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Leó Weiner

born: 16 April 1885
died: 13 September 1960
country: Hungary

Leó Weiner (1885–1960) was a native of Budapest and would spend virtually his entire career in the city. He remained a much-respected national figure in Hungary, but after a brief period before and after the First World War he never established the same level of international recognition as Bartók and Kodály. This was in part, perhaps, because he continued to develop the verbunkos or pseudo-gypsy style—which had evolved in the nineteenth century from courtship dances and the dance-music played at army recruitment ceremonies and had been taken up by Liszt and Brahms in many of their ‘Hungarian’-inspired works—rather than drawing the more radical conclusions that Bartók and Kodály took from their folk-song researches among the Hungarian peasantry.

Weiner received his first lessons in music from his elder brother, before he entered the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest in 1901; for the next five years he was a composition pupil of Hans (János) Koessler, the German-born but Budapest-domiciled composer who also taught Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi. (Koessler was a cousin of Max Reger.) Graduating in 1906, Weiner worked for a while as a repetiteur with the Budapest Comic Opera and then won an Imperial prize which allowed him to study in Munich, Vienna, Berlin and Paris. But he returned to Budapest in 1908 and, on Koessler’s recommendation, was awarded a position at the Academy as teacher of music theory.

As a composer, Weiner scored an early success with his Serenade in F minor for small orchestra Op 3, written at the age of twenty-one: this was awarded no fewer than three major composition prizes, and was taken up by a German publisher and performed throughout Europe. He also received a prize for a Hungarian Fantasy for tárogató (a double-reed folk instrument related to the clarinet) and cimbalom, which indicated his interest in Hungarian folklore. Though he was not as thoroughgoing a researcher as Bartók or Kodály, he was somewhat ahead of them in time in assimilating folkloric elements into his scores and winning critical acceptance for it. Here, at the beginning of his career, Weiner was regularly hailed as the great new hope of Hungarian music—in 1908 one critic prophesied that he was the Hungarian symphonist that everyone had been waiting for. But in fact he did not produce any symphonies, and though he continued composing throughout his life, his most fertile period came to an end shortly after he was awarded the 1922 Coolidge Prize in the USA for his String Quartet No 2: his rate of production slackened as he seems gradually to have become more and more absorbed in his teaching duties.

In 1912 he was made professor of composition at the Liszt Academy, and in 1920 professor of chamber music. In 1949 he was given the title of emeritus professor, but continued to teach at the Academy until his death in 1960. Among other honours, he was declared an ‘Eminent Artist of the Hungarian People’s Republic’ in 1953. Thus Weiner taught for nearly fifty years at the Liszt Academy: his many pupils included famous instrumentalists and conductors such as Géza Anda, Antal Doráti, Peter Frankl, Cyprien Katsaris, Louis Kentner, Miklós Rózsa, György Sebok, Georg Solti, János Starker, Tibor Varga, Tamás Vásáry and Sándor Vegh, to name but a few. He was held to be pre-eminent in the teaching of chamber music performance, and since his death a Leó Weiner International Competition in string quartet playing has been held annually in Budapest. He also published a much-respected harmony textbook. In a memoir published in 1987, Louis Kentner left an affectionate portrait of his former teacher, writing that Weiner was ‘outgoing, laughter-loving, sardonic, communicative’, and ‘the earliest and strongest of influences on me as a musician. He was a really “great” master-pedagogue who was also a significant creative artist, a penetrating musical intelligence, self-taught in playing the piano (which he did with a cat-like instinctive physical skill but also an inability of sustained concentration), in short, a universal musician.’

Naturally, chamber music bulks large in Weiner’s list of works, though he also produced several orchestral compositions including five divertimenti, two violin concertos, a Concertino for piano and orchestra, a Romance for cello, harp and strings, and works for string orchestra. Altogether Weiner published about fifty works, of which the best-known in his lifetime was his incidental music to the great nineteenth-century playwright Mihály Vörösmarty’s fantasy play Csongor és Tünde, from which he drew two brilliant and charming orchestral suites.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2009


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