Spotlight on Leó Weiner

Leó Weiner (1885–1960) belonged to a generation of composers including Dohnányi, Bartók and Kodály; however, his music is in an entirely different orbit. At the age of 21, he finished his studies at the Budapest Academy of Music as a composer with various prizes and laudations. He turned to music with Hungarian intonation very early, although it was the German and French masters between Beethoven and Brahms who exerted a decisive influence on his personal style, which is both conservative and attractively colorful at the same time. Most of his compositions are orchestral, chamber and piano works; however, he also composed an excellent ballet and several choral works. He was awarded with the Coolidge Prize in 1922 for his Second String Quartet.

Weiner became a professor at the Academy of Music in 1908 at the age of 23. He taught music theory, composition and chamber music until his retirement. He had a special penchant for teaching chamber music. Not only did a long string of world-famous musicians regard him as their master but his activity in this area, lasting until 1957, has also exerted a decisive influence on the development of musical performance in Hungary generally.

The Divertimento No. 1 (op. 20), composed in 1923, can be performed by a string orchestra of any size, or even by a string quintet; one of its movements involves three ad libitum wind parts as well. This cycle of five movements, dedicated to Fritz Reiner, offers today’s performers Hungarian dance pieces which have been preserved only in old handwritten sources, orchestrated with his characteristic charm and taste. Within its movements occur well-known dance types like csárdás and verbunkos, but also dance movements with a tendency towards genre pieces like the Ronde of Marosszék or the extremely popular Fox Dance.

The orchestral Suite (op. 18) was finished in 1931 and the composer dedicated it to his excellent fellow-composer László Lajtha. Behind the dedication lies Lajtha’s influence: it was Lajtha who introduced Weiner into the world of the Hungarian instrumental folk music. As a result, the influence of live folk music can be detected in this four-movement orchestral suite. The suite, composed for a medium-size orchestra employing a full wind section exposes a string of dance melodies and solos originally played on folk instruments, clad in an inventive and tastefully-wrought orchestral texture.

Weiner’s ballet music composed to the verse drama Csongor és Tünde by the great Hungarian romantic poet Mihály Vörösmarty is a classic of 20th-century Hungarian music for the stage. From the music of the ballet, premiered in 1930, the author wrote a six-movement orchestral suite in 1937 (op. 10b). The composer conjures up the poetic fabledom of a young couple, populated with fairies and witches, with excellent dramatic sense and visual fantasy, whereas his musical tools and the Hungarian colors applied with a refined taste broadly transcend the world of mere dance music.

The Pastorale, Fantasy and Fugue (op. 23), composed for string orchestra in 1938, is the concluding piece of idyllic atmosphere and exceptional beauty of Weiner’s neo-classical period. Its most characteristic virtue is the overwhelming and expressive melodiousness, reaching its climax in the personal lyricism of the Fantasy; the last time when Weiner, a shy person, had opened this heart in this way was in some of his youthful chamber compositions. The brilliant closing fugue is based on the melody of a Hungarian bagpipe song. (János Malina)