Felix Weingartner was born into an aristocratic Austrian family: his great-grandfather had been head of the mint in Vienna. After his father’s death in 1868, the family moved to Graz, where, after displaying precocious musical gifts, Felix was sent to the best local teacher, Wilhelm Mayer-Remy, for music lessons. He made swift progress and in 1881, following praise from Hanslick for his compositions, he won a scholarship to the Leipzig Conservatory. Here he studied composition, counterpoint and piano, but from the outset he was determined to make his professional career as a conductor. He came under the influence of Liszt in 1883, and his first opera, Sakuntala, was produced at Weimar during the following year. Shortly afterwards he was appointed to his first post, as chorusmaster and conductor at the Municipal Theatre in Königsberg. After one season there he moved to Danzig as second conductor for two seasons, and thence to Hamburg as first conductor under Hans von Bülow. Here he heard Tchaikovsky conduct his own works, and controversially offered a straightforward alternative to Bülow’s highly subjective interpretations. He began his first appointment as a chief conductor at Mannheim in 1889, where he also conducted orchestral concerts and came into close contact with Hugo Wolf. At the age of twenty-seven in 1891 he was appointed chief conductor at the Berlin Court Opera, thus achieving formal recognition of his gifts as a conductor of both opera and concerts. The strains of working in such a highly political environment, while at the same time refusing to compromise his ideals, eventually took their toll, and in 1898 Weingartner, on the edge of a nervous breakdown, resigned from the Court Opera, while retaining his conductorship of the royal concerts.
His achievements as a symphonic conductor in Berlin, where he was active until 1907, now began to attract international attention. After his debut in London in 1898, The Musical Times wrote of his ‘…wonderful elasticity, combined with absolute clearness and perfection of detail’. Following his complete cycles of the Beethoven symphonies in Mainz, Paris and London, he was recognized as one of the finest conductors of his generation, on a level with Arthur Nikisch. He appeared with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1905, and returned to America for the following two seasons. During this period he also published influential books on conducting (1895) and the performance of the Beethoven symphonies (1906). He was chosen to succeed Mahler at the Vienna Court Opera in 1908, but as had been the case at the Berlin Court Opera, he soon attracted controversy and resigned in 1911, while continuing to retain control of the concerts given by the opera orchestra, in the form of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, until 1927. In addition he held several other posts during this period: chief guest conductor of the Boston Opera (1911–1914), where his interpretation of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was preferred to those of Mahler and Toscanini; chief conductor at Darmstadt (1914–1918); chief conductor of the Vienna Volksoper (1919–1924), and director of the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest during 1926. Throughout the 1920s he also toured extensively as a guest conductor, visiting Russia and South Africa as well as the major musical centres in Europe, and from 1923 he began to record extensively for the British Columbia Graphophone record company.
After retiring from Vienna in 1927, Weingartner entered a third phase of his career. Having previously focused upon the opera house and the concert hall, he now turned more to teaching and writing. He became director of the Basle Conservatory, where he led an internationally recognized class in conducting; however as chief conductor of the Basle Municipal Theatre he also continued to conduct opera, and organized annual festivals each of which was devoted to a single composer whom he especially revered. Following the departure of Clemens Krauss for Berlin at the end of 1934 he agreed to take over as chief conductor at the Vienna State Opera, but once again he proved to be unequal to the intrigues integral to the position, and he was persuaded to retire in 1936. He returned however to conduct as a guest up until the Anschluss of 1938, after which his connection with Vienna ended completely. Nonetheless he continued to be active as a guest conductor and in the recording studios. He led Tannhäuser and Parsifal at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1939, and recorded the complete symphonies of Brahms, the two piano concertos of Liszt (with Emil von Sauer), and many shorter works in London and Paris. He was the last international conductor to appear at the Queen’s Hall, London, before its destruction in a bombing raid. During his last years he was confined to his home in Switzerland, where he had lived since 1924. One of his final tasks was to construct an opera, Schneewitchen, from the music of Schubert.
Weingartner revealed with precision and clarity the musical architecture of the works which he conducted. This was achieved through an ability to settle upon what seemed to be the most appropriate tempo. ‘There is only one tempo: the right one’, he would frequently declare. Having set the tempo, he would then insist upon exact observation of instrumental dynamics, and took great care with internal dynamics and balance. To these characteristics was added an exceptional command of rhythm, which was used to create a constant sense of forward motion, as well as to point accents, dynamics and articulation. Within his overall conception and command of a work Weingartner introduced numerous subtle variations, which helped to capture and to retain the listener’s attention. His conducting style was modest and clear, founded upon a decisive beat with the right hand and eloquent use of the left hand. As one orchestral player commented, ‘He got what he wanted without talking; instead of saying “flutes, drop at so and so” or “clarinets, come up”, he just did it with his left hand and we knew.’
Weingartner’s significance in the history of recording lies in the fact that he was the first major conductor to record a representative repertoire. Orchestral recordings of those born before him are either sonically very restricted, as for instance is the case with Nikisch, or limited in terms of the repertoire captured. Muck recorded little other than Wagner, Fiedler concentrated on Brahms, and Schalk left a small sample of works by Beethoven and Schubert. By contrast Weingartner’s recording career began in 1910 in Vienna, really got going from 1923 onwards, and concluded in 1940. He recorded complete cycles of the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, and in addition a selection of works by Handel, Bach, Mozart, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Wagner. This legacy of recordings has been eloquently described by the critic Christopher Dyment, who has written that Weingartner ‘…left posterity performances unique in their equipoise and vitality, their patrician dignity and singular directness of expression.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).
Role: Classical Composer