Jaromír Weinberger was born – with his twin sister Božena – in the Bohemian part of the Danube Monarchy: in the Prague suburb of Královské Vinohrady, which the German-speaking Bohemians called “Königliche Weinberge” (“Royal Vineyards”). However, Jaromír’s name was not Vinohradský, but Weinberger. Nevertheless, he was Czech to the core – and Jewish. On the one hand, the German family name led to misunderstandings with Czechs and, on the other, most of Prague’s Jewish artists and intellectuals were German-speaking. He was also caught between two stools as a musician for whom the folk-like immediacy in the melody and rhythm was just as important as sophisticated compositional structure.
A highly talented child from rather modest circumstances, he was resolutely encouraged by his parents. The young Jaromír was a child prodigy who also wrote pieces that were even published. His composition teacher was Vitezslav Novák, a pupil of Antonín Dvorák; the renowned Karel Hoffmeister was his piano teacher at the Prague Conservatory. After he graduated from the Conservatory, Weinberger was able to study with Max Reger in Leipzig for several months until the latter’s death. Reger thought highly of Weinberger for his “terrific sense of tone color.”
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, and in 1922 went for the first time to the USA as a composition teacher at the conservatory of the small city of Ithaca in upstate New York. However, he returned to Czechoslovakia already after a year, because life there was more in accord with his disposition than that in frugal, unromantic America.
For a short time he worked in his new homeland, which had been established after World War I, for the Slovakian National Theater in Bratislava and at the Music School in the largely German-speaking Cheb. His subsequent decision in favor of the precarious existence as a freelance composer was to be richly rewarded: he collaborated with the librettist Miloš Kareš on the opera Švanda dudák, which dealt with Švanda the legendary bagpipe player from the southern Bohemian town of Strakonice, where still today an international bagpipe festival takes place. The premiere in Prague’s National Theater in April 1927 was well received, but did not have a lasting impact, being overshadowed by the argument of whether the music of Dvorák or that of Smetana represented the true Czech music. And a Jew with a German family name did not have very good cards, for anti-Semitism had also survived the era of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. But here, too, Max Brod (1884–1968), the versatile Jewish artist, intellectual, and Prague native, who made a German translation of the opera, was to come to the rescue – at that time, Czech was sung only in the Czech theaters of the multilingual Czechoslovakia. In 1928 Švanda was performed for the first time in German in Breslau, and the work then went around the world as Schwanda, der Dudelsackpfeifer. It was heard not only in German-language theaters, where in the 1929/30 season it was by far the most-performed title, even ahead of Carmen, The Magic Flute, Fledermaus, and Wagner’s operas! Even New York and London got to know the opera in its German version. Švanda dudák was a box-office hit, and Jaromír Weinberger became wealthy and famous, having written a “popular opera” that was also appreciated by a highbrow audience.
Weinberger’s composition Vánoce/Christmas for large orchestra and organ (1929) became just as popular, and was frequently performed and broadcast especially in Czechoslovakia, to whose Christmas tradition the score invokes.
Erich Kleiber, who had conducted the first Berlin performance of Schwanda, premiered the Passacaglia for orchestra and organ in October 1931 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. Weinberger had been drawn to the organ ever since the musical youngster was impressed by the organ in the synagogue near his parents’ house.
That same year (1931), Hans Knappertsbusch conducted the premiere of Weinberger’s next opera, Milovaný hlas (“The Beloved Voice”), in Munich. And in January 1933, Jaromír Weinberger’s operetta Frühlingsstürme (“Spring Storms”) opened in Berlin’s Admiralspalast. The cast included Jarmila Novotná, an opera singer and film diva who was very popular in both Czechoslovakia and Germany, and the renowned tenor Richard Tauber. Shellac records with the most beautiful numbers were available in time for the premiere, and piano scores, text, and scripts printed in order to capitalize on Frühlingsstürme on a large scale. But nothing was to come of it, for a few days later the National Socialists seized power in Germany, and the operetta could no longer be performed not only because of its Jewish composer: the librettist Gustav Beer was also Jewish, as was Richard Tauber and many other participants in the Berlin premiere. (A number of performances in Czechoslovakia followed, even one after the end of the Second World War; however, the score and orchestral material were subsequently lost.) Three further operettas in the Czech language followed in the years after 1933, when German theaters, concert halls, and radio stations were closed to Weinberger. In 1937 his opera after Schiller’s Wallenstein was premiered at the Vienna Opera in Austria, where Weinberger had a residence in Baden near Vienna, until that country, too, fell prey to the National Socialists.
In 1938 Weinberger’s Wallenstein was staged again as Valdštejn in Olomouc, but then democratic Czechoslovakia, too, was eliminated by the Germans. For the composer and his wife, the only recourse that remained was emigration – to the (unloved) United States. They were already in the south of France, but could not stay there. It was a blessing in disguise that they had just received an invitation and a visa for the USA, for the Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper were to be presented as a ballet at the 1939 New York World’s Fair in the presence of the composer. These two orchestral pieces from the opera had become a very popular (and frequently performed encore) work also in the USA. It was this that also provided the incentive for the variations and fugue on the melody of Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree. Its premiere – under the direction of John Barbirolli with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Carnegie Hall – was the last great popular success for the exile composer from Czechoslovakia, from a country that no longer even existed.
In 1948 the Weinberger’s acquired American citizenship, but for financial reasons were not able to establish themselves in the manner they had been accustomed to in Europe. Because of the war, the composer did not receive the royalties due to him from Europe: a short time earlier, Universal Edition in Vienna had sold the rights to many of his works to Boosey & Hawkes. And finally, he learned that his mother and his sister Beda, who was four years his senior, had been murdered by the Nazis.
After moving a number of times, Jaromír and Hansi (Jane) Weinberger moved to Fleischmanns, New York, a tiny, but noble summer resort, and then to St. Petersburg in Florida. But the small house in this “Sunshine City” could replace neither the old native country nor offset the increasingly faint resonance generated by his works, whose creation had now become slower and more toilsome. Weinberger became increasingly depressed, secluded himself, and ultimately ceased composing. Even the regular summer trips to Europe, where meanwhile nobody was interested in an opera with the strange name Schwanda, der Dudelsackpfeifer, offered only temporary diversion.
At the age of seventy-one, Jaromír Weinberger committed suicide with an overdose of tablets. His wife died a year later at the age of sixty-five. The son of a cousin of Jaromír Weinberger, who was active as a musician in Israel, administered the estate. In 2004 Jaromír and Jane Weinberger found their last resting place on Kibbutz Gezer between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
© Christoph Schwandt, 2011 (translation: Howard Weiner)