Felix Weingartner
(b. Zara, Dalmatia, 2 June 1863; d. Winterthur, 7 May 1942)

Symphony No. 4 in F major, op. 61 (1916-17)


In 1911 Felix Weingartner, the dean of German conductors, was forced to step down from his position as head of the Vienna Court Opera, a position he had taken over from Gustav Mahler. At that time he was at the peak of his international career: he had thoroughly impressed English audiences with his "sane readings of the classics" on his many trips to London; he had appeared in three consecutive seasons with the New York Philharmonic (1905-7) and was about to make his first trip to the Boston Opera Company (1912-13). He had also entered his third marriage, this time with the American soprano, Lucille Marcel (1877-1921), who would create several of his works on stage.

This halcyon period found an abrupt end in 1914 with what Weingartner, a confirmed pacifist, called "this criminal war." Restrictions were put on his freedom to travel abroad; the rapid decline of the German economy caused him to mortgage his country home in Switzerland, which he was unable to visit; productions of his operas in Cologne and Darmstadt suffered from occasional bombing raids, harbingers of worse destruction to come three decades later. At the end of the 1915-16 season he retired with his wife to a rented vacation home in Egern on the Upper Bavarian lake of Tegernsee. Here his life took on a quite different complexion:
"We already felt the pinch of having to find nourishment. Lucille, with her kidney complaint, was supposed to drink quantities of milk, which proved increasingly difficult to find. We already had to plead and - bribe. Downpours of rain, often lasting for days, dashed the hopes for a good harvest. 'God is against us!" exclaimed old peasants with dour expressions while their sons went on murdering and being murdered."
The two rustic vacationers gathered together with like-minded friends: the composer Heinrich Noren (1861-1928), the Norwegian actor and writer Björn Björnson (1859-1942), a son of the great Nobel Prize winner and a confirmed Germanophile, and the outstanding Austrian tenor and celebrated raconteur, Leo Slezak (1877-1921). Here, with occasional visits from the outside world, Weingartner enjoyed a sheltered existence far from the turmoil of war:
"In circles large and small we often forgot all our despondency, especially when one of us proved lucky as a victualer and even managed to get hold of some Kalbshaxen, a special Bavarian delicacy, and could invite some friends for a visit. How vibrantly we enjoyed a few carefree hours in those days!"
The "carefree hours" also found Weingartner at his writing desk, where, like his former colleague Mahler, he spent the summer months away from the hurly-burly of the opera house and concert hall in order to seek recognition and fulfillment as a composer. Weingartner was especially prolific, and this summer proved no exception: his new comic opera Dame Kobold, with Lucille in the title role, was prepared for production in Darmstadt; he wrote lieder, piano pieces, and a Cello Concerto premièred by the great Paul Grümmer in Vienna. But the most notable creation of this period was his Fourth Symphony, a work of a beauty and lyricism that stand in sharp contrast to the years of its creation: "If I had to give it a name, I would christen it La Buccòlica, for scenic impressions of a southerly character were the basis of its origins." Did Weingartner perhaps know another meaning of the word buccòlica in the Italian vernacular: vittles?

The Fourth Symphony was given its first hearing by Hermann Abendroth at a concert of the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne. In 1917 it appeared in full score as op.61, issued by Weingartner's principal publisher, Universal Edition in Vienna.

Bradford Robinson, 2005
Performance material: Universal Edition, Wien