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Recalling a conductor-composer’s modern music-making

Austrian composer and conductor Paul Felix Weingartner conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in London in 1936.
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Austrian composer and conductor Paul Felix Weingartner conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in London in 1936.

This Sunday, May 7, marks 75 years since conductor, composer, and pianist Felix Weingartner died in Switzerland. A musician of 19th-century descent (he gave up philosophy for music on the recommendation of none other than Johannes Brahms), Weingartner nonetheless laid the groundwork for a very 20th- and even 21st-century style of music-making.

A performer, Weingartner wrote, “has done the best that is possible if his performance expresses just what the composer meant,” an ethos of seeming objectivity that came to permeate both the modernist and early-music movements. Weingartner preserved his idea of that ethos via a modern medium, the phonograph: He was, among other achievements, the first conductor to record all nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Weingartner’s career was also modern in its international, transatlantic scope. Although he held a number of prestigious podiums in Germany and Austria, he also performed as a guest conductor across Europe and America — including, for a time, regular appearances in Boston. From 1912 until 1914, Weingartner was a conductor with the Boston Opera Company, the grand opera concern started in 1909 by impresario Henry Russell, bankrolled by department-store magnate Eben Jordan. The engagement of Weingartner, at various times director of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera, was a coup; his debut, a 1912 production of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” was a triumph. (“The magnetism of Mr. Weingartner’s presence is a pervading and dominating thing,” the Globe marveled.)

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In his short Boston tenure, Weingartner conducted everything from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” to Bizet’s “Carmen” to Verdi’s “Aida” to Puccini’s “Tosca” (a work Weingartner had introduced to Vienna). The last two featured the New York-born soprano Lucille Marcel, who became the conductor’s third wife (of five). Arriving in New York in early 1913, the couple rushed to City Hall for a quick wedding; hours later, they were in the Hub. “It’s worth being seasick just to get back to Boston again,” the new Mrs. Weingartner enthused.

Weingartner’s compositional output eventually tallied seven symphonies, numerous chamber works, and no fewer than nine operas. Almost from the time his Boston appearances were announced, news reports regularly anticipated a local staging of his latest opera, “Cain and Abel.” It was not to be. In the summer of 1914, Weingartner traveled to Paris with the company (“a splendid thing for Paris,” Weingartner said), but the outbreak of World War I and, ultimately, Jordan’s disinclination to be the institution’s sole funder killed the enterprise; the Boston Opera Company never again performed in Boston. Neither did Weingartner.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.