatorium and Stadttheater signalled the start of another phase in Weingartner's career which introduced the new element of teaching. The two decades in Vienna had seen no diminution of his pedagogic writings; in particular two further treatises were published, on the symphonies of Schubert (the 8th and 9th) and Schumann (19I8), and the last three of Mozart (1923). Now he instituted classes in conducting at the Conservatorium (and much later again in Vienna) which were attended by students from many countries. In addition he conducted a wide repertoire of operas at the Stadttheater and organised festivals in Basle, each year devoted to the works of an individual composer among those he most cherished.
But, just as Strauss had coveted Weingartner's Vienna Philharmonic post in the I920's, SO Weingartner now kept an interested eye upon the State Opera's politics in the Krauss era when the influence of Strauss was great. In I924 he had answered emergencies there (in brilliant fashion, by all reports) during the doldrums in the latter part of Strauss's tenure. In I934 he acceded to further requests for guest appearances. And within twenty-four hours of the abrupt departure of Krauss for Berlin in December of that year Weingartner again stepped into the breach, this time for a period of twenty months as director of the State Opera. This second tenure was little happier than the first. Krauss had taken with him some of the best singers and the Opera's resources were strained. As ever, the intrigues and factions within the house flourished; and, as ever, Weingartner experimented with Fidelio to his taste but to few others'. Of course, his performances were orchestrally of great brilliance (documentation of this survives) and against considerable odds he set about vigorously rebuilding the higher echelons of the company. But he was not allowed to finish his task; on a trivial pretext he was persuaded to retire in August I936 and to accept instead a contract for some guest appearances. Even these ceased after the Anschluss when the Nazis, desirous of dispensing with his services, cancelled the contract on grounds of "economy". That finally severed Weingartner's thirty year connection with Vienna.
Vienna's loss was a gain not only for the centres which welcomed him as guest but also for posterity. Save for one triumphant foray to Japan in 1937 the centres were in Europe, notably at Covent Garden where he made his debut at the age of seventy-six in I939 with Tannhauser and Parsifal. Posterity, of course, took the shape of the gramophone. Weingartner had been intermittently active in the studios, particularly in I926-I927 at the time of the Beethoven centenary and with the Vienna Philharmonic in the mid-I930's. Now more intensively in London and Paris his recorded repertoire was extended to round off the Beethoven cycle and to include all the Brahms symphonies, the Liszt concertos and many shorter works. His last sessions were in February I940, sandwiched between his final London concerts in the Queen's Hall-the last, incidentally, by any of the great conductors from abroad before its destruction. Thereafter his activities were confined to Switzerland, where he had lived since I924 and whose citizenship he had later adopted. Here in the final year of his life he constructed an opera, Schneewitchen, from lesser known music by Schubert. Weingartner was already mortally ill when he conducted part of it in Basle, and on 7 May I942 he died in the Canton Hospital at Winterthur.
So ended a career crowded with successes, as well as the occasional setback and jousts-less occasional-with adversaries. Yet in Weingartner's eyes his conducting was but daily bread, important but by no means all absorbing. Composition was an abiding preoccupation. The dominance of his creative urge was, indeed, the cause of his one major disappointment in life: the failure to secure from public and critics the long-lasting recognition as a composer which he considered his due. That failure did not occur for want of tireless industry. The early morning hours devoted to this labour brought forth seven symphonies and other orchestral tone poems, figuring frequently in his concerts, many chamber works, song cycles, several operas and concertos for violin and 'cello. A few songs achieved genuine popularity and possess undoubted charm, but this could not compensate him for the dismissal of so much of his work as well-made "Kapellmeistermusik".
For the rest, the range and variety of his interests was remarkable. To quote his pupil Josef Krips, "he was a genuinely cultivated personaliy, broadly informed, with an expert knowledge of literature and painting . . . an ardent patron of the theatre and . . . celebrated as a gourmet and excellent amateur cook". His circle of friends was wide and five marriages attest the "fascinating amiability" of his personality to which Carl Flesch referred in his Memoirs. In addition to the writings upon music, the libretti for his operas and a lengthy autobiography, his publications encompassed volumes concerned with drama, poetry and philosophy; and his seventieth year saw the completion and publication of his vast dramatic work Terra (it occupies some six hundred pages of text) upon which he had been engaged sporadically for nearly half a century.
Today, however, it is the musical analyst and more especially
the conductor who is remembered and Weingartner's style and influence
in this capacity demand more detailed examination.
2. The Style and Influence
A conductor who was greatly admired alike by both Brahms and Stravinsky must indeed have possessed striking qualities. What made Weingartner's work so remarkable ? Here is how Ernest Newman described it in the Musical Times in 1923:
"Weingartner's readings are like himself-lean, taut, sinewy, sparing of gesture, contemptuous of mere peacoquetry-incomparably clear headed, with an intellectual lucidity that of itself (is) an emotional joy' as a fine demonstration in philosophy or science sometimes is, dignified, sincere, and enormously impressive for all his lack of ostentation . . . What Weingartner mostly does is to give the music its head, but with perfect control of it and the wisest guidance of it. So little does he interfere with the natural 'step' of the rhythm, that a superficial listener might be forgiven for believing his beat to be merely metronomic. But if you are curious enough to test him on this point over, say, a hundred bars, you will find that the pulse of the music is subtly varying its pace all the time. The steadiness is anytlung but dead uniformity. And the steadiness comes from that admirable intellectual control that, in any given bar, keeps in view the land so far traversed and the land still to be traversed; over the whole of the work-in a symphony especially, over the whole work, not merely each movement-runs that big containing line of which Blake spoke as the ideal and the secret of good design".
This was a style which placed emphasis first and foremost upon the architecture of the major works of the classical repertoire. Weingartner's first preoccupation was in the choice of a single tempo for a movement as a whole, one which would permit the most potent characterisation of all its material with the minimum of deviation from the basic pulse. "There is only one tempo: the right one!" was a frequent dedaration, its question-begging simplicity answered in his case in a way which almost invariably did seem right, not only to the listener but to the orchestra: "you simply could not question his tempi" is a constant refrain of those who played under him. Added to this was the concern for precise observance of dynamics and constant care for internal balance. Thus another of his injunctions insisted upon the distinction between the forte and the fortissirno, the piano and the pianissirno; and so it was that his performances, in their concern for the overall design, eschewed dramatic emphasis upon a mere forte, a self-denial scarcely paralleled among other great conductors. Clarity of execution he saw as one of the cardinal elements in grasping the correct style of performance appropriate to every major composer. This, indeed, was a prime consideration inducing him to write his treatise upon the performance of Beethoven.
Of course, if this were all, his performances would have been no more than academic exercises or at best marbled halls without animation. That this charge could rarely be levelled at Weingartner was due above all to his highly developed sense of rhythm; one would be tempted to term it uniquely developed but for the misunderstanding this would engender among those for whom in this either Toscanini or Beecham held the sole key. But it was not in his scheme of things to stamp his signature upon a work with an overwhelming stride or to induce an intoxicated merriment. His supremacy lay in manipulation of dynamics, articulation and accent, and in his iron control of tempo, which together gave him an utterly secure mastery of rhythm. This manifested itself in a forward impulse so sure that expressive deviations of tempo were sensed as part of an overall design, and in a peculiar elan which under his baton transformed the merely fast into the mercurial.
Nor should it be thought that concentration upon the overall design ever led to metronomic performances. While their lines were invariably clean and undistracted by any temptation unduly to linger, as preserved on record they demonstrate the accuracy of Newman's remarks in this respect. But the constant slight fluctuations of tempo do not belie the initial impression of expressive restraint since they are so apt and subtly executed as to be scarcely noticeable. And even on those relatively infrequent occasions when the distensions are more marked (as in the first movement of the Eroica), the structural integrity is preserved by the breadth and seamless continuity of phrasing, the subtlety of transition between one modification of tempo and another, and a seemingly infallible judgment-perhaps, more aptly, an intuition-as to where to hold to the tempo and where to relax.
In sum, then, an unerring justness in choice of tempo and an apt divination of the scope for its delicate modification; an impeccable taste in moulding and accenting the substance, and balancing the parts; a poetic instinct which spoke through subtleties of texture rather than exaggerated nuance; an unfailing logic in proportioning and adjusting one phrase with the next, the paragraph with the whole; with throughout the animation of a propulsive but never over-insistent rhythm. Such attributes are suggestive of an artist in whom intellectual and emotional drives are in harmonious balance; and it is, therefore, not surprising that Weingartner himself remarked that art is at its best
"when that exceedingly delicate balance-more a matter of intuition than calculation-is attained between the feeling and the intellect, which alone can give a performance true vitality and veracity".
Weingartner's attainment of that balance in the recording studio left posterity performances unique in their equipoise and vitality, their patrician dignity and singular directness of expression.
This style had its counterpart in his actual method of conducting: so restrained that those sitting behind him in the hall must frequently have been unable to observe whether he was conducting at all. Nothing was there for the spectator save a small but decisive beat, and a left hand often at rest but capable of an astonishing variety of wrist movements when raised to draw the precise nuance of expression or balance he demanded; and the whole hand an angular elegance which aimed to avoid attention being drawn to himself rather than the music. Naturally, with such an unambiguous clarity of gesture, rehearsals occasioned little speech and even less repetition. As one player has put it: "he got what he wanted without talking; instead of saying 'flutes, drop at so and so' or 'clarinets, come up', he just did it with his left hand and we knew . . . ". An art dependant upon such a degree of technical control and serene confidence in the ability of gestures to speak betokens methods now all but extinct.
Weingartner's restraint, both in his method and interpretative style, was not peculiar to him alone. Others among his seniors and contemporaries such as Hans Richter and Karl Muck possessed a sober approach towards the performance of the classics which would not cause ears to twitch in surprise in today's concert halls. But Weingartner was of greater significance in the history of conducting than these (perhaps equally great) men because of the extraordinarily peripatetic character of his career and the ability, unique amongst great conductors, for analysing in sharpest detail his aims and methods. As a consequence of his wanderings critics and audiences in every major musical centre in the world heard him, in many instances very frequently; thus his aesthetic ideals were known at first hand. The writings were in a particular sense complementary to the performances. Without the latter they would have commanded less attention; but, emanating as they did from a conductor widely seen to be one of the most eminent practitioners of the art, some at least exerted immense influence. This was certainly true of his two treatises On Conducting and On the Performance of Beethoven's Symphonies.
The first, boldly and intentionally entitled with the same name as Wagner's essay on the subject, castigated the practices of some of that composer's disciples and those who imitated the eccentricities of the aging Hans von Bulow, principally in the arbitrary and excessive deviation from the basic pulse of symphonic movements. In this it is of historic interest only for, as Weingartner himself recognised in later editions, the excesses abated (although they were not entirely eliminated) in his lifetime, a development owing much to his example. Nevertheless the treatise remains of value for its commonsense precepts.
The preoccupation of the treatise on Beethoven with clarity of execution has already been mentioned. It led both to careful dynamic annotation of the symphonies "to animate the execution" and to certain alterations of the instrumentation in order to focus more clearly the strands of musical argument where, in Weingartner's view, the capabilities of Beethoven's instruments had been inadequate for the purpose. Many of these were so inconspicuous as to be inaudible to the ordinary listener and all were deeply considered. Nevertheless, the older Weingartner grew, the fewer the changes he recommended in successive editions, and some of the more audible of them, for example in the powerful sequential build-up in the development of the Eroica's first movement, were abandoned. The treatise was required reading for every conductor (including those such as Monteux who could not agree with his modifications) and it is by no means unknown for orchestras even now to play from parts marked in accordance with Weingartner's recommendations. So his influence has lived on in both the style and execution of performances today.
To view historic photos
of Felix Weingartner(click here)