Jaromír Weinberger Re-Discovered
Posted by Tristan Willems
8 January 2016

Today 8 January 2016 – marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of the Czech-American composer Jaromír Weinberger. But why should you care? Why should I?

Weinberger was one of the many thousands of musicians displaced by the Third Reich. But, musical considerations aside, his plight is typical of a small percentage of people who defy precise categorisation in terms ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’. To demonstrate the significance of this distinction, I will tell you the story of my involvement from the beginning.
Back in June 2007, when I was living in Iceland, I received an email from a former student at the university at which I had previously taught in the States, someone with whom I have remained in contact. In his message, he asked if I would come to Los Angeles and play a saxophone concerto with one of the orchestras of which he was music director. I agreed and began to read through the concerto literature to see what I might recommend as a suitable suggestion. Progressing alphabetically through the repertoire on my shelves, I eventually came to ‘W’. I placed my copy of the Weinberger Saxophone Concerto on my desk and began to play – and realised what a wonderful, emotionally charged work it is (not to mention technically demanding). Yes, I must play this! I had owned that copy for nearly 35 years and barely looked at it in all that time. Well, like I said, it is technically demanding…
As I had only the solo part and piano reduction, I began to search for the orchestral materials and score on the internet. But after many hours of looking, I couldn’t locate these materials anywhere, not even from the publishers, who informed me that in fact they had never had them. So I began a private investigation and within two days located the score and parts in a basement in South Dakota.
My interest was now piqued. Yes, I had known the ‘Polka and Fugue’ from Weinberger’s opera Schwanda the Bagpiper – what high-school band has not performed this chestnut of the band literature at some point? Besides these two works, I have to confess that I knew nothing more about Weinberger but, if he could write a concerto and an opera, there was obviously something else out there.

That’s where my obsession began: since that day I have spent all my time and resources locating any and all materials relating to Weinberger. I have travelled between Jerusalem, Prague, Bratislava, Berlin, the USA and beyond in search of this elusive man. The more I learned about him, the more questions I raised.
Four years ago I made a breakthrough: I located five crates of materials that had survived from his house in Prague when he fled in 1935. Conservatively, it is the largest single musical find of the last hundred years. These sealed crates contained not only manuscripts and sketchbooks, but hundreds upon hundreds of letters from his days as a student up until the last day he ever spent in Prague. Although other scores and letters survived (they are located in the Weinberger Archive of the National Library at Hebrew University in Jerusalem), those materials pertain almost exclusively to his exile in America from 1939 until his death in 1967.
Among the materials that I located were works that we never knew existed. He was so traumatised by the life-events he had to endure (his flight as a refugee through Austria, France, England, Canada and finally the USA; his mother and sister perishing in a concentration camp; the loss of his home and all his personal possessions and his income; and then finally becoming marginalised and, he felt, redundant as an artist) that he suffered a series of mental breakdowns and heart-attacks. For the rest of his life he never spoke or wrote about any event before 1935. That’s the main reason that there has been so much mis-information about his biography. I hope we’ll now be able to correct the errors and restore Weinberger to his rightful place in musical history through musical editions, recordings and writings.
Fate was obviously kinder to Weinberger than to many other Jewish composers. But his survival came at a cost: if he had suffered the same destiny as Erwin Schulhoff and Pavel Haas, for example, we would undoubtedly have spent more time and research into learning about him. To have survived put him in a time and a place that did not exist before the War, when he was the toast of European musical theatre. The world he entered held no interest for him and reciprocally had no interest in him.
As a second-generation American of eastern European Jewish decent myself, I grew up hearing the stories of my own family’s persecution: one half of the European side of my family died in various concentration camps in Poland, Austria and Hungary; the other half fled to the USA, Cuba, Argentina and beyond. I am not saying that sharing Weinberger’s heritage has allowed his story to resonate with me more than if I did not – but it sure does help…
I began this quest on purely musical principles – a musicological project that was not only academic, but practical as well. It has become historical and personal. The forms it will take include a number of recordings for Toccata Classics, now at the planning stage, and the publication of his letters in several volumes to appear from Toccata Press; my editions of the music I have discovered will be distributed by Subito Music Corporation, based in Vermont. I’ll shortly post a worklist here so that you can see – for all that everyone knows that ‘Polka and Fugue’ – just how of Weinberger’s music remains to be heard.
Zristan Willems received his formal music education at Northwestern University where he studied with members of the Chicago Symphony, obtaining the first degree ever granted from that institution in Woodwinds Performance. Subsequent studies were taken at the Conductor's Institute. His career has touched virtually all facets of the music industry: he has performed and composed for the theatre, been a member of various orchestras in the United States (performing on bassoon, clarinet, oboe and saxophone), is the author of over 500 compositions and arrangements, owns a music-publishing house (Brazinmusikanta Publications and Willemsmusiik), has been vice-president of Jeffrey James Arts Consultants (an arts management firm), and founded 4-Tay, Incorporated (recording label). From 1994 until 2002, he was Music Director and Conductor of the Britten-on-the-Bay Festival Chorus and Orchestra in New York. Also in 1994, he founded the Adolphe Saxquartette and has performed and commissioned many works in that genre around the world. Dr Willems has been on the staff of several US colleges and universities as professor of conducting, music business, and applied woodwinds. More recently, he has taught at the Reykjanesbær School of Music in Iceland and was Professor of Woodwinds and Chamber Music at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem. As a conductor, he has worked with and recorded with the Slovak Radio Orchestra, the State Philharmonic Kosice, the AÞena Kammersveit, the Czech National Orchestra and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. At present, he resides and works in Oppland, Norway. He has written a number of articles and books; his latest project is preparing critical editions of the collected works of the Czech-American composer Jaromír Weinberger as well as writing his biography.